Product Spotlight

Solving the Graphite Pencil Mystery: What Is Pencil Lead Made Of?

Move over, Andrew Marr, we ask the hard-hitting questions here at National Pen. If you’ve ever wondered what material is used in pencil lead, why graphite is called lead, or if pencils ever contained lead, we’ve got the answers! 

We won’t keep you waiting any longer, let’s get into it… 

What Is Pencil Lead Made Of? 

We’re not in the habit of crushing dreams, but we have to break it to you: pencils do not contain lead. Instead, the pencil material is actually graphite. Plumbago pencil lead, to be exact. 

To get into the geology, plumbago is a naturally occurring crystalline form of carbon arranged in a hexagonal structure. Fun fact: if graphite is under high enough pressures and temperatures, it turns into a diamond. 

Natural graphite is used in many ways, from batteries to brake linings and, of course, pencils. 

Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com – CC-BY-SA-3.0

Did Pencils Ever Contain Lead? 

Again we’re bursting bubbles here, but, no, the material used in pencil lead was never lead. It has always been a form of graphite pencil lead. 

Which leads us to our next question… 

Is Pencil Lead Made of Clay? 


Surprisingly, yes! The ‘lead’ in graphite pencils is composed of a couple of important ingredients. It’s actually a mixture of both clay and graphite. This combination is what gives graphite pencils their pigmented lines as well as their smooth strokes. 

So, Why is Graphite Called Lead? 

One of the earliest version of a writing instrument was a stylus, which was used by the ancient Romans. This precursor to the stylus pen we use on smartphones and devices was actually made out of lead, and that’s why the pencil material is called lead. Another reason we call it lead is that when graphite was discovered in the English county of Cumbria during the 1500s, people thought that graphite was a form of lead. Chemistry was still in its infancy back then, but it was eventually determined that there was no correlation between the two. 

Pencils then went on to evolve from being created by sawing graphite blocks into sticks to graphite rods being placed inside wood sleeves. Much later, in 1790, it was discovered that the hardness of the graphite pencil lead could be altered by mixing graphite with clay and firing it in a kiln. And that, my friends, is how the number 2 lead pencil came to be. 

And Can You Recommend Some Custom Pencils? 

Sure, our name is National Pen, but we have a soft spot for pencils, too. We carry everything from classic wooden pencils to stylish mechanical pencils. Here are a few of our favourite custom pencils with graphite lead:

If You Need Unmistakable Quality, But a Rubber for Mistakes… 

BIC® Evolution® Ecolutions® Eraser Pencil

If You Like the Natural Look

Full Colour BIC® Evolution® Ecolutions® Eraser Pencil with rubber

If You Like Saving the Planet…

Eco-Friendly Bamboo Arlington Mechanical Pencil

If You’re a Carpenter…

Carpenters pencil with ruler

If You Want to Impress…

Pen Gift Set in Wooden Box

We hope we answered all your burning questions about graphite pencil lead, and if you have any more, reach out to us on Facebook!

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