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What is a Mechanical Pencil?

By R. Kayne
Updated Jan 26, 2024
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A mechanical pencil looks very much like a ballpoint pen, but the fine writing tip is of lead or graphite. The first one was invented in Britain in the early 1820s, and patented by John Hawkins and Sampson Mordon in 1822.

This type of pencil opens just like a normal pen, but instead of refilling it with a new ink cartridge, a length of specially manufactured pencil lead is fed into the writing barrel. Once the pencil is closed, lead can be pushed through the barrel in small increments — as it is used — by clicking the tip of the pen, depressing a ratchet button, or twisting the cone of the barrel, depending on the model.

The advantage of a mechanical pencil is that the lead is so thin that it's always sharp, allowing precise and uniform strokes without the hassle of constant sharpening. This makes it ideal for architects, draftsman, engineers, and anyone else that requires the convenience of a pen with the flexibility of an erasable pencil.

One leading manufacturer of pens offers a liquid lead mechanical pencil. The graphite in this case is in solution, behaving much like ink as it rolls from the ballpoint-like tip. Once the fluid is absorbed into the paper and dries, however, only erasable graphite is left. This type of pencil purportedly writes with the fluid motion of a pen, while offering all the advantages of a pencil. It is relatively inexpensive and is refillable.

Aside from the convenience of never having to sharpen a mechanical pencil, they are also environmentally friendly, saving wood and eliminating the shavings of traditional pencils. An exception to this rule is disposable pencils, although there is little reason to buy a disposable model when refillable ones are so cheap.

Many leading manufacturers of pens make mechanical pencils, and several types of lead are available from soft to hard. They can be purchased in sets with a matching mechanical pen, or individually. They range in quality from plastic barrels to enamel, gold, or silver, and prices vary accordingly.

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Discussion Comments
By anon357451 — On Dec 04, 2013

For people who complain about the erasers on mechanical pencils, you should try buying an actual high quality eraser like Staedtler's Mars Plastic erasers or a Faber Castell one. Just make sure it's a vinyl eraser from a good brand. You'll be amazed at how well you can erase with them if you've only used the erasers on mechanical and wooden pencils before.

Even the more expensive mechanical pencils like Pentel's GraphGear series or Rotring pencils come with sub-par erasers because they pretty much expect you to have an actual eraser.

By anon289481 — On Sep 04, 2012

I have two old mechanical pencils. One is dated 1840 and the other looks to me to be from around the 1860s. I'd love to use them but can find nothing so far on what size pencil leads I should buy. Can anyone let me know what metric size is most likely for an old imperial sized mechanical pencil?

By ceilingcat — On May 02, 2012

I actually prefer writing with a regular pencil, but I think it's really wasteful. You could buy one mechanical pencil and keep it for years, just refilling the lead when it runs out. Whereas you have to keep re-buying regular pencils once you use them up. I think this just creates way too much trash.

I'm not sure which way is cheaper, but I would argue that mechanical pencils are definitely much better for the environment. Provided you don't lose them all the time, that is!

By indemnifyme — On May 01, 2012
@Monika - They do make a lot of arbitrary requirements about what you can and cannot do when you're in school, don't they? You have to write in blue or black pen for one class, while the other teacher prefers only pencil. I remember when I was in high school I had a ton of different writing implements handy: a Sanford mechanical pencil, a regular pencil, a blue pen, a black pen, and a red pen.

I have to say though, I actually do like writing in pencil. Even as an adult, I still use pencil pretty often. My favorite ones are the ones that kind of look like regular pencils. They're made of yellow plastic with a pink eraser on top. The only problem is, that kind isn't refillable!

By Monika — On Apr 30, 2012

As an adult, I rarely write in pencil. I never really enjoyed using pencil when I was younger, but when I was in school, at certain times we were required to write in pencil.

That being said, I definitely prefer mechanical pencils to regular pencils, when I absolutely must write in pencil. When I was in high school, I had a Papermate mechanical pencil that was my absolute favorite. It was very easy to refill, and the eraser that came on top of it actually worked! I ended up purchasing several different Papermate mechanical pencils to keep in my backpack and at home, to make sure I always had one around.

By Mykol — On Apr 30, 2012

@andee - I have used a Sharpie liquid mechanical pencil with mixed results. Sometimes the ink flow was good and other times it came out with streaks.

As far as lead pencils, I have used Bic mechanical pencils for years. These yellow disposable pencils are in just about every drawer of my office and scattered around my house.

My husband uses them when he is studying his plans for work and they end up all over the house. I like carrying a mechanical pencil in my purse over a pen any day.

I have had too many times when a pen will leak or be open and leave marks all over the inside of my purse. I never had to worry about this when I use a pencil.

By andee — On Apr 29, 2012

I was excited to try a liquid mechanical pencil. I love the idea of using a mechanical pencil, but wanted something that was more like the consistency of ink instead of lead.

I was a little disappointed in how they worked though. I found the liquid lead to be kind of clumpy and many times it would smear.

The eraser also seemed to leave smudges and not completely get rid of the liquid lead from the page.

I found myself going back to the pencil and the liquid mechanical pencils just sit in my drawer. Has anybody else had better results using a liquid lead mechanical pencil?

I only tried one kind, and maybe there is a different brand that would work better.

I have found the best mechanical pencil to be one where the lead does not break every time you put much pressure on it, and the eraser completely erases any marks you don't want there.

By orangey03 — On Apr 29, 2012

My sister is such a fan of mechanical pencils that she has a cup full of plastic ones in just about every color of the rainbow. I really don't know why she thinks she needs so many, since each one can be refilled.

I am the type of writer who tends to press down hard with the lead, so mechanical pencils are not the best writing tool for me. The thin lead often snaps off on the paper, and I keep having to click out some more.

My sister absolutely hates using a pencil sharpener, though, so she sticks with refillable lead. She has seen to it that she will never be without a mechanical pencil, because it would be really hard to lose all the ones she has in her collection.

By julies — On Apr 29, 2012

I bought a pack of colored mechanical pencils for my kids for their artwork. This is so much better than making sure the colored pencils were always sharp.

These come with colored tips that you switch depending on what color you want to use. There are disadvantages though, and having both kinds of colored pencils around is a good idea.

If you want to change colors very often, it becomes a hassle to switch tips all the time. Also, I don't think the color with the mechanical pencils is as dark as the regular ones.

There are many times though when a pencil sharpener is not handy, and having the colored mechanical pencils is a great solution.

By StarJo — On Apr 28, 2012

@OeKc05 – That light, narrow writing that a mechanical pencil can produce is really good in some situations. My husband is in construction, and he often uses mechanical pencils to make measurement marks on wood.

It wouldn't be good to have thick, dark lead on the wood, because it might not disappear on its own. The light marking that a mechanical pencil makes is just enough for him to tell where to cut but not too much to leave behind after the project is done.

He keeps several mechanical pencils in his tool pouch, along with a case of lead for refills. He also uses them for drawing out plans on grid paper before he begins a new project.

By honeybees — On Apr 27, 2012

I wonder if they allow students to use mechanical pencils when it comes to taking standardized tests?

I remember we always had to show up with pencils that were sharpened and had No. 2 lead in them. I figured this was so the marks made by this lead would be dark and easy to spot.

With the lead for most mechanical pencils being so fine, it is harder to make a dark circle as compared to using a wooden pencil.

It is a pain to make sure a pencil is sharpened all the time though. I don't think you see pencil sharpeners in classrooms nearly as much as you used to.

I like to use mechanical pencils when studying to jot down ideas. I buy the mechanical pencil refill packs and always make sure I have enough lead around. It can be frustrating when you realize you are all out of lead for your pencil.

By OeKc05 — On Apr 27, 2012

I had never heard of liquid lead mechanical pencils before reading this article. That sounds like a really good invention.

My only complaint about regular mechanical pencils is that since the tip is so narrow, my writing usually looks very thin and too light. I imagine a liquid lead pencil might look darker and maybe even spread out on the paper a little more than usual.

That is crazy that it dries and becomes erasable. I am going to try to find one of these to use when I write in my journal, because I really want to be able to read my writing decades from now.

By cloudel — On Apr 26, 2012

I hate mechanical pencil erasers. For some reason, they are not nearly as good as wooden pencil erasers.

Every time I have tried to erase with one, I end up with a smudged gray mess on my paper. I have to carry around a wooden pencil just so I can use a decent eraser.

I do find mechanical pencils more convenient in one aspect, and this is that the lead never goes dull. That is why I keep on using them, even though I have to keep a separate eraser on hand at all times.

By John57 — On Apr 26, 2012

I didn't realize mechanical pencils had been around for so long. I always keep a spare package of disposable Pentel mechanical pencils in my desk drawer.

With my line of work, having a sharp pencil at all times is very important, and I never want to be without one.

My problem is I lose pencils like I lose pens, and it is cheaper for me to use the disposable ones most of the time. Even though it doesn't cost much to buy refillable lead, it would be more expensive for me because I would have to replace the pencil so many times.

Some brands seem to be much better than others. When I have tried different brands, the lead breaks much more easily, so I stick with the Pentel brand.

By MissDaphne — On Apr 26, 2012

I have actually banned the use of wood pencils in my classroom. I teach English, so it's not important that their work be erasable. And I *hate* wood pencils. The tips are always breaking and then the kid wants to get up and sharpen it... then the tip breaks off in the sharpener... and no one can hear me talking over it anyway... and the whole nasty cycle repeats. And if the class is doing group work, then the whole group is waiting for this one kid to sharpen his (somehow it is always a he) pencil.

I encourage them to use pens and pencils that are refillable, but they're middle schoolers - they just lose them anyway.

By anon78986 — On Apr 20, 2010

this a great website. very helpful on my paper in english. thanks.

By anon20241 — On Oct 27, 2008

this was extremely helpful! My friend and I are writing a paper in science on an everyday item and we just so happened to pick a mechanical pencil. Extremely useful information thank you!

By anon5716 — On Dec 04, 2007

WOW, this was such a help! My friend and I were writing our debate case (about pencils) and this was extremely useful. A gold mine of info! THANKS A LOT!!!!!

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