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The Best Mechanical Pencil Leads

The Best Mechanical Pencil Leads

February 15, 2022 - Posted by Ryan to Guides, Pencils, Mechanical Pencils

The Best Mechanical Pencil Leads

When it comes to mechanical pencils, the right lead can make all the difference between a delightful writing experience and one that is merely mediocre. Whether you’re using a 40-cent Bic or a $400 Montblanc, it’s the lead that determines how a pencil writes. Let’s take a look at our top pencil lead recommendations, then delve into an extensive comparison of all our lead brands.

Top Choices
Best Smooth Mechanical Pencil Lead: Pilot Neox
Pilot Neox
Pilot Neox leads are lovely for drawing and scribbling quick notes.
Pilot Neox leads are smooth and dark, with a lubricated feel that makes for an effortless writing and sketching experience. This is because Neox leads are made with high-purity graphite. With fewer impurities in the lead, the layered graphite sheets that make up the lead are able to slide onto the page with minimal resistance. Neox leads erase like a dream, making them great for correcting mistakes or adding highlights to drawings. They come in a wide range of sizes and hardness grades.

The tradeoff for this luxurious smoothness and effortless erasability is reduced longevity. Uni Smudge-Proof leads aren’t quite as buttery, but they last notably longer. Contrarily, if even Neox leads don’t feel quite smooth enough for you, Rotring Tikky leads are the smoothest leads we have and just as dark as the Neox leads. They get used up much faster than even the Neox leads, however, and they’re less break resistant, less easily erasable, and only come in HB.

Best Durable Mechanical Pencil Lead: Uni Smudge-Proof
Uni Smudge-Proof
Uni Smudge-Proof leads hold up to rough treatment.
Uni Smudge-Proof Leads boast over one and a half times the longevity of the Neox. In addition to impressive longevity, their formula bonds to paper fibers, reducing smudging. We found they worked best on paper with some texture. They write with average darkness, but (unlike the Neox) have no graphite dust fallout. For notes that will stay legible even after plenty of rustling about, and for a stress-free writing experience, pick up some Smudge-Proof leads.
Best Mechanical Pencil Lead for Precision: Pentel Ain Stein
Pentel Ain Stein
Pentel Ain Stein leads are perfect for writing math formulas and diagrams.
Super-smooth leads may be great for free-flowing words and drawings, but for precise math formulas and diagrams, we prefer leads with a bit more tooth. Pentel Ain Stein leads give just the right amount of tactile feedback to feel pleasant yet under control. They too have better smudge resistance than the Neox—an important quality when you’re carrying important notes and assignments around in a binder.

Ain Stein leads come in the widest selection of grades and sizes, including the ultra-fine 0.2 mm size (perfect for pairing with the Pentel Orenz 0.2 mm mechanical pencil).

Choosing the Right Lead Size and Grade
Choosing the Right Lead Size and Grade
Pentel Ain Stein leads have the widest range of sizes and grades of any lead we carry.
The most important considerations when choosing leads for your mechanical pencil are lead size and lead grade. Unless you pick these two things well, you won’t be happy no matter which specific brand or line of leads you choose.
Lead Size
Marks made by lead sizes ranging from 0.2 mm to 5.6 mm
Leads can range from incredibly delicate to impressively chunky.

If you’re looking for leads to go with a pencil you already own, then this part is easy. Just pick the one that matches your pencil. If you’re open to experimenting with new pencil sizes, however, there are some things to consider.

Thinner leads produce sharp, precise lines, but they’re also more delicate and get used up faster. Wider leads are smooth and relatively break-resistant, but they aren’t as precise and can produce inconsistent line widths as the lead wears down unevenly. (Unless you’re using a Kuru Toga pencil, of course.)

0.5 mm and 0.7 mm leads are the most popular, and they’re available in the widest selection of brands and lead grades, too. If you’re not sure which lead size to pick, these two are a good place to start.

Here are our recommended uses for each lead size:

Lead SizeRecommended Uses
0.2 mm to 0.4 mmExtra-fine writing, detailed drawings, compact math equations
0.5 mmEveryday writing and drawing, math equations, applications that call for a variety of lead grades
0.7 mmEveryday writing and drawing, heavy-handed writers, applications that call for a variety of lead grades.
0.9 mm and upBold writing and sketching, very heavy-handed writers

For an even better look at all the different lead sizes there are to choose from, be sure to check out our guide!

Lead Grade
Comparison of lead grades from 4H to 4B.
Lead grade has a huge impact on the behavior of your lead.
If you grew up in the US, the pencil grade you’re probably most familiar with is the classic No. 2 pencil. Mechanical pencil leads use a different scale that can be a bit confusing at first, filled with letters like H, B, and occasionally even F.

But what do lead grades actually mean? Mechanical pencil leads are made of a mixture of graphite and a binder material such as clay. The more graphite is in the lead, the softer, smoother, and darker it will be. Conversely, the more clay is in the lead, the harder, toothier, and lighter it will be. Lead grades are a handy way of distinguishing which balance of these properties each lead has.

The mechanical pencil equivalent of a No. 2 pencil is HB lead, which is also the most popular grade of mechanical pencil lead. If you don’t know where to start, you can’t go wrong with an HB lead.

If you want an especially smooth and dark lead, we recommend a B or 2B lead. It can be tempting to go all the way out to 4B, but in our experience 4B leads are a bit too soft and prone to smudging for everyday writing.

On the other hand, if you want a slightly firmer, less smudge-prone lead, go for an H or F lead.

You can find more lead-grade-related information and recommendations in our guide to the best lead grade for every application.

Other Considerations

Once you know the lead size and grade you want, the next step is deciding which brand to buy. The lead brand generally doesn’t make as much of a difference to the writing experience as the size and grade do, but it’s definitely still noticeable. Think of it as an opportunity to fine-tune your lead choice from good to great.

Read on to see which leads came out on top when we tested them head-to-head in six different categories. All of our tests were done with 0.5 mm HB leads (except Faber-Castell, only available in 0.7 mm), so please note that your experience with other lead sizes and grades may vary.

Writing with Rotring Tikky and Pilot Neox leads is smooth and silky.
Out of all the HB leads we tested, the Rotring Tikky and Pilot Neox leads had the smoothest writing feel. The leads with the most feedback were the LAMY M-Series, Tombow Mono Graph, and Zebra DelGuard.

Very smooth leads give a luxurious writing and sketching experience, but for more precise work like math homework and technical drawing, we prefer the control offered by leads with more feedback. And as we mentioned earlier, a lead’s hardness grade has a huge impact on how smooth it is. If you want to increase the smoothness or feedback of your pencil, try using a softer or harder lead grade, respectively.

Darkness Test
The darkness range in leads of the same grade doesn't vary dramatically, but subtle variations still exist.
The Pilot Neox and Rotring Tikky leads proved to be the darkest in our testing, while the Kaweco, Pentel Ain Stein, and Tombow Mono Graph leads were the lightest. This isn’t too surprising since—like smoothness—darkness is closely tied to a lead’s hardness or softness.
Break Resistance
Break Resistance
Break-resistant lead reduces lead waste and hassle.
For the heavy-handed writers among us, broken leads can be a constant frustration. Many of our leads are specially formulated to be stronger than typical leads, and we found all of the following leads to be equally good at resisting breakage:

Another effective way to reduce lead breakage is with a lead-guarding mechanical pencil like the Zebra DelGuard.

Pentel Ain Stein and Uni Smudge-Proof leads boast impressive longevity.
Some leads last longer than others before wearing down. In addition to being cost efficient, longer-lasting leads also save you from having to extend the lead as often.

We found the longest-lasting leads to be the Pentel Ain Stein and Uni Smudge-Proof leads. The Kaweco leads also last for a long time, but they break so much more easily that all but the lightest-handed writers will probably get less mileage out of them in the real world.

All longevity tests were performed using two clicks worth of lead in a Rotring 600 pencil (approximately 1 mm of lead), writing with the minimum pressure necessary to leave a dark mark. A full line in our testing was 37 5.0 mm squares on Rhodia paper. The vertical line near the end of most of the tests marks the "cutoff" where the pencil stopped writing well. Lead longevity will vary depending on your writing pressure.

Pilot Neox, Uni Hi-Uni, and Zebra DelGuard leads are easily erased, great for artists and the mistake-prone.
All of the leads we tested had good erasability, but the easiest to erase were the Pilot Neox, Uni Hi-Uni, and Zebra DelGuard leads. Some leads, like the Kaweco and Staedtler Mars leads, took a bit more effort to erase than the others did, but they all erased cleanly in the end.

Our testing was done using a Uni Boxy eraser and ordinary copy paper. We tested how cleanly each lead erased with a single pass of the eraser and when fully erased using as many passes as necessary.

Smudge Resistance
Smudge Resistance
Kaweco, Pentel Ain Stein, Uni Smudge-Proof, and Tombow Mono Graph leads won't cause extra mess.
Smudging can be caused by accidentally rubbing the page with the palm of your hand or simply by pages rubbing against each other. All of the leads we tested smudged to some degree, but the ones that smudged the least were the Kaweco, Tombow Mono Graph, and (unsurprisingly) Uni Smudge-Proof leads, followed by the Pentel Ain Stein leads.
Specialty Leads

There are a few leads we carry that aren’t necessarily important for everyone but have some interesting features that are worth mentioning.

Pilot Color Eno Neox Colored Leads (0.7 mm)
Bright Pilot Color Eno Neox leads are great for sketching on the go.
If you want a colorful alternative to normal graphite leads, we recommend Pilot Color Eno Neox leads. They work in any 0.7 mm mechanical pencil and are more erasable and break resistant than most colored leads (though still less than graphite leads). They come in eight colors, including the popular Soft Blue—a favorite among artists for preliminary sketches due to its non-photo-blue properties and ability to be easily edited out of digitally scanned artwork.

Check out our guide to colored mechanical pencil leads for an extensive comparison of all our colored leads.

E+M and Kaweco leads (1.18 mm)
Thick E+M and Kaweco leads might fit that vintage mechanical pencil you have lying around.
1.1 mm, 1.15 mm, or 1.18 mm—they go by different names depending on the brand, but they’re all actually the same width. Not many pencils use these leads nowadays, but they were very common throughout the early and mid 20th century. If you have a vintage mechanical pencil that uses thick leads, there’s a good chance these leads will work with it.

(If you try them and they’re a bit too thick, try a 0.9 mm lead instead.)

The E+M and Kaweco leads tend towards the lighter, less-smooth side of the lead spectrum.

Pentel Mark Sheet (1.3 mm)
Pentel Mark Sheet lead is similar to the lead in a wooden pencil.
This wide lead gives a smooth, bold writing experience closer to that of a wooden pencil than a typical mechanical pencil. They’re also great for quickly filling in Scantron-style fill-in-the-blank answer sheets. The Pentel Mark Sheet lead is smooth and dark, but not too difficult to erase—a good thing if you need to change an answer on a test sheet.

How We Approach Research & Testing

Our writers draw on their personal expertise, consult our in-house subject matter experts, and do extensive research to make our guides as accurate and comprehensive as possible. We then test every finding that makes it through the research stage. Only the techniques and tools whose performance we personally confirm make it into our guides as recommendations.

Final Thoughts

It's hard to go too wrong in the wide world of leads, but we hope this guide has helped you find the lead that's best for you. Have you got any lingering lead-related questions? Would you like to give a shout-out to your favorite mechanical pencil lead? We’d love to hear it in the comments below!

LeadSmoothnessDarknessBreak ResistanceLongevityErasabilitySmudge Resistance
Faber-CastellAverageLess DarkGoodVery HighAverageGood
KawecoAverageLess DarkLowHighAverageVery Good
LAMY M-seriesMore FeedbackAverageAverageAverageGoodAverage
Pentel Ain SteinAverageLess DarkGoodHighVery GoodGood
Pilot NeoxVery SmoothDarkGoodAverageExcellentAverage
Rotring TikkySmoothestDarkAverageLowGoodAverage
Staedtler MarsAverageAverageAverageLowGoodAverage
Tombow Mono GraphMore FeedbackLess DarkGoodAverageVery GoodVery Good
Uni Hi-UniSmoothAverageGoodAverageExcellentAverage
Uni Smudge-ProofSmoothAverageGoodHighVery GoodGood
Zebra DelGuardMore FeedbackAverageGoodAverageExcellentAveage
  • 1 Faber-Castell lead is only available in 0.7 mm, which understandably inflated its results. The surface area of the end of a 0.7 mm lead is about twice that of a 0.5 mm lead, leading us to speculate it should write around twice as much. Furthermore, testing with Ain Stein leads showed that an 0.7 mm lead wrote about 1.67 times as a 0.5 lead. This means that a hypothetical 0.5 mm Faber-Castell lead would likely have a longevity between 11 and 13 lines, which blows our other picks out of the water. However, given the odd circumstances of its testing, we’re not quite comfortable giving it the official crown.