This very comprehensive, fact-filled, video explores the differences between wood-cased, clutch (aka Lead Holders) and mechanical pencils. Mike offers advice on which types to begin with and the grades of lead you need.


An collection of diferent types of pencils

Types of pencil

After a brief introduction to a variety of pencil types, Mike concentrates on the three most popular in regular use - wood-cased, clutch, and mechanical pencils.
Understanding soft and hard pencil grades

Wood-cased explored

All the pros and cons are covered in this wood-cased pencil analysis. Including which manufacturers supply the most grades; using a pencil extender - and more...
Understanding soft and hard pencil grades

Clutch pencils explored

Also known as Lead Pointers, these are Mike's go-to tools and are as comprehensively analysed for their benefits and faults as the other types. Includes sharpening methods and grade identification.
Understanding soft and hard pencil grades

Mechanical pencils explored

These range from 0.3mm to 1.3mm in thickness. Mike no longer uses them but... he knows an excellent artist who does! So the benefits and drawbacks are based on Diane Wright's unbiased report.
Understanding soft and hard pencil grades

The three compared

A side-by-side comparison of all three types - all the benefits and faults. For each, Mike offers advice on which pencils and grades of lead to buy if you're just starting out.

Watch the 2-minute PREVIEW:

Choosing Pencils and Leads
Duration :
9¼ mins
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This is the clearest information I have ever found about choosing pencils. All the pros and cons of each pencil type, and quite unbiased. Very valuable information on a subject I always found a bit overwhelming.


There is a wide variety of pencil types and brands: wood-cased, clutch (aka lead holders), sketching, solid graphite sticks, and mechanicals. Of those, I'll concentrate on the three most popular: wood-cased, clutch, and mechanical.

Let's begin with the most common in use - the traditional wood-cased pencil. They really haven't changed much since the 1600's, especially since 1795 when Conté invented a method of producing the grades - and we still use that method today.

I'll cover the benefits and disadvantages of each type - the Pros and the Cons.

The benefits of wood-cased include:
  • The cheapest option of the three we're looking at. They are relatively cheap.
  • Custom points: many artists like to create their own points - long and thin, short and broad, chisel ended, and so on...
  • They're lightweight. They're easy to carry around with you, and you can tuck one behind your ear.
  • There's a wide range of grades. Faber Castell and Staedtler both produce 16 grades from 6H to 8B. And Mitsubishi's Hi-Uni range has 22 grades from 10H to 10B.
The disadvantages - the Cons - are:
  • They vary in length and weight as they're used, so...
  • They vary in balance. A new pencil rests comfortably in your hand and you have a number of points of reference. But you have far less control when using a short stub of pencil. You can use an extender but that alters the balance in yet another way. All these inherent problems lead to...
  • Constant re-learning through...
  • Lack of consistency
One way to combat these potential disadvantages is to use clutch pencils.

Internally, a brass tube supports the lead to protect it. And the Staedtler 780 has an emergency sharpener in the cap. I said "emergency" because it's a messy process with stray graphite dust. But it's handy if you're sketching outdoors. Ideally, you need a tub sharpener (aka Lead Pointer). Or you could use a budget Faber sharpener, but these are equally as messy.

The Pros - the benefits - are:
  • The length and weight, and therefore the balance, never varies.
  • There slight additional weight aids control. And it's not too heavy or tiring in use.
  • All 2mm clutch pencil leads, which is the same diameter as a wood-cased pencil's lead, fit all brands of clutch pencil.
  • The application is smoother. This is subjective but Staedtler leads flow on more smoothly than their wood-cased equivalents.
  • Staedtler, at least, offer easy grade identification. Their 12-lead packs include a colour-coded cap. Pull the cap off your pencil, replace it with the colour-coded one, and now you know exactly which grade is in that pencil.
Clutch pencil cons:
  • Ideally, but not essentially, you need a lead pointer or tub sharpener.
  • Clutch pencils are not as versatile if you prefer a custom point. But the points can be needle-sharp. And you can form chisel points, which is what I use all the time.
  • The grades are limited. Faber Castell produce 3B to 6H. Staedtler, 4B to 4H. If you really want to go harder or softer, look out for Koh-i-Nor. Their grades range from 8B to 10H.
Mechanical pencils are similar to clutch 2mm pencils but they use resin in the mix instead of clay, because of the thin leads. The leads range from 0.3mm to 0.5, 0.7, 0.9, and you can even find 1.3mm. Of those, 0.5mm is the most popular.

All mechanical pencils hold a pack of 12 leads in the body. I don't use them... but I know an artist who does. Here's Diane Wright's report:
  • There are a variety of brands, such as Rotring, Pentel, Faber, Staedtler, and many more.
  • The body hold 12 leads. The leads are so thin they need...
  • No sharpening - ever!
  • Balance is consistent, because length and weight never alter.
  • A consistent point, because the thin leads don't need to be sharpened.
  • You can burnish softer grades and reach into tight space.
The disadvantages are:
  • They draw a consistent line, losing the fluid mark of a 2mm lead - particularly of wood-cased pencils.
  • Limited grades: 4B to 4H is the most commonly available range.
  • They have a short point life and a small area of coverage, as the point needs to be extended often.
Thanks, Diane! (

So, you've made your choice, which might be a mix, but then stick with that choice, so you get to know each to its full extent.

Depending on your choice, drawing can become expensive, but you don't need the full range of grades. So, which do you need?

You can buy a complete set, but there is such a wide overlap between the grades that having every other grade is sufficient. These eight (8B, 6B, 4B, 2B, HB, 2H, 4H, 6H) are all you need, and in my opinion, you really only need 4B, 2B, HB. 2H and 4H.

CLUTCH PENCILS (Lead Holders):
These are more expensive but you only need to purchase them once. This is my H, which I rarely use. This is my 2H, which is in constant use. The finger grip has worn completely smooth but, after 30 years of use, it's still perfectly functional. Apart from the two Fabers, I use Staedtler 780's, but you could use the cheaper 788's.

There are many brands available. Some make only pencils, some make only leads, and some make both. But remember: all brands of clutch pencils accept all brands of 2mm leads. There used to be many more grades available but now Computer Aided Design has taken over from technical drawing, 4B to 4H is the common range.

First time buyer? Load three pencils with 2B, HB and 2H. That's all I use 99% of the time. You can maybe add a 4B and 4H later if you feel the need. And if you need more grades, search for Koh-i-Nor leads, who still offer 8B to 10H.

Mechanical pencils are similar in many respects to clutch pencils. All leads fit all pencils but the lead diameter must match the pencil. Bear in mind that if you want to use 0.3. 0.5 and 0.9mm leads, you'll need one pencil for each of the three diameters. Then maybe three grades for each diameter? You'll need a total of nine pencils. I suggest you begin with 0.5mm pencils loaded with 2B, HB and 2H leads. Then add different diameters and grades as your experience develops.

Finally, which ever type, or types, you choose, buy the best you can afford. You won't ever regret that decision.

© copyright: Mike Sibley 2018

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