Just as with their ink-based brethren, those who love pencils and their attendant uses tend to have pretty strong preferences for their favorites. And just as with pens, there are choices to be made when selecting a pencil.
When talking about pen ink, you’re generally choosing between the oil-based ink of a ballpoint pen or the liquid ink of a rollerball pen. You can choose between a capped stick pen or a retractable, and among a handful of point thicknesses. For pencils, the consideration largely switches to wooden or mechanical, and the choice of lead hardness.
For this list, we’ve focused on picks that are good all-around pencils. You can use them for writing, testing, note taking, or even sketching. You can read more about the various graphite hardnesses here, but most of our list focuses on the range from HB to 2B, which are situated on the darker side of the middle of the scale. You know, the kind of pencils they ask you to bring for a Scantron quiz; a standard #2 pencil.
We’ve included several woodcase pencils and a few mechanical pencils to round out the list. You may want one of each for different applications. We haven’t delved into the world of serious drawing pencils, but certainly any of these could be used for sketching if they do the job for you. There are some high-end options on this list alongside the dead-simple, old-school standards.
While we’re on the subject, check out our best paper notebooks for students to have something on hand to actually write in. You may also want to pick up a few Paper Mate Pink Pearl Erasers, which are my favorite, or even a Staedtler Mars Eraser, which are also very good. Staedtler also makes a solid manual pencil sharpener, which may come in handy after you read this post.
With the school year drawing closer, we present our picks for the top ten best pencils for students.
1. Dixon Ticonderoga Wood-Cased 2HB Pencils
How could we not include the all-time champ. Everyone knows this pencil and everyone has likely used up their fair share of them. These provide the perfect balance of thrift and quality, with excellent erasers and reliable, relatively long-lasting lead. As with most good-quality pencils, these are made with sustainable cedar. These come pre-sharpened, but sharpen very well with a smooth wooden tip. The keener-eyed pencil aficionados among you will know that manufacturing moved out of North America awhile ago, but the quality is still largely similar, so if that isn’t a deal breaker, these are still fine and inexpensive implements.
Price: $4.39 for 30 pencils (26 percent off MSRP)
2. Palomino Blackwing 602
A recreation of the vaunted Eberhard Blackwing 602 that first appeared in 1934, this pencil from Palomino is seeking to bring back very fine, high-end woodcase implements. The lead in the 602 is comparable to a #1 or B hardness, which makes it a bit lighter than the average pencil. The Japanese graphite in these is supposedly ultra-fast writing, yet requiring far less pressure. Admittedly, you pay for the privilege, but if you’re looking for something quite a bit nicer than your average yellow stick, this could be the one for you. Other options from the line include the standard Blackwing and the Blackwing Pearl, both of which are slightly softer than the 602.
Price: $22.95 for 12 pencils
3. Tombow 8900 Drawing Pencil
Another staple of Japanese writing craft, Tombow makes a wide variety of pens and pencils for various uses. The 8900 pencil is ostensibly aimed at drawing (hence the name), but with 2B lead (B and HB are also available), they’ll cover a lot of territory. These are again constructed from cedar with a comfortable enamel coating. This lead is very long lasting and break resistant. Also, come on, check out that rad retro box design. Definitely a classic.
Price: $5.18 for 12 pencils (51 percent off MSRP)
4. Paper Mate Mirado Classic Pencils
Squarely aimed at replacing the Ticonderoga, the Mirado is only slightly more expensive and still produced in North America. The California cedar barrels sharpen to a very smooth point, while the graphite is break resistant. The erasers on these aren’t quite as good as the Dixons and these ship unsharpened, but they’re solid contenders.
Price: $2.89 for 12 pencils (48 percent off MSRP)
5. General Pencil Company Cedar Pointe No. 2 Pencil
While it’s true that the number of American-made pencils (and everything else, really) is dwindling, there are still a couple of options. While most of the General’s line is dedicated to drawing and drafting, these are excellent all-purpose pencils with HB lead. There’s no enamel on these barrels, just the comfortable texture of California cedar beneath the fingers. For being U.S.-made, the price is very reasonable, indeed.
Price: $5.21 for 12 pencils (18 percent off MSRP)
6. The Write Dudes USA Gold Premium Cedar No. 2 Pre-Sharpened Pencils
Our final woodcase pencil pick is also U.S.-made of Forest Stewardship Council certified cedar. These are presharpened and use latex-free erasers. They’re crafted especially to prevent jams in pencil sharpeners, which is why you’ll occasionally see them specified in a school supplies list. The core is made from a mixture of graphite and clay for longer lasting points.
Price: $5.35 for 12 pencils
7. Zebra M-301 Stainless Steel Mechanical Pencil
This classic of the mechanical pencil genre sort of helps define what’s great about them. The M-301 has that refined look for technical writing, made of light-weight stainless steel. It’s not so light that you confuse it with a plastic pencil, but you won’t get fatigued, either. Choose from 0.5 or 0.7 millimeter lead, either of which can be refilled using the excellent Pentel Super Hi-Polymer Lead. This is a great place to start with mechanical pencils.
Price: $4.57 for two pencils
8. Pentel GraphGear 500 Automatic Drafting Pencil
If you want to take a step up, consider the GraphGear from Pentel. This is an ultra-precise implement with a high-end metal grip barrel. The choice in lead width is wide enough to accommodate almost any preference and includes 0.3, 0.5, 0.7, and 0.9 millimeter thicknesses. The top click mechanism is very satisfying, and it certainly looks the part. Again, refill using the Pentel Super Hi-Polymer Lead. You could also go up-market just a bit with the GraphGear 1000. It’s quite the implement and features both advancing and retracting in the mechanism.
Price: $6.39 for 0.5mm
9. Pentel Sharp Automatic Pencil
Since the GraphGear line is a bit space-age, Pentel also offers this more contemporary looking pencil. A friend of mine who is both known for her drawing ability and her habit of frequently scribbling schematics swears by these. She always has a few in her bag. Great for just about every application.
10. Paper Mate SharpWriter Mechanical Pencils
Perhaps something more traditional is in order. The SharpWriter is a well-known mechanical pencil that offers a few upgrades to the old standbys. First is the twisting tip, which gives you very precise control over how much lead is extended. Second, the lead is in a shock-absorbing internal mechanism that reduces breakage and hand strain. The lead itself (refills here) is standard #2 and will work on standardized test forms. The erasers are about mid-range — drier than what’s found on the Dixon above, but still solid. These are the pencils my household favored for many years and I was consistently surprised at how hearty they turned out to be.
Price: $2.51 for 12 pencils (37 percent off MSRP)
For more posts to help you get ready to head back to school, check out our Back to School category with posts from our whole team.