A mechanical pencil, also clutch pencil, is a pencil with a replaceable and mechanically extendable solid pigment core called a The lead, often made of graphite, is not bonded to the outer casing, and can be mechanically extended as its point is worn away as it is being used. Other names include microtip pencil, automatic pencil, drafting pencil, technical pencil, click pencil, pump pen, pump pencil, leadholder, pacer (Australian English), propelling pencil (British and Australian English), pen pencil (Indian English), and lead pencil (Bangladeshi and American English).
Mechanical pencils are used to provide lines of constant width without sharpening in technical drawing and in quick, neat writing. They have also been used for fine-art drawing. Since they do not have to be sharpened, they are also very popular with students. Mechanical pencils were first used in the 18th century, with many designs patented in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Conrad Gesner described a lead holder pencil in 1565, but the lead had to be manually adjusted to sharpen it.The earliest extant example of a mechanical pencil was found aboard the wreckage of HMS Pandora, which sank in 1791.
The first patent for a refillable pencil with lead-propelling mechanism was issued to Sampson Mordan and John Isaac Hawkins in Britain in 1822. After buying out Hawkins’ patent rights, Mordan entered into a business partnership with Gabriel Riddle from 1823 to 1837. The earliest Mordan pencils are thus hallmarked SMGR. After 1837, Mordan ended his partnership with Riddle and continued to manufacture pencils as “S. Mordan & Co”. His company continued to manufacture pencils and a wide range of silver objects until World War II, when the factory was bombed.
Between 1822 and 1874, more than 160 patents were registered pertaining to a variety of improvements to mechanical pencils. The first spring-loaded mechanical pencil was patented in 1877 and a twist-feed mechanism was developed in 1895. The 0.9 mm lead was introduced in 1938, and later it was followed by 0.3, 0.5 and 0.7 sizes. Eventually, 1.3 and 1.4 mm mechanisms were available, and 0.4 and 0.2 versions are now produced.
The mechanical pencil became successful in Japan with some improvements in 1915 by Tokuji Hayakawa, a metalworker who had just finished his apprenticeship. It was introduced as the “Ever-Ready Sharp Pencil”. Success was not immediate since the metal shaft—essential for the pencil’s long life—was unfamiliar to users. The Ever-Ready Sharp began selling in huge numbers after a company from Tokyo and Osaka made large orders. Later, Tokuji Hayakawa’s company got its name from that pencil: Sharp.
At nearly the same time in the US, Charles R. Keeran was developing a similar pencil that would be the precursor of most of today’s pencils. Keeran’s design was ratchet-based, whereas Hayakawa’s was screw-based. These two development histories – Hayakawa and Keeran – are often mistakenly combined into one. Keeran patented his lead pencil in 1915 and soon afterwards arranged production. After some improvements, his design was marketed as the “Eversharp” pencil by the Wahl Adding Machine Company; by the early 1920s, Wahl had sold more than 12,000,000 Eversharps.
Some of the manufacturers are: Pentel, Pilot, Tombow, Uni-ball and Zebra of Japan; Faber-Castell, Lamy, Rotring and Staedtler of Germany; Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth of the Czech Republic; Bic of France; Monami of South Korea; PaperMate and Parker of USA; Caran d’Ache of Switzerland and numerous Chinese as well as other Asian and European manufacturers.
Mechanical pencils can be divided into two basic types: those that both hold the lead and can actively propel it forward, and those that only hold the lead in position.
Screw-based pencils advance the lead by twisting a screw, which moves a slider down the barrel of the pencil. This was the most common type in the earlier part of the twentieth century. Many of these have a locking mechanism one way to allow the lead to be pushed back into the pencil.
A clutch pencil (or leadholder) tends to use thicker leads (2.0–5.6 mm) and generally holds only one piece of lead at a time. A typical clutch pencil is activated by pressing the eraser cap on the top, to open the jaws inside the tip and allow the lead to freely drop through from the barrel (or back into it when retracting). Because the lead falls out freely when the jaws are opened, its forward movement cannot be controlled except by external means. This can be easily done by keeping the tip of the pencil a few millimeters above a work surface or the palm of one’s hand. Some clutch pencils do have mechanisms which incrementally advance the lead, such as the Alvin Tech-Matic leadholder, but these are not normally considered to be in the same category as most pencils with propelling mechanisms.
Ratchet-based pencils are a variant of the clutch pencil, in which the lead by two or three small jaws inside a ring at the tip. The jaws are controlled by a button on the end or the side of the pencil. When the button is pushed, the jaws move forward and separate, allowing the lead to advance. When the button is released and the jaws retract, the “lead retainer” (a small rubber device inside the tip) keeps the lead in place, preventing the lead from either falling freely outward or riding back up into the barrel until the jaws recover their grip. Other designs use a precisely-fitted metal sleeve to guide and support the lead, and do not need a rubber retainer.
In one type of ratchet-based pencil, shaking the pencil back and forth causes a weight inside the pencil to operate a mechanism in the cap. A button may be present on the top or side of the pencil, to allow the user to advance the lead manually when necessary. Another variation advances the lead automatically. In this design, the lead is advanced by a ratchet but only prevented from going back into the pencil, just held from falling by a small amount of friction. The nib is a spring-loaded collar that, when depressed as the lead is worn away, extends out again when pressure is released.
An advanced ratchet type has a mechanism that rotates the pencil lead 9° counter-clockwise every time the lead is pressed on to the paper (which counts as one stroke), to distribute wear evenly. This auto-rotation mechanism keeps the lead 50% narrower than in the common propelling mechanical pencils, resulting in uniform thickness of the lines written onto the paper. The design was first patented by Schmidt of Germany, and later developed by Mitsubishi Pencil Company of Japan, and named Kuru Toga under the Uni brand.This type of pencil is most suited for Asian languages that have multiple strokes per letter or word, where the pencil is frequently lifted off the paper. The mechanism is not suitable for cursive writing used in western scripts. Another recent auto-rotation movement by Uni rotates the lead 18 degrees per stroke (or 20 strokes per complete revolution), which is better suited for western scripts.
There exist protection mechanisms that prevent the lead from breaking (within certain limits) when excessive pressure is exerted while writing. A mechanism employed in the DelGuard system by Zebra of Japan causes the lead sleeve to extend outward when excessive pressure is applied at an angle. When excess vertical pressure is applied on the lead, the lead is automatically retracted inwards.
Higher-end mechanical pencils often feature a lead hardness grade indicator and sometimes feature a retractable lead guide pipe. This allows the lead guide pipe to retract back into the pencil body, which will keep it protected in storage and during transit and makes it ‘pocket-safe’.
As with non-mechanical pencils, the leads of mechanical pencils are available in a range of hardness ratings, depending on the user’s desired balance between darkness and durability. A commonly-used mechanical pencil lead is identical in density, but not in thickness to a traditional HB (US#2) pencil lead.
Mechanical pencils with colored leads are less common, but do exist. Crayola’s “Twistable” product line includes two different types of colored pencils (erasable and non-erasable) with mechanical feed mechanisms, but does not offer refill leads. Several companies such as Pentel, Pilot, and Uni-ball (Mitsubishi Pencil Co.) currently manufacture colored refill leads in a limited range of diameters (0.5 mm, 0.7 mm, or 2.0 mm) for their own products. Koh-i-Noor makes mechanical colored pencils with replaceable leads in 2.0, 3.15 and 5.6 mm sizes.
Do you need some pointers on picking out the perfect mechanical pencil? With so many to choose from, it can be hard to know where to start looking. In this guide, we’ll share our top mechanical pencil recommendations, along with some tips on how to choose the one that’s right for you.
Combining the looks of a high-end executive pencil with a very reasonable mid-range price, the Pentel Sharp Kerry is easy to fall in love with. With its distinctive capped design and attractive resin barrel, it resembles a fancy rollerball or fountain pen. Its cap isn’t just stylish—it keeps the tip from bending, as well as protecting your pencil case or pocket from poking. When capped, the Kerry is an easily pocketable 4.9” long, and with the cap posted it is a well-sized and perfectly balanced 5.2”. A cleverly integrated button in the cap lets you extend the lead whether the cap is posted or unposted. Removing the cap button reveals an eraser, and removing the button on the body of the pencil exposes the lead storage tube. The Pentel Sharp Kerry is a sleek, smartly-designed pencil for any occasion.
When Uni introduced the Kuru Toga, it was a revolution—literally. With a conventional mechanical pencil, the tip of the lead gets worn down into a broad wedge shape as you write, making your writing look uneven. The Kuru Toga solves this problem with its built-in ratchet mechanism that rotates the lead slightly every time you lift the lead off the page. This causes the lead to be worn down into a sharp, consistent conical point.
The Kuru Toga is aptly named by taking two words from the Japanese language and merging them together. “Kuru” (クル) is an onomatopoeia for something turning or rotating, and “toga” (トガ) is taken from the verb “togaru” (とがる), meaning to taper to a point or become sharp. The name conjures up an image of something constantly spinning to a precise point, which is exactly what the Kuru Toga does.
The Kuru Toga Roulette takes this auto lead rotation mechanism and puts it into a luxuriously sleek, high-quality body. It features a metal grip section that’s comfortable to hold and gives the Roulette a low center of gravity—a characteristic that makes the pencil feel more nimble and easy to control in the hand. Three rows of gentle knurling on the grip provide extra purchase for your fingers as well as added visual appeal.
There are only two things that kept the Roulette from sharing the top spot with the Pentel Sharp Kerry. First, the fixed lead sleeve makes it less portable and pocket-friendly than it would be if it had a retractable lead sleeve. Second, the Kuru Toga mechanism can cause a slightly squishy feeling when you press the lead down on the paper and the tip retracts a fraction of a millimeter. It’s a very minor sensation and we stopped noticing it almost immediately. But if you are especially sensitive to pencils with a little give in the tip, the Kuru Toga may not be the best choice for you.
For the ultimate ergonomic mechanical pencil, the Alpha Gel Kuru Toga wins hands down. Not only does the delightfully squishy silicone Alpha Gel grip mold luxuriously to your fingers, the Kuru Toga mechanism keeps the lead sharp and consistent. You can even watch the mechanism spin through a small window in the barrel of the pencil.
And, although this is not advertised anywhere on its packaging, we found that you can even customize the look of the pencil by unscrewing the clear plastic outer barrel and inserting a rolled piece of paper decorated however you want!
Available in 0.3 mm and even 0.2 mm lead sizes, the Pentel Orenz is the final word when it comes to ultra-fine writing and drawing. Normally, these lead sizes are prohibitively delicate for all but the lightest-handed users. But thanks to the Orenz’s long sliding lead sleeve, which protects the entire length of the lead, broken leads are virtually a non-issue. As you write with the Orenz, the lead sleeve gently touches the paper and retreats back into the tip of the pencil as the lead is worn down. The edge of the lead sleeve is rounded, so it doesn’t feel like it’s scratching or catching on the paper as you write.
The Zebra DelGuard uses an ingeniously engineered two-part system to protect lead from both vertical and sideways pressure. A spring in the barrel allows the lead to retreat into the pencil tip if it faces too much top-down force. A second spring in the tip of the pencil extends a pipe when it senses too much lateral stress. These combined mechanisms create a pencil that effectively protects its lead no matter how it’s held.
For the absolute smallest mechanical pencil around, we recommend the Zebra Techo TS-3. At under 4 inches in length and just 5.5 mm in diameter, it will slide inconspicuously into the smallest pants pocket or planner pen loop. It’s great for jotting down a quick note, but its short length and slender profile can make it a bit uncomfortable for those with larger hands. If you want something just a little bit bigger, the Platinum Mini Mechanical Pencil is another great choice.
No one mechanical pencil will perfectly suit all artists, but we’ve picked the Pilot Color Eno because a wide range of artists should find it a fun addition to their process. Its soft colored lead creates vivid sketches that don’t show through under ink and beautifully complement watercolor washes, and it erases with ease. Some colors, like soft blue, can also be digitally removed from scanned ink lines.
Color-coded pencil bodies make it effortless to pick the right Color Eno from your pencil case. Refill these pencils with colorful Pilot Color Eno Neox leads (or even put it in any 0.7 mm pencil you choose). One warning: the leads are not lightfast, so they’re best for temporary applications like underdrawings or sketchbooks that you keep out of the sun.
The Kokuyo FitCurve is one of our all-time favorite mechanical pencils and a perfect choice for students. Its wide, firm rubber grip will keep hands comfortable during marathon note-taking sessions, and its replaceable, inch-long twist eraser ensures that you’ll always be ready to correct an errant mark or math equation. A sliding lead sleeve helps protect the lead from breaking and lets you write longer between clicks of the top push button.
The Kaweco Special features the elegant mix of modern and classic styling that distinguishes Kaweco writing instruments. Its octagonal body and long nose cone evoke the image of a traditional wooden pencil. The edges of the body are gently rounded to provide a surprisingly comfortable writing experience.
The Special is available in two materials: sleek, lightweight aluminum and hefty, eye-catching brass.
The Tombow Mono Graph Shaker Mechanical Pencil is a classic and effective shaker pencil. Its shake-extend mechanism is the quietest we carry, gently releasing more lead with minimal rattle or bounce. Plus, it includes a locking mechanism, so your lead won’t escape and break off in transit. Lead can also be extended (or retracted) by pressing down the side clip. The Graph Shaker caps everything off with a generous twist-extend eraser, and as a final bonus, it’s available in more colors than the rainbow, including pastels, neons and metallics.
Mechanical pencils can use a variety of different methods to advance the lead. This is something you’ll have to do a lot when using a mechanical pencil, so it’s worth considering which kind of mechanism you prefer.
Push Button : The vast majority of modern mechanical pencils use a push button that advances a fixed amount of lead with each click. The button is usually on the top of the pencil, but it can also be on the side of the pencil or even built into its clip.
Shaker: The shaker mechanism is a relatively recent addition to the mechanical pencil world, but it has caught on in a big way. With a shake of the pencil, a sliding internal weight activates an internal click mechanism to advance the lead. This lets you advance the lead without having to change your grip. Many people find shaker pencils to be easier or more comfortable than push button pencils, but not everyone does. Conveniently, virtually all shaker pencils also include a conventional push button mechanism as well.
Twist: Twist mechanisms advance and retract the lead with a turn of a knob located in the top cap or nose cone of the pencil. This allows continuous adjustment of the lead, letting you choose the exact length of lead that you want. Twist mechanisms are particularly common among older mechanical pencils. Twist mechanisms do have some limitations, however. They are usually only found in pencils that take wider leads (0.7 mm and above) and generally only hold one piece of lead at a time.
Bend (or “Body Knock”):This innovative mechanism allows you to advance the lead simply by squeezing the pencil at a special joint in the grip section. In practice, the mechanism works like a side push button, but because the pencil can be bent in any direction it doesn’t need to be held in any specific way.
Automatic :With an automatic mechanical pencil, you don’t need to do anything to advance the lead! Just keep writing, and once the lead is used down to the edge of the lead sleeve, the pressure of the paper on the lead sleeve activates a ratchet mechanism that pushes out more lead. In practice, this means that you will be doing most of your writing with the lead sleeve dragging on the paper. Some people find this bothersome, so keep it in mind when considering an automatic pencil.
Lead size is one of the most important parts of how a mechanical pencil writes. Thinner leads produce sharp, fine lines but are more fragile and easily broken. Wider leads are smooth and break-resistant, but they are not the best for fine detail work. Most mechanical pencils use 0.5 mm or 0.7 mm leads, which offer a great balance of precision and break-resistance, but some use leads as fine as 0.2 mm or as broad as 1.3 mm. 0.5 mm and 0.7 mm pencils also have the widest selection of lead grades to choose from.
A comfortable grip section is essential to a good writing experience. Mechanical pencil grips come in a range of diameters and materials, and your individual preferences will determine what kind of grip will work best for you.
Mechanical pencil grips can vary widely in diameter. A wider grip may be best for those with larger hands or those suffering from arthritis, repetitive strain injury, or other hand issues. People with smaller hands often find a narrower grip to be more comfortable.
Mechanical pencil grips also vary in material. The most common materials are plastic, rubber, silicone, and metal, but more exotic materials are also available. Plastic grips are firm and warm quickly to the touch. Rubber and silicone grips can range from firm-yet-grippy to pillow-like squishiness. Metal grips are firm like plastic, but they have a much weightier feel and can remain cool to the touch for longer than plastic.
Most mechanical pencils include a built-in eraser, but it’s often quite small. For those who plan to regularly use their mechanical pencil’s eraser, we recommend choosing one with a generously sized, replaceable eraser—like the Kokuyo FitCurve or Pentel Twist-Erase III.
Even after hundreds of years1, mechanical pencil designers continue to develop innovative new features to make them even better. Here are some useful ones to be aware of.
Mechanical pencils with long metal lead sleeves can pose a particular threat to pockets and pencil cases, poking holes and scratching other pens and pencils. They can also get bent jostling around, rendering the pencil useless. Because of this, many mechanical pencils feature retractable, “pocket-safe” tips.
Retractable tips come in a variety of styles, but the most common type works by holding down the pencil’s top push button, pressing your finger against the end of the lead sleeve, then releasing the push button. The lead sleeve will slide back into the tip of the pencil until the next time you press the top button.
Broken leads are annoying, so mechanical pencil designers have come up with several ways for pencils to protect leads and prevent breakage.
The most common form of lead protection is a sliding lead sleeve. Lead sleeves do a great job of bracing pencil leads against breaking, but they can only protect the lead they actually cover. With a sliding lead sleeve, the surface of the paper pushes the lead sleeve back into the tip of the pencil as the lead wears down, letting you keep on writing with all but the very tip of the lead always protected.
The Pilot Mogulair and Platinum OLEeNU have a built-in spring that cushions the tip of the pencil to absorb excess writing pressure. If you prefer a more industrial look, the Rotring Rapid Pro drafting pencil also has this feature.
The Zebra DelGuard has a similar spring cushion as well as a specially designed lead sleeve that dynamically extends to protect the lead when too much sideways pressure is put on it.
Dual clutch mechanical pencils like the Platinum OLEeNU feature a special tip design that lets you use leads up to the last millimeter. Most mechanical pencils hold the leads in a clutch mechanism located about a centimeter back from the tip of the pencil. Once the lead is too short to reach from the clutch to the tip, it falls out. Not only is this annoying, it wastes over 15% of a typical lead.
With a dual clutch mechanical pencil, as long as there is a second lead in the pencil for the main clutch to hold in place and extend, you will be able to use virtually the entire length of every lead.
A feature currently unique to the Uni Kuru Toga line, auto lead rotation keeps the lead sharper and more consistent. With other mechanical pencils, the lead wears down over time from a sharp point to a broad chisel shape. By using a ratchet mechanism that rotates the lead slightly every time it is pressed against the paper, the lead is evenly worn on all sides, creating a conical lead shape that provides sharp, consistent writing.
One potential downside to the Kuru Toga mechanism is that it creates a tiny feeling of squishiness at the moment when the lead first touches the paper. We found that we quickly adjusted to this effect and stopped noticing it before long, but if you need a mechanical pencil with a perfectly rigid tip, the Kuru Toga might not be for you.
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