Guide to Mechanical Pencils
Did you know that mechanical pencils actually predate wooden pencils? Before people figured out how to make wood-cased pencils, refillable lead holders were used as the world’s first pencils. Fast-forward through five centuries of innovation and refinement, and today the world is filled with a fantastic variety of fun and functional mechanical pencils to choose from.
Mechanical pencils remain hugely popular because they offer a number of advantages over both wooden pencils and pens:
Advantages of Mechanical Pencils…
Over Wooden Pencils:
- Will never need sharpening
- Create a more consistent line width
- More comfortable
- More compact
- More durable
- Don’t change shape or balance over time as they are used
- Will never skip, bleed, or feather
- Will never leak and ruin your clothes
- More archival—all inks eventually break down and fade, but graphite will last virtually forever!
Now, let’s take a look at some considerations to keep in mind when choosing a mechanical pencil, then explore some specific mechanical pencil recommendations.
Lead Advancement Mechanism
Mechanical pencils can use a variety of different methods to advance the lead. This is something that will be done frequently when using a mechanical pencil, so it’s worth considering which kind of lead advancement mechanism you prefer.
Most mechanical pencils use a push button. The button is usually on the top of the pencil, but it can also be on the side of the pencil or even in the clip. Push buttons are so ubiquitous that even mechanical pencils with other mechanisms often have a push button as well.
A relatively recent addition to the mechanical pencil world is the shaker mechanism. With a shake of the pencil, a sliding internal weight activates an internal click mechanism to advance the lead.
Twist mechanisms advance and retract the lead with a turn of a knob, usually 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.
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.
With an automatic mechanical pencil, you don’t need to do anything to advance the lead. Once the lead is used down to the edge of the lead sleeve, the pressure of the paper on the lead sleeve activates a rachet mechanism that pushes out more lead.
Lead size is an important part of what determines 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, but some use leads as fine as 0.2 mm or as broad as 1.3 mm.
For the best writing experience, a comfortable grip section is essential. 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, RSI, or other hand issues. People with smaller hands may prefer a narrower grip.
Mechanical pencil grips also vary in material. The most common materials are plastic, rubber, silicone, and metal, but more exotic materials like wood are also available.
Most mechanical pencils include a built-in eraser, but it’s usually quite small. For those who plan to regularly use their mechanical pencil’s eraser, we recommend choosing one with a generously sized, replaceable eraser.
Even after hundreds of years, mechanical pencil designers continue to develop innovative new features to make them even better.
Metal-tipped mechanical pencils can pose a threat to pockets and pencil cases, causing pokes and scratches to them and their other contents. Because of this, many mechanical pencils feature retractable, “pocket-safe” tips.
Broken leads are annoying, so mechanical pencil designers have come up with several ways to 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. Other mechanical pencils offer more advanced lead protection:
- The Platinum OLEeNU has a built-in spring that cushions the tip of the pencil to absorb excess writing pressure.
- 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.
No, you haven’t changed the channel to Top Gear! Dual clutch mechanical pencils like the Platinum OLEeNU and ZeroShin 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.
Auto Lead Rotation
A feature currently unique to the Uni Kuru Toga line, auto lead rotation keeps the lead sharper and more consistent than in a conventional mechanical pencil. With normal 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, resulting in sharp, consistent writing. It may sound like a gimmick, but it really does work.
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 mechanical pencil with a perfectly rigid tip, the Kuru Toga might not be for you.
For more information on Kuru Toga pencils and the auto lead rotation mechanism, check out our blog article here.
An ideal student mechanical pencil need to be affordable, comfortable, and have a replaceable eraser—preferably a big one.
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 will serve even the most error-prone of students. A sliding lead sleeve helps protect lead from breaking.
Also Consider: Pentel Twist-Erase III
Like the FitCurve, the Pentel Twist-Erase III is super-affordable and features a large, refillable twist eraser and a comfortable rubber grip. It has a thin, fixed lead sleeve, making it a good choice for artists and designers who use templates or a straight edge in their work.
Executive mechanical pencils combine top-notch build quality and stylish design.
Pentel Sharp Kerry
One look at the Pentel Sharp Kerry is enough to show that is no ordinary mechanical pencil, and one use was all it took for us to be completely smitten. With its distinctive capped design, it might easily be mistaken for a fancy rollerball or fountain pen. A cleverly integrated button in the cap lets you extend the lead when the cap is posted. Removing the cap button reveals an eraser, and removing the button on the body of the pencil exposes the lead storage tube.
Also Consider: Kaweco Special AL
The Kaweco Special AL features the elegant mix of modern and classic styling that distinguishes Kaweco writing instruments. Its octagonal body and long conical nose cone evoke the image of a traditional wooden pencil, and its sleek aluminum construction gives the pencil a solid yet lightweight feel. We were pleasantly surprised by how comfortable and natural the Special AL was to hold—the edges of the body are gently rounded to prevent them from digging into your fingertips.
A shiny chrome clip is available separately, and a shorter Special AL Mini is also available.
An everyday carry (EDC) mechanical pencil needs to be portable, durable, and offer good value for money. An eye-catching design doesn’t hurt, either.
Although it is better known in its fountain pen form, the Lamy Safari mechanical pencil is a great writing instrument in its own right and makes for a perfect EDC choice. It is made from nearly indestructible ABS plastic (the stuff LEGO blocks are made from), and its modern design is sure to draw attention. Other useful EDC features include a triangular grip section and a sliding, pocket-safe lead sleeve.
The only place we found where the Safari stumbles a bit is in its molding. A noticeable seam does run along either side of the barrel of the pencil, which is something to keep in mind if you are easily bothered by this kind of issue. Nonetheless, if you’re in the market for a new EDC mechanical pencil, we believe the Safari is well-deserving of consideration.
Also Consider: Pilot G-2 Mini
The Pilot G-2 Mini makes a great choice for a pocket mechanical pencil. It has the same great clip and grip section as the well-loved G-2 gel pen and, at 4.5 inches long, fits perfectly in the hand and pocket. Adding to its EDC appeal, the G-2 Mini features a pocket-safe sliding lead sleeve, and at just over a dollar apiece, it won’t hurt too badly if it gets lost.
Ergonomic mechanical pencils feature comfy grip sections that help alleviate hand stress and fatigue while writing.
Uni Alpha Gel Kuru Toga
Among the ergonomic mechanical pencils we’ve tried, the Uni Alpha Gel Kuru Toga is easily our number one choice. Not only does the super-soft silicone Alpha Gel grip molds luxuriously to your fingers, the Kuru Toga mechanism keeps the lead sharp and consistent without the need to constantly rotate the pencil in your hand. You can even watch the mechanism spin through a small window in the barrel of the pencil.
Although 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! You can read more about Kuru Toga pencils here.
Also Consider: Pilot Dr. Grip
The Pilot Dr. Grip is perhaps the world’s best-known ergonomic mechanical pencil. Its grip is slightly wider and firmer than the Alpha Gel’s, and it features both a shaker mechanism and a top push button. The Dr. Grip is available in an unparalleled variety of body colors and patterns, so there’s sure to be one that fits your style.
High-precision mechanical pencils offer the finest, most consistent lines possible—perfect for drawing fine details or cramming as much writing onto a page as possible.
Pentel Orenz – 0.2 mm
The 0.2 mm Pentel Orenz is the final word when it comes to ultra-fine writing and drawing. While a 0.2 mm mechanical pencil sounds like it would be far too fragile for everyday use, the Orenz’s sliding lead sleeve does a fantastic job of protecting and reinforcing the delicate lead. In fact, we found the Orenz broke less easily than a typical 0.5 mm mechanical pencil! A rubber grip version is also available for added comfort.
Also Consider: Uni Kuru Toga – 0.3 mm
With its auto lead rotation mechanism keeping the lead constantly sharp, the 0.3 mm Uni Kuru Toga writes nearly as fine as the 0.2 mm Orenz and with even better consistency. The Kuru Toga uses a thin, fixed lead sleeve, making it great for use with a template or straightedge but a bit less great for carrying in a pocket or bag. You can read more about Kuru Toga pencils here.
If snapping pencil leads are a constant annoyance, these lead-guarding mechanical pencils are the perfect solution.
The Zebra DelGuard utilizes an ingenious two-part system that makes it virtually impossible to break the lead without actively trying. A spring in the barrel of the pencil relieves pressure from the lead, while another spring in the tip dynamically extends the lead sleeve to reinforce the lead and prevent breakage. It sounds complicated, but we were blown away during our tests by how well it really works.
Also Consider: Platinum OLEeNU
The Platinum OLEeNU is the perfect mechanical pencil for anyone who absolutely hates wasting lead. Featuring an internal spring that relieves pressure from the lead to prevent breakage and a dual clutch tip that lets you use leads up to the last millimeter, the OLEeNU provides a lead-saving, frustration-free writing experience.
Shaker mechanical pencils offer a fun and innovative way to advance the lead without having to reach for a push button or twist knob.
If you want to try out a shaker mechanical pencil, the Pilot Delful is a good place to start. The shaker mechanism works well and doesn’t require too much effort to activate. The tip retracts with a click of the top button to make the pencil pocket-safe. The shaker mechanism can still extend the lead when the tip is retracted, but the clutch is left disengaged so that any accidentally extended lead gets pushed back into the pencil.
Also Consider: Tombow Mono Graph
Another great and very popular shaker pencil is the Tombow Mono Graph. It requires a bit more force to activate than the Delful and features a safety lock built into the clip, making it a good choice for anyone who wants to be certain that the shaker will activate only when desired. The Mono Graph features a large, refillable twist erase, and the clip also works as a push button to advance the lead.
These mini-sized mechanical pencils are the perfect companion for a planner, purse, or backpack.
Zebra Mini TS-3
For the absolute smallest mechanical pencil around, we recommend the Zebra Mini TS-3. At under 4 inches in length and just 5.5 mm in diameter, it will slide inconspicuously into the smallest pocket or 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.
Also Consider: Platinum Mini
The Platinum Mini mechanical pencil is slightly longer and wider than the Zebra Mini TS-3. It is still small enough to fit in the most miserly planner pen loops, however, and we found that the slightly increased size makes the Platinum Mini much more comfortable to hold than the Zebra. It is also a bit more stylishly designed than the Zebra and is available in a range of attractive colors.
Mechanical pencils are a great alternative to pens and wooden pencils, and with so many types and styles to choose from, there’s a mechanical pencil to suit anyone’s tastes. Tell us about your favorite mechanical pencil in the comments below!
|Product||Style||Mechanism||Lead Size (mm)||Features|
|Kaweco Special AL||Executive||Push Button||0.5, 0.7||Sleek Aluminum Body|
|Kokuyo FitCurve||Student||Push Button||0.5||Large Twist Eraser, Sliding Lead Sleeve|
|Lamy Safari||Everyday Carry||Push Button||0.5||ABS Plastic body, Sliding Lead Sleeve|
|Pentel Sharp Kerry||Executive||Push Button||0.5, 0.7||Capped|
|Pentel Orenz – 0.2 mm||High Precision||Push Button||0.2||Ultra-fine Lead, Sliding Lead Sleeve|
|Pentel Orenz with Rubber Grip – 0.2 mm||High Precision||Push Button||0.2||Ultra-fine Lead, Sliding Lead Sleeve|
|Pentel Twist-Erase III||Student||Push Button||0.5, 0.7||Large Twist Eraser|
|Pilot Delful||Shaker||Shaker, Push Button||0.5||Shaker Mechanism, Retractable Tip|
|Pilot Dr. Grip||Ergonomic||Shaker, Push Button||0.3, 0.5, 0.9||Soft Rubber Grip, Shaker Mechanism, Wide Range of Colors and Styles|
|Pilot G-2 Mini||Everyday Carry||Push Button||0.7||Compact, Sliding Lead Sleeve|
|Platinum Mini||Mini||Push Button||0.5||Mini Sized|
|Platinum OLEeNU||Lead Protecting||Push Button||0.5||Lead Cushioning, Dual Clutch|
|Tombow Mono Graph||Shaker||Shaker, Push Button||0.5||Shaker Mechanism, Lead Lock|
|Uni Alpha Gel Kuru Toga||Ergonomic||Push Button||0.5||Soft Rubber Grip, Auto Lead Rotation|
|Uni Kuru Toga – 0.3 mm||High Precision||Push Button||0.3||Auto Lead Rotation|
|Zebra DelGuard||Lead Protecting||Push Button||0.5||Lead Cushioning, Extending Lead Sleeve|
|Zebra Mini||Mini||Push Button||0.5||Mini Sized|