Where Knowledge Junkies Get Their Fix
McAfee Secure sites help keep you safe from identity theft, credit card fraud, spyware, spam, viruses and online scams
Ethan Trex
What Makes #2 Pencils So Special?
by Ethan Trex - June 2, 2010 - 1:44 PM

Most of us pick up pencils and lose them without giving it a second thought. Pencils are a bit more interesting than you might, think, though. Here are a few not-so-frequently asked questions about everyone’s second-favorite writing implements, including the story of a time when pencil sharpeners were illegal.

What makes #2 pencils so special?

They’re the absolute middle of the road when it comes to pencils. While we number our various grades of pencils in the U.S., the rest of the world uses a system of numbers and letters to describe how hard and how black a pencil’s lead is. An American #2 pencil (roughly) corresponds to an HB pencil on the rest of the world’s scale. The lead is not too dark and not too light, and it’s not too hard or too soft.

What are some uses of non-#2 pencils?

Pencils numbered higher than 2 have harder leads and are often used by engineers, architects, and draftsmen because of their harder points. The underlying logic here is that the harder point gives the user greater control of the lead. You’ll find softer leads in pencils numbered below 2, which are popular with artists because they can help create a wider spectrum of tones than one would achieve by sticking solely to a #2 pencil.

Ack! I used a #3 pencil on the SAT! Is my life over?

No, but you’re probably destined for a life of hard labor rather than college. Just kidding. It’s hard to get a straight answer on this question, but there are quite a few reports from people online who messed up by using the wrong grade of pencil and still did just fine on their SAT. The general consensus seems to be that the SAT’s scanners will read a #3 pencil’s mark just the same as it would read one from a #2 pencil.
Some people do feel, though, that the harder lead in a #3 pencil makes erasing tougher and ups the chances that a stray smudge or incompletely erased mark will be read by the scanner and end up hurting your score. Probably best to be on the safe side and double check your pencil before heading to the exam.

If the rest of the world uses a system of numbers and letters to grade pencils, why do we use just numbers?

Thank Henry David Thoreau and his old man. When graphite was discovered in New Hampshire during the 1820s, John Thoreau and his brother-in-law Charles Dunbar built their own pencil factory. Their only problem was that the New Hampshire graphite was pretty crummy. It smeared and made for pretty poor pencils.

Enter a young Henry David Thoreau. Before he wrote about civil disobedience and spent his time at Walden Pond, he worked at the family pencil company. Thoreau perfected a process of using clay as a binder to make the soft, loose graphite hard and suitable for pencils. Suddenly the New England graphite could be used to make a pencil that didn’t leave giant smears, and the Thoreaus’ business took off. By the middle of the 19th century, the Thoreaus were selling pencils with varying graphite hardness, which they numbered 1 through 4.

Wait, if the center of the pencil has been made of graphite for so long, why do we call it “lead?”

Blame shoddy 16th century chemistry for this one. When a giant graphite deposit was found in England during the 16th century, it eventually found a use as a writing implement. However, early chemists weren’t exactly sure what the useful gray substance actually was. They assumed it was some sort of lead, though, so the term “pencil lead” came into use even though there wasn’t any lead involved.

Why are pencils painted yellow?

According to most stories, our pencils are yellow as a result of a clever marketing gimmick. In 1889 the Hardtmuth Company of Austria introduced a fancy new line of pencils at the World’s Fair in Paris. The pencils were named Koh-i-Noor after a famed Indian diamond, and they contained the world’s finest graphite from the Far East. They were also painted yellow, which was unusual at the time.

Some historians claim that the Austrian company painted their pencils yellow as a subtle nod to the yellow on the flag of Austria-Hungary. Others claim the yellow was an even subtler nod to the Far Eastern graphite in the pencils; the color yellow is associated with royalty in China. In either case, the new yellow pencils were a hit, and soon other companies began painting their own wares yellow in an attempt to swipe some of the Hardtmuth Company’s business.

Does the little metal band that holds the eraser on the pencil have a name?

It sure does. It’s called a ferrule, a combination of the Latin words viriola (“small bracelet”) and ferrum (“iron”).

Have pencil erasers given us any common words?

You bet. According to records from the 18th century, the elastic substance from tropical plants got its name thanks to its common use of being rubbed over pencil marks to erase them. Since using this substance as an eraser required a lot of rubbing, people began calling it “rubber.” Another name for rubber from the same era that didn’t catch on quite as well was “lead-eater.”

When was it illegal to own a pencil sharpener?

If you owned a pencil sharpener in early 20th century Britain, you had a hot little piece of contraband. At the time, the supplies of the red cedar that had historically been used in pencils was getting perilously low, so the government briefly outlawed pencil sharpeners in order to limit waste from overzealous sharpening. Eventually the mechanical pencil and the discovery of incense-cedar’s usefulness in making pencils solved this problem, and pencil sharpeners became street legal once again.

More from mental_floss

Why Does Bottled Water Have an Expiration Date?
It Curves! A Brief History of Wiffle Ball
Why Do Shells Sound Like the Ocean?
Spell It Out: 16 Company Abbreviated Company Names Explained
The Mojave Desert’s Airplane Graveyard




Comments (25)
  1. I was teaching in a large school district (2000 in the high school) and as we were preparing to take the state standardized test, the school handed out #3 pencils. It was pretty funny to see everyone the morning of the exam trying to find 2000 #2 pencils to give the kids.

  2. No, man. #2 pencils are 2B. HB are noticeably lighter.

    The thing about a #2 pencil is that it’s about the perfect combination of graphite and clay to make it erasable. Too much graphite and it leaves a dark smudge; too much clay and it leaves more of an impact on the paper.

    It’s okay to use a darker pencil on scanton-type test forms; it’s readable to the form scanners. It just has to be at least a 2B to be dark enough. But if you use a darker lead, you may have a lot more difficulty erasing and changing your answers, and so it makes more work for anyone who has to double-check and hand-grade.

  3. Hey G, where are you getting your pencil facts? All the pencils I have at my desk say “#2/HB.” I found this picture online:


  4. Looking up more on #2 pencils being HB or 2B (or B) it seems to depend on the manufacturer.


  5. Street legal, nice :)

  6. Great article. Thanks for the facts!

  7. 2B or not 2B…sorry, I couldn’t resist. :)

  8. Number 2 and Scantron – all myths exploded.


  9. I always thought it was termed a pencil lead because before there were graphite pencils artists did use metal points for drawings. Silver was the preferred metal, but lead was used too – and it was soft enough so it didn’t necessarily require a prepared surface like silverpoint did.

  10. 8B, 7B, 6B, 5B, 4B, 3B, 2B, B, HB, F, H, 2H, 3H, 4H, 5H, 6H

    are all the pencils in my pencil case. I have no idea what F is.

    (i’m an artist)

    HB = #2

  11. Someone told me F means Fine but I don’t know how true that it..

  12. Greatest pencil in the world…..Dixon Ticonderoga. It is a 1388-2/HB. I buy them a gross at at time.

  13. AND… Duraflame logs were born out of a pencil factory looking to not waste sawdust!



  15. do they still use pencils and bubble sheets for the SAT’s? I mean, they did back in my day. But, I figured by now it would all be by computer.

  16. SAT and ACT, along with most other tests, are going electronic. But it’s expensive, and if you don’t have money in your district for decent computers, this becomes another huge barrier.
    Interestingly enough, the essays that students have to write for most state exams are scanned into computers for the readers to score (I can tell you from personal experience that those scoring rooms are sub-zero to keep all those computers from over-heating as readers work 7 hour shifts). Eventually it will all be computer based testing….

  17. mike try a mirano black warrior — used to use dixons until I found a mirano and tried it

  18. laws to prevent overzealous sharpening makes me laugh out loud!

  19. For all those in the UK, this place is AWESOME!


  20. I remember manual pencil sharpeners were banned for a couple years while I was in grade school. Some bullies had figured out how to screw out the “razor” and were using those to get lunch money and snacks and stuff….
    The school therefore put 2 electric sharpeners in each classroom. It was a nightmare having to stand in line to wait to sharpen your pencil, or to tolerate the whirring noise!
    Needless to say, I stocked up on pencils sharpened from home (we were not allowed to use mechanical pencils- the teachers thought they made us lazy).

  21. Did you really use the term “general consensus”? Good grief!

  22. Maybe I am being thick, but if I can’t use a sharpener to sharpen my pencil, then I am probably going to have to go get a new one…. causing increased use of pencils. Right?
    Yet if I have a sharpener, I might use that baby until it’s just a nub.

  23. @Dionne, interesting. Wonder why it’s lazy to use a mechanical pencil? Seems to me it would make one more efficient. (We used to use the excuse of having to sharpen a pencil to avoid work or talk to our friends.) Funny how some people’s thought processes work.

  24. when I was a kid I stopped using Ticonderoga pencils because they were made from rainforest trees. I think they source different wood nowadays…

  25. I prefer pens. I cannot stand the feel of pencil on paper!


commenting policy