What’s the Best 3B Pencil?

I like pens and pencils: nice ballpoints and rollerballs (I’m less a fan of fountain pens, because they’re too messy), and a nice, solid mechanical pencil is reassuring to write with. But I especially like using wooden pencils. I like the way they feel in the hand, I like the smell – when they’re made from cedar – and I like the way they write. I don’t mind sharpening pencils; with mechanical pencils, you never have to sharpen, but the thinner lead makes writing different.

Over the years, I’ve found that, for me, the best pencil for writing is a 3B. It’s a dark, soft lead, and, on a nice pencil, it’s very smooth. Outside the US, pencils are graded on the HB graphic scale, which ranges from 9H to 9B. H is hard, and B is black. So the standard pencil – an HB, equivalent to a #2 in the US – is fairly neutral. It is dark, but not too dark; it is hard, but not too hard; a nice compromise for many people.

One reason I prefer the 3B is because it is smoother. I hate writing with a pencil that scratches the paper; the sound bothers me, and the feel in my hand, as the pencil resists, is disagreeable. A 3B provides both wider, blacker text, and that smoothness that allows the pencil to glide on the page. Darker pencils glide even more – at least most of them; this depends on the brand – but they wear out very quickly, and need to be sharpened every couple of minutes.

I’ve long used – for a couple of decades – the Derwent Graphic 3B, and I very much like the balance between hardness and smoothness, and the black that it produces. But there are lots of other pencils, and perhaps there are some that might be better. With this in mind, I decided to buy a number of different 3B pencils to compare them.

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Some Thoughts on the Apple Pencil

I got a 9.7″ iPad Pro yesterday; I hadn’t planned to upgrade, but it turned out that it was useful to hand down my iPad Air 2 to my partner, whose iPad 3 is showing signs of age. Naturally, since I bought the iPad Pro, I had to get the Pencil.

I’m intrigued by the idea of using a stylus to write on the iPad. I actually envisage using it to take notes and mark up PDFs. As such, I bought the $8 GoodNotes, on the recommendations of several friends who already have the gargantuan iPad Pro.

Now, I have to come clean: my handwriting is horrible. It always has been, no matter how much I was shamed when in grade school. Also, I rarely write by hand any more; it’s quicker for me to dictate into my iPhone or iPad, though I do keep a pad of paper and a pencil on my desk to take notes during the day. (And I’m a big fan of pencils, even though I don’t use them much…)

So the idea of writing on the iPad made me hesitant. Here’s an example:


I can read it just fine, so if I take notes and just want to read them, it’s no problem. However, I may also want to benefit from GoodNotes’ built in OCR capabilities. (You use the lasso tool to surround text, then tap the selected area, then tap Convert.) I’ve been around Apple products to have used a Newton a bit, back in the day, so I wasn’t expecting much. But to my surprise:


This is just one example. In my testing yesterday, I found that GoodNotes’ OCR is about 98% accurate; and when it’s not accurate, it’s my fault for making letters that overlap. This is simply astounding.

As to the Pencil itself, I have a few gripes. It’s quite slippery. The plastic is very smooth, it’s hard to pick up off my desk, and it’s slippery to hold. I prefer the knurled grip area of a pencil like the rOtring 800 mechanical pencil, which I use daily to take notes. I’ll eventually put something on the Apple Pencil to make it easier to hold, such as a piece of tape, but Apple should have considered this. (Or they could have made it hexagonal, like real wooden pencils.)


The Apple Pencil is also an inch or so too long. My guess is they calculated the size for artists who hold a pencil far from the tip when shading, but it’s much more than anyone needs if they’re only writing. And the Apple Pencil suffers from the problem most styluses have: a lack of resistance. It’s too smooth against the iPad Pro’s screen. The drag you feel when writing on paper actually helps you write better by slowing you down.

Aside from those caveats, the Apple Pencil feels good in the hand. It has the right heft, not too heavy, not too light. However, it’s missing one important feature. The lack of a clip means that if you put it onto a desk or table that is not perfectly flat, the Pencil will roll. People have already realized that they need to add a clip to the Pencil, and it’s a shame to have to do that.

I’m looking forward to using the Pencil more to take notes on my iPad; maybe if I write more, my handwriting will improve. I’m a big fan of analogue tools – including pencil and paper – but the OCR available in GoodNotes is nearly magical, and means that I can take a lot of notes and not have to type them into my Mac later.

Gadget Notes: rOtring 800 Mechanical Pencil

I’ve always been a fan of pencils, both wooden and mechanical. I don’t write a lot by hand, but I do like to have nice writing instruments. So I went looking for a new mechanical pencil, and took a chance on the rOtring 800 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), their almost-top-of-the-line tool. (There is an 800+, which is the same, but has a plastic tip, so it can be used as a stylus on a tablet.)


I don’t like very thin lead, so I went for the 0.7mm model, and I chose black; I think pencils look better in black than silver. What sets this model apart from the company’s less expensive mechanical pencils is the “twist and click” mechanism, which moves the lead and holder in and out of the cylinder. So when you’re not using the pencil, you can retract it, and the pointy part won’t risk damaging a shirt, or just getting in the way.

(In case you’re curious, rOtring means “red ring,” which you see at the top of every one of the company’s pens and pencils.)

It’s a hefty, solid pencil, with a very nice grip, and a matte finish. I think the silver model is probably a bit smoother on the barrel, but the grip looks the same. It’s really a pleasure to write with. Again, I don’t write a lot, but I do often proofread things I’ve written on printouts, and I like to use a pencil.

This isn’t a cheap pencil – it’s a luxury to spend more than $50 on a writing implement – but it’s a nice tool to have. If you like pencils, it’s worth checking out. For a bit less, you can get the rOtring 600, without the retractable tip, if you wish.

Now, I just need to find the best pencil leads to go with this… Any suggestions?