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.

(As an aside, I’d like to mention a fascinating book about the history of the pencil: The Pencil, by Henry Petroski. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) It helps you understand how the pencil was created, manufactured, and refined, and notably points out the contribution of Henry David Thoreau to the manufacture of pencils.)

I bought six different pencils, from the following brands:

  • Caran D’Ache
  • Faber Castell
  • Mitsubishi
  • Palomino
  • Staedtler
  • Tombow

It’s worth noting that the Palomino Blackwing that I purchased is not a 3B; it is not graded that way, as this brand does not use HB graphite ratings. It is probably closer to a 4B, being softer and smoother than the others, but I will mention it here because I bought it to compare. And the Staedtler that I bought only comes in even grades, so I bought 2B.

Bear in mind that I am not an artist, and I only use pencils for writing; for sketching, you could choose a pencil for its shade rather than anything like smoothness.

I mention the prices that I paid for each pencil. They may be cheaper at certain stores or online dealers, but they give you an idea of how they compare.

Derwent Graphic – £1.24

As I said above, I’ve been using Derwent Graphic pencils for a couple of decades. I bought a box once of a dozen of their pencils of different grades, and used most of them – except for the darkest – and found that the 3B was the most comfortable for my writing. It is smooth and firm, and fairly dark in comparison to the other pencils. I like its black matte finish, which makes it easier to hold than some of the pencils which have smooth finishes. Like all of the pencils I purchased, it has a hexagonal body. I find this more comfortable than round pencils.

The Mitsubishi Hi-Uni – £3.40

The Mitsubishi Hi-Uni is a very expensive pencil; the most expensive that I tried. The smooth hexagonal body of the pencil is maroon. This is a soft, dark pencil, softer and darker than the Derwent. This means that it needs frequent sharpening, but it is very smooth, almost as smooth as the Palomino Blackwing (see below). While it’s a very nice pencil, I don’t think it’s worth paying this price, when there are other pencils that are just as good for much less, but, of course, if you’re an artist, then this might be exactly what you want.

Caran D’Ache Graffwood – £2.75

This is a fine pencil, with a smooth, grey hexagonal body. The colors of this model pencil vary according to the hardness; so the H pencils are lighter, and the B pencils are darker. This can be useful if you draw and have a few different grades, and want to quickly find the one you want. It is very similar to the Derwent in both darkness and smoothness, though it gets much smoother as the point wears down a bit, unlike the Derwent which retains about the same smoothness. Looking at some writing with both of them, it’s hard to tell the difference in color, but writing is a bit more comfortable than with the Derwent. At £2.75, it’s twice the price of the Derwent, putting it at the higher end of my selection.

Faber-Castell 9000 – £0.95

I’m a fan of Faber-Castell. I have a mechanical pencil and rollerball of theirs, and I like the shape and the feel of their higher-end pens and pencils. I tried their Perfect Pencil last year, getting one very cheaply on eBay – the platinum model – but it was too heavy, and unbalanced the pencil (which is a very, very nice pencil, made of fluted cedar, at about £10 each). I resold it, because it wasn’t something I’d use, even though it is attractive. The 9000 pencil has a smooth green hexagonal body, and is a lot harder than most of the others I’ve tested, being more like a 2B, or even an HB. It scratches the paper, and isn’t very dark. Perhaps a 4B of this pencil might be closer to these 3Bs.

Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black – £1.42

This pencil doesn’t come in 3B; it only comes in even numbers, 2B, 4B, 6B, and 8B. It is said to have a high carbon content to make for blacker lines, but it doesn’t seem particular dark. I bought the 2B, and it feels like, well, a 2B pencil. It is the hardest of the pencils I tried, and perhaps a 4B would be closer to what I’m looking for. But it feels a lot like the Derwent, both because of its hexagonal matte finish, and because of its hardness. The Derwent is a bit smoother, as would be expected for the difference of one grade. The standard, non-black Lumograph comes in all the usual grades.

Tombow MONO 100 Pencil – £1.94

This is an interesting pencil. With a smooth, black, hexagonal body, it has the darkness of, say, the Mitsubishi, yet it’s a bit less smooth, but not by much. Apparently some people think it’s the best pencil in the world, but this is also said of the Mitsubishi. I find that this suits me quite well, perhaps well enough to dethrone the Derwent. I’ll have to see over time.

Palomino Blackwing – about £2 each

The Palomino Blackwing is a hipster pencil; it’s the one the cool kids use with the Moleskine notebooks. They’re not cheap – though not the most expensive pencil I tried here – and they sell for about £30 for a dozen; I bought some for £23 on eBay. Its matte black hexagonal body is comfortable to hold, and it has a ferule with a small eraser at the top, the only one of these pencils to have an eraser. It is very smooth; remember, it’s probably closer to a 4B. As such, it wears out quickly, more so than the Mitsubishi, but it is very dark. But not only does it need to be sharpened often, but the point gets dull, and wide, very quickly. I don’t need a sharp point, but this is a bit too soft for me. It’s a nice pencil, very smooth, it glides on the page. I can see using this for brainstorming, rather than writing longer texts, because of its need to be sharpened often. I will try the Blackwing Pearl, which should be closer to a 2B, but these pencils aren’t easy to find – online in the UK, at least – other than in boxes of a dozen.

You can buy these pencils at specialty stores, art supply stores, and some of theme are available on Amazon.com and Amazon UK.

Below is an example of how the pencils write on a legal pad. Sorry about the bad handwriting; but that’s the way I write. You can see the difference in darkness of the various pencils, which may give a better idea of how they write.

3B pencils