“Comparison is the thief of joy.”
Pencils are all consuming monsters of comparison. You can’t help but want to try one against another. The Mitsubishi 9800 is pretty good in HB? Better try to get a B or a 2B. How does it feel compared to the 9800EW in HB? Is it the same core? Is it the same core as the Mitsubishi UniStar HB? How about the Mitsubishi Hi-Uni in HB? How does the Mitsubishi 9800 compare to it’s direct rival, the Tombow 8900 in HB? How does it compare to American pencils like the General’s Kimberly in HB? How does it compare to vintage JIS stock pencils, or defunct no longer in production pencils like the Colleen 2020 in HB, or the Pentel Black Polymer 999 in HB?
The list goes on. I have two sets of active pencils that I can’t help but flip back and forth through. Checking the merits of each one, especially comparing how they feel from one paper type to the next, and a couple of containers of one off pencils that I can try whenever I’m feeling the itch too. It’s an awful affliction.
Pencils don’t always feel the same, either. There could be a bit of grit in the tip at the moment, so it feels scratchier one time you grab it and smooth as butter the next. The tip sharpness can affect how smooth it feels, and how dark a mark it makes (the sharper the tip, the darker the line). If the tip is slightly broken and jagged, it could also feel less smooth than if it was a uniform shape. Are you drawing with it at a 90 degree angle, a 45 degree angle, somewhere in between?
It never, ever ends. And opinions can change from day to day based off of any small change. So, this article will also kind of change as I go. If I find a new pencil, or if I get around to one that was in my backlog of pencils, I’ll update this guide as I go.
And remember, there is no perfect pencil. Nearly every pencil I have, I can see a potential time and place to use (well, nearly all of them). Especially if you are an artist. So just because you don’t love doing quick figure studies with it doesn’t mean you couldn’t do some detailed rendering with it, or potentially be used on a different paper, sketchbook, or lord knows what. Just keep drawing.
Refers to the hardness of the pencil, which is determined primarily by the ratio of graphite to clay binder in the pencil core. Pencils can have other ingredients in the core (wax is impregnated in most cores these days to increase smoothness on the paper, and plastic polymers can be used as binder to increase the strength of the core), but most likely ingredients 1 and 2 will be either Graphite or Clay. There are probably proprietary additives that are trade secrets that are added, but I couldn’t tell you anything specific.
There is no lead in modern pencils, and the only lead in vintage pencils is likely to be in the paint lacquer on the barrel. It is a common term for the core of a pencil.
A Finished End just means that the end of the pencil is covered up with paint or some type of plastic or metal cap. Most nicer pencils have end caps, and cheaper pencils tend to not. It’s usually a good indicator of where the pencil falls in the line that the manufacturer makes.
Just like cars and clothes, pencils can be vintage too. The exact dating is very loose, most of the time people use the term for anything that isn’t currently produced (even if it was 10 years ago). Unless you have been in pencils for a minute, you might not be able to tell, and certain pencils have nearly no distinction from their 1960’s counterparts to now, and some aren’t produced in any modern way at all.
Generally, Mitsubishi is my favorite of the Japanese pencil makers, and I’d say my favorite period. I don’t know why I’m drawn to them, I guess I’ve just had the most consistent experience with them. They all feel very similar, and I can’t think of a bad experience with them in any way. Overall, perfect is a strong term, but once you get a feel for them you’ll know what to expect from then on out.
This is on the top of this post, because it’s my favorite pencil. I love the design (which beyond the yellow dot on the end cap having previously been white, hasn’t changed at all), I love the feel of the graphite and clay mix, and never once have I have experienced a single bit of grit in these pencils. The box they come in is outstanding, and if I have to have a box come in plastic (which I hate that the nice ones nearly all do), this one is the best. They have amazing end caps on them, and is one of the very few pencils with the grade designation on all 6 sides (the Tombow Mono 100 is slacking with a standard 3 side designation).
If you landed here, and you were wondering what to try, just get some of these first. HB if you can only get one grade, if you have it, B, 2B, F, and H all feel great in their own ways too. You could even get the 22 hardness tin set if you wanted to really figure out what you like (the 10B is great as well!).
The vintage on the Hi-Uni feels pretty much identical to today’s modern production pencil. It mostly even looks the same, the biggest difference is the yellow dot on the end cap is white on a vintage. The only other changes are that the pencil has no barcode as a vintage, and no JIS mark on the barrel, and that is all. Remarkable consistency.
Pressure-Proofed Hi-Density Lead
While the Hi-Uni is the top of the line pencil, the Uni is their next best, and you can see Miyazaki using them in documentaries. Has a paint dipped finished end, and comes in different grades, but not as many as the Hi-Uni.
This pencil feels great, some days the same as the Hi-Uni, some days a little harder possibly. The 12 pack case of pencils also comes with an eraser (never used one of them!).
Cheapest of the Uni line, this one only has printing on 2 Sides vs. 3, still has a finished end, and doesn’t feel quite as smooth as the Uni and Hi-Uni. I also thing the logo is a little ugly (their mix of serif and sans-serif fonts isn’t my fav here).
This is their everyday, getting stuff done pencil, and one of my first pencils I got when getting back into pencils. No finished ends, does have a grade designation on 3 sides, and comes in less grades than the Uni lines do, but it’s a great pencil to start out with. Similar to the Uni-Star, a little grittier in HB than the Uni or Hi-Uni, but still pretty darn smooth.
Same as the 9800, but this bad boy actually uses recycled cedar(!) bits that are finger jointed to make a full length slats. They look great, and feel good in the hand after they have been used for a while and get your skins oils in them. No clear coat on the pencil as far as I can tell, which I can’t think of many other pencils that do this besides the General’s Cedar Pointe.
Mitsubishi Kohitsu Shosha
These pencils create a fantastic dark mark, but are pretty dang strong for how soft they are (this one is a 6B). I’m not saying they are any particularly better than any other 6B pencil, but they are fun. The paint job isn’t my favorite but it works.
Tombow is the main competition in modern day Japan for Mitsubishi, and they are really nice pencils. The biggest demeritt to them at this point is that they aren’t exactly “Japanese” pencils, as since the mid 2010’s they started moving production to Vietnam. This has caused me to not only get their current stock, but attempt to get old stock from when they were made in Japan. I’ve heard tell that the lead is still made in Japan, and it’s assembled in Vietnam, but they aren’t very loud and proud about that, which leads me to believe that might not be the case. They are exceptional pencils though, and I think they deserve a look.
FOR hi-precision DRAFTING
Tombows answer to the Hi-uni, these pencils exude class more than most, and are the longest eraserless pencils I know of at 7.2 inches or so. These pencils are going to be ever so slightly softer than the Hi-Uni by grade, so their HB feels a little softer than the Hi-Uni HB. It’s a classy looking pencil, and feels good in the hand. This is my second favorite pencil I would say after the Hi-Uni. Some people say that the new ones made in Vietnam aren’t as amazing as the ones made in Japan, but I think they are pretty darn great still, and the feel very similar to the made in Japan vintage one I have.
The Mono 100 in vintage has mostly the same looks, but a lot more differences compared to the Hi-Uni in vintage. The logo has changed, some of the imprint, no barcode, has a JIS logo, but the graphite feels remarkably similar. It’s definitely a lot easier to tell one from the other.
FOR hi-precision DRAFTING
Tombow’s second best pencil, the Mono was their answer to the release of the Mitsubishi Uni in the 60’s. The Mono is a little thicker than most pencils, and I’m not sure exactly why. I don’t have calipers, but I’m pretty sure it’s thicker than the Mono 100, and way thicker than the Mono R. Not as fancy of an end cap, and a very similar colorway to the Koh-I-Noor 1900 (unsure which came first). This pencil is all around pretty great, my biggest gripe is that the gold imprint on white is hard to read sometimes depending on your lighting and the angle of the pencil. This pencil is called the Mono Professional in the USA.
The imprint is obviously different, there is no barcode, and there is a JIS mark. The lead feels near identical.
Tombow Mono R
FOR hi-precision DRAFTING The Tombow Mono R is probably my least favorite of the current Tombow produced pencils. It’s a perfectly fine pencil, but I think to get the price point that this pencil has with all the bells and whistles they use a slightly smaller width of pencil, so they can get an extra pencil per wood slat. It leaves you with quite a narrow pencil. Also, while it does have a end cap, the overall paint job is not nearly as nice as most of the other pencils they produce. Thinner lacquer, and the imprint and embellishments really take a beating as you use it. It writes solid enough, just not my favorite.
The older models were still a bit thin, but the paint job was a little better. Also, I feel like the lead formula did change a little, the older model HB that I have has a slightly harder lead, nothing wild but it is noticeable.
Tombow Mono J
FOR hi-precision DRAFTING
Tombow really cornered the market on hi-precision drafting, let me tell ya! This pack was purchased in 2022 and it still has “Made in Japan” on it. I’ve never gotten a confirmation of if these are just from an old batch and they have moved production to Vietnam for this model too, or if they maybe still produce these in Japan (maybe to still be able to say they are a Japanese pencil manufacturer). Regardless, it’s a fine pencil, writes well.
Not a one to one comparison because they are different lead grades, but the old models imprint is fun.
Tombow Homo 4612
PRECISION DRAFTING & PHOTO-RETOUCHING
This is the pencil that begat the Mono line. It’s probably my favorite natural pencil, the clear coat on it gives it a near jewel like look. Feels great, a little soft to grade (the F feels closer to a modern HB to me), just a joy of a pencil. I only have a few in different grades, I’d love to have a full 12 pack of them so I wouldn’t have to be so precious with them. One day, hopefully.
“Kita-boshi” 9500 Super Drawing
For Retouching & Special Drawing
These pencils have an excellently thick, shiny lacquer on them. The green and gold work so well here, and everyone I’ve seen is cedar. Unfinished ends, and the lead feels a bit more soft, similar to the way a modern Tombow pencil feels honestly. They mix gold and silver foil for the imprinted type, some people hate it, but I like it.
Colleen Brand Pencils
Colleen 2020 Super drawing
Drafting and Retouching Use
Colleen is a pencil brand from Japan that went out of business in 1997 if I remember correctly. The Colleen 2020 is on the harder side for a Japanese pencil. I’m not sure how the other stock from the brand is, but I have their 2020 in a F and a HB, and they are both much harder than I ever expected (not quite German hard, but pretty close). The 2020 has unfinished ends, and has the wildest dull green color that I haven’t really seen any other pencil manufacturer go for. I felt a bit of grit every now and again, but they are OK overall.
I’m mostly guessing that this one is vintage. Isn’t a direct grade to grade comparison so hard to tell, but quite a different look, and it has an end cap!
Colleen 3030 Super Drawing
Drafting and Retouching Use
My version of this one is interesting, it has a 3rd side where it says it’s for some corporation (you’ll see this from time to time with pencils, most of the time they only have the corporation it’s for, not the pencil name or the company who made it). This pencil feels slightly harder and not as smooth as the 2020 to be honest, which surprises me. Not by any major amount, but I can feel something. I don’t find myself reaching for this one quite as often.
Colleen Hi pierce Super Quality
Colleen’s answer to the Mitsubishi Hi-Uni I would imagine, these pencils have finished ends, and honestly feel pretty similar to the Colleen 2020, at least a direct comparison from HB to HB. The ends have different colors depending on the grade, which I think is nice to help quickly determine which one you have.
Colleen Core 5050
For Draftmen, Designers, Copy-writers
Unsure if this was their earlier top tier line or if they ran concurrent with the Hi pierce and one was considered nicer than the other. These pencils don’t feel too different than most Colleen’s, this pencil also comes in a blue that I prefer but this is the one I was able to source.
Pentel Brand Pencils
Pentel Black Polymer 999
the highest quality for general use
That’s a tall order, and a lot of people would agree. This pencil is one of the few that has uses polymer instead of clay as the binder (I have a pencil conspiracy theory that a lot of pencils use a little bit of polymer now a days, but that’s just me). The pencil isn’t as fancy as you’d expect from how much the pencil cost then and especially now (I paid $50 or so for 3 of them, and I’ve seen it even higher now). The imprint has a lot of imperfections, and the endcap looks “cheaply” applied. It writes a smidge hard for an HB, and for the price there is no reason to get this over other pencils at this point. It does look pretty cool though, overall (most black pencils do).
Kutsuwa Brand Pencils
Hokusign Hardly Broken Pencil
This is the modern successor to the Pentel Black Polymer 999 pencil, and it’s a decent enough pencil. I like the look of it, it only has printing on one side of the barrel, and the end caps are color coded so it’s easy to tell which grade it is, but a grade designation printed on the barrel would have been nice too.
It does feel similar to the Black Polymer, if a little softer by grade. I wouldn’t call it an exact dupe but it’s nice. These are getting much harder to find on Amazon.co.jp, I wish I got a whole box when I had a chance.
Sailor Brand Pencils
No super special sayings on this one. Has a nice, slightly duller maroon than a Uni pencil, but still nice. White finished end cap, the wood is weird and not cedar, no idea what it could be. Slightly on the harder side for this HB, and the wood looks like some composite wood.
Eye Ball pencils
Degrees Drawing Pencil
This is an even more unabashed take on the Mitsubish Hi-Uni, though it looks more like the Uni. It’s honestly a great looking little pencil, I love the logo on it. Feels good to draw with, has unfinished ends.
I’m going to keep updating this list as I get time and as I acquire more unique pencils.