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.

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 sells for about £30 for a dozen, but 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

13 thoughts on “What’s the Best 3B Pencil?

  1. I enjoyed the article on pencils. I’ve been a fan of pencils, pens, roller balls & fountain pens since I was a kid, though I no longer actively use fountain pens.

  2. Staedtler does indeed make a 3B. You picked the Mars Lumograph 100B line which has only 4 grades, the Mars Lumograph 100 line has 16 grades including 3B. I think the 100B line is a special line with thicker leads, it seems to have a different composition in the lead, they seem much softer and grittier than the Mars blue pencils.

    I have a BFA in Drawing & Painting and the regular blue Staedtler Lumograph 100s are preferred by almost everyone in my Art School, from professors down to freshmen. Every artist I ever knew had a bunch of them. I probably own over a hundred pencils now, and have used hundreds down to the nub and I absolutely prefer the Staedtler blue pens.

    It may amuse you to know I had a job where I spent months filling in optical scan forms, you know, fill in the little bubble with a #2 pencil, thousands of little bubbles a day. My coworkers used cheap generic pencils and would go through a pencil every day or two. I tested out several brands of artist grade pencils, the Staedtler blues were the smoothest writing, longest lasting, had unbreakable points, laid down the most graphite with the least wear on the point, and needed sharpening infrequently.

    I will also recommend the Mars plastic 526 50 erasers. These white plastic erasers are the best I’ve ever used. And I’ve used a LOT of erasers over the years. My drawing professor said “If you’re not erasing more than you’re drawing, you’re not really drawing!”

    • Yes, this is the Black pencil, that only has the four grades. The other comes in all the standard grades. This one is supposed to be darker, which is why I chose it; I like to writ with very dark pencils.

      As for erasers, that’s the one I used to use all the time. But they leave a lot of little bits of plastic when you use them. I haven’t looked into erasers recently, but I think I want to try one of those that you can knead.

      • Kneadable erasers are not very useful, they’re primarily used with very soft media like vine charcoal or soft chalk pastels. They can’t really erase completely. The white plastic erasers do put out a lot of eraser crumbs so you might want to use an eraser stick like the Staedtler Mars plastic 528. Personally, I draw very large works and have some big white plastic erasers about the size of a bar of soap. But then, I got kicked out of my life drawing group for making too much mess.

        If you want dark black marks, you probably want a charcoal pencil, not a graphite pencil. But charcoal pencils are very soft, cannot be sharpened into a fine point, and the tip wears quickly. I think what you really want is a mechanical pencil with a very soft 4B or 6B lead and a medium tip like .75mm. That way you can put down a lot of dark graphite and not have to sharpen it all the time like a wood pencil.

        If you want finer distinctions than this, you will have to explore the insanely detailed world of pencil blogging, or visit a site like JetPens. But that is a monumental time sink, I don’t recommend it other than for artists or draftsmen with very specialized needs.

  3. The British TV program, ” Make me a German” has our hapless Brit going to work at Faber-Castell. I think there is a potential Bexit joke here!
    From 1.38″ in the clip.


  4. I love it when a geek takes a break from tech to review something as timeless, enduring and utterly indispensable, as pencil designs. The Staedtler 2B has been my model of choice for music notation for pretty well all of my career, but I haven’t compared many. I look forward to the pens review. Two Lamy ball pens, also of German design in bright, uplifting colours are vying for space with the tech (and the pencils) on my desk. Both have sculpted barrels at the lower end for a really comfortable, ergonomic grip. The roller ball is the chunkier of the two and has a cap, so it can be pocketed without fear of any ink ruining your clothing. It’s probably my favourite. The slightly smaller ballpoint model has a retract button on the end in the form of a pleasing rubber gaiter. Both have really strong wire clips attached near the top of the barrel so when the pen is clipped to a pocket or inside a briefcase, or a backpack, the top doesn’t stick out (like, for example, the Bic biro). These things matter! They write nicely too (and I don’t work for Lamy, by the way).

  5. I use 3B pencils for music notation and my garden journal as well! I use WHSmith for ease of purchase. For a while I used a drafting lead holder with 3B leads – the bonus with the lead holder is the cap is a lead pointer!

    • That’s also called a clutch pencil. I’m planning to try one of them; I’ve never used one, and I’ve read that the advantage is that you never have to sharpen it. This said, as I say in my article, I like the feel of the wood, and there’s a satisfying feeling as you watch a pencil get shorter over time, the feeling that you have written all those words.

  6. A comment for those who have read the article and are following the comments. I’ve added this above:

    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.

  7. I too enjoyed this article. I ordered a dozen 3B pencils from a link Kirk was kind enough to leave on one of his podcast websites. (One that for whatever reason is left off this web page)

    The company turns out to be an art supply house here in the Southeastern US with what I found is EXCEPTIONALLY GOOD customer SERVICE. My daughter loves to draw so this was double help for us Kirk. Thank you .

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