WHY SO MANY GRAPHITE PENCILS?

graphite pencils

Graphite pencils up for review

I have a love of the simple graphite pencil that runs deep. A few months ago, I splurged and bought SIX SETS of graphite pencils! It was like Christmas in… errrrr…. December, actually. Why does anyone need 80+ pencils, or to measure them monetarily, more than $100+ worth of pencils? To be honest, really no one needs that many pencils, even this artist who draws every day. However, as I have been teaching drawing nearly every day for the last 10+ years, my new students often come into the studio with some far out brand of graphite pencil I’ve never heard of and have never used before. Some of them are the super cheapos, and don’t make the cut. I can usually tell just by watching my students using the pencils if they are a lesser quality. However others are a higher quality – but still a brand I’ve never used. So I opted to try a few well known brands of graphite pencils and a few lesser known brands to see the pros and cons of them all. Follow along to see my detailed opinions on the good, the bad, and the ugly!

CHEAP PENCILS VS QUALITY PENCILS

What are the biggest differences between cheap pencils and the more expensive ones? You really do get what you pay for – it isn’t a scam. At Michael’s you can purchase 12 Artist’s Loft brand drawing pencils in a set with 6 other drawing tools for a mere $5. Yep, five bucks. Seems like a bargain, doesn’t it? However, I promise you, the pencil will break in the pencil sharpener a lot – so what appears to be a great deal will get eaten up 2-3 times faster than the expensive pencils, and your sanity will be lost in the meantime while sharpening, sharpening, breaking, sharpening, breaking, sharpening and did I mention, sharpening again? In case that doesn’t convince you to save yourself the hassle, the texture of the pencils will not be as high a quality. You’ll notice small particles of graphite that scratch the page. The texture will be more rough. And they won’t feel as smooth and creamy on the page (even the harder pencils will have snags or irregularities in them). Often times in cheaper pencils, the quality of wood that is used to hold the graphite is lesser quality and splinters off in sharpening, creating a rough edge that can also snag the paper and irritate your hand. And then, try to find out what company makes that brand or what their environmental impact policies are? If you somehow find it on the wormhole of the internet, by all means, please let me know. I’m just stabbing in the dark here, but I’m guessing they’re likely made by some child laborer who has never been able to afford their own pencil, at the price of .05 cents per pencil. While that might not bother you, I’d feel awfully guilty about teaching kids to draw, at the cost of other children in the world doing hard labor in graphite mines. I have yet to find evidence of this, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. It is expected that it costs more, to be a conscious consumer.

Many quality pencils are made by a few historic brands, that have been around for hundreds of years. There are a few newly popular brands that I’ve also reviewed here. What they have in common is: they don’t break as frequently (on their own or in a pencil sharpener); they have fewer snags in the graphite and won’t scratch your page as much; the texture is consistent; there is information about the company and it’s practices on the internet. The other thing they have in common is they are a higher cost – but there is a range of costs from .75 cents to $2.40 per pencil – so you should still be able to find a brand that fits your budget.

THE REVIEWS

The brands I have used most recently are Derwent and Marco Raffine. I also purchased new sets of Faber-Castell 9000, Caran D’ache, Tombow Mono Homo-Graph and Mitsubishi Hi-uni pencils. For all of the graphite pencils, I’ll assess them based on these characteristics:

  • cost
  • frequency of the lead breaking
  • fit in pencil sharpener, neatness of sharpening
  • purchase as a set or individual pencils?
  • carrying case
  • labeling
  • feel of graphite pencil in the hand
  • feel of the graphite pencil on the page/texture consistency
  • information about the company/resources

MARCO RAFFINE

This has been my go-to pencil for 10 years, but that is about to change. It has been my automatic graphite pencil because there is a Jerry’s Artarama near my studio and this is the pencil they stock that you can buy individually. Being able to buy pencils individually is a benefit, as there are times I use more 4B’s than anything else, so I wouldn’t want to buy a whole set for just the one pencil. However, now that internet shopping has gotten so easy, I don’t feel as restricted by what is nearby- even though I do like to support local stores. The reason this will no longer be my go-to pencil is because of breakage: in this experiment, I’ve found that the quality is lesser than some of the other pencils I’ve tried, and they are breaking more frequently than the other brands. Breakage drives me bonkers. You don’t want to deal with it all the time, especially when it is an 8 year old student having troubles with breakage (little kids usually break their pencils more than adults due to lack of motor skills & impatience).

  • cost:
    • $9.99 + tax/shipping for the 12 Degree Tin Set, or .83 cents per pencil +tax/shipping
  • frequency of the lead breaking:
    • The soft pencils break quite frequently, and often seem to be broken throughout the wood casing rather than breaking from sharpening. The harder pencils are more reliable and break less often.
  • fit in pencil sharpener, neatness of sharpening
    • fit in standard sharpeners, wood sharpens neatly
  • purchase as a set or individual pencils?
    • both sets (with and without cases) and individuals
  • carrying case
    • tin case is flimsy and hinges often break; opens when dropped
  • labeling:
    • labeled on butt of pencil & side; the pencil number & letters are extremely difficult to read; often the label on the butt of the pencil is missing. I also swear that several times I have bought what was labelled as a soft pencil but was in fact a hard pencil (I believe they were mis-labelled).
  • feel of graphite pencil in the hand
    • nice, rather light
  • feel of the graphite pencil on the page/texture consistency
    • often gets small snags in graphite that run throughout the pencil
  • information about the company/resources
    • Founded in 1992 in Shanghai, China as Axus (Marco) Stationary. Unless you can read Chinese, it is difficult to find out information about this company & its practices, as the English version of the website is permanently “under construction”.

DERWENT

Derwent pencils have been around since 1832 so they’re tried and true. While I like the company, I don’t love the pencils these days. It is sad, because they promote an environmental approach to their business: they’ve developed a solvent-free paint application system, to improve air quality where they manufacture in England; they burn the sawdust created in manufacturing to heat the factories in winter, etc. It is a staple pencil and old quality company, but the product hasn’t compared well to the others.

  • cost
    • $24.46 + tax/shipping on Amazon for 24 count range from 9H to 9B, or $1.01 per pencil + tax/shipping
  • frequency of the lead breaking
    • breaks frequently, especially the soft pencils
  • fit in pencil sharpener, neatness of sharpening
    • fits in standard sharpeners, wood chips and tears causing rough edges
  • purchase as a set or individual pencils?
    • mostly sets, (with and without cases)
  • carrying case
    • sturdy, opens when dropped
  • labeling
    • it has the annoying orange swirl that leads you round and round to find the label
  • feel of graphite pencil in the hand
    • the paint is very rough, so the feel is not as lovely as some of the other pencils
  • feel of the graphite pencil on the page/texture consistency
    • this seems to be up to snuff, but the other factors minimize this bonus
  • information about the company/resources
    • the company is an old one, and transparent online with environmental standards available for consumers to read

TOMBOW MONO 

These were the winners of the pencil comparison! I love these pencils. The weight, the smooth lacquer paint, the labeling, the sharpening, the feel of the pencils are fantastic. Bonus, I’m a fan of the color scheme.

  • cost
    • I ordered these individually on Blick, and must have had a coupon because I paid .90 cents per pencil + tax/shipping, in December, while today I see them listed for $1.12 each +tax/shipping. They are also available on Amazon and Tombow’s site.
  • frequency of the lead breaking
    • it hasn’t happened yet- a pencil miracle!
  • fit in pencil sharpener, neatness of sharpening
    • fantastic
  • purchase as a set or individual pencils?
    • both available
  • carrying case
    • I didn’t buy a carrying case, so I can’t say.
  • labeling
    • clear, consistent
  • feel of graphite pencil in the hand
    • I love the glossy lacquer paint and these have a nice weight to them
  • feel of the graphite pencil on the page/texture consistency
    • consistent, and seem to run soft, smooth, creamy
  • information about the company/resources
    • The company was established in 1913 in Japan, and in the US in 1983 and information seems to be slightly less transparent but still available online.

MITSUBISHI HI-UNI

These pencils were a close second, but were not my favorites due to price and fit in the sharpener.

  • cost
    • these were a little more expensive at $1.25 per pencil +tax/shipping
  • frequency of the lead breaking
    • has not happened, they are high quality
  • fit in pencil sharpener, neatness of sharpening
    • these sharpen neatly without breaking, but they do not fit in my standard pencil sharpeners, which just make them all around more difficult to use.
  • purchase as a set or individual pencils?
    • I was only able to find these on Amazon as a set with a case
  • carrying case
    • Sturdy, closes tightly
  • labeling
    • A+ labelling, the pencil hardness is labelled on every facet of the pencil!
  • feel of graphite pencil in the hand
    • This pencil has a nice heavy weight to it, and the lacquer is nice
  • feel of the graphite pencil on the page/texture consistency
    • High quality, consistent
  • information about the company/resources
    • This pencil seems to be manufactured/distributed in the US by Uni and it has very little information on it’s US website. The lack of transparency does bring into question several factors.

FABER-CASTELL 9000

Faber-Castell is an old German graphite pencil manufacturer that has been around since 1660, manufacturing this particular line of pencils since 1905. I have used these pencils before, and wanted to love them. They just seemed kind of stiff, and tended to run a little harder than the other brands did.

  • cost
    • I bought the set of 15 on Blick that came with a fabric case, pencil sharpener, eraser and 12 pencils for $18.94 when I bought it, or about $1.26 per item + tax/shipping. I like the case, but won’t be using the eraser or pencil sharpener, so the extra expense isn’t worth it to me. I also noted that today’s price on Blick is less, at $17.97, about a $1 less or $1.19 per pencil + tax/shipping.
  • frequency of the lead breaking
    • This hasn’t happened, but I’m not entirely sure I’ve used them enough to tell
  • fit in pencil sharpener, neatness of sharpening
    • Fits in standard pencil sharpener, sharpens fine.
  • purchase as a set or individual pencils?
    • Both sets (with and without cases) and individuals
  • carrying case
    • Fabric, ok quality with room for other erasers, rulers, etc.
  • labeling
    • Fine.
  • feel of graphite pencil in the hand
    • Fine.
  • feel of the graphite pencil on the page/texture consistency
    • This pencil seems to run harder than the other brands. It just feels stiff and harder and less creamy or luscious.
  • information about the company/resources
    • Information on the company’s site is easy to find. They seem to have similar environmental practices as Derwent, using sawdust to heat manufacturing facilities, environmental paint, etc.

CARAN D’ACHE GRAPHWOOD

The grand finale are the Caran D’ache Graphwood pencils that I’ve longed to buy for years. I’ve fallen in love with Caran D’ache watercolor and color pencils- they are the creamiest, dreamiest pencils ever and so I coveted these puppies. For one, they look amazing: the shade of the paint on the pencil reveals the hardness of the pencil. If you’re reaching for a 3H, go for a light light gray paint on the pencil barrel. If you’re wanting a 3B, go for a medium gray; a 7B, grab the dark gray barrel. For artists who are working intently, this visual ease in finding the right pencil is brilliant. However, these pencils will set you back a pretty penny, and I can’t quite justify it for every day use. Maybe just a special treat every now and then? But who needs pencils lying around their studio that feel too precious to use? Not me.

  • cost
    • at $2.38 per pencil +tax/shipping, these pencils feel like they’re breaking the bank
  • frequency of the lead breaking
    • not too frequently, but occasionally in the softer pencils
  • fit in pencil sharpener, neatness of sharpening
    • These pencils are wider than the standard pencil sharpener, making them an automatic annoyance in my opinion. The wood did chip occasionally too.
  • purchase as a set or individual pencils?
    • Both (with case) or indivicual
  • carrying case
    • I didn’t buy one.
  • labeling
    • Who needs # and letter labels when you have the AMAZING color coding!
  • feel of graphite pencil in the hand
    • Thick, nice weight
  • feel of the graphite pencil on the page/texture consistency
    • Good, but not 2 times better than the other pencils, as you might expect with the price!
  • information about the company/resources
    • Swiss company around since 1915, but not as much information on their site, unless you’re a French speaker.

 

SO THERE YOU GO!

There was a clear winner in my mind, the Tombow Mono graphite pencils. Yet to review, but may someday be added: Staedtler and Generals. And if you have another far out brand that you just adore or are curious about, please do let me know. I’m quite content talking about pencils all day long!