Thursday, November 09, 2006

Pentel Ain Lead

A few months ago Pentel Ain won the inaugural Lead Cup so it’s time to do an official review of Pentel leads.
Pentel offer a great variety of graphite leads of many different thickness', hardness grades, quality levels, packaging, etc. For example in ordinary mechanical pencil refill leads they offer 0.3, 0.5, 0.7, 0.9 and 1.3mm thickness leads. In 1.3mm they offer hardness 2B, B, HB and H, but in 0.5mm leads the range of hardness offered expands to 4B through to 6H, including an F grade. They label their apparent quality levels as ‘Hi-Polymer’, ‘Super Hi-Polymer / Ain’, and ‘Premium Hi-Polymer’. Despite the name ‘Premium Hi-Polymer’ it appears that ‘Super Hi-Polymer / Ain’ is their top quality level lead.

As far as I can tell, Ain is just a marketing brandname, the Super Hi-Polymer leads are sold in a variety of containers, quantities per container (e.g. 12, 30 or 40 leads per container) and so on, some as ‘Super Hi-Polymer’ and some as ‘Ain’. All in all there’s an awful lot of apparent choice.

I wasn’t really sure about how to review leads, so I decided to spend a week writing with a selection of different hardness Ain 0.5mm leads. For comparison I also used Pentel Hi-Polymer 0.5mm HB lead. In theory the Ain leads are superior to Hi-Polymer.
Well let’s get a few of the technicalities out of the way. Reliving the glory days of The Lead Cup, I put a few sticks of lead to the strength test. It was a clear victory, Ain HB is miles stronger than Hi-Polymer HB, so the cynic in me is wrong, there really must be two different formulations. Right then, what about between the hardness grades of Ain? There was a small but clear difference – as you might suspect, 2H was stronger than 2B.

So that’s strength, what about darkness? Just how much difference is there between the hardness grades? Basically I don’t think there is a lot of difference from one grade to the next on the scale, but if you skip a few out then there definitely is a difference in darkness. Anyone could tell 2B from 2H but its pretty difficult spotting the difference between 2B and B. I think they could probably delete every second hardness and not really affect anyone.
I recently had some difficulty with the diameters of some 0.7mm leads, so since my micrometer was handy I ran it across these 0.5mm leads. Grades 2B, B, HB, F, H, and 2H of Ain were all in the 0.565 to 0.57mm range, and the Hi-Polymer HB was 0.56mm. Strictly speaking, if you were correctly rounding to one decimal place, these are all 0.6mm leads, not 0.5mm.
I must admit I’m rather taken by the Ain packaging. I like the clear sided gently curving container and the bright printed graphics. There appears to be a colour coding system in use for the spine and lever top - varying shades of red for the B grades of lead, greens for the H grades, and blues for the HB and F mid-grades. My containers have quite an array of fine print on the back of them relating to plastic recycling. There is some difference in the container markings, indicating it’s a changing thing at Pentel. The F container has no recycling information on it, but all the others do. Now I’m not much of an expert, but as far as I can tell, the marks indicate they are recyclable, and are in fact made from some recycled material – polypropylene and whatever ‘AS’ is. I am guessing its some sort of acrylic-styrene, but I can’t find any reference to what the code ‘AS’ stands for in the plastics recycling schemes. But then again I don’t read Japanese.

There are 40 pieces of 60mm long lead in each Ain container. You flip the top open by pressing down on the lever with your thumb. Then you give the container a bit of a shake to dispense some lead. Actually this is not really the best. Sometimes you have to give it quite a good shake to get some leads out, and you can get one, or 2 or 3 at a time. Putting surplus leads back in can also be a bit fiddly. I get the impression it’s supposed to be a design that dispenses leads individually, but often lets a few others sneak out.

Now, what about actually writing with the leads! First up I put on my testing hat and did a blind test on the Hi-Polymer HB and Ain HB. Could I tell a difference when just writing under ordinary circumstances? Well, basically no. I had Ain in one pencil and Hi-Polymer in another and swapped them around a few times. I couldn’t tell the difference. Ain was of course stronger, it was undefeated in the strength tests of the Lead Cup, but that doesn’t mean Hi-Polymer was weak and breaking all the time, because it wasn’t. Ain has exceptional strength, but Hi-Polymer is certainly strong enough for normal use.

About 10 years ago I did a year long part-time course in quality assurance. I always remember the time we did a class test on Coke vs Pepsi. This is apparently a standard technique in the food industry. You give the test group three samples each – 2 of one thing and 1 of another and ask them to pick the odd one out. So, my class of 20 or so students were each given three little taster cups of cola – 2 were Coke and 1 was Pepsi. I mean how hard could it be? They taste completely different, don’t they? Well, statistically speaking my class couldn’t tell them apart. Pretty much 1/3rd of the class chose sample A as the odd one out, 1/3rd chose B and 1/3rd C. The lecturer said he had never had a class that could tell them apart, so as much as I can’t believe it, it appears there is no difference between Coke and Pepsi to the taste-buds of the general public. Crazy stuff.

Now note that I said general public. In my class there were two employees from the local Coca-Cola bottling plant. One worked in the laboratory and the other was a genuine ‘taste-tester’. The lady from the laboratory could easily pick the Pepsi by taste, we all watched as she did the three way test a few times and could immediately choose the odd-one out. Then it was the taste-testers turn. He was of course stunned at how useless we all were, a bunch of morons unable to tell Coke from Pepsi. I kid you not, he could tell them apart by sight from a few metres away. Blindfolded he could tell them apart by listening to them – the different levels of carbonation making different bubble sounds! Blindfolded and fingers in ears he could sniff them and tell them apart by smell. So, I’m sure the lead experts at Pentel can tell Hi-Polymer from Ain in the blink of eye, but as for the rest of us….

Well that’s Hi-Polymer out of the way, what about the different grades of Ain? I spent the rest of the week using two identical pencils, one with Ain HB in it and the other with a different grade – 2H, F or 2B.

All the grades are good smooth writing. 2B was slightly smoother than the harder grades, particularly 2H, and if you rotated the pencil to start on a new part of the leads chisel point then you can tell that the harder the grade the more it dug into the paper and took longer to wear down. When I was using the 2H lead I did keep wanting to press harder to darken things up. I put a page of mixed 2H and HB writing through the photocopier and the 2H copies noticeably lighter. Grade 2B definitely wore down faster than HB, so you get more words per stick of lead with HB. I’d guess about a 25% difference. Actually 2B isn’t all that much darker than HB with normal writing, as HB is already quite dark. I did occasionally notice a couple of specks of graphite dust on the page when writing with 2B, and that didn’t happen with the others. Overall I think there is more general difference in 2H to HB than HB to 2B. What about that most unusual of grades, F? It’s really quite hard to tell any difference from HB. I recall a drawing tutor saying that F had the hardness of H and the darkness of HB, but it’s a close call.

Footnote:
Just to clarify the situation, I asked Pentel customer services if there was any difference in the actual leads of Ain and Super Hi-Polymer. They replied, “There is no real difference in the leads, however, the AIN leads are stronger and darker than our original Hi polymer leads.”

27 comments:

kenzilla said...

ahhhhhhh i love your site!! over my years of elementary to now, i've grown quite fond of the many designs of a mechanical pencil. one of my favorite companies right now is pentel. i don't know anything about those big companies i don't even know about. haha

Anonymous said...

Interesting.

But, you don't have the 3B and 4B leads. What's up with that?

kiwi-d said...

Well in 0.5mm Super Hi-Polymer the range is 4B to 6H, and 2B to 4H in 0.7mm.
I'm not sure about AIN but I suppose it's the same. Anyway, 2B to 2H is all thats available in this part of the world. Pentel don't exist here in their own right, and the Pentel agent only imports a very small selection of their pencils and leads.

Anonymous said...

Everyone is forgetting the Pilot Neo-X lead which is quite difficult to find (at least in the states). However, this lead creates a more intense and darker line than the Pentel lead.

Anonymous said...

I like 4B lead because it writes really smoothly. The bad part is that it gets really smudgy.

Mike said...

I've been looking around for the AIN leads (I live in Los Angeles, CA, USA). I can find Premium Hi Polymers (like these, but never AIN.
When I was in Hong Kong, however, I found a variety of AIN leads, but no premium...
So am I right that AIN is outside the US only?

kiwi-d said...

Mike - well I'm not in the USA, but Pentel USA website has Hi Polymer and not Ain, so you may well be right. Most USA retail sites seem to have Hi Polymer rather than Ain, but then eBay, importers like JetPens, etc have Ain.

JiBi_AI said...

Oh!!
you're really wonderful...
I've been thinking about what different between pentel and Ain for a long times and the answer is here!!!!

I use Ain 0.7 2B, and I think it smoother than the previous one [I used pentel hi-polymer 0.7 2B before] but I've never test them

As I read your blog, I thought of something I did in the past. I've ever test coca-cola vs. pepsi with my friends and mostly we can tell their difference.

Thank you again for your information.

Kevin said...

My local Officeworks store here in Sydney has the following unit prices for Pentel leads:
Pentel Hi-Polymer(STANDARD) - 12.4cents per lead in 2 * 12 lead packs.($2.98(US2.10)
Pentel Super Hi-Polymer 12.4 cents per lead in 2 * 12 lead packs. ($2.98(US2.10)
Pentel AIN (SUPERIOR)5.7cents per lead in 40 lead pack.($2.29 (US1.60)
I understand the concept of volume pricing ie AIN40 v 24 which would reduce the price of the AIN leads slightly but who would buy standard hi-polymer on this pricing.

Anonymous said...

Anyone seen these - Black Ain from Pentel?
ブラックアイン
C255A-HB
http://shop.netricoh.com/nrlite/contents/products/CH2928.html
http://www.askul.co.jp/p/502460/
Seems they put in nano-diamonds ala Mitsubishi NanoDia leads.
Wonder how they write?....

Anonymous said...

http://www.amazon.co.jp/三菱鉛筆-ユニ替芯Hi-uni-0-5mm芯-2B-HU05300-2B/dp/B001UNB1GS

And not just Black AIN (http://www.greenstation.net/catalog/010310901000017.html), but also Mitsubishi Hi Uni Pressure Proofed Hi-Density Leads GRCT pencil lead is out in Japan - even pricier than Mitsubishi NanoDia, so I must think it's in line to compete against Pentel's Hi Polymer for Pro. (Y300 vs Y200 - GRCT vs NanoDia)

Anonymous said...

Hello guys !
Where is it posible to buy those Pentel Black AIN leads? Any US internet website?
Are the Uni G.R.C.T. available in 0.5mm HB?
Thanks a lot...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the time you took to ananlyze the lead differences. It is helping me to make the right purchasing decision. Tom Golding

Anonymous said...

I agree with Tom Golding, above, but I didn't see any questions or info on the other lead hardnesses, such as "F", which is excellent for everyday notes and writing. HB is far too soft and H is too hard except for drawing, perhaps. My best choice is F in 0.3, 0.5, and 0.7mm for all the various types of use. The only place I could find "F" to buy is Pencity.com. 6 other sites I ck'd only had HB and H. Norm Y.

Vikram said...

In the US we have Pentel Super Hi-Polymer lead only. I have not really seen any other brand of lead sold around me, except in specialty shops, which sell lead from Parker and Staedtler.
(So I am also the user of Ain...technically)

Anonymous said...

Books Kinokuniya in Sydney, Australia has some of the Pentel Ain 0.5 3B (not as much as before I got there!), but none of the 4B alas. 3B is brilliant, and I wish I'd bought the rest of their stock while I was there.

Anonymous said...

Dave, thanks for explaining the different hardness grades. I found a random tube of "F" leads in my desk and had no idea where that fit in the spectrum. Pentel's website did not give me any info (at least that I could readily find). We accountants usually use 0.5 HB's, but I find that I prefer a 0.7 HB for more general use.

ScAnMaN said...

Aren't there qualite difference between pentel ain leads and Super Hi-Polymer ? so Is Pentel company swindling us ? :(

Kiwi-d said...

ScAnMaN - I did ask Pentel but their answer was not particularly clear. It is though my understanding Super Hi-Polymer and Ain are the same lead, just sold under different labels in different markets.

Anonymous said...

The question of which one is pricier is determined by the number of leads in the packaging
AIN 0.3 20pcs, AIN 0.5 40pcs, AIN 0.7 40pcs, AIN 0.9 36pcs.
The only super hi polymer tube I have is 0.7 which contains just 12pcs.

On a per lead basis I am sure that AIN is cheaper.
2 1/2p

Anonymous said...

haha this is a soo interesting blog,I congratulate you,Dave:) Do anyone of you know about 0.6mm pencil leads? I'm not sure,, maybe 10 years ago I could find 0.6mm pencil and its leads which was produced by tombow but now no one sells them.Since Iam from Turkey , I wonder if they sell them out there?? I mean,I am asking you guys if anyone of you used it or using it, I want to find that leadss:(

Kiwi-d said...

Sorry, 0.6mm lead is unknown to me.

Wendell said...

As far as I could tell, the Ain was exactly the same as the Super Hi-Polymer sold in North America. Now, Ain has been discontinued in favor of Ain Stein in Japan. I have just noticed that the Super Hi-Polymer sold in the USA claims a new formula that makes it 25% stronger. I'm assuming it is the same as the Ain Stein.

Anonymous said...

Just doing an experiment, I took one piece of lead from my "labeled" 0.5mm pencil (in Japan). Then my micrometer (0.001mm accuracy).

1)The lead was 0.565mm to 0.574mm, this was the same piece just rotated at several different positions.

2)A "labeled" 0.7mm Bic, bought in USA: 0.703mm +/- 0.004mm as it twisted. (same piece of lead)

Horace said...

This is a glorious page! Thank you, Dave. I read it years ago and found it again today while searching for "0.7 mm Pentel Ain lead". Nice to know the Ain is truly superior. I found two tubes of 40 on ebay for $5.77 shipped, but they come from Hong Kong (I'm in the USA). I may order them anyway because it seems like such a screaming deal for a great product.

Best,
Anonymous Pencil Pusher

Anonymous said...

What grade would you prefer for everyday writing. HB 2b or 4b

Kiwi-d said...

HB is the standard everyday all purpose grade.