Mechanical Pencils

Latest Update: Added some brief notes on the Faber-Castell e-Motion, and the Caran d’Ache Fixpencil, and a link to an article I’ve spent a lot of time working on recently – The Cult Pens Guide to Mechanical Pencils.


  • For more information about mechanical pencils than you can shake a stick at, go read The Cult Pens Guide to Mechanical Pencils. I know it’s good, because I wrote most of it, with lots of help and suggestions.
  • See also: Pencil Hardness: What those letters and number mean – HB, 4B, 2H, etc.

Some of these link to full reviews of our own, and some link to reviews elsewhere (especially Dave’s Mechanical Pencils.) Others just have a few notes. We get to try lots of pens and pencils now, but don’t get chance to fully review them all. Most of the ones we’ve tried are via Cult Pens, Michael’s employer. Opinions here are entirely our own, etc.

Types

There’s two main types of mechanical pencils – Leadholders and Automatic pencils…

Automatic Pencils

These are the type most people are familiar with now – usually quite thin lead, with a clicking mechanism operated by a button at the top. The most common ones around today take 0.5mm leads.

Leadholders

Relatively unusual these days, leadholders have been around a long time – in fact, early leadholders were around before pencils. Some sort of clutch mechanism grips the lead in place inside a tube, usually made of plastic or metal.

Specific Models

Bic

  • Matic – We’ve not tried any Bic pencils ourselves, but our comrades over in the revolution have just posted a review of the Bic Matic. Cheap, but good and useable. Sounds quite similar to the Pilot Super Grip, but without the grip, and with a plastic tip.

Caran d’Ache

  • Fixpencil – I’d never even seen one of these before, but Cult Pens managed to get hold of some. The mechanism doesn’t feel as over-engineered as the Staedtler Mars 780, and it’s much lighter. For me, the Staedtler is still the nicer pencil, but if you prefer a smoother grip or a lighter weight, or just need something that doesn’t look quite so retro-geek, it’s a very nice pencil, and takes the same lead as the 780.

Faber-Castell

  • e-Motion – a thick pencil with thick lead. Takes 1.4mm lead, and twists to advance, as most mechanical pencils used to years ago. You can fully control how much lead is exposed, and the thick lead runs very little risk of breaking. Good for quick scribbling, but not so good for detailed work, as it’s tricky to keep a good point on it. I handled a couple of these when working on the Cult Pens guide mentioned above, and ended up buying one. I keep it handy all the time, as it’s be best thing around for quick notes. (Available, of course, at Cult Pens.)
  • Grip 2011 at Dave’s. One that goes against everything Dave likes in a pencil, but he ends up liking it anyway. A bit like Staedtler’s Mars 780 for me, I suppose. I’ve only had a quick ‘feel’ of one of these, but it has nice balance, and a good solid feel to it. It has a nice width, too, and I think it would be very comfortable. I’d expected it to feel a bit cheaper than it actually does.
  • Grip Plus – Sam’s favourite. A nice comfortable pencil for doing a lot of drawing.
  • TK-Fine Vario – soft or hard – how do you like it? Some mechanical pencils have cushioned lead, so it gives a bit as you write. Others don’t. Soft is usually good for writing, hard for drafting. Drawing probably depends on your style and preferences. Well, the TK-Fine Vario can do either. I’m actually not all that impressed with this feature, but it does seem to make writing feel a bit smoother, whilst still letting you press on as hard as you need to when you’re drawing really dark stuff. Apart from that feature, though, it’s a really nice pencil. Not cheap, but not too expensive, either. It’s a shame the tip isn’t retractable, as that limits how you can carry it, but it does have a really nice balance to it, with the centre of gravity good and low. Add a twist-up eraser that’s quite effective, and the classy Faber-Castell green and metal styling, and I actually really like it. £7.50 from Cult Pens. (The 0.5mm is on the site, 0.3mm should be along soon. Other grades should be coming later.)
    • Update: After a bit more use, I’m less impressed – still feels great to hold, but the grip is a bit too slippery for me in use. The shiny metal lets my fingers slide down, and I find I keep having to reposition – Pentel’s GraphGear 1000 is much better from that point of view. If only it was knurled. Nothing beats knurled metal, plus ‘knurled’ is just a fantastic word.

Lamy

Lamy are best known for their fountain pens – one of the few independent companies still making such things, I think. They do a few interesting ballpoints and mechanical pencils too.

  • Lamy 2000 – the fountain pen version is one of my regular objects of drooling. Maybe if we find ourselves with a bit of spare cash at some point, I’ll get to try one out. Anyway, I’ve not tried the pencil version either, but it’s another of Dave’s favourites, so you can read all about it there.
  • Lamy Scribble – a dumpy little thing, which rather appeals to me, but not one I’ve had chance to try yet. Dave has, and wrote about it on Pencil Revolution. He’s also written a bit about a ‘day in the life‘ of his Scribble, taking it with him to do conservation work near where he lives in New Zealand.

PaperMate

  • Technician II – a guest review on Dave’s Mechanical Pencils. Eric does like his PaperMate.

Pentel

  • EZ#2 AX17 – not one I’ve even seen around here, but Dave has reviewed it. A very cheap, but reasonably decent pencil.
  • Sharp P205 – we’ve not tried one, but Dave has, so go read his review. It’s a fairly basic, but very well made pencil.
  • GraphGear 500 – one I’ve only played with briefly. Very similar to the GraphGear 1000, but with a plastic barrel, and without the retracting tip. Because the whole top end is so much lighter, I actually find the 500 better balanced for my tastes than the 1000. Quite similar in a lot of ways to Faber-Castell’s TK-Fine Vario. The switchable lead cushioning on the Vario is a nice touch, though, and I prefer F-C’s styling.
  • GraphGear 1000 – solid and metal, with fully retracting tip. Looks cool too.
  • Kerry – more class than most. Resembles a nice pen more than a pencil. Convenient and totally pocket safe. I love my Kerry.

Pilot

  • Birdie – very thin, but surprisingly solid. If you need something to fit in a Filofax or notebook pen loop, the Birdie is nice and shiny.
  • Super Grip – cheap and cheerful, but works really nicely.
  • Easy-Lead – a slightly odd sort of lead – soft, black, and slightly squeaky.
  • H32 – a ‘professional’ pencil from Pilot. See the photos on its page at Cult Pens, but don’t take too much notice – in the pictures, it looks a bit cheap and plastic to me. The reality is better – looks and feels quite good. I’d have bought one if there had been a 0.3mm on the shelf at the time, but I really wanted to try a 0.3, so I grabbed a Staedtler Mars Micro instead.
  • The Shaker – just shake to advance the lead – a meh answer to a question I never heard anyone ask.

  • Croquis- thick, thick lead, for sketching. Nice dumpy shape – not good if you like a long bodied pencil, but I like it.

Rotring

  • Core – by Dave’s Mechanical Pencils. A bit of a nasty-looking thing. Good and grippy, but I think there’s better looking pencils around for the money. Unless you like that ‘extreme sportz’ look.
  • Tikky II – a fairly small update to the classic Tikky. I only actually own an old Tikky, but I’ve tried the new one, and it’s very similar. At an RRP of £2.19, these things are great value (even better – only £1.99 at Cult Pens). Apart from the lack of a retractable tip, they’re as solid-feeling and reliable as almost anything else. I’m not keen on the grip, personally, but at that price, it’s not too much to risk.
  • Newton – another review at Dave’s Mechanical Pencils. This Newton is actually a three-in-one pen and pencil. Personally, I had a lot of trouble with the pencil mechanisms in the very similar Quattro Data Pen snapping leads, so I couldn’t recommend either of these if you mainly want a good pencil, but they’re very handy, and you get three or four ‘devices’ in a single pen that’s no thicker than a normal pen.

Schmidt

  • Schmidt Converter at Dave’s Mechanical Pencils – a mechanical pencil built in the shape of a Parker ballpoint refill, so in theory you can use any ‘parker-compatible’ ballpoint you happen to like as a mechanical pencil. Doesn’t work with all of them in practice, but it’s still an interesting idea.

Staedtler

  • Triplus MicroCult Pens sent me one to try, and I wasn’t all that impressed. Dave has tried the same pencil, though, and really liked it. Just shows how much tastes can differ. It’s a very good eraser, especially for such a slim pencil, and the triangular shape does make it quite pleasant to hold. I can’t quite work out why I’m not keen on it, but they’re reasonably cheap, so it might be worth a try – see if your tastes are more like Dave’s or mine. I want to say that I don’t like it because it’s so long and thin, but the 780 is more so, and I love that one.
  • Mars 780 Leadholder – an old favourite of mine. Long and thin, which I usually don’t like, but there’s just something nice about the 780 and its 2mm leads.
  • Mars Micro – I’ve always liked Staedtler stuff, and when I wanted to try a 0.3mm pencil, it was a Mars Micro I ended up with. I wasn’t too impressed on the whole. You get a lot for the money (£3.80 at Cult Pens, £4.25 RRP) – a rubber grip, and a retractable tip. The balance is good, and the grip isn’t bad. Retracting the tip is surprisingly hard work, though, and prone to snapping the lead. After only a few minutes of trying it out, mine stopped working entirely. It turned out that snapped lead had jammed its mechanism. Unscrewing the tip and feeding a lead through the guide tube cleaned it out, and it works again now, but it doesn’t seem as well made as some others. If you don’t need a retractable tip, I think the Rotring Tikky II is better value. If you do, and you want a ‘drafting style’ tip, I’d spend the extra for something else – a Pentel GraphGear 1000, perhaps – or even save a bit and go for the cheap-but-decent Pilot Super Grip (0.5mm only). Part of the problem may be that this is the first 0.3mm pencil I’ve used, and they’re bound to be more prone to snapping.
  • Graphite 779 – at Dave’s again. Looks fairly run-of-the-mill, but it’s got an ‘auto-advance’ feature that Dave reckons actually works ok.

Uni-ball

Uni-ball is the Mitsubishi Pencil Company.

  • Shalaku DX – the button is on the side, not the top. Unusual design that works ok, but I’d still go for Pilot’s Super Grip if it’s a cheap one you’re after.

Mechanical Pencil Leads

Dave’s Mechanical Pencils has done some thorough testing, in the form of running a World Cup for pencil leads. If you just want to know who the final winner is, you could just skip to the end, but you’d be missing out on some quality entertainment…

  • Pool A: Pentel, Parker, Staedtler and Student’s Choice.
  • Pool B: Faber-Castell, Rotring, Waterman and Zebra.
  • Pool C: Caran d’Ache, Cross, Micro and Mont Blanc.
  • Pool D: Insung Hands, Lamy, Papermate and Pilot.
  • Elimination Round: I won’t give the game away by sayint who is in the other rounds, but there’s a strong showing from the Japanese ready for the Semi-Finals.
  • Semi-Finals: One expected result, one unexpected.
  • The Final: Where the winner is declared. No great surprise to me – it’s been my favourite for a long time, though to be honest, I use whatever we happen to have. Unless I’m testing side-by-side, I can’t tell the difference.
  • The Review: Dave takes a look back on the testing, and shares his thoughts on the results and the people who think he’s mad.

Refilling

It’s pretty easy with most modern (clicky) pencils, but quite a few older pencils used odd twist-to-advance mechanisms, and needed filling in some odd ways. Dave explains further.

Other Resources

  • The Quest for the Best in Mechanical Pencils at MetaFilter – lots of suggestions for good pencils. Found via Slow Burn Productions.
  • Dave’s Mechanical Pencils – an excellent blog all about automatic pencils. Dave tests different pencils and leads regularly, and struggles to overcome his dislike for rubber grips. A few of the reviews listed above are at Dave’s – no point in us both reviewing the same pencils, unless we just happen to have one around.

Leadholder.com

Leadholder.com is the online drafting pencil museum, and if you’re a bit of a pencil geek, it’s utterly fascinating. I’ve just spent an alarming amount of time there, and I’m nowhere near finished yet. There’s leadholders in here dating back to 1860, right up to current models.

In addition to the actual museum, there’s a nicely written history of leadholders and the development of the clutch mechanisms – more interesting than it sounds. Even if you are a pencil geek and you already think it does sound interesting.

My Staedtler Mars 780 is there, along with the history of its model range, even down to left handed variants (left handed pencil? Yes – the printing is the other way up so you can still read it.) Some of the Caran d’Ache pencils in the specialist section are quite beautiful designs, but part of the criteria for being a real drafting pencil is to be made to be used, not looked at.

My favourites in the museum? Well, I’ve still got a soft spot for my Mars 780, but mainly because it’s available. The prettiest and most solid-looking ones take the award for me – the David Hayward Design pencils. A solid, usable pencil that looks amazing.

Thanks to Dennis for letting me know about the site in a comment on my Pilot Croquis picture on Flickr.

30 thoughts on “Mechanical Pencils

  1. I used to have that pencil also, very slim like a Tombow Zoom 727, mechanical pencil on one side and a ballpoint pen that would pop out of the pusher if you flipped it just right, I recall it being finicky. I’d also like to know who made it and if anything like it is still available.

    Lamy btw is coming out with a slim mechanical pencil, Spirit, due out 18 March. If they make it in black I’ll be happy.

  2. Hmm. I think I’d have to go for the Supergrip. I like pocket safe pencils, and I don’t find the Tikky’s grip very comfortable. They’re cheap enough to have both, though!

    Tikky-like Zebra? Would that be the Drafix?

    The Supergrip is getting a trim in the range of colours, but it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I’m not sure what the deal is with the Dr Grip pencils.

  3. “Tikky-like Zebra? Would that be the Drafix?” – no, it’s an old bottom-of-the-range 0.5 one, the plastic pocket clip inevitably broken, but a remarkably sound mechanism. But I do have a Drafix, in 0.9, a very nice draughting-style pencil. Again, sound mechanism, unassuming, no fuss, works well. Like a lot of pencils with caps over the erasers, I had to either glue it or wrap a bit of Scotch tape round to keep the cap on but that’s how it goes. Basic function is excellent and it’s more comfortable to hold than it looks, though I’d probably go for something else for long writing sessions.

    I like rubber grips more than Dave the Mechanical Pencil Blogger does, but he’s right they can pick up grime. The red ones that have been in my pencil case are very grubby. If I was buying another for work, I’d go for black. It made me wonder whether the clear rubber used in the Dr. Grip and some Zebra pens would look shabby all too soon.

    Must look into pencil cases again, too; might be nice to have something like a tool roll with individual “tunnels” for each pen/pencil to stop them scratching each other.

  4. Which do you prefer, your Rotring Tikky II or your Pilot SuperGrip? Apart from having both, I mean?

    I have an old Zebra, vaguely Tikky-like, with non-retractable sleeve; I use it a lot, I think partly because it’s one less click before I use it, so grreat for quick notes. But I keep it point-up in a “desk organiser” thing, which isn’t very safe.

    The SuperGrip is an excellent pencil for the price, so comfortable to use. I see Cult Pens have Pilot Dr. Grip pencils on offer – hope Pilot won’t abandon them altogether…

  5. Hi…I’m looking for a mechanical pencil that I had when I was younger. It had a sleek, aluminum frame and one end was a mechanical pencil and when you flipped it over a pen popped out. I’d say it was a double-ended mechanical pencil also with a pen. Every heard of it or seen one? Any ideas on who made it or where I can get another one?

    Thanks

  6. Pingback: Stark Ravings » Blog Archive » Tools Fetishist

  7. i think that they should add a diagram to it so it shows you how to assemble the machanicle pencil. im doing research on it for an english project.

  8. Pingback: Pens :: PigPog

  9. this page is very helpfull when you nee to reaserch mechanical pencils.

  10. Hi, I’m looking for a world’s most thin mechanical pen, I saw 2 years ago, I couldn’t remember its name but I can say that probably it is the most thin pencil I have ever seen, and it has a lifetime warranty as I remember. Does anyone know its name?

  11. So, you inspired my curiosity and I tried the 780. Well, Actually, i tried the 980 at first, which seems to be the same thing, except made in China rather than germany, go figure. I admit, I’m hooked, and now make sure I have a lead holder on hand.

    Thank you for that, but I figured I’d ask – have you tried the “Ben” B/3 by Alvin? Takes the same length leads as the Staedtlers and has a similar form factor to the 780, albeit in black, but it advances the lead one click at a time, like a more standard mechanical pencil. The built in sharpener also sharpens as a slightly longer angle than the 780, which I admit is as feature I like. Anyway, I stumbled on one of these in an art supply store, and they’ve definitely become my pencil of choice, so I figured I’d throw up a flare in case you hadn’t tried it, and if you had, I’d be curious why you prefer the 780.

  12. Hi Rob,

    I’ve never actually heard of the ‘Ben’, but I’ll keep an eye open for it. At the moment, I’m actually pretty hooked on the Pentel GraphGear 1000, a .5mm automatic pencil – a terrible thing to admit, and the guy who runs leadholder.com would be horrified. Very nice and solid, though, and I find the thin lead good for writing.

    …just found the Ben on leadholder.com – looks nice, especially the knurled grip. Looks like it might be old new stock, though, as it says they’re not made any more. There’s not all that many leadholders around these days – it’s all clicky pencils, and not many decent ones of those, either.

  13. hello people. can anybody help with the order if how the individual mechanical parts of the waterman mechanical pencil fit into each other. the lead retracts when any small pressure is applied, and while i opened it and cleaned parts, it could be that i may have reassembeld wrongly. help. thanks.

  14. hi dave, thanks for reply. it’s a ‘clicky’ type with a ‘twist to advance’ movement (twisting the the pencil body activates the inner located clicky motion. ‘faily intricate’ is an understatement. there are some 10 pieces in the point movement alone. can you direct me to some site with maybe an exploded diagram. appricited. ray. ps sorry about the cat PigPog !

  15. Hi Ray,

    (I’m Michael – Dave is a different site.)

    I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen an exploded diagram of a mechanical pencil, and I don’t think I’ve ever come across one that clicks forward with a twist – usually either twist to push in older pencils, or a button to click in most modern ones.

    Sorry, but I probably can’t be of much help with it.

  16. I’ve never actually used a Waterman pencil. If it’s a ‘clicky’ type, they’re usually fairly intricate, and I think they can vary quite a bit. Many older types are ‘twist-to-advance’, where you twist either the body of the pencil, or the bit where the lead comes out, and the lead moves forward.

    Do you click a button on the top, or twist part of the pencil to advance the lead in yours?

  17. Hi William

    The thinnest I know of is the Birdie, which would probably work, but it would certainly leave its mark, especially if the book had any weight on it with the pencil in there. If you don’t mind your books getting the ‘used’ look, that might do the job for you.

    If you wanted to keep the books looking a bit better, you might be able to rig something up that would loop around either the whole book, or part of it to act as a bookmark, but with a slot or slots in the bit at the front or back for a pencil to go in. Some of the tricks under ‘pen holders’ on our Mokeskine Hacks page might give you some ideas, too.

  18. I am looking for a very thin mechanical pencil that can be slipped inbetween the pages of a book to be used as a bookmark. Love to always have a pencil on hand as I read to make notations and comments in the book. Any suggestions???

  19. Just happened on a mention over here of bookmark pens – sold in Barnes & Noble, in a pack like a CD case. Not a pencil, but might be of interest as an alternative.

  20. Just checked out the Lyra lead holder yesterday, for holding the chunky hexagonal Lyra graphite sticks. Fantastic! Great for drawing with, so chunky, love it, and it means you’re not left holding a slippery stumpy lump of graphite at the end of the stick.

    My favourite pencil, apart from a good old Staedtler Mars 2B of course, was a gift…the Faber Castell E-Motion, in Pearwood…a sublimely beautiful pencil…to look at, to hold, and to draw and write with. It goes everywhere with my sketchbook, and has a chunky rubber in the cap too. Spares are available too, which is one of the things I love about these, and the choice of leads. Not sure of the thickness, more like 1.4mm I think.

    From the Faber-Castell website: “A combination of wood and matt metal is particularly appealing. You also have a choice of brown and black pear wood, or light maple. The pencil is equipped witha continuous twist mechanism and a tough 1.4-mm pencil lead: that allows a fine distinction between broad and narrow strokes. A large eraser under the end cap and a reservoir for 6 leads complete the picture. In the case of the ball pen, a quick twist and you’re ready to write.”

  21. I think the aim is more for a consistent darkness of line than it is for the physical hardness of the lead. Each manufacturer’s lead will be made slightly differently, so the actual hardness probably varies.

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the line darkness varies a bit too – as far as I’m aware, there isn’t an actual measured level for what ‘HB’ means.

    For your tests, you really need something where the hardness is consistent, and that’s just not what pencils are designed for.

  22. Hello!! I work in a research lab of a Powder Coating industry. One of my primary testing involves the use of pencils to test the hardness of the film. We call it the Pencil Hardness test. We make use of a Sheen 720N pulley and with a pencil of certain hardness say 3H, it is moved on the surface of the film. Pencils used from different pencil manufacturers are giving inconsistent results for similar hardness say 3H. I am currently using Staedtler and Mitsubishi pencils. Can u tell me the difference between the hardness of the lead used in both of them. Say what is the difference between a 5H Staedtler and a 5H Mitsubishi pencil

  23. I’ve always called leadholders and mechanical pencils, respectively, “muzzle loaders” and “breech loaders!” :-D

    I have to put in a plug for the PaperMate Logo (Sanford SKU #64001). I’ve used mechanical pencils since high school (20+ years) and they are simply the most rugged and reliable MPs I’ve ever found.

    It’s one of those classic designs that you wouldn’t dare tamper with because everything is “just so.” A sturdy plastic body that can survive being stepped on (I speak from experience). A fat, twistable eraser that lasts forever. And the clincher — a retractable tip (they call it a “shock absorber”) that gradually slides back into the barrel as the lead writes down, which means you can go much longer before having to click out more lead. The tip design also seems to cut down on snapped points.

    They’re inexpensive too, so I buy them by the pack and spread them around the home and office, and always have one or two in the travel bag. They just go forever.

    Paul L.

  24. I just listed a few of these double-ended pencils on eBay if you are still looking — see listing 190210357262. I think they were largely used by accountants and bookeepers …. maybe teachers too.

    TERI

  25. I formerly had a double ended mechanical pencil but lost it. Have been unable to find another. It was red on one end black on the other. Any suggestions to find another.

  26. I’ve never even heard of such a thing, I’m afraid, Allan. If you find somewhere you can get them, I’d be interested to know!

  27. I AM LOOKING FOR THE SAME PENCIL. IT HAD RED LEAD ON ONE END AND REGULAR LEAD ON THE OTHER. THE BARREL WAS RED AND BLACK. DID YOU FIND ONE?

Comments are closed.