2B or not 2B

B, 2B, 3B, 5B, 8B, any old B please, as long as it’s not HB. And, shiver me pencil case, never 2H or 6H or HH. What am I on about? Pencils.

In pencil parlance the H family are HARD, and get harder as the number rises. H’s are good for writing and fine work like making architectural plans and technical drawings. The lovely soft B family are best for drawing. B stands for BLACK and the B leads get blacker (and softer) as they go up the number scale. Let me introduce you to some of the Bs.


A selection of Bs –  perhaps B, 2B, 4B and 6B – will be the best thing you can provide for the ‘drawers’ in your family/classroom/library. You’ll find soft B pencils of some brand or other right there beside the hard Hs in any stationery/office supplies/art shop and they can be bought in packs of 12. You also need to provide your little artists with endless drawing paper. Buy sheets in packs – much cheaper than artist’s pads – but get drawing quality cartridge paper, NOT photocopy paper. Photocopy paper should only be used in art emergencies; it shouldn’t be your go-to drawing paper – it hasn’t got good ‘tooth’. It’s the paper equivalent of using margarine instead of butter. A pack of 100 A3 sheets of cartridge paper is about €3.55  in art supply stores, a ream (500 sheets) is about €13. Go large. A4 is a squashed, mean size for kids who are only getting their motor skills in gear and their creative juices flowing. A3 is a good size of paper and will fit on desks, A2 is an invitation to hit the floor and go wild.

Happy drawing!


This post is especially for the students at Marino Institute of Education. (MIE) is an associated college of Trinity College, Dublin, the University of Dublin.  This is my third year as writer-in-residence.

TECHNICAL NOTE: Pencils behave very differently on different paper surfaces. Also pencil leads differ from manufacturer to manufacturer so that one maker’s 4B will be softer and darker than another’s – the ones in the photos are a bunch of Faber Castell ones we bought for using with participants at the draw along workshops we do. The H/F/B system of grading leads is used by UK/European and some USA pencil makers. Some USA manufacturers use #/numbers so #1 = B, #2 = HB and #4 =2H. Learn more about pencils here.