The Cult Pens Guide to Mechanical Pencils
Here at Cult Pens, we sell an enormous range of mechanical pencils - over 300 models, without counting every variation of lead size. Whether you're a professional user, an amateur artist, an office user or a collector, we thought it might be useful to produce a guide to help navigate the variety on offer.
This guide covers some general background information, a discussion of various features you may find useful, and includes a table of all the mechanical pencils we sell here at Cult Pens. If you are just looking to choose a pencil for a specific purpose, the section 'By Intended Usage' should give you some ideas of what to look for, and if this article just isn't enough for you, there are links at the bottom to other sources of information.
If you have any comments, corrections or suggestions for this article, please contact us.
A Brief History of the Mechanical Pencil
The very first pencils were in some ways closer to mechanical pencils than to what we think of now as 'ordinary' wood-cased pencils. Pieces of graphite were put in a holder of some sort (often made of wood), to avoid making a mess of peoples' fingers, and to make writing and drawing more comfortable. The first patent for a mechanical pencil was in Britain, in the early 19th century, but improvements have been made all over the world since then.
Modern thin-lead mechanical pencils were made possible through advances in lead composition, mainly pioneered in Japan. The lead in wood-cased pencils is a mixture of graphite and clay, but this is too brittle for 0.5mm leads, and even 0.9mm leads snap too easily. Modern leads are based on carbon made from high polymer organic materials, and can take a little more force and flexing without snapping.
For more information see Wikipedia's entry for Mechanical Pencils.
There are several advantages to mechanical pencils, compared to wooden pencils...
- No need to sharpen: with thin enough lead, you don't need to sharpen your pencil, because the line will never be too thick.
- Consistent line: especially important for engineering and technical drawings, if a mechanical pencil is held upright, the line width will stay exactly the same - the width of the lead. If you need a 0.5mm line, a mechanical pencil can provide it predictably, a wood-cased pencil can't.
- Balance: many artists use mechanical pencils for this reason. With a wood-cased pencil, as it's used and sharpened, it gets shorter and shorter, and the balance of the pencil changes. Eventually, it becomes too short to use comfortably, and is thrown away.
- Refillable: rather than being used up and disposed of, the pencil can have more leads poured into the top. The same pencil can usually be used for many years, depending on the quality.
We're not against the wood-cased pencil here at Cult Pens and we have a lot of those too. There are many situations where a wood-cased pencil is a better tool, not least because it's capable of much more expression and can make a wider range of marks. It's also a simpler and more dependable tool, and can be found in a greater variety of hardnesses - if you want 9B lead, you'll have to get it wrapped in wood. In the UK, offices remain quite attached to wooden pencils, when in our humble opinion mechanical pencils are much better and more economical in this environment. One of our suppliers tells us that the situation is much different in France, for example, where the market for mechanical pencils is much greater than for wooden pencils. Vive la difference!
So, what should you look for in a mechanical pencil? There are a surprising variety of features to consider, even sticking with only the most common variations.
- Lead Size: may well be your first consideration. For drawing and sketching, you may want quite thick lead, and some mechanical pencils are available with 4mm or thicker lead. For writing, many people prefer 0.9mm or 0.7mm, with 0.5mm and 0.3mm becoming more popular for writing and drawing, and certainly leading the way for technical drawing. The thicker the lead, the more likely it is to need sharpening, but the thicker the line you can get from it, and the easier it is to shade large areas. If you like especially soft or hard lead grades, you may be limited by the thicknesses your preferred grade of lead is available in. 0.5mm usually has the widest choice, and softer grades are more common in thicker leads. If you write or draw 'aggressively', thinner leads can be prone to snapping, so you may prefer something thicker and stronger. Modern leads are tougher than older leads, though, so if you used to find 0.5mm leads snapped for you years ago, it might be worth another try with a modern lead like Pentel's AIN Stein.
- Lead Sleeve: the part that surrounds the lead, just behind the writing tip. Either thin and round, or conical...
- Thin round sleeves are used in drafting pencils. They give an easier view of the drawing area, and allow the pencil to be used more accurately and easily with rules and templates. Sometimes, the sleeve can slide back, so it gets pushed out of the way by the paper if you run low on lead. If you use rules and templates a lot, you may prefer a fixed sleeve, but otherwise, a sliding sleeve can be convenient.
- Pencils for writing usually have a conical sleeve, which is less prone to getting bent or broken, and less likely to poke through pockets (and accidentally stab your own leg!)
- Retractable Tip: often referred to as "Pocket Safe". If you are going to carry a pencil in your pocket, being able to retract the tip part inside the pencil can save your pocket and your leg from damage. This is less important with conical sleeves than with thin sleeves.
- Lead Grade Indicator: some pencils have an indicator you can set to show which grade of lead you have loaded in that pencil. If you use a number of different pencils, with different hardnesses of leads, this could be very useful. The indicator will usually only have a limited range of hardnesses listed, so if you use unusually hard or soft leads, you may not be covered by all pencils.
- Grip: you need to be able to hold the pencil comfortably and without it slipping in your fingers, so you need to get a grip that suits your fingers. Many people now like rubber grips, and they are fast becoming the most common type available. Some people still prefer the old-fashioned knurled metal style, and such grips do still exist - especially in drafting pencils. If you have trouble holding a thin pencil, you may want to look for one with a wider grip - like the Faber-Castell Grip Plus. Don't always assume, though, that rubber will be the most non-slip surface - some plastic or metal grips can be very grippy.
- Triangular Grips: some people find a triangular grip section more comfortable, and it can give you a bit more contact area with the pencil. See the Faber-Castell Grip range, and Staedtler's Triplus pencils, for some nice examples.
- Clip: if you like to carry your pencil(s) in a shirt pocket, a pocket clip may be important to you. Most pencils come with a clip of some sort, and in some cases it can be removed. A clip will also stop the pencil from rolling off the desk when you put it down for a moment.
- Lead Advance: all mechanical pencils have some way of moving the lead forward. The most common is a button at the top of the pencil, but there are other options available now...
- Top Button: still the most common, and many pencils with other mechanisms also have a button on the top.
- Side Button: a few pencils are available with a button on the side as well as or instead of the top. This lets you advance the lead without moving the pencil as much, usually using your thumb.
- Twist: many old models of mechanical pencil used a continuous twist-to-advance mechanism, and there are still a few around. There are also quite a few models now that 'click' forward with a twist - they twist one direction to move the lead forwards, but twist back on a spring - like a cross between a twist and a button-click. This is most often seen in pencil versions of twist-action ballpoints.
- Shake: where the lead is advanced by shaking the whole pencil up and down. A weight inside the pencil does the work of knocking forward another 'click' of lead with each shake.
- Erasers: not all mechanical pencils have an eraser, but most do. In the majority of cases, it's quite small, and just push-fit into the top, often under a cap. Some pencils go one better, and have an eraser that can be advanced and retracted by twisting the top of the pencil, making the eraser last much longer. If you expect to use the eraser, check that you can get refills - for any pencil we sell, we will supply refills if they are available from the manufacturer.
Special Interest Features
- Small Size: you can get pencils that are just shorter, or shorter and thinner than a normal pencil. Pilot makes a tiny mechanical pencil, the Pilot Birdie, useful for keeping in a diary or notebook with a very narrow pen loop.
- Fit Organiser Loop: similar to small size, but a bit more specific - if you want to use a pencil in an organiser, like a Filofax, and you want it to fit inside the loop, you may need a fairly narrow pencil. An A5 Filofax will take most standard pencils, but a Pocket or Personal organiser might be a bit more limited. Filofax make their own mechanical pencil to fit, and Zebra's M-301 is a nice quality alternative for a lower price.
- Cushioned Lead: pencils designed for writing sometimes have a small amount of 'springiness' to the lead, to absorb the impact of writing. This can help avoid breaking the lead, and may be especially useful if you tend to write 'aggressively' (or you could try switching to decaf). The Faber-Castell TK-Fine Vario can be switched between firm lead and sprung - ideal if you prefer firmly fixed lead for drawing, but sprung lead for writing.
- Auto Advance: some pencils, such as the Faber-Castell Grip-matic, advance the lead slowly as you are writing or drawing, which should alleviate the need to keep pausing to 'click' more lead out as it gets used up.
- Cap: Very few mechanical pencils have a cap - the Pentel Kerry does. It takes longer to open and close it, but in return you get a completely pocket-safe pencil, and you can use it with or without the cap on the back for different balance.
There are a number of different ways you could start making your choice - by the use you intend to put the pencil to, by the price you are willing to pay, by specific features you know you want, or your favourite manufacturer. We'll look at price ranges and manufacturers next, but first, we'll look at some of the main uses people have for their mechanical pencils.
By Intended Usage
For any usage, the most important thing is to find a pencil you like and feel comfortable using. Some people prefer to draw with pencils intended for writing, and some people prefer writing with a drafting pencil. As long as you are happy, don't worry too much about the intended purpose of any particular pencil.
Pencils for writing usually have a conical surround to the lead, which is stronger, and more resistant to bending. The lead is sometimes sprung, to absorb impact when writing firmly, and minimise snapping. Other important features may include...
- A comfortable grip, especially if you're likely to use the pencil for long writing sessions.
- Small size may be important if you want to write anywhere, and need the pencil to be pocketable or fit in a pen loop in a favourite notebook.
- Faber-Castell Grip Plus: a nice chunky rubber grip, and a nice thick twist-advance eraser.
- Pilot Birdie: handy little pencil for notes anywhere - fits in even quite small pencil loops. Unfortunately, not pocket-safe.
Most office use will come under the general heading of writing, but companies are usually less willing to pay extra for something that feels nicer. If you get to choose for your office, you need to get the best value, but you also want to find the most pleasant pencils to handle if you're going to spend a lot of time using them.
- Pilot Super Grip: the cheapest mechanical pencil in our current range, but works well, and the rubber grip makes it comfortable for extended use.
- Faber-Castell Grip-matic 1377: another great value pencil for general use - fantastic features for the money, and still has a quality feel. The automatic lead advance means less stopping to click the button, and the twist-advance eraser lets you cover up more mistakes before the boss sees them ;)
Drafting (sometimes Draughting in British English) is another name for technical drawing. There are a number of requirements specific to this style, which may not be needed for other types of drawing or for writing...
- Thin sleeve and narrow barrel: important for two reasons...
- Gives a clear view of what you're drawing, with less pencil near the tip to block your view.
- Lets the lead get very close to a ruler or template. A thick conical surround would keep the lead away from the edge, and tend to make it jump upwards as you push it against the edge.
- Range of ISO standard widths available. For writing and general drawing, 0.5mm and 0.7mm are popular, but technical drawing usually requires adding at least 0.9mm (or 1.0mm) and 0.3mm (or 0.35mm). The ISO standards cover both wider and narrower widths than these, but they are not commonly available in pencils.
- Other things that may be important for drafting...
- Fixed sleeve: sliding sleeves allow more lead to show without having to click the button, by being pushed up as the lead shortens. The edge of a rule or template may also push the sleeve up, though, leaving too much lead free, and risking snapping.
- Good grip: technical drawing will often involve drawing for a long time, so comfort is important. A good grip will also help to avoid the pencil slipping in your fingers, and spoiling your drawing. A soft squishy grip can be good for writing, but wouldn't give the control needed for drafting.
- Retractable tip: If you need to carry the pencils in a pocket (all ISO sizes in the shirt pocket for full geek-cred), a retractable tip may be important. However...
- Non-retractable tip: A retractable tip will usually introduce a tiny amount of 'play' in the mechanism. Not enough to be noticeable to most people, especially with a good quality mechanism, but some people prefer completely rigid fixed mechanisms.
- Build quality: If you don't want to be replacing a pencil regularly, and it's going to be subject to very heavy usage, it makes sense to go for something that's built to last. Most drafting-style pencils will take quite a bit of use, though.
The range of drafting pencils available has fallen in recent times - most drafting is done using computers these days, so less demand means less choices - some great pencils have been discontinued in the last few years, though recent interest in good quality pencils has brought one of the all-time favourites back - the Rotring 600.
- Pentel GraphGear 1000: one of the favourites in our range of drafting pencils - more features than you can shake a lesser pencil at.
- Pentel 120 A3: a cheap and cheerful drafting pencil with a chunky rubber grip.
Art and Drawing
Different things may be important for artistic drawing and sketching, compared to technical drawing - though some artists prefer drafting pencils. A pencil for sketching is likely to be a more subjective and individual thing, but here are some of the more important considerations...
- Available lead hardnesses: not really anything to do with the pencil as such, but a range of hardnesses can be as important to an artist as a range of widths - maybe more so. Some hardnesses are only available in certain widths (Pilot ENO lead has the widest range), with 0.5mm usually having the best range. If this is important to you, check that you can get the right width of lead for the pencil you're considering, in the hardnesses you want to use.
- Balance: because sketching and drawing is usually done with faster movements than technical drawing, the balance of the pencil is more important. You may only find out by experimenting if you prefer a light or heavy pencil, and if you prefer the weight to be mainly towards the tip, or towards the centre. Try a few pens and pencils you have, to see which feel better balanced in your hand, then work out where the weight of them is concentrated.
- Thick leads: some artists use 0.5mm mechanical pencils, but most prefer thicker leads. Mechanical pencils are only commonly available with 0.9mm leads, but Faber-Castell make some with 1.4mm leads (for the e-Motion), and Pilot make a special artist's pencil, the Croquis, with 3.8mm leads.
- Portability: if you like to be able to sketch anywhere, you need to make sure your pencil is portable enough to be with you when you want it.
For drawing and sketching, you may also want to look at clutch pencils, which are are available with 2mm or thicker leads.
- Faber-Castell e-Motion: the shape makes it feel great for sketching, and the lead is thick enough to work well too, but without needing too much sharpening. The lead is only available in B grade, but if you can live with that, you could be very happy scribbling with an e-Motion.
- GraphGear 500: the younger sibling to the GraphGear 1000, the 500 lacks the retractable mechanism, the rubber bits on the grip, and the metal upper barrel. Losing the metal barrel, whilst keeping the knurled metal grip section, moves the balance point down, though, which suits some people better for drawing.
- Pilot EasyLead: an unusual pencil - cheap, and only available with one type of lead. The 0.7mm lead is quite unusual, though - dark, with a quite different texture to the norm. Feels like something between a soft grade of lead and a dense charcoal.
By Price Range
A disposable mechanical pencil seems like a terrible waste, but some people still like them. They often seem very cheap, but they'll work out more expensive in the long run, and are rarely as nice to use.
There are some surprisingly good pencils at the low end of the price scale, with models from Pilot, Uni-ball, and Rotring available from around £1.20. You won't generally get many features, but you can get a comfortable pencil that will stand up to quite a bit of use, and be refilled many times.
- Pilot Super Grip: a great general purpose pencil, with a very comfortable grip, for very little money.
- Rotring Tikky II: surprisingly solid-feeling drafting-style pencil, yet still one of the cheapest mechanical pencils around.
If you want to pay a bit more (or at least, you're willing to), you can get a better pencil. Further up the market, you are more likely to find features like retractable tips, better grips, and better build quality to take heavier use.
- Faber-Castell 2011 Grip: designed to match the rest of the Grip range, with a triangular cross-section, with rubber dots for most of the length - a grip area that doesn't try to dictate where you grip. It's also a classic look, with matching wooden pencils, erasers, sharpeners and ballpoints.
- Pentel Kerry: unique capped design - the cap actually locks firmly into place on the lead advance button, so you can still click more lead out, even with the cap on. Perfectly pocket-safe, because the tip is under the cap for carrying.
If you want something nicer again, there are a number of luxury pencils, often in the same lines as luxury pens. Manufacturers like Faber-Castell and Porsche Design usually make pencil versions of their luxury pens available. They may not have any more features, but they can be nicer to hold and to look at.
- Porsche Design P'3110: Metal, yet flexible. Solid and heavy, and with looks to impress people.
- Faber-Castell e-Motion: With wooden barrels for those who prefer the more natural finish, or precious resin for everyone else - the e-Motion's shape is comfortable in the hand, but still unusual enough to catch the eye.
- Faber-Castell often have long twist-action erasers. They are always replaceable, but often specific to the pencil. Some quite unique designs. The e-Motion is popular for sketching.
- Pentel have an impressive range of pencils, very competent at the cheaper end, and the GraphGear 1000 is one of the best professional pencils around. The Kerry is the only mechanical pencil we know of with a cap.
- Pilot have the widest range of anyone, including a pencil made from recycled materials (the BegreeN RexGrip), the tiny Birdie, and the Super Grip - one of the best value buys around. The majority of their pencils use the same MS-10 eraser. Students who have to get notes down quickly love the Shaker models for their quick lead advance, and the Croquis is a great pencil for rough sketching and shading.
- The Rotring Tikky II is a design that's ageing well - unfortunately, much of Rotring's range is disappearing these days.
- Porsche Design make the most expensive pencils we stock, but their design makes them very attention-grabbing (see the examples on the right).
- Staedtler's Mars Micro gives you a lot of features for your money, and if you like a triangular grip, the Triplus Micro is a slim pencil with a triangular barrel in a soft finish.
- Zebra make two of the best value models around - the M-301 and the T3 Pocket Pencil - bargain prices for metal-bodied pencils.
Our Range of Mechanical Pencils
Most of the pencils we sell with erasers have refills available. If the refill isn't listed on the site, drop us a line, and we can probably get them for you. If the manufacturer makes refills available in the UK, we'll make them available to you.
ISO Colour Coding
Pencils get a tick in the above table for ISO coding as long as each width of pencil is a different colour. For some pencils, the colours aren't exactly the same as the ISO specification. The Pentel A120, for example, uses a red barrel for 0.3mm, when the ISO specification calls for yellow. 0.9mm varies from orange to a light brown, depending on manufacturer.
Lead from any reputable manufacturer should work fine in any pencil, as long as it's the right thickness. We sell several different brands, depending on what you are looking for.
- Pentel AIN: won the first Pencil Lead World Cup, hosted by Dave's Mechanical Pencils. They are very high quality leads, and work out as great value, because you get more leads in a pack than with most other brands. Pentel also make coloured leads - red and blue, available in 0.5, 0.7 and 0.9mm widths.
- Pilot ENO: is available in the widest range of hardness grades. 0.5mm lead gives you a choice from 4B to 4H, and although other widths have less grades available, they even make 0.3mm lead in 2B. There is also a range of Color ENO leads at the moment, in seven different colours.
- Faber-Castell: a good quality range of leads, including 1.4mm lead for the e-Motion.
- Staedtler Coloured Leads: red, blue and green, in 0.5mm width.
Construction and Internals
Ever wondered what goes on inside a mechanical pencil? No? Well, you can always skip this secton.
Diagram from Staedtler, showing the internal mechanism of a Mars Micro pencil.
Another diagram from Staedtler, showing the workings of the lead advance mechanism. This is for the Mars Micro pencils, but is very similar for other mechanical pencils.
The secret of moving the lead forward is in the clamping chuck and chuck ring. When the button is pushed, the clamping chuck is pushed downwards, and slides the chuck ring along with it. Because it is held closed on the lead, it also pushes the lead down by one 'click'. When the chuck ring can't move any further, the clamping chuck carries on, and is allowed to open up a bit, releasing its grip on the lead.
At this point, you release the button again, letting the spring pull the clamping chuck back upwards. It pushes the chuck ring ahead of it, but the lead is now held in place by the lead retainer, and the clamping chuck is spread open, not gripping the lead. So, the lead stays where it is. Because the lead retainer only grips the lead fairly loosely, when the button is pushed in, you can 'manually' push the spare lead back up into the pencil.
As the button returns to its usual 'home' position, the clamping chuck pulls itself back inside the chuck ring, getting a good grip on the lead again, and keeping it firmly in place for writing and drawing.
Compare the diagram above to reality - here is a Mars Micro with the tip section removed. The yellow part inside the brass ring is the clamping chuck...
Other Types of Pencils
Plenty of people still love their pencil lead to be wrapped closely in wood. We're not against that, it's just not the subject of this article. If you have a taste for wood, see our range from Faber-Castell and Staedtler.
- Faber-Castell Grip 2001: triangular grip with rubber dots, great looks, and a range of hardnesses from 2B to 2H. Add the matching eraser cap, and you can even cover the point to make it pocket-safe.
- Staedtler Mars Lumograph: a classic pencil, great quality, and available from 8B to 6H, so it can go to extremes mechanical pencils can't match.
A number of manufacturers make pens that contain more than one type of tip - some combination of black, blue, and red ballpoints, pencils, and even stylus tips to use the pen with a PDA or touch-screen mobile phone. These can be a convenient way to carry a mechanical pencil and a pen, and maybe a second colour pen and/or stylus too. There are trade-offs for the convenience...
- The pencil in a multi-pen will usually have a limited capacity for leads.
- The smaller mechanisms and more flexible parts can be more prone to snapping leads.
- Replacing leads can be more fiddly - you usually have to open the pen, then pull the pencil mechanism off its rod, dropping replacement leads back into the hollow rod.
If you only use a pencil occasionally, these can be very handy tools, and the pencil can be a nice 'extra'. If you use a pencil a lot, though, you'll probably be better off with a dedicated one.
- Uni-ball Clipturn: red and black ballpoints, and a 0.5mm pencil, all in one body, along with a rotating clip and lanyard loop.
- Parker Profile 3-in-1: available with black and red ballpoints, or black ballpoint and a PDA stylus - all come with a 0.7mm pencil.
Clutch Pencils, often called Leadholders, are for another article. These are not considered to be mechanical pencils, and are most often available only with thicker leads. To use for writing, these will usually need sharpening using either sandpaper or a special lead pointer.
We'll cover these properly in a separate article, but you might like to see the...
Liquid Lead Pencils
One for historical interest only, the Liquid Lead pencil was a Parker invention, intended to combine the best features of pencils and pens. The lead was suspended in a paste, much like a ballpoint pen, and put inside a ball-tipped refill. The result wrote like a ballpoint, but could be erased like a pencil.
After impressive initial success, sales plummeted, and the product was withdrawn after a few years.
For more on the Parker Liquid Lead, see Pen Hero's article