Guide to Mechanical Pencils

Introduction

We love mechanical pencils. You'd probably guess that from the huge number of them we stock. There's an amazing variety of mechanical pencils available, in all sorts of styles, with all sorts of features, for many different purposes. So we thought some sort of guide might be useful. We're aiming for this guide to serve several purposes:

  • If you need some tips on using your pencil (pun intended), we can help. It's not always obvious how to add spare leads, for example, or clear a jam when things get stuck.
  • If you want to buy a mechanical pencil, but you're not sure what type would be best, we have a few ideas. The best pencil for you could depend on a lot of things, but we'll help you narrow things down.
  • We also hope it will be an interesting read, if you find mechanical pencils interesting. We do!

What Is a Mechanical Pencil?

Definitions vary, but for the purpose of this article, we'll consider a mechanical pencil to be any pencil with a lead-advance mechanism that pushes the lead forward in some way. We'll mention clutch pencils briefly too, where the lead is released when you hold down a button, but we consider those to be a separate type. Woodcased pencils are obviously not counted here, but that doesn't mean we don't love them too.

Other Names for Mechanical Pencils

Mechanical pencils may be called different things in different places, by different people. Here in the UK, 'automatic pencil' and 'propelling pencil' are quite common terms, and people may also refer to 'clicky pencils'. Ones designed for technical drawing may be referred to as 'drafting pencils' (or even 'draughting' in British English), or 'technical pencils', though these terms have also been used for traditional clutch pencils.

Although not used here, Wikipedia tells us 'pen pencil' and 'lead pencil' are used in India, and 'pacer' is used as a generic term by some people, though it's actually the name of an old Paper Mate pencil. We'll stick to 'mechanical pencil' here.

History of Mechanical Pencils

The first pencils were more like modern clutch pencils than what we now think of as 'normal' wooden pencils. Graphite was first used in lumps, with perhaps a bit of cloth wrapped around to hold it. When things started to progress towards the pencil, the first attempts involved wooden holders to grip sticks of graphite, so they could be used more easily and cleanly. The first description of a leadholder was by Conrad Gessner, back in 1565.

If you want to be really traditional, Cleo Scribent make a replica, called Der Gessner. It's rather fiddly to adjust, because there's no spring mechanism, but the basic elements of a clutch pencil are all there.

For many years, push-fit lead around 1.18mm in width was most common, with a twist mechanism that wound the lead down like a screw as it was used, and pencils were often decorated with ornate designs in sterling silver.

The need to write intricate characters meant Japan had a greater incentive to make thinner leads, which lead to the birth of the modern mechanical pencil there.

Tokuji Hayakawa made the 'Ever-Ready Sharp Pencil', which was a huge success, and his company took the name of the pencil, and became 'Sharp' - the electronics company we know today.

Thinner lead wasn't possible with the traditional mix of graphite and clay, as it was too brittle. Modern thin leads are based on high-polymer organic materials that can take much more force without breaking, and they're getting better all the time.

Why Use a Mechanical Pencil?

There are some good reasons why you might prefer a mechanical pencil over a woodcased pencil.

  • No Sharpening. If the lead is thin enough, you don't need to keep sharpening it - just keep writing or drawing. Not only does it save time and effort, but sharpening can be messy.
  • Consistent Line Width. When a woodcased pencil is freshly sharpened, it writes a very thin line. As soon as you've written a bit, the line gets thicker and thicker. With a mechanical pencil, the line says the same, so it's a more predictable tool.
  • Consistent Balance. As a wooden pencil gets shorter, the balance changes. Mechanical pencils don't change as you use the lead. It's not hugely important to everyone, but some artists find this makes a big difference for them.
  • Refillable. You don't throw away stubs, you just keep putting more leads in. There are no trees to be cut down. It can be argued that mechanical pencils are the more environmentally friendly option, if you use one for a long time. Given that the leads usually come packaged in plastic boxes, though, it's not a simple calculation to know which is better, but there's a lot to be said for a single tool you can use for years.
  • Choice of Styles and Materials. Mechanical pencils can vary hugely in how they look - some look like technical tools, some look like luxury goods, and some look like simple plastic-bodied pencils. Some even look like wooden pencils!

Not that we have anything against other types of pencils - we have lots of clutch pencils, and a huge range of woodcased pencils here at Cult Pens, and they're all ideal tools for someone. A wooden pencil can make a wider range of marks, and has a certain simplicity that mechanical pencils can't match. It's perfectly possible to love them all!

Using a Mechanical Pencil

For the most part, mechanical pencils are quite simple to use - with most of them, you just click the button on the end to feed out more lead whenever you need to. Retract the lead by holding the button in and gently pushing the lead in. When one stick of lead is used up, keep clicking until the next appears. When you're all out, just add more leads of the right size, usually through a hole under the button, often hidden under the eraser.

There are some variations and oddities, though…

Twist-click Mechanisms

This mechanism is most common in pencils that are designed to go with a matching ballpoint pen. You twist the top part of the barrel, and the lead clicks forward. Release, and the top part springs back, but the lead stays put. Twist and hold, and you can push the lead back in. It's just like the clicky mechanisms, but twisting takes the place of pushing. These usually pull open in the middle to add more leads.

Inside, this type of pencil often uses an adapter, similar in shape to the refill for the matching ballpoint, which contains the whole pencil mechanism and lead tube. Essentially, the pencil is a ballpoint pen with an adapter fitted to turn it into a pencil. There's usually a cap at the top of the adapter which you remove to add more leads.

(Some of the pencils at that link will be of the other twist type, but we'll mention those specifically in the next section.)

Continuous Twist Mechanisms

These aren't so common these days, but there are a few around, like Faber-Castell's e-motion. The inside is a kind of screw-mechanism, where you wind the lead down as it's used. When you finish a lead, you remove the little stub, and push a new lead into the mechanism, and wind it back up to the top. Sometimes these only hold one lead, but they often have somewhere to store spares. The e-motion, for example, has space for six extra leads hidden behind the nose-cone.

Shaker Mechanisms

Another solution to the problem of stopping to click out more lead is the shake mechanism - give the pencil a firm shake up and down, and a weight hidden inside does the job of hitting the button for you. These normally have a button in the usual place too, but a quick flick of the wrist takes less time away from scribbling down your notes.

Auto-feed Pencils

Some pencils don't make you stop at all to extend more lead, at least until you reach the end of a stick of lead and have to click the next one through. The way these work can be a little unexpected, as you need to write with almost no lead visible at all.

There is a (usually) plastic cone around the lead. Normally, you'd have to make sure you clicked out more lead before it wore down enough to reach the supporting tube or cone, but not with an auto-feed pencil. Just keep writing or drawing. When the lead wears down enough that the cone touches the paper, the cone is pushed back up a little way. A spring inside pushes it back, feeding some lead back down with it. The result is that the lead will wear down until it reaches this cone, but then won't go further.

It sounds as though it would be uncomfortable and scratchy to write with, but the cone is smooth and rounded so it doesn't catch the paper. You may still find it more comfortable to click lead out the usual way when you have time, but if inspiration strikes, just keep scribbling!

Sliding Lead Sleeves

It's a bit subtle, but we're going to make a distinction here between pencils where the sleeve that surrounds the lead can slide up if pushed; and pencils where the sleeve is designed to slide up easily while writing. A few pencils now have sleeves with edges that are smoothly rounded, so they won't catch on the paper, and made to slide up really easily. The result is that you can keep writing in the same way you can with an auto feed pencil. The difference is that these pencils won't actually feed out any more lead, so you'll have to stop and click eventually. By that point, though, there's bound to have been enough of a pause in proceedings for you to give the button a click.

Kuru Toga

Probably the biggest innovation in mechanical pencil technology in the last few years, the Kuru Toga is, quite literally, revolutionary! As you write or draw with it, the up and down movement is used to rotate the lead.

Because a pencil is usually held at an angle to the page, the lead wears down at an angle, and forms a chisel-shaped tip with a sharp point. This shape makes for a thicker line, and the sharp point can catch on the paper. Some people naturally work around this by turning the pencil as they go, wearing the lead down more evenly. The Kuru Toga does this for you. The result is a finer line, and less lead breakage.

While it probably works best with Japanese characters (yes, no surprise, it was invented in Japan!) where the pencil is lifted from the paper several times for each character, it still works well with English writing, and even helps a bit with cursive script.

Twist-extend Erasers

With most mechanical pencils, the eraser is there for emergency use only. If you needed to erase much, you'd probably want a separate eraser. A few pencils, though, have larger erasers, with twisting mechanisms to extend them, so they can last a long time. If you erase often, it's a great feature.

Lead Jams

If you use mechanical pencils, at some point you're likely to have a lead jam. It happens. A tiny bit of lead gets stuck somewhere in the mechanism, and stops it from working. Lead might not click forward, or it might click forward but slide back in when you try to use the pencil.

Most mechanical pencils can be dismantled to some extent to clear a jam. Usually, the part near the tip unscrews, which lets you see the mechanism. If you then push the button down against your desk, the clutch mechanism pushes up. There's a brass ring around the clutch jaws, holding them shut - push it down, and it will release the jaws. Once they've sprung open a bit of sideways tapping should dislodge any tiny bits of lead.

If the mechanism can't be opened up, blockages can usually be cleared by holding the pencil tip-up, with the button held down against your desk, and feeding a cleaning pin in through the tip to push any little bits of lead out from where they're stuck. Some pencils include a cleaning pin, attached to the eraser, but many don't. If you don't have one to hand, another piece of thin wire or a pin may fit, but don't force anything too wide into the tip. At a push, a spare piece of lead can do the job, but it takes a steady hand to feed it in without snapping it!

Multifunction Pens with Pencils

A lot of multipens have pencils as one of their functions. These are most commonly either twist-action or gravity select models, and the pencil mechanism and lead chamber are all fitted into the space of one of the tiny ballpoint refills. They normally operate like most pencils do, by just clicking a button on the top to extend more lead. Adding more lead is a bit more fiddly, and generally involves pulling the little pencil mechanism off its mounting, just like you would to change the ballpoint refills. There's space for a few leads in the tube it fits onto, but don't put too many in there - two or three spares is all there's space for.

These aren't the best pencils for heavy users, but if you only need a pencil occasionally, they can be ideal - a couple of different ballpoint colours in one pen is quite useful, and a pencil thrown in so it's always handy!

Buying Guide

Buying a mechanical pencil is easy. It can be a bit more difficult to buy just the right mechanical pencil for you. And maybe even more difficult to buy the right one for someone else. The good news, though, is that they're nearly all quite reliable and tough, and most are quite comfortable to use, so it's unlikely you'll go too far wrong.

If you're the sort of person who likes to put a bit of thought into this sort of decision, though (and a lot of our customers are), we're here to help.

Purpose

It's not a bad idea to start with thinking about what you're likely to use the pencil for. If it's mostly going to be for writing, you're probably going to look for different features to someone who will use their pencil for sketching.

Writing

If you're going to be writing with your pencil, you'll want lead thick enough that it won't break too easily. With modern leads, 0.5mm is quite strong enough for most people, but more heavy-handed people do sometimes find they snap such thin leads, and 0.7mm or even 0.9mm leads are better for them. Some have cushioned lead, where an internal spring cushions the lead against rough treatment.

If your writing includes the sort of notes where you sometimes just can't stop scribbling, like taking down lecture notes or meeting minutes, you might want to consider pencils that make it easier to feed more lead in a rush, with shaker mechanisms or side buttons. Auto-feed pencils can work well, too, keeping the lead usable at as you keep going.

Drawing

Drawing or sketching can have quite different requirements to writing, and can require a bit of experimenting to see what suits you, and what feels right for your style.

Lead thickness is very important for drawing. Rough sketching can benefit from thick leads, for bold lines, usually using softer grades of lead. For this style, you may well want to consider clutch pencils too, as there are more of them available with thicker lead. 0.5mm is the classic size for more technical styles, but the humble 0.5mm mechanical pencil is a very versatile tool, and is used by many artists for all sorts of styles. For detailed drawing, you might want to consider 0.3mm leads.

If the pencil is going to live in a pencil pot on your desk, it won't matter much to you if it isn't pocket safe. If you're going to be sketching out and about, though, it can be very important. Conical tips aren't usually too risky anyway, but tubular tips can be a bit too sharp to want them in your pocket if they don't retract. For quick and easy retracting, a 'double-knock' mechanism helps - the mechanism is retracted with either a side button or a firmer push of the end button. Others may need you to push the tip in against something while holding the button down.

If the eraser is important to you, you'll need to make sure it's a good size, probably of the extendable type. These usually twist up and down to expose more eraser as needed, usually with the added bonus that you can twist it back down out of the way when pocketing the pencil. For drawing, though, you may already have a preferred eraser that you'll carry separately, in which case, any eraser would be for emergency use only.

Features

Mechanical pencils can have a surprising variety of features. If you think the number of possible features to consider is a bit much when you're trying to choose which pencil to buy, just imagine how it is for someone who has to write an article all about them!

Here are some of the features you may want to consider when buying a mechanical pencil.

Mechanisms

The classic mechanism for feeding lead is a button on the opposite end to the tip that pushes lead forward one 'click' at a time. There's quite a complicated set of parts inside to make it all work, but it's all so tried and tested that they work very reliably, and you can usually get years of use out of even the most basic mechanical pencil.

So why might you consider other mechanisms? Well, side-mounted buttons, shaker mechanisms and auto-feed mechanisms can all feed lead a bit quicker. For most people's use, it's not that critical, but if you have to keep up with lecture notes or take minutes in meetings, the time taken to click out more lead might be enough to put you behind.

They're all based on a mechanism very similar to the push-button clutch, so they're all usually very reliable.

  • Shaker pencils have a weight inside that will knock the lead forward by one 'click' when you give the pencil a quick up-down shake. It's quicker to do than pressing a button, so these can be quite popular for students. They normally have a button too, so you can ignore the shaker part when you don't need it.
  • Auto-feed mechanisms can work really well. Just keep writing, even after the visible lead has all been used. You won't see more lead feeding, but it won't ever disappear back into the lead cone/tube. What actually happens is that the cone or tube that surrounds the lead is smooth so it doesn't catch on the paper, and when the lead wears down far enough that it touches the paper, it slides back in a little. A spring pushes it back out again, and pushes the lead forward at the same time.

Erasers

Most mechanical pencils have an eraser. They're very important to some people, and completely irrelevant to others. If you rarely erase, you probably don't care much about the eraser. Oddly, though, people who erase a lot may not care much either, because they have their favourite eraser, and they're happy to carry it separately. Those in the mid-ground, who do care about the eraser, need to consider the size and replaceability of the built-in eraser. They can almost always be replaced, but make sure you can actually get the replacements. There are very few cases where spare erasers exist and we don't stock them, and we do have spares for most of the pencils we stock, but it's best to check if it's important to you.

In most pencils, the erasers won't last long, because they're so small. If you expect to use the eraser enough that this is a problem, look for pencils with large extendable erasers. Several different brands have pencils with long erasers that can be extended by twisting.

Price

You probably have some idea how much you want to spend, or at least how much you're willing to spend! There are plenty of perfectly good mechanical pencils around for less than £5, but you might need to spend more to get what you want.

  • Tougher build. While even the cheapest plastic-barrelled pencils should last well, something with a metal body is likely to be tougher.
  • Features. You may have to pay a little bit more if you want a big extending eraser, say, or a quicker way of advancing the lead.
  • Looks. A cheap plastic pencil will be perfectly functional, but might not look the part in a meeting. If you're wearing a nice suit, it would be a shame to have the cheapest pencil poking out of your pocket. Your tastes might be more towards the technical or machined-metal look, but again, you'll need to invest a little more for the right look.
  • Feel. In some ways, this can be the most important thing. If your pencil feels right in your hand, it can make a big difference to how much you use it. The most critical part is the grip - you might love knurled metal for the grip, or find it too rough; rubber is best for some people, while others like a smooth surface to touch. The rest of the pencil is probably less important to the feel of it, but it can still make a difference. More expensive pencils will usually feel more solid than the cheaper ones.
  • All our mechanical pencils, cheapest first

Lead Thickness

If you know what thickness of lead you want to use, this is a great way to narrow down the choices. Many pencils are only available in one size, so if you know you want 0.9mm lead, it's no good looking at pencils only available in 0.5mm. Many of the more technical style of pencil are available in several different widths, most often 0.5mm, 0.7mm and 0.9mm, while some add 0.3mm or 2mm to the range.

The thickness you want depends very much on your usage, and depends a lot on personal taste, too. If your writing is small, or your drawings detailed, you'll need thinner lead. If you're heavy-handed, you'll need thicker lead. 2mm leads are similar in width to the core in a standard wooden pencil, so for most purposes, you'd need to sharpen them to get a sharp enough point.

Other Types of Pencils

While this article is all about mechanical pencils, there are other types of pencils to consider - a mechanical pencil isn't the right answer to all problems for all people!

Woodcase Pencils

We're all perfectly familiar with wooden pencils - a stick of wood with a 'lead' core, sometimes with an eraser on the end. They don't have the predictable line width of a mechanical pencil, and they get awkward to use when you've worn them down with sharpening. There's a simplicity about them, though, that's impossible to beat. That simplicity means you always know it's going to write, and you can pass one to anyone without having to explain anything.

Clutch Pencils (Leadholders)

Clutch pencils are closely related to mechanical pencils. They use a very similar clutch mechanism to grip the lead, but they lack the extra complexity required to push the lead forward with a click or twist. Then usually have a button on the end, and when you press the button, the lead is released. You manually move the lead to where you need it, then let go of the button.

They are only normally available for 2mm lead and thicker, and there are plenty of clutch pencils available in sizes up to 5.6mm.

To many people, they combine the best features of mechanical pencils with the best features of woodcase pencils. They don't vary in length as you use them, and while they can be sharpened to get a good point on them, sharpening isn't vital if you really need to keep scribbling. They keep much of the simplicity of a wooden pencil, though, with big, simple clutch jaws gripping the lead, and just a spring to make them close and grip.

The thick lead makes them less practical for many, though, as you do need to keep sharpening if you need a reasonably thin line.

Other Resources

If you've read all that and you still want to know more about mechanical pencils, you might have a bit of an obsession developing! We do know a few great places to send you, though, if you want more:

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