10 October 2012

[art] A Hard Pencil Is Good To Find

I love 9H pencils.

You all know what that means, don't you?

Probably not. Poor, poor people.

These are very, very hard pencils. You can drive them as nails.

Well, in balsa wood anyway.

9H pencils are the hardest you're likely to find anywhere. You can barely make a mark with them, pressing hard. Why would I want 9H pencils?

Because you can barely make a mark with them, which means they're actually very nifty for roughing in things with a very light mark which won't smear, because I'm clumsy (or awesome that way).

Actually, you can find 9H pencils … what you can't find are 9H woodless pencils, as I adore woodless pencils. For some reason pencil makers don't see any market for any woodless pencil with an H in it (unless that's HB). And that leads me, kind of awkwardly, into pencil grades, which everyone thinks are pretty much #2, which is another system altogether.

Ever wonder, if there's a #2 pencil, where's the #1?

Around the world, graphite pencils are graded from softest to hardest, along a continuum. Artists know the H-F-B system well; H is for hard, B is for black (soft lead is easy to make into a mass tone of black) and HB is right in the middle. There's another grade, 'F', which is softer than H but harder than HB, and was chiefly included so that people would go to the art supply store and go 'what's the F stand for', and the art supply store person will shrug and say 'I don't know either'.

Maybe F stands for a secret art supply industry word meaning 'get people into the stores'.

Maybe it stands for fnord. They'll never say.

But this is the scale on the H-F-B continuum:

9H … H - F - HB - B  … 9B
Hard            Medium            Soft

Now, this system originated somewhere in England, unless it didn't.

The system schoolkids in America are most familiar with seems to contain only one grade - #2 - but it only seems that way, as President Morgan Freeman said to Cub Reporter Téa Leoni in Deep Impact. What I can seriously say is that it was developed by Conté, the man who invented the pencil, and introduced and modified to American needs by John Thoreau, who was famous for causing Henry David Thoreau's mom to become pregnant with him (what lineage, yeah?). It was Conté who figured out that varying the proportion of clay with graphite would cause differing hardnesses of the 'lead' - the more the clay, the harder the lead. And if you ever wondered where #2 falls on the pencil hardness scale, here's where (arranged as above):

#4  - #3  - #2  - #1
Hard        Medium        Soft
2H  - H  - HB  - B

There are fewer grades and American pencils tend to be harder. This of course totally captures the American character: we are a simple folk and a hard one. Since there's less of a chance of inserting some arbitrarily-chosen inscrutable symbol or number (like that glyph George Harrison included on all his albums) we here in the States make it confusing by only making #2 commonly available, leaving us to wonder where all the other numbers ran off to.

In the meantime, the search for a 9H (or any H, for that matter) woodless pencil continues. We doubt much success along these lines.

And so it goes.


mcl said...

9H, It has been some time since i scratched paper with such an instrument. The beautiful art of drafting is all but forgotten by the electric media world. The deft and magic of a beautiful drafted detail can not be matched by CAD. long live the hand!

Samuel Klein said...

I so damn' agree with you. One of the things I'd hoped to become and never successfully did was a drafter; I would have been so at home in the pre-AutoCAD world, but by the time I graduated LBCC back in '90 with an Associates in Drafting Technology they were well on the way to CAD (AutoCAD Release 10 was the big thing) and I was only able to score one drafting job and ...pfft... that was it.

But I can never and will never forget the sensation of drawing those lines ... I remember that was as close to Zen as I got in those days, there was a timeless feel as each line was laid, and I think it showed in every well-done drawing. They were all art to me, even though they were dry and technical to everyone else. Real accomplishment.

Thank you for your beautiful comment. I sure hope to see you again over here.