Beginner's Guide to Mechanical Pencils
If you haven’t made much use of mechanical pencils, you could be missing out on a useful little tool. They’re quick and easy to use, reliable, always sharp, and a snapped point just means a couple of clicks to get going again, not having to stop and reach for the sharpener.
Don’t be put off by how long this ‘beginner’s guide’ is - these pencils really aren’t remotely difficult or complicated to use. No bad things will happen if you just stop reading and go and buy a mechanical pencil, you’ll just be a bit better informed to make a choice if you keep reading…
So why might you use a mechanical pencil rather than the super-simple choice of wood?
- No sharpening! Probably the top selling point (see what I did there?) of a mechanical pencil is that you just click out the lead and write or draw. They don’t get blunt, and they don’t need sharpening. As the point wears down, you just click the button to extend more lead. When a stick of lead runs out, a few more clicks will feed in the next one.
- No change in length as you use them. As you use up a wooden pencil, it gets shorter and shorter. Eventually you get to the point that it’s not really comfortable to use any more, but you still feel bad about throwing it away. (If that’s a problem you have, look for pencil extenders, they can work around it too!) But a mechanical pencil is always the same length, it always balances the same in your hand. Some artists use them almost entirely for this reason - they want to know how the pencil is going to feel and how it will balance, without having to change how they draw as it’s used.
- Style. Yes, that might seem a bit superficial, but the way a pen or pencil you’re using looks might be important to you. While we’re not one of them, there are a lot of companies where you might get a strange look for using a school pencil in a meeting! And even if none of that applies, there’s still something nice about using a well engineered tool, even when it’s something as simple as a pencil.
But what about a ballpoint pen? Why might a mechanical pencil be better than a ballpoint?
- The flexibility of the marks it can make - anything from pale shading up to dark lines. A very big deal for drawing and sketching, but it can be nice for writing too.
- Erasability - while there are erasable ballpoints and rollerballs, why not just use a pencil?
- Permanence. Yes, I know, it sounds contradictory. But if nobody tries to erase pencil, it stays put. The ink in a lot of ballpoint and rollerball pens can fade over time, but pencil will outlast the paper it’s used on. Historians are usually pretty happy when old notes were made in pencil, because there’s more chance of it remaining readable.
So is it all good? Are there no disadvantages? Well, no, it’s not all good…
- Complexity. A wooden pencil is simple, and perfectly understood. You can see exactly what’s going on with it. A mechanical pencil may be very reliable, but there’s still an internal mechanism that takes a bit more understanding than the wooden tube with a graphite filling we know as the graphite sausage. No, sorry, wooden pencil.
- Breakable lead. The thin leads used in most mechanical pencils can be easier to break if you’re a bit on the heavy-handed side. There are mechanical pencils with thicker lead, but then you can be back to the problem of having to sharpen the tip up when you need a fine point. It’s worth mentioning on this point that good modern leads like Pentel’s AIN Stein range are much stronger than these leads used to be, so the solution might just be different lead, if this is a problem you have.
- Lead jams can happen, but they’re pretty rare. They’re usually the result of a bit of rough handling - a tiny bit of lead gets broken off inside the pencil, and gets stuck in the mechanism. In normal use you’d probably go years without it happening at all, but if a mechanical pencil stops working, this is usually why. Most can be unscrewed at the tip, and the cover of the tiny clutch mechanism removed. At that point, push the button in, and push back the little ring that holds the clutch closed, and give it a few taps. That’s usually enough to get things going again.
Then there’s the environmental question. The thing is, this one isn’t as clear-cut as you might assume. Wooden pencils are, well, made from wood. So trees are cut down to make them, which is bad. But the vast majority are made from sustainably managed forests, which is good. Most mechanical pencils are made from plastic, which is bad. But many are made from recycled plastic, which is good. And most of them should last for years of use, they aren’t being thrown away after each use. You’re just adding more lead, which is good. But the lead is usually sold in plastic tubes, which is bad.
You see what we mean? You soon tie your brain in a knot trying to work it out. On balance, wooden pencils are maybe better overall, but mechanical pencils last a long time, so any harm is probably reasonably minimal.
So what do you need to know to buy and use a mechanical pencil? Well, you can start with the choice of lead sizes, because pencils made for one lead size can only use that size. They come in different widths, most commonly 0.5mm and 0.7mm, often shortened to just 05 and 07. At the simplest, 05 is usually used for drawing, and 07 for writing. But you might prefer a thinner lead for writing (a lot of people do, myself included), and rough sketching is often better with a thicker lead. The thicker the lead, the stronger it will be, but the thicker the line will be too.
Plenty of other sizes are available. Quite a lot of pencils add 0.3mm and 0.9mm to the choices, with 09 being good for the more heavy-handed, and 03 being good for small writing and drawing, if you don’t mind being a bit more gentle with it. Beyond those, there are even 0.2mm pencils, though that needs some clever engineering to support the lead in use. And at the thicker end, 2mm leads are reasonably common, though they tend to be used in clutch pencils rather than mechanical pencils, and other leads can go up to 5.6mm. If you’re not sure, 05 and 07 are the popular choices for good reason.
Lead grades are a choice you can make later, and you might already have a good idea what you prefer. As with wooden pencils, HB is the ‘default’ choice, and a good balance for most people. Softer leads, with higher ‘B’ numbers, will give a darker line with less pressure, but tend to get breakable as they get more extreme. And harder leads, with higher ‘H’ numbers, also tend to get more breakable as they go up, with a paler line. If you want to avoid breakage, start with HB. For writing, a darker line with less pressure can be good, so softer leads can feel nicer to write with - up to 2B should still be quite strong in normal use.
Most mechanical pencils can keep a few spare leads inside them, ready to go, so you don’t run out unexpectedly. We’ve seen problems when people have crammed too many leads in there - with most pencils it’s fine to put at least two or three extra leads inside, and some are quite happy with 12 or more leads, which is a lot of writing or drawing!
That does bring us to another point on lead sizes - the thinner the lead, the faster it will wear down. I’ve used a 0.2mm pencil that eats through leads quite quickly; and a 1.4mm pencil that took me months to get through a single lead with. Oddly enough, I’ve found I use up 2mm leads faster, because at that point (see what I did there?) I have to sharpen them.
- Retractable tips - you’ll probably want this if you’re going to put the pencil in your pocket. If not, the tip can poke a hole through your pocket if you’re lucky. If you’re less lucky, the hole goes in you. Some need to be pushed firmly in while holding the button in, which makes them more fiddly to do, while others have a retract button or use a firmer push on the main button or a twist action to put the tip away.
- Price and materials - we’ll look at these together, because they’re usually connected. A cheap plastic pencil will be cheap and made of plastic. Though admittedly, some of the best are also made from plastic, but very high quality plastics. Metal-bodied pencils will usually cost more, but can often take more use and rough handling. Even the most basic will usually still work perfectly for years, the mechanisms inside have been perfected over the years.
- Erasers can be handy. If you expect to use an eraser a lot, a separate eraser might be better, making the eraser on the pencil less important. If it’s more of an occasional thing, having a decent eraser on the pencil itself can be very useful. Many can be replaced, but check that spares are available if that’s important to you. And some mechanical pencils have longer erasers that can be extended out with a twist, so they’ll last a lot longer.
So they don’t need sharpening, work reliably, and can last a long time. If you’re tempted to try a mechanical pencil, give it a go - there are so many to choose from, and it’s hard to go wrong.