UX — Best Mechanical Pencils 2022
I find that the most useful tools for UX are a good note pad and a good pencil, though your notes are only as good as your UX methodology. I personally prefer a mechanical pencil. It feels more natural and it’s a lot quicker and more convenient than trying to type notes into my laptop. I can codify the notes later.
Given how much time I spend with a pencil in my hand, I thought it was time to look for the best pencil on the market for my work — and see if there were any that were more fit for the purpose of UX work. Pencils that were themselves well UXed.
First I reached out to the community on LinkedIn to ask for the experience and professional recommendations of those who had favourite mechanical pencils — thank you to so many who answered my call. There were many opinions on what was best and some compelling reasons. I also did some independent research on the capabilities of mechanical pencils on the market. All in all I found 10 worth trying, though there are many variations and some additional pencils I have yet to find. With one glaring exception (the Lamy 2000), I ordered them all and tested them out.
I ordered a mix of 0.35, 0.5 and 0.7mm graphite diameters. All graphites were HB for the test to be comparable (though I have since learned that locations like Japan have a darker, softer HB standard), and all pencils used the graphites that the manufacturer delivered with them. I used each one for a few days on a variety of paper and for standard UX tasks. I did not construct UX use cases as pencil use for UXers is more about duration of use than type of use — we write notes, questions, observations and sketch out rough ideas, not draw fine art, so the use is pretty consistent in type and only varies in duration.
For each pencil I measured the heft/feel, comfort, ease of use, graphite delivery, device aesthetic and gave my observations of their pros and cons. I marked each factor out of 10 (where it lent itself to such marks).
No sponsorship was sought or offered and you should look for the best deal at the time. There are a number of really good pen/pencil shops on line (you don’t have to use Amazon for all of them, you can support smaller specialists as I did where I could — I found some great ones and thank you to all who made store recommendations) but again, that is a different list and I haven’t done any comparative research, so I can’t make any ‘best’ recommendations. They’re all good, but prices may vary a little. I lave listed the GBP and USD prices based on the exchange rate at the moment (£1/$1.35). Some sites are further abroad and will take longer to deliver.
Naturally there is an element of personal preference in terms of what you find to be the right heft, feel and aesthetic, so I have given objective observations, pros and cons for each. The marks out of 10 are my preferences and may not reflect your personal preferences.
There is the consideration of long term durability, which I cannot comment on yet. The graphite you choose will also make a difference to the quality of the results the mechanical pencil delivers; I’m not comparing the best graphites on the market here — though good graphite is an important factor. And finally, the quality and weight of paper you write upon will make a significant difference to the results, but once again, this is not a topic I will cover here (yet).
I looked at the mechanical pencil devices themselves; you can easily choose/change the graphite and the paper you want to use, but the device will be with you for a long time.
So, in no particular order, here’s what I found:
Faber Castell Grip Plus
Cost: £6.75 / $9.11
Despite the Faber Castell history — established in 1761, and pedigree — Count Von Faber Castell and Countess Ottilie, this model has no discernible advantage over the others and in fact lacked their innovation. It is surprisingly cheap for the brand name.
If you like your shoes to be Manolo Blahniks and your bags to be Louis Vuitton then the Faber Castell brand is probably right for you — it is the luxury brand of pencils, though the TK Fine Vario L below, is much better and more in keeping with the brand.
- Heft/Feel: unremarkable
- Comfort: 7/10 — soft tacky grip, light weight
- Ease of use: 4/10 — nothing special
- Graphite delivery: 4/10 — occasionally gets stuck or fails to feed out. It’s smooth but not particularly crisp or clean
- Aesthetics: 4/10 — appears cheap and plastic
Brand has pedigree and the pencil is comfortable to write with, but I struggle to say anything more positive.
None of the innovations seen in other pencils. Felt cheap and plastic — was cheap and plastic. The eraser was poor and the lead feeder button was clunky and unreliable at times, requiring a number of clicks to extend the graphite fully into position. I even found that it clogged on the odd occasion. The quality of the output was mediocre.
Faber Castell TK Fine Vario L
Cost: £13 / $17.55
This pencil aims to be both a draftsman pencil and an every day writing pencil. And it does it deliberately and discretely by having a twist setting; if you turn the metal and plastic parts of the shaft in opposite directions (toward the “soft” or “hard” markings on the shaft) it sets itself to drafting or writing mode. It feels and is slender in the hand. It’s an odd mix of quality (metal lower part) and cheap (upper plastic part) and this gives the pencil a bottom heavy profile.
It has a window (above the nib) that shows the loaded graphite darkness/hardness (HB. B etc) which can be changed to match the graphite you’ve loaded with a simple twist of the nib.
The eraser can be adjusted with a twist.
All in all, regardless of a couple of tiny cons, this is a very nice mechanical pencil, well worth the price. It has a lovely consistent ‘twist’ interaction method for all its functions. It’s very adaptable and very clean in its delivery. I like this pencil a lot. It is the opposite of its cousin, the Grip Plus, in nearly every way
- Heft/Feel: professional, capable
- Comfort: 8/10 — simple but effective grip, good weight, easy to use and hold. Just a little unbalanced due to the weight being at the bottom.
- Ease of use: 9/10 — A consistent ‘twist’ action to all its features makes it intuitive and it writes, erases and operates easily.
- Graphite delivery: 9/10 — clean, sharp, robust and feeds out just the right amount
- Aesthetics: 5/10 — the mix of plastic and metal just isn’t nice and the pocket clip feels like an after thought, which makes it worse. The aesthetic lets an otherwise brilliant pencil down.
This pencil is solid (nothing rattles on it), it allows you to switch between drafting and writing with a quick twist of the pencil shaft — no other mechanical pencil does this. This is a very adaptable pencil. It allows you to adjust the graphite ID window to identify the type of graphite you’ve loaded (HB etc) with a simple twist of the nib and it identifies the graphite diameter (0.5, 0.35 etc) with both a written marking on the shaft and a colour coding on the nib and within the graphite harness window above the nib. The eraser is easily adjusted with a twist of the eraser holder and effective at its job. The nib can be manually pressed in to protect the graphite and the delivery sheath.
Hard to find any significant cons really. The upper plastic shaft feels unnecessarily cheap in a mechanical pencil that otherwise exudes professionalism, adaptability and quality. Perhaps this is to keep the weight down but it comes off as cost saving. The slender shaft and clean surface design made it a tiny bit tricky to pick up from the desk if I wasn’t paying attention. The pocket clip is so tight that I don’t think I could clip it on to anything and looks stuck on like another cost saving after thought. The eraser has no cover so it can get grubby over time and it requires you to manually push the nib to retract it.
Rotring Rapid PRO
Cost: £26.08 / $35.20
This pencil has pedigree (est. 1919) and a real draftsman/engineer/surgeon ‘technical drawing’ and reliability feel about it. I feel like I’m more professional than I probably am when I use it.
It has the heft and bearing of a tool more than a pencil. This is not a criticism, on the contrary, this feels extremely professional. I really liked the results, the feel and the admiring looks. And it arrived in a nice bespoke pencil matchbox.
- Heft/Feel: industrial, professional, surgical
- Comfort: 7/10 — great weight, but grip was numbing after a day’s use
- Ease of use: 8/10 — easy to wield
- Graphite delivery: 8/10 — sharp and clean
- Aesthetics: 8/10 — simple, sleek and utilitarian
The nib can be pushed all the way back into the body of the pencil. protecting the lead and the fine metal delivery sheath. It delivers smoothly and crisply onto the paper, but this could be Rotring’s choice of lead as much as the pencil, which speaks well of the quality of all elements of the pencil. German engineering: need I say more.
The finger grip section is fine and gives excellent grip, but in a manner that made my fingers feel numb after a day’s use. Looking at other models perhaps this is because the grip is of too fine a pattern. The fine pattern also means that carbon and grime can remain lodged in the grip. I found the eraser to be short, hard and not as effective as some others. There’s no indication what graphite hardness is loaded into it.
Uni Kuru Toga Roulette
Cost: £15.67 / $21.15
This pencil is light weight and its delivery is sharp, however, it lacks much of the innovation of some of the others and I still don’t know what the hole with the orange/red circle is for.
- Heft/Feel: very light and easy to manipulate
- Comfort: 7/10 — I would have preferred more weight but very comfortable to hold
- Ease of use: 8/10 — light weight made it easy to wield
- Graphite delivery: 8/10 — clean and crisp
- Aesthetics: 7/10 — nice, but not exceptional
I heard a LOT of very positive feedback on the Kuru from the community and it was definitely justified. A lovely pencil to use, especially if you like your mechanical pencils light. It delivered graphite easily and sharply even when I put more pressure on it. The eraser works well.
Felt a little too light for me personally. The name of the pencil model (Roulette) is not on it, so if you forget it’s difficult to reorder or tell others about. The eraser is short. The lead feed mechanism felt less responsive and seemed not to feed as much lead as others with each click. The nib is not retractable so it’s not protected when not in use. It didn’t indicate what graphite hardness was in the pencil.
Uni Kuru Toga M5 450T
Cost: £20.19 / $27.25
This is a conundrum. It looks like a cheap, simple plastic mechanical pencil, however, it hides a specific utility : a gear system that rotates the graphite when in use so it always delivers sharply and evenly. No other pencil offers this, but if the gear system worked, I can’t say I noticed the difference in delivery. Also, it’s not that cheap for what it is.
I broke way too many graphite leads just using this pencil and would probably have to use the 0.7 to try to avoid that.
- Heft/Feel: light and unremarkable
- Comfort: 5/10 — unremarkable
- Ease of use: 4/10 — graphites broke quite often, took too many clicks to feed out
- Graphite delivery: 7/10 — smooth but quite average
- Aesthetics: 4/10 — plastic and unremarkable
It’s a plastic body pencil, but it operates and delivers very smoothly. It has a ‘3 gear’ system which claims to rotate the lead when it comes into contact with the paper, keeping it sharp.
Cheap looking plastic hides what innovation the pencil contains. The eraser wore down quickly and was near impossible to get out to replace once it did. The lid that covers the eraser was also difficult to grip. I found I broke quite a lot of graphite lead when using it. It doesn’t tell you what graphite hardness is being used.
Pentel Graph Gear 1000
Cost: £11.98 / $16.17
I like so much about this pencil — Pentel have clearly put a lot of thought and research into the utility and usability of this pencil. It gives me truly useful features, crisp graphite delivery and I like the look of it. This pencil was clearly UXed, unlike most of the others.
- Heft/Feel: natural, comfortable, capable. It felt like a real UX tool because it felt like it had been UXed.
- Comfort: 9/10 — because to get a 10/10 it would have to massage my fingers as I use it
- Ease of use: 9/10 — because to get a 10/10 it would have to make digital notes as I write
- Graphite delivery: 8/10 — a few pencils delivered the graphite a tiny bit better, crisper (the Faber Castelle TK Fine Vario L for example) but this might just be the graphite I used
- Aesthetics: 9/10 — the pocket clip, whilst utilitarian and effective, could be a little more subtle and a little less like a clothes-peg.
So many pros: the pocket clip doubles as a graphite retractor, so when you’re not writing you can click it and withdraw the graphite and the delivery sheath back into the body of the pencil to protect them. A quick click on the eraser and it pops back into position again. Each diameter of graphite is colour coded all across the pencil and it’s clearly written on the shaft, so it’s easy to know which is 0.5 and which is 0.7 etc at a glance. The eraser works with little pressure and cleanly removed the graphite from the page.
It has a little window that tells you what graphite hardness is in the device — it’s set to “HB” but if you put a different hardness in you can just change the window table with a twist of the grip and hey presto, it will show B, or F or what ever graphite you put in.
An excellent price for a brilliant mechanical pencil.
I’m not sure it has any. All it needs is the ‘draftsman’ and ‘writing’ modes that the Faber Castelle TK Fine Vario L (its only real competitor) has and it would be perfect. Some might feel that the aesthetic flies in the face of minimalism.
Caran D’Ache 844
Cost: £12.95 / $17.48
I like the feel of the pencil in use, but dislike the weight distribution, size and lack of crispness in its delivery. Again, the last part might be remedied by the use of a 0.5 instead of 0.7 graphite. Still, it was comfortable to use.
If you like minimalism in your pencil then this is the one for you. Small, clean and uniquely stylish in its own way. My aesthetic mark reflects my personal tastes only.
- Heft/Feel: elegant, executive, light and minimalist
- Comfort: 7/10 — the weight meant it remained comfortable, though it
- Ease of use: 7/10
- Graphite delivery: 6/10 — might be that the graphite needs to be a 0.5 to get cleaner lines
- Aesthetics: 5/10 — if you like minimalism then this might be a 9/10 for you
It has an elegance and sleekness that only comes with minimalism, which it does very well. It feels executive — this is not a ‘working class’ pencil. The pocket clip has just the right tension to hold but not damage your shirt or jacket.
It rattled, like there was something loose inside. I took out the eraser lid, the eraser and the graphite but the mechanical delivery mechanist still rattled in mine. The pencil body just felt too short. The graphite has to be manually pushed back into the body to protect it when not in use. The graphite diameter, make and model are written on the body of the pencil but they are written under the arm of the pocket clip so they’re really hard to see and read — I had to take a photo and zoom in. It gives no indication of the hardness of the graphite loaded.
Cost: £55 / $74.25 (fibreglass) — £170 / $229.50 (steel)
Bottom line: this pencil was just too damn expensive to try. It retails at £55 for the fibreglass body model and £170 for the steel body model. There is simply no heft, comfort, usability or deliver that would justify this price tag. I can’t imagine an improvement over the other models that would justify these costs. I’m including it because it was recommended by the community, but I can’t afford to try it out. If you have compelling information on this pencil I would gladly hear it.
- Heft/Feel: ?
- Comfort: ?
- Ease of use: ?
- Graphite delivery: ?
- Aesthetics: 7/10 — I dislike the missile, ‘ball-point-pen’ look personally, but maybe it’s your thing. It is certainly stylish, with beautiful clean lines.
Price for sure.
Zebra Zensations Drafix Technical
Cost: £10.63 / $14.35
This pencil took a while to arrive from Japan and in fact delayed this review while I waited and tried it out. It’s very light and mostly plastic. I disliked the weight but I cannot deny the delivery of this little pencil, however, it lacks the gravitas and utility of some others. Aside from it’s price, I wouldn’t be upset if I left this pencil at a client meeting.
- Heft/Feel: light, cheap
- Comfort: 7/10 — easy on the hand due to its weight
- Ease of use: 5/10 — simple, straight forward but unremarkable
- Graphite delivery: 7/10 — smooth but not overly sharp
- Aesthetics: 5/10 — for a pencil that’s suggesting it is draft and technical it looks a little gaudy.
There’s a nice graphite hardness/darkness indicator to help identify the loaded graphite and it clicks satisfyingly into place when turned. The graphite delivery onto the paper, whilst not the best, is still good. The eraser has a cap to protect it from grime. The pocket clip is usable and is aesthetically and physically in proportion with the pencil (unlike some others)
Feels a bit cheap due to the amount of plastic and its weight. The graphite feeds out more every time you replace the eraser lid. The graphite must be manually pushed into the delivery sheath when not in use. I found the graphite diameter colour rings rather gaudy. They made it feel more like a Christmas cracker toy or an anime inspired colour choice. The writing on the pencil tells you everything but you need good eyesight and light to make out the grey writing on the black body. The eraser took a more effort to work than other models.
Cost: £8.88 / $11.99
This pencil is solid and so black it seems to absorb light. In fact on a dark surface I sometimes struggled to find it. If the design were a little more ornate it would have been gothic (which I would really have liked). It came with Japanese HB graphite which was darker and softer than we would expect in the West, which I have since read is a cultural preference in Japan.
- Heft/Feel: solid, industrial but plain
- Comfort: 7/10 — it wasn’t uncomfortable
- Ease of use: 6/10 — it was usable but unremarkable
- Graphite delivery: 5/10 — the 0.5 wrote more like a soft 0.7 so that’s something to bear in mind (or choose a different graphite). It delivered smoothly but not particularly sharply. The graphite might be more suitable for Designers than UXers
- Aesthetics: 4/10 — it was a plain design more than a simple design
Nice feel to the pencil. It was well balanced. The graphite and the protective sheath can be manually pressed back into the pencil for protection when not in use. The eraser felt a little hard but worked very well (though that might be because the graphite was softer). It came as a boxed pencil kit with many additional graphites and erasers. Great value.
It was a plain pencil, showing only the graphite diameter and, if you looked very closely, the name of the pencil on the pocket clip (black embossing on a black pocket clip). It lacked any of the other innovations seen in some other pencils and when replacing the eraser lid it fed more graphite out. It didn’t show you what graphite hardness was loaded into it.
First, can I say that with the exceptions of the Faber Castelle Grip Plus, the NicPro Black and the Lamy 2000, I would happily use all of the other pencils on a daily basis. From the perspective of a UXer there is definitive, quantifiable data around each pencil’s utility and usability and a couple of clear favourites.
Just as a reminder, the user requirements I considered for UX use were:
- Good balance in the hand
- Good delivery of the graphite; smoothly, crisply and sharply (without breaking)
- Ease of use (writing, drawing, erasing etc) over extended periods
- Ease of maintenance (lead replacement, specific pencil capability use and eraser replacement)
- Indicator of lead density (B, HB, H etc)
- Indicator of lead diameter (0.9–0.35)
- Quality of build
- Lead/nib protection
- Any other utility pros and minimum cons
Pentel Graphgear 1000 (35 out of 40)
Honestly I was unsure about the pedigree of a “Pentel”, but it was hard to find anything where the Pentel Graphgear 1000 didn’t excel across all of these user requirements.
I now own 3 and use them all the time.
A couple of the others that are excellent and just missed out on the top spot are:
- Faber Castelle TK Fine Vario L — adaptable in every way, easy to use, an excellent pencil. It had some unique features, but let itself down with some plastic parts that didn’t match the brand quality, a tiny usability issue and an inability to retract the nib and delivery sheath more easily. I still use this pencil a lot though.
- Rotring Rapid Pro — a surgical tool more than a mechanical pencil. It exudes professionalism and it’s hard not to be taken seriously when using it. Worked brilliantly but fell behind just a little when it came to the eraser and it had no indication of the graphite hardness it used. I also use this pencil a lot.
There are elements of our writing implements where we all have personal preferences (aesthetic for example), but quality of build, delivery of graphite to paper and ease of use are constants.
Please also find me at UX Sanctuary.