The mechanical pencil is a decidedly underrated piece of stationery often reserved for very niche endeavours…but there's so much more to the humble hero! Much adored amongst artists, designers, architects and illustrators, the mechanical pencil and its cousin the clutch pencil (more on this later) are exceptional pieces of kit for those in need of precision and accuracy. There is many-a-debate about ‘pens vs pencil’ but much less debate around mechanical vs analogue (I guess that would be the opposite of mechanical?!).
A bit about Mechanical Pencils
Although there were several early versions of a mechanical pencil - many of these versions were fancy examples of lead holders - the first containing a mechanism to propel the lead and whose lead could be replaced was patented in 1822. Sampson Mordan and John Isaac Hawkins are the men to be credited with the patent.
Mordan was a silversmith and Hawkins a civil engineer yet Mordan bought out Hawkins’ half of the patent and went into business with stationer Gabriel Riddle (great name) to create the ‘ever pointed pencil’ which became popular because it did not need sharpening and so was much cleaner than it’s counterparts.
Image Credit: Samson Mordan Collectors Club https://web.archive.org/web/20141222022355/http://www.sampsonmordan.com/
Although Sampson was a fiery character who changed business partners more often than shoes so in 1837 he created the company ‘S.Mordan & Co’. S. Mordan & Co developed and manufactured mechanical pencils until WW2 destroyed his factory.
Mordan was not the only player in the game of Mechanical Pencils, between 1822 and 1874 over 160 patents were registered with changes, modifications and improvements to the design of the mechanical pencil. 1877 was the year of spring-loaded mechanical pencils and 1895 marks the first twist-feed mechanism to be used.
There are three main types of mechanical pencil that you need to know about. In very simple terms they are; Ratchet-based pencils, Screw-based pencils and clutch pencils.
Ratchet-based pencils have 2-3 small jaws inside the tip which grip the lead and move the lead forward when a button is pressed. When the button is released the lead stays in place being held by a rubber device.
Image Credit: Pbroks13 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74672124
Screw-based pencils - as their name suggests - have a screw which controls a slider on the barrel of the pencil which advances the lead. Sometimes you may find a screw-based mechanical pencil will have a locking mechanism which allows lead to pass back into the pencil. Finally, Clutch pencils. These are sometimes known as lead holders and are a variant on the ratchet-based mechanism. Clutch pencils also contain 2 or 3 small jaws which are opened by the push and hold of a button. However, where the two types differ is that the jaws on a ratchet-based system move the lead down, the clutch pencils’ jaws open and close releasing and holding the lead but when the jaws are open the lead can move freely in and out of the barrel. Clutch pencils generally hold thicker leads and generally only hold one lead at a time unlike some other mechanical pencils with slimmer leads which can hold spare lead in reserve.
What is so good about Mechanical Pencils?
There are a few characteristics of mechanical pencils that make them a brilliant choice for your stationery arsenal.
There are some incredible ‘wooden’ pencils on the market but no matter how good they are they just cannot achieve the same kind of detail and precision that can be achieved with a mechanical pencil. The options for lead sizes do help this with teeny tiny widths like 0.3mm available. These small and precise leads means that very very fine lines can be created making mechanical pencils a popular choice for any project requiring fine detail. An added bonus is that set leads that are loaded rather than points created by a sharpener mean that consistency of line width can be almost guaranteed with a mechanical pencil (changes in pressure and user factors may impact this of course).
There is a delightful handfeel to a mechanical pencil that can’t be matched by a regular wooden pencil. Firstly, the weight of the mechanisms provides an ergonomic experience akin to using a pen, additionally, you don’t have to concern yourself with changing length as you would a wooden pencil which depletes the more it is used.
Similarly to pens, mechanical pencils come in a mind boggling array of designs, colours and styles. From chic to playful and everything in between, personal taste and practical use is covered by some brand or another!
There is an undoubted convenience associated with mechanical pencils in that they have refillable lead. This is both cost-effective and also handy if the process of sharpening and disposing of the shavings is impractical. By technicality a mechanical pencil won’t ever ‘run out’ in a traditional sense so instead of replacing a whole pencil you only need replacement leads. This doesn’t mean you miss out on the joys of new writing equipment, there are so many variations and designs available you can still create a beautiful and practical collection of your favourite pieces.
Frequently Asked Questions: Mechanical Pencil Edition
What kind of lead should I be using in my mechanical pencil?
You may find that your specific mechanical pencil has standard refill sizes intended for that precise model. Generally speaking 0.5mm and 0.7mm are the common lead sizes for most mechanical pencils with 0.5mm being suited to highly detailed delicate work and 0.7mm being a better option for those of us who tend to press a bit harder when writing/drawing.
You can check the size required by your pencil on The Hamilton Pen Company website (assuming the pencil was purchased/is sold by us of course) and sometimes you will find lead sizing written on the side of the pencil. Non-standard sizing will be specified where relevant - particularly with products such as clutch pencils.
How do I change the lead in my mechanical pencil?
The process is relatively universal across standard mechanical pencils, if you are unsure it is worth checking the manufacturers advice particularly for unusual models. On the whole, all mechanical pencils will have some sort of opening toward the top for lead refills. There will be variations in terms of whether it's a twist or a pull but generally speaking, a lead reload of a mechanical pencil should be fairly straightforward requiring only that the lead is placed in the appropriate chamber.
Which Mechanical Pencil is the Best?
That question is a little like asking how long a piece of string is. Below are some suggestions for brilliant mechanical pencils available and recommended by The Hamilton Pen Company.
The Best Introductory Mechanical Pencil
The Lamy Safari was first introduced in 1980 and was targeted at the new independent young people that wished to make a statement through their own writing tool. Produced from colourful, extremely resistant ABS plastic, the Safari has become renowned for its robustness and reliability. Safari's ergonomically designed front section ensures comfortable writing even for prolonged periods. The avant-garde design of the Safari has given it universal acceptance by writers of all age groups.
The Safari mechanical pencil is push button operated, is available for either 0.5mm or 0.7mm lead and has an eraser concealed beneath the push button.
The Best Budget Mechanical Pencil
The Faber-Castell Poly Matic mechanical pencil uses 0.7mm lead. An extremely comfortable writing instrument with a rubberised ergonomic grip section that is soft to the touch and comes in a range of attractive colours. Also features an extra large twist operated eraser.
The Best Selling Mechanical Pencil at The Hamilton Pen Company
Staedtler Mars Micro 775 Mechanical Pencil - 4 Lead Sizes
The Mars Micro mechanical pencil from Staedtler is a time-proven warrior when it comes to technical and general writing and drawing. Available in 4 lead sizes - 0.3mm, 0.5mm, 0.7mm and 0.9mm.
Mechanical pencil for drawing and writing.
- ISO colour coding.
- Non slip rubber grip zone.
- Tough metal clip, push-button and tip.
- Pocket safe thanks to retractable metal lead sleeve
- Cushioned lead for high level of break resistance.
- Easy to refill with Mars Micro carbon mechanical pencil leads.
- Refillable eraser.
Best Mechanical Pencil for Children
The Stabilo EASYergo 1.4mm mechanical pencil is part of the EASY Start family of products designed to help new writers get their first words on paper. This ergonomically designed mechanical pencil is perfect for those learning to write and schoolchildren.
Available for both left and right handed users.
Grip zone made from non-slip material.
Relaxed hand posture and light touch, only a small amount of pressure needed.
Easy, comfortable handling encourages neat and tidy handwriting.
Extremely easy to refill with no mess.
Comes with 1.4mm HB lead, no sharpening required.
Space for a name tag on the barrel.
The Best Everyday Mechanical Pencil
The Caran d'Ache 844 Classicline Mechanical Pencil is the perfect partner for the 849 ballpoint pen. Similar in design with an all-metal hexagonal barrel, the Classicline pencil takes 0.7mm lead and is available in a range of colours.
Most Stylish Mechanical Pencil
The Lamy Scala mechanical pencil is a writing instrument that entices through formal simplicity yet radiates emotional details. Behind the sophisticated and reserved exterior, which deliberately refrains from material excess, lie perfectly executed technical details. The cylindrical body of the Lamy Scala is made of high-grade stainless steel which creates the pencil's perfect weighting and in turn makes for an extraordinarily comfortable writing experience.
The Titanium finish Scala mechanical pencil uses Lamy M40 0.7mm lead.
Mechanical Pencils: Honourable Mentions
The Kaweco Sport range is one of those products that is so great, it has barely changed since it was first introduced in 1935! The octagonal design has certainly stood the test of time and the Kaweco Sport now has a worldwide cult following.
The Classic Sport Mechanical Pencil from Kaweco is manufactured from tough ABS/macrolon plastic and is a compact size making it the ideal choice for either pocket or handbag. Refillable with 0.7mm leads and supplied with HB lead.
Available in colours Black, Blue, Bordeaux, Green, Red, Transparent and White.
A Kaweco pocket clip is also available for this pen if required.
Utilising the strength and weight of concrete along with a design that is contoured for your hand, this mechanical pencil is perfect for technical drawing and writing. While maintaining its strength and form over years of use, this tool will become darker and its rigid edges smoother as it responds and adapts to your hand.
This pencil is 120mm in length and is refillable using 0.5mm lead. Also available in colours original grey and dark grey.
The Faber-Castell Ambition mechanical pencil in Cocos has a barrel produced from rather elegant coconut wood which has a slight zebra graining complemented by highly polished chrome appointments. Clean lines, quality materials, simplistic design and extraordinarily good value make the Ambition range highly sought after writing instruments.
The Ambition mechanical pencil has a smooth twist action mechanism, a spring loaded metal pocket clip and is presented in a Faber-Castell gift box.
Don't see something that tickles your fancy? Why not explore the full range of Mechanical Pencils and Clutch pencils online at The Hamilton Pen Company.