Just how many HB’s do you need? Turns out, a few Japanese companies figure the answer is three.Claes in Lund, Sweden
, yeah, it’s all his fault. He sent me an email enquiring about those other grades of HB lead they have in Japan. See, I didn’t really even know about them, but I do now. Not content with 2B, B, HB, F, H, 2H etc like most folk, several Japanese lead suppliers have extra grades of HB.
Pentel have HB1, HB, and HB3 in their Ain (C255) and Hi-Polymer (C205) ranges, with HB1 being “softer” and HB3 being “harder”. They don’t have HB2, it’s just HB.
On the other hand Tombow WX has HBB, HB, and HHB with HBB being “darker” and HHB being “harder” (not “lighter”).
How the heck was I supposed to ignore this? More to the point, how come I didn’t really know about them already? Basically the answer is “I don’t read Japanese”. See, they don’t really make it that obvious. No big HB3 or HBB on the front.
Just some Japanese characters, which are fairly clear to your average Japanese person, but are meaningless to me. Now I think about it, I think I had seen pictures before but never grasped the significance of those few Japanese characters. I probably just saw HB and that was the end of it. Buried somewhere in the fine print, usually over on the label on the back, though we have…
Obviously money had to be spent and leads acquired. Food for body and mind.
Maybe I’m just not a sensitive discerning person, but normally I have to skip a lead grade to find a significant difference. By that I mean 3B to B is a difference I can tell, but 3B to 2B is pretty hard for me to tell apart. Thus I had my doubts about these HB’s, but you just can’t ignore the challenge.
Now that I’ve tested them out, the truth is I can’t really tell much difference between the three HB’s. Below is a photo of a test series of Pentel Ain 2B through to H.
You can see a gradual change along the series, but there’s not a lot of difference between any one individual and its neighbour on either side. In any one individual test it’s not too hard to convince yourself you can tell the HB's apart, but when you try and repeat it, well it all gets confusing. I didn’t spend hours doing all sorts of tests, but whilst a lot of the results were contradictory I think overall if I was doing some statistical analysis on my results then I suspect it would show that HB3, the harder of the HB’s was a little different to the other two HB’s and was “statistically different”. But HB to HB1, that’s a little more confusing. Plenty of times though I’d pick up HB1 and HB3 and not be able to tell the difference.
Apparently, way up there in Sweden, Claes and his Number One Wife have been doing all sorts of tests too, some involving blindfolds, and they can’t tell much difference either. Still, I think it keeps them happy on those long cold dark Arctic nights.
Don’t get me wrong, I'm not saying there isn’t a difference between these grades of HB. These leads are by reputable Japanese companies. I don’t doubt for a second that their formulations are different, and that their specialist QC staff can tell them apart. What I am saying is that the differences are rather small and most of us would have trouble telling them apart.
My friend in Japan
isn’t really sure about these extra HB grades and the rationale for their existence. He thinks they have been around for about 10 years, and perhaps as most schools recommend HB, and many shops only stock HB, the multiple grades of HB allow sales and marketing folk to create (an illusion of) choice and get us to buy different ones. They get to have 3 HB’s on the shelf, more than the other guy who only has one HB. Yeah, well, we all know this worked on me, but I think it’s just a scam to get me to buy more. Marketing wallahs – more contenders for first against the wall when the revolution comes.