Wednesday, November 19, 2008

HB, HB and HB

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.


B2-kun said...

Curious news to me, but I am still content to have just a single pack of AIN middle range HB.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is interesting. I'm not sure what it means, but it is definitely interesting!

Time Waster said...

The older HB Pentel Polymer I have is really hard for some reason while the newer stuff is softer for some reason which is the stuff I like to draw with. Too soft isn't really good either but neither is too hard which can cramp up the hand.

Anonymous said...

The Pentel Hi-Polymer ones with the Japanese writing read "Hard HB, HB, and Soft HB".

Germ said...

advertising mumbly jumbly.

Anonymous said...

the Pentel & Ain lead packets are written in katakana:
HARD (on the black label)
SOFT (on the red label)

Tombow's are written in Hiragana:
KATAME (cyan label)
KOIME (purple label)

here I'm not sure but should translate something like hard and harder?

AlexJiang said...

maybe it's nothing about lead grade, it's about softness grade. The most hard the lead is the longer it could use. You may want to do a single line test, see how fast these three lead use. The softer lead should be run out first.

Anonymous said...

Nothing about lead grade?
But 10B -> 10H _is_ lead grade == softness/hardness.
Graphite is graphite, whatever the hardness/softness of the lead/pencil. A graphite particle from a 10H is as black as a graphite particle from a 10B. A 10H delivers less graphite particles to the substrate (paper) per stroke because it contains more clay/polymers, making the lead "harder". A 10B delivers more graphite particles to the substrate (paper) per stroke because it contains less clay/polymers, making the lead "softer".

Have fun!

The Old Geezer said...


Jerry said...

I'm trying the Pentel Ain B (.0.9) in my Graphgear 500. Looks dark enough for newspaper puzzles thus far...only time will tell. HB's don't seem dark enough.

Anonymous said...

Can anyone tell me where on the net - pref. in the UK - to buy F grade... or perhaps HB3 grade... for a 0.7mm Caran dAche pencil please?

Anonymous said...

Try - Ken Bromley Art Supplies.
Excellent online art retailer.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Anonymous
I misread your question - only CdA 0.5 and 0.7 HB at Ken Bromley - no fancy Japan only leads like HB3.

Anonymous said...

> pref. in the UK - to buy F grade... or perhaps HB3 grade... for a 0.7mm Caran dAche pencil please?

Try Cult Pens, CdA agents and good people.

Anonymous said...

Re F Grade - PENTEL Refills available at

Anonymous said...

In wooden pencils I find that 'B' leads are a great compromise between the control of HB and the softness of 2B - you get the best of both worlds. With mechanical pencils the reasoning is less defined but would be applicable to how frequently you need to turn the pencil (2B more HB less)to maintain a clear line, and of course if you sketch/draw it is the chisel point which is generally preferred - one mans meat is another mans... Either way I find 'HB' too light, particularly Faber-Castell and even Pentel.

The difficulty I have particularly with 2mm clutch pencils, is, a lot of B&M stores skip a grade and 'B' tends to miss out. They just don't get it.


Anonymous said...

I just tried out one of these different grades of HB and I feel there is a difference. I have the harder version of the Tombow HB (Katame) and it seems much more resilient to me than my regular lead. I didn't know about these different grades until I realized that there were three different Tombow HB leads on Jetpens where I bought it from and I just happened to have purchase the "HHB" version.

I don't know if Tombow's lead is overall better, but I write really hard and would break the regular Pentel Hi Polymer leads quite often while I haven't been able to break these yet in regular writing.

Anonymous said...

Which one would smudge less? The only reason why I do not like to write notes with pencil is because pencil usually smudge. I once wrote with a .3 mm and it did not smudge, but I don't know what "grade" it was.

Anonymous said...


the Black label says "haado" which means "hard"
the the red label says "sofuto" which means soft.


the light blue says "katame" which is hard(ness)
the purple says "koime" which is strong(ish) or dark(ness) in this case.