When it comes to choosing between a wooden pencil and a mechanical pencil both have their strengths and weaknesses. This guide will help you understand the differences and where they are best suited. First, you need to know a bit about the actual pencils.
We start with a brief introduction to wooden pencils and who makes the best wooden pencils. This is followed by an explanation of what are the different types of mechanical pencils, what they are used for, and give an example of the best mechanical pencil of each type.
Finally, we finish off with a comprehensive roundup that compares wooden pencils vs mechanical pencils when used in their different applications.
Table of Contents
- 1 Wooden Pencils
- 2. Who Makes The Best Wooden Pencils?
- 3. Types of Mechanical Pencil
- 4. Wooden Pencils V Mechanical Pencils
1. Wooden Pencils
Sometimes people still refer to the core of wooden pencils as the lead but it actually is made from graphite that is encased in wood. The graphite core is made from clay and graphite and the ratio of clay to graphite will determine how hard or soft the pencil lead will be, how light or dark it will write on the paper, and how smoothly it will write. This is known as the pencils lead or hardness grade and strictly speaking, we should always refer to this type of pencil as graphite pencils.
1.1. Pencil Lead Grades / Hardness
The pencils lead or hardness grade scale in Europe are from 9B – 9H and in the U.S office pencils are from #1 – #4 although they use the European scale for pencils outside this range. There is no standardization for this so the pencils from different manufacturers will be slightly different.
The Japanese prefer their pencils to write a bit darker and even though they use the same grading system of 9B – 9H a Japanese HB pencils lead will be a little darker than a U.S or European HB pencil.
With reference to the Pencil Lead Grade Hardness Chart, H is referring to the Hardness and B to Blackness of the lead and F is Firm, H graded leads are very smudge resistant and produce sharp lines. B lead is softer and smoother to write and draw with but smudges easily.
9H – 6H This is extremely hard lead and a very light grey it is not normally used for writing or drawing but for specialized things such as map-making.
5H – 3H This is a very hard lead and it is used by professionals for technical drawing and by students and mathematicians for charts and Graphs.
2H & H This is hard lead and again it is used for technical drawing and in mathematics.
F & HB This is medium lead and what is normally used for writing and drawing lines. It is hard enough so that it does not smudge easily and dark enough so that it can be read without difficulty.
B – 3B This is a soft lead that is used for freehand drawing, it can be used for writing, but it does smudge relatively easily so it is not used as commonly as HB.
4B – 9B This is an extremely soft dark lead that is mainly used by artists for drawing and sketching with. 9 B is so soft and crumbly that it is barely used.
2. Who Makes The Best Wooden Pencils?
With so many different pencil manufacturers it can be a little confusing as to who makes the best wooden pencils. There are not many quality pencil manufacturers left in the U.S apart from Dixon Ticonderoga and General Pencils.
Germany and Japan are the powerhouses when it comes to manufacturing wooden pencils and has a long history of producing pencils that are of the highest quality.
Most of the best quality pencils are made from incense-cedar wood as it is a softwood easy to sharpen and does not blunt the blades of pencil sharpeners. Although Caran d’Ache the luxury goods manufacture uses other types of woods such as beechwood.
Blackwing is perhaps one of the best known and iconic quality pencil brand names and famous for the Blackwing 602 pencil. It was first launched in 1934 by the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company. It was discontinued in the 19190’s by Newell Rubbermaid who by then owned the Blackwing brand name.
It looked as though the Blackwing 602 was set to be consigned to the history books until The Blacking Brand name was bought by the California Cedar Products Company in 2008. It was relaunched under their Palomino brand name as the Blackwing Palomino 602 but today they have dropped the Palomino name from their Blackwing pencil range.
As well as the Blackwing 602 they also make a wide range of pencils including limited editions, a long point pencil sharpener, and the Blackwing Point Guard.
2.2. Caran d’Ache
The luxury brand Caran d’Ache are renowned for the quality of their wooden pencils. Unlike most other manufacturers through their pencils are made of beech wood or pine wood from Swiss forests.
Not surprisingly they named their pencils Caran d’Ache Swiss Wood pencils and they are HB Lead hardness grade, but they do carry a hefty price tag.
If you want a pencil that is both rare and exotic, then the Les Crayons de la Maison Caran d’Ache ed. n°7 fits the bill nicely. It is a set o 4 HB pencils that are made from “noble woods”
- Polychrome Sipo
- Streaked White Birch
- African Assamela
- Grey Limba
They also make a scented version of these special edition pencils, but you will be parting with around $30.00 for just 4 pencils.
Faber-Castell is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of writing equipment and can trace its roots back to 1761 when Casper Faber a carpenter from Nuremberg in Germany first started the company.
Today Faber-Castell makes a wide range of wooden pencils but they are most famous for the Faber-Castell 9000 pencil which was first launched in 1905. As you would expect from a quality pencil it is made from cedarwood and the graphite core is bonded to the wood of the pencil which makes it particularly break-resistant.
Faber-Castell 9000 pencils have the classic green colored barrel and are available in 16 degrees of hardness which are from 6H to 8B. This makes them ideal for drafting, drawing, writing and sketching. They are widely regarded as the best graphite pencils in the world.
2.4. General Pencils
General pencils are one of the USA’s oldest pencil companies it started life in 1860 as the American Pencil Company and changed its name to The General Pencil Company. They make a wide range of pencils but are best known for the Generals Semi-Hex pencil.
It is made from cedar wood and its most notable feature is that although it is hexagonally shaped the straight edges have been rounded off making it more comfortable to hold. They are available in five degrees of hardness.
- #1/B Extra Soft
- #2/HB Soft
- #2 ½/F Medium
- #3/H Hard
- #4/2H Extra Hard
The Generals Semi-Hex pencil is widely used by students and office workers.
The Japanese Mitsubishi Pencil Company started life in 1887 as the Masaki Pencil Manufacturing Company and changed its name to Mitsubishi Pencil Company after the 2nd world war. Their first wooden pencil was the Mitsubishi 9800 which is still going strong today as their entry-level pencil.
But the pencil that Mitsubishi is renowned for and sought after by pencil enthusiasts is the Mitsubishi Hi-Uni pencil. It was first launched in 1966 and what makes this pencil so special is the quality of its graphite core.
The graphite and clay which make up the core are processed in the factory in such a way that the particles are ground and filtered to the exact tolerance and then uniformly mixed creating an outstanding pencil lead that is highly resistant to breaking.
HI Uni Pencils are available in 15 degrees of hardness from 10B to 10H.
Staedtler is one of Europes biggest pencil manufacturers with the Staedtler Norris and Tradition pencils being their entry-level pencil. These are the mainstay pencil for European schools and offices but not as popular in America which is dominated by General Pencils and Ticonderoga.
Where Staedtler comes into its own right is with its premium quality Mars Lumograph 100 drawing pencils. They are available In 24 degrees of hardness from which are;
12B, 11B, 10B, 9B, 8B, 7B, 6B, 5B, 4B, 3B, 2B, B, HB, F, H, 2H, 3H, 4H, 5H, 6H, 7H, 8H, 9H, 10H
The pencils have a special lead formulation that gives a metallic lustre in the harder lead grades and super bonded lead which has a high break resistance. These pencils are ideal for professional graphic and artistic users and they are ideal for drawing, hatching, writing, and sketching,
Tombow is another Japanese powerhouse in the pencil industry. Founded in 1913 they have a reputation for making high-quality pencils. The Tombow 8900 pencil is their entry-level pencil but many feel that this is a far superior pencil too many of the U.S entry-level pencils.
The pencil that they are really known for is their premium quality Tombow Mono 100 pencil with many people arguing that this is the best wooden pencil. It certainly is an outstanding pencil and is a worthy rival to the Blackwing 602 and the Mitsubishi Hi-Uni pencils for the title of the best wooden pencil.
If you live in the U.S then the chances are that you used a Ticonderoga #2 wooden pencil at school or college. Dixon Ticonderoga can trace their roots all the way back to 1812 when Joseph Dixon made his first wooden pencil.
In 1913 the Ticonderoga #2 pencil was launched its classic yellow barrel is made from cedar wood and it has a special graphite core formula that gives the pencil its smooth writing performance.
Dixon Ticonderoga is America’s largest pencil manufacture and sells a staggering 1.5 Billion Pencils a Year.
For more information about Dixon Ticonderoga check out our Comprehensive Guide to Dixon Ticonderoga Pencils.
3. Types of Mechanical Pencil
A pencil that is not wood-cased and its lead is free from its casing is considered to be a mechanical pencil. There are three different types of mechanical pencils which are general purpose, drafting, and clutch pencils. Check out our Top 10 Drafting and Mechanical Pencils for more information.
Before you can compare wooden pencils against mechanical first you need to know what each type of pencil is used for.
3.1. General Purpose
A general-purpose mechanical pencil usually has 0.5mm or 0.7mm lead and they are mainly used for writing, sketching, and geometry. They can also be referred to as an automatic pencil, clicky pencil double knock pencil, or propelling pencil.
The finer 0.5mm mechanical pencil is better suited for creating sharper lines in maths and geometry although it can be used for writing and note-taking.
Whereas the 0.7mm mechanical pencil is the most common lead size for mechanical pencils as the lines are comparable with a fine point pen. They are also ideal for drawing and sketching which is why there is the greatest choice of lead grades available.
It is difficult to say which the best general-purpose mechanical pencil is as they can range in price from a few cents for Bic pencils up to hundreds of dollars from luxury brands such as Graf Von Faber Castell.
But if you are looking for the most popular then you cannot go wrong with a Japanese made mechanical pencil. Pentel makes particularly good pencils and the Pentel Twist Erase is one of their most popular it has a wide barrel with a very comfortable latex-free grip and the jumbo eraser at the end that you twist out which it takes its name from.
3.2. Drafting Pencil
Drafting pencils are professional quality mechanical pencils primarily designed for technical drawing although they can be used for writing, drawing, and sketching, etc. They are usually available in 0.3mm, 0.5mm, 0.7mm, and 0.9mm lead diameters. They can also be referred to as technical pencils.
Drafting pencils usually have a longer lead sleeve than a general-purpose mechanical pencil. The advantage of this is that it works better with straight edges such as rulers and squares.
As well as having a longer lead sleeve drafting pencils often have extra features such as a built-in lead grade indicator.
The Japanese made Ohto Super Promecha PM-1500P is considered by many to be the best drafting pencil in the world. It is an aluminum pencil packed with features such as a built-in lead grade indicator from B to H.
Underneath the push button is an eraser with a clearing pin and the pocket clip can be removed if that is your preference.
By turning the pencils grip the lead sleeve can be fully retracted or set in 1mm increments up to 5mm fully extended.
You can also set how much lead is dispensed with each press of the push button from 0.2mm up to 2.0mm. The Ohto Super Promecha PM-1500P truly is an exceptional mechanical pencil.
3.3. Clutch Pencil
Clutch pencils are the oldest type of mechanical pencil and are also referred to as lead holders. They differ from mechanical pencils in that their lead is not advanced via a push-button mechanism through a sleeve.
Instead, the lead is held in place by a spring-loaded clutch mechanism upon pressing the push button this operates the clutch opening the jaws and allowing the lead to drop freely from the pencil until the push button is released. When the push button is released this closes the clutch mechanism and the jaws hold the lead firmly in place.
This type of clutch pencil is known as a drop clutch pencil as the lead drops freely upon pressing the push button.
There is also another type of clutch pencil which is known as an incremental clutch pencil. With these pencils, you need to keep pressing the push button to advance the lead.
Clutch pencils are predominately used by artists and usually have 2mm lead although there are some clutch pencils made by Faber-Castell and Worther that use 3.15mm lead. As well as 5.6mm clutch pencils made by e+m and Koh-I-Noor.
The Faber Castell TK9400 clutch pencils are one of the most popular 2.0mm drop clutch pencils a firm favorite of artists for drawing and sketching. The lead grade is marked on the barrel which is very useful when you have several pencils with different grades of lead.
As for incremental clutch pencils then the Staedtler 925 25 2.0mm are widely regarded as the best clutch pencil of this type. They are manufactured for the Japanese market who are crazy about their mechanical pencils and are usually marked with 925 25 20 Japan unless you are buying a European model.
4. Wooden Pencils V Mechanical Pencils
Both wooden and mechanical pencils have their advantages and disadvantages however they should not be thought of as something to be used exclusively. Mechanical pencils were never meant to replace wooden pencils but were designed to produce consistent accurate precise lines. Which is difficult to achieve with a wooden pencil.
Wooden pencils are predominantly used for drawing, the tip of the pencil can be sharpened in different ways to give different effects. Depending on the type of sharpener the cone can be sharpened to wider or smaller diameters with long sharp points or more rounded duller points.
When artists are first learning how to draw, they are taught to use the fine point for more detailed work and to angle the pencil when they need to create broader strokes or are shading.
There are some disadvantages to using wooden pencils for drawing. The main ones are that the pencil needs to be sharpened quite frequently and as you sharpen it the pencil becomes smaller and smaller. Once a pencil becomes too small to hold in the hand comfortably then many people will use a pencil extender. Check out our guide The Top 10 Pencil Extenders for more information.
Many artists though do use mechanical pencils when drawing, one of the main reasons is that a mechanical pencil is easier to grip and more comfortable to hold with a consistent weight and feel to them. Mechanical pencils give artists the ability to choose a mechanical pencil that suits their personal preferences. Maybe they prefer wider barrels or heavier pencils with metallic barrels.
The other reason that people use mechanical pencils for drawing is that they produce a consistent line width. This can be important for detailed work and sketching fine lines.
The diameter of the lead can be selected according to your needs and the pencil will produce a consistent line without the need for sharpening.
There are some disadvantages to using mechanical pencils for drawing. The main ones are that with a normal mechanical pencil you cannot do sketching or shading. There is however a special type of mechanical pencil called a clutch pencil that has either 2.0mm or 5.6mm leads which are ideal for smooth even shading.
The other drawback with mechanical pencils is that the leads are more brittle and the very thin diameter leads break easily. There is also the possibility of getting a lead jam in the lead pipe and you will need to use a clearing pin to free it.
4.2. Technical Drawing & Plotting
Wooden pencils are not generally used for technical drawing, plotting, and map-making as the tip of the pencil requires constant sharpening and cannot produce specific line widths. Their points can however be sharpened to a point finer than that which can be achieved with a mechanical pencil and are still used by some professionals.
For architects, draughtsman and cartographers this is where mechanical pencils and professional drafting pencils come into their own right.
With these types of pencils, you can consistently produce precise lines of a certain width. You have total control of the line width and how dark it is.
This is achieved by the diameter of the lead and the graphite hardness. Mechanical pencils and lead is available in 0.2mm, 0.3mm, 0.4mm, 0.5mm, 0.7mm, 0.9mm, 1.15mm, 1.13mm, 2.0mm, 3.2, 5.2mm, and 5.6mm. Yes, 0.2mm lead really does exist Pentel makes the Pentel Orenz 0.2mm mechanical pencil and a 0.2mm lead to go with it.
The graphite hardness determines how dark the pencil will be this is where mechanical pencils are at a disadvantage to wooden pencils. With a wooden pencil, the lead bonded i.e. glued to the wood casing which makes it stronger and highly break-resistant.
With mechanical pencils, the lead comes out of a sleeve with no protection and is prone to breaking under pressure where it comes out of the sleeve. Because of this mechanical pencil lead is available in fewer degrees of hardness than wooden pencils.
The smaller and larger diameters of pencil lead are usually available with a smaller number of graphite grades to choose from:
- Wooden Pencils up to 24 degrees of hardness from 12B – 10H
- Mechanical Pencils 0.3mm typically 5 degrees of hardness 2H, H, HB, B, and 2B
- Mechanical Pencils 0.5mm typically 9 degrees of hardness 4H – 4B
- Mechanical Pencils 0.7mm typically 9 degrees of hardness 4H – 4B
- Mechanical Pencils 0.9mm typically 4 degrees of hardness H, HB, B, and 2B
There is also one other thing worth bearing in mind when using a mechanical pencil and that is if you constantly hold the pencil the same way then the lead will wear on one side giving a slight variation in the line width.
It is good practice to rotate the pencil every now and again as you are using it to ensure that the lead wears down evenly and keeps a consistent diameter. There is however one mechanical pencil that overcomes this problem and that is the Uni Kuru Toga the world’s first self-sharpening mechanical pencil.
Some very clever techies in Japan spent several years developing a clutch mechanism that automatically rotates the pencils lead each time you remove the pencil tip from the writing surface.
When it comes to the writer it is purely down to personal preference as to if you write with a wooden pencil or a mechanical pencil. Many people prefer the feel of a wooden pencil when writing as a mechanical pencil can feel a bit soulless. Although you can buy a mechanical pencil that is made out of a specific material or with a rubberized grip for a bit more comfort.
If you are writing a lot the main advantage a mechanical pencil has over a wooden one is that it will write for quite a long time before you need to change the lead. Whereas a pencil obviously requires sharpening from time to time.
The Best Mechanical Pencil Lead Diameters and Grades for Writing
HB 0.7mm is the most popular size and lead grade for a mechanical pencil that is used for writing It is stronger than 0.5mm and is better suited if you are a bit on the heavy-handed side. It is dark enough to be seen clearly when written on the paper. As well as being hard enough so that it does not smudge and can be easily erased.
B & 2B are also popular as they are smoother to write with and leaves a darker mark on the paper. The downside is that because they are a softer lead they are more prone to smudging.
H & 2H are the harder grades they leave a lighter silvery mark on the paper and can be easily erased. The downside is that they can be a bit scratchier to use and the lighter mark is not as easy to read.
Outside of these ranges the B grades are too soft writing and smudge very easily they are mainly used by artists for drawing with. The H grades are too hard and the marks quite light so are used by professionals such as draughtsmen and cartographers.
Pencil Cases, Pockets, and Backpacks
If you need to carry a pencil around with you in either a backpack, pencil case, or even in your pocket. Then a mechanical pencil is the better option as the lead is protected inside the body of the pencil. No sharp points that can break or jab into you.
There is however a simple solution to protect the tip of your pencil and that is a pencil cap. Check out our article on the 7 best pencil caps to protect points for more information.
4.4. Which is Better for The Environment Wooden Pencils or Mechanical Pencils?
If you take the pencils lead or graphite core out of the equation as they both use a combination of lead and clay to make it. Assuming that you write the same amount of text then both wooden and mechanical pencils will use the same amount of pencil lead to create the text.
This leaves the body of the pencil as to which as a greater impact on the environment.
- Mechanical pencils use a certain amount of oil to produce them regardless of whether they are made of plastic or metal.
- At the end of their life, they are usually going to end up in landfills as they will be difficult or impossible in the case of plastic-bodied mechanical pencils to recycle.
- On the plus side with a mechanical pencil, you only need to replace the lead once it has been manufactured.
- Wooden pencils take a lot less energy to produce compared to mechanical pencils and a fully grown tree can produce thousands of pencils.
- Wood is sustainable so a new tree can be planted to replace a tree used for making pencils.
- Over time the end of a discarded wooden pencil will eventually compost down.
On the face of it wooden pencils are more environmentally friendly than mechanical pencils there is one big caveat though. If you take a Blackwing Pencil for example (sorry Blackwing I know other manufacturers do the same thing) The cedar wood is grown in either California or Oregon. It is then transported to Japan where the pencil core is made and bonded to the wood before being shipped back to the U.S. The erasers and ferrules are made in Vietnam and then sent to the U.s where the Blacking pencils are assembled. That is a lot of air miles for something as simple as a wooden pencil.
4.5. Carpenters Pencils
When it comes to carpenters’ pencils wooden pencils win hands down. The lead that is used in mechanical pencils is not robust enough to mark the wood without breaking. Because the lead is bonded to the wood it is a lot stronger and highly break-resistant.
An ordinary pencil can be used by carpenters and joiners but they usually use a special type of pencil which is called a carpenters pencil. They have a larger rectangle-shaped body that prevents it from rolling around. Carpenters pencils are used by tradesmen to mark rough surfaces such as wood or stone.
4.6. Which Pencils are Cheaper to use Wooden or Mechanical?
From a purely cost point of view, there is probably not a lot in it, and it depends on how much you use your pencil.
If you are using a pencil a lot of the time then mechanical pencils are probably cheaper in the long run as you are only replacing the leads. They are also a lot more convenient with no sharpening and easier to carry around.