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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Which Pencil is Best?! (unsponsored comparison review)

Which Pencil is Best?! Homeschooling Hearts & Minds compares and reviews 11 different pencils

A while back I posted this status update on my personal FB timeline:

The case of the shredded pencil @Homeschooling Hearts & Minds

Can you guess which brand/model of pencil this was?  I’ll share the answer later in my review.

Crazy, right?  My oldest was sharpening this pencil when the wood split a little way and he gave up.  My youngest (predictably) saved the pencil from the trash and tried to sharpen it again.  The wood split all the way to the eraser.

This doesn’t typically happen with our pencils, but I have noticed over the past couple of years that the quality of pencils in general seems to have declined.  The wood seems more prone to splintering.  The graphite cores seem more prone to breaking.  The erasers seem to wear out or break off.  Even my trusted Ticonderoga yellows seem to have lost some of their verve and so, in a moment of craziness (because I’ve got nothing but time on my hands, right?)

I decided to do a comparison review of pencils.  We’re going to take a close look at the performance of 11 different wood case pencils.

Told you I was crazy.

This is not an exhaustive list of pencils---I tried to stick to pencils that were readily available to me and that were affordable (I’ll give you the price I paid for each pack).  All pencils were purchased either at my local(ish) Walmart, but I’ve added a couple I purchased from Amazon also (they were pencils I’ve used before or that a friend recommended).   I did not test novelty or seasonal pencils (which are almost always crummy).

If I didn’t test your favorite wood case pencil, please recommend it in the comments and maybe I’ll give it a try, but it must be easy for me to get and affordable.

All of the pencils I tested are labeled as #2/HB pencils, the lead hardness typically used for writing and for standardized testing.

Pencil Tests and Methodology

All writing, smudging, and erasing tests were conducted on regular loose-leaf notebook paper.  For each test, I used a single sheet (so no extra padding) placed on a plastic clipboard.  The clipboard was used to give a smooth and even writing surface so the tests would not be affected by any worn spots on my wooden table.

a blank canvas to test pencils

With the exception of the Mirado Black Warriors, all pencils tested came from a brand new package purchased for this test.  In the case of the Black Warriors, I had a nearly full box already on hand, so I just added it to the test to see how they would rate next to the other two Mirados.

I tested 11 wood case pencil models for:

Sharpen-ability---at least 5 pencils from each pack (including the pre-sharpened ones) were sharpened using my battery operated sharpener:

pencil sharpener

I checked pencils for:

  • ease of sharpening
  • wood splintering
  • point breakage while being sharpened

For pencils that came pre-sharpened, I also:

  • made a note of how evenly they were pre-sharpened
  • sharpened them with my sharpener
  • the pre-sharpened points to re-sharpened points

sharpened pencils

Write-ability---for each pencil model, I used several pencils from the package to write out my impressions while using it on a sheet of lined notebook paper.  I purposely used hard, even pressure to check for:

  • darkness of mark
  • pencil tip breakage
  • powdering of graphite
  • smoothness of writing (noting any scratchiness)
  • writing noise (scratchiness and squeakiness)
  • consistency between pencils of the same model

I used a fresh sheet of paper for each pencil model. 

pencil testing sheet

Additional write-ability tests:

  • writing with hard and then light pressure
  • writing with each model on a “master list” of all the pencils for comparison
  • writing with pre-sharpened pencils right out the box and then after re-sharpening them.

Smudge-ability---this is the one characteristic that you don’t want your writing pencils to be good at, smudging. 

After making my writing sample page for each pencil model, I held the page firmly to the clipboard along the edge with my right hand, while placing the side of my left hand firmly down on the page over the writing and did one firm swiping diagonally on the page.  I chose this method for consistency and because one of my children is left-handed (and therefore prone to smudging her writing with her left hand).  I tried to photograph my hand after each smudge, but it’s really hard to see the graphite on my hand in most of those pictures.

I washed and dried my hands after each smudge. 

smeared pencil examplegraphite hand

Erase-ability---on each pencil models’ writing sample, I erased about half of a line of writing with that pencil’s eraser.  (note to self---the next time you do this, make sure that you write a non-important line specifically for erasing.  Otherwise, you may not be able to read the observation you erased.)

I noted:

  • noise (some erasers were squeaky)
  • how much eraser material was left behind in eraser doobers
  • how cleanly pencil marks were removed
  • wear to the eraser

For practical purposes, I was unable to test durability. 

It would take me all year to use each pencil model enough to be able to give an accurate rating.  I simply don’t have the facilities (or enough kids) to make that happen.  However, I may come back and add updates on durability throughout the year, as we will be using these pencils.  Hopefully this report will at least keep you from being disappointed right out of the package.

As you can probably imagine, I collected a lot of pencil data while conducting my tests 11 different pencil models. 

I had to put aside all the data for a few days because my head was spinning with visions of pencils.

While not on a Consumer Reports level, I could write a booklet just comparing these to each other.  But who has time for that?  I don’t have the time to write it, and you wouldn’t have the time to read it, am I right?  Instead, I’m going to group them by Best, Pretty Good, Average, Ok, and Don’t Buy These.  The results may surprise you a bit (I know I was surprised).

Please note: This post contains affiliate links.  If this post is helpful to you, please consider supporting Homeschooling Hearts & Minds by using one of my affiliate links (it adds nothing to your cost).

Also note: if I give a Walmart price, that means I purchased the pencil at Walmart, otherwise I purchased it through Amazon. To see the writing samples larger, click on them open in a new window.

The Best Pencils I Tested.

I’m not going to rank these “in order,” because I would say they were equally the best.  There was no characteristic that put any one of them solidly above the others (they all had plusses and minuses), but they are all solidly above the Pretty Good pencils.

Staedtler Rally Pencils Mirado Design Pencils Mirado Black Warrior pencils
Staedtler Rally Papermate Mirado Design  Papermate Mirado Black Warrior 
hexagonal, blue striped wood case round, patterned wood case round, black wood case
pre-sharpened pre-sharpened not pre-sharpened
12 pack for $3.49 at Amazon 5 pack for $1.63 at Walmart
or $4.99 at Amazon
12 pack for $1.89 at Amazon
Staedtler Rally Pencils writing Mirado Design Pencils writing Mirado Black Warrior pencils writing

These three were tops because of:

  • darkness of mark
  • smoothness of writing
  • quietness of writing
  • quietness of erasers
  • wood sharpened without shredding
  • core sharpened to a good point without breaking
  • no cores broke while testing

That said, they aren’t perfect.  Some things of note: 

I would recommend the Mirado Design if you want a pre-sharpened pencil that will perform well right out of the package---they had the best pre-sharpened tip of all those I tried.  Most of the pre-sharpened pencils (including the Staedtler Rallys) really benefitted from being re-sharpened. 

I would rate the Mirado Design slightly above the Black Warriors for smoothness of writing, but in all other ways they seem about equal.  Both of these pencils are rounded instead of hexagonal, and are therefore prone to rolling off the table.

The erasers performed all about the same---they erase, but they are nothing to write home about. I found this to be true of all the pencil erasers, unfortunately.  They were quieter to erase compared to the other pencils I tested.

The Pretty Good Pencils

I’d use either of these in a heartbeat.  They are not quite as good as the best, but they are pretty good pencils.

Casemate Premium Pencils USA Gold pencils
Casemate (Walmart) No. 2 Premium USA Gold
hexagonal, gray striped wood case hexagonal, yellow wood case
pre-sharpened pre-sharpened
8 pack for $1.87 at Walmart 10 pack for $1.84 at Walmart
or $3.99 at Amazon
Casemate Premium Pencils writing USA Gold pencils writing

I rated these “pretty good” for:

  • dark mark
  • fairly smooth writing
  • smooth sharpening
  • no splittering wood
  • no breaking cores
  • fairly quiet writing

Why are they not as good as the Best?

The Casemate Premium pencils were more prone to smearing than the Best pencils and the USA Gold (note, all of the pencils smeared, so I wouldn’t necessarily write off a pencil for that reason alone).

The Casemate Premium and the USA Gold pencils both were fairly smooth and quiet, but not quite as quiet as the Best pencils.  What can I say?  You really can hear the difference when comparing them side by side.  But they were not loud and perfectly acceptable.  The USA Gold felt a little scratchy while writing and it’s eraser was louder than the 3 Best Pencils.

Of note:

The pre-sharpened USA Gold tend to powder more than other pencils if used straight out of the package.  Re-sharpening them fixed that.

I was impressed by the Casemate Premium pencils.  These were the only pencil that came with a reusable pencil case (it’s a cylinder with a removable top), a manual pencil sharpener, and a bit of foam to protect their pre-sharpened tips.  Of the pre-sharpened pencils, only these and the Mirado Design pencils performed well straight out the package without re-sharpening.  At less than 25 cents per pencil, the Casemate Premium pencils might be the best value for the money.

The Average Pencils

Ticonderoga black pencils Ticonderoga yellow pencils Mirado Classic yellow pencils
Dixon Ticonderoga black Dixon Ticonderoga yellow Papermate Mirado Classic
hexagonal, black wood case hexagonal, yellow wood case hexagonal, yellow wood case
pre-sharpened not pre-sharpened pre-sharpened
10 pack for $2.44 at  Walmart 24 pack for $4.96 at Walmart
or $4.00 at Amazon
10 pack for $2.24 at Walmart
Ticonderoga black pencils writing Ticonderoga yellow pencils writing Mirado Classic yellow pencils writing

These pencils are solidly in the middle---they aren’t wonderful or horrible, but they aren’t anything to brag about, either.

What makes them less desirable than the Pretty Good pencils?

They tend to shred in the pencil sharpener.

One thing that really surprised me (though it shouldn’t have) was the wide range in quality of wood used in wood pencils.  The pencils I rated as “average” tend to get their wood shredded in the pencil sharpener.  It was notable enough that I thought maybe it was my pencil sharpener, but then I would sharpen one of the Pretty Good or Best pencils and, guess what?  No shredding.  Consistently, the better pencils sharpened better and the average pencils tended to shred, sometimes even breaking their cores.

mirado classic tipsblack warrior tips

Mirado Classic VS. Mirado Black Warrior


They don’t write as smoothly (tend to feel scratchy) and are louder when writing or erasing.

The difference between the Mirado Classics and the Mirado Black Warriors or Designs was striking. They just feel and sound different when you write with them. 

The Ticonderoga yellows seemed a bit inconsistent in smoothness and darkness of mark from pencil to pencil.

They are still a step above the OK pencils.  If they were on sale for a good price, I might buy them, but I would not go out of my way to buy them.  And I will admit---Ticonderoga yellows used to be my preferred pencil.  This testing confirmed for me that I need a new favorite.

In case you are wondering what pencil was in that picture that I posted on Facebook---the Ticonderoga black wood case.

The OK Pencils

These are the pencils that might be a little annoying, but would still work in a pinch.  They are your no-frills, economy style pencils.

Dixon pencils

casemate pencils
Dixon #2 Casemate #2
hexagonal, yellow case hexagonal, yellow case
not pre-sharpened not pre-sharpened
8 for $.47 8 for $.47
Dixon pencils writing casemate pencils writing

What makes them less desirable than the Average pencils?  Little things, really:

The Dixons make a lighter mark than all the other pencils I ranked higher than them.  The Casemates do make a nice dark mark. 

Both the Dixons and Casemates had a lot of trouble with breakage during sharpening.  Their wood would splinter and their cores would break.  One Dixon pencil was considerably shorter than the others once I finally got it sharpened. 

Dixon pencils sharpened

They are both squeaky and/or scratchy to write with.  The Casemates had particularly squeaky erasers. 

As you go from one ranking to the next, the pencils get louder, more scratchy, more prone to breakage, and so on. 

I would happily grab a cheap pack of Casemate pencils if I only had 50 cents, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to buy them.  I’d probably pass on the Dixons because they write lighter than the Casemate and they cost the same amount.

Last but not least we have:

The Pencils You Should Never Buy

One pencil model receives the, ahem, honor?  of being the only pack of pencils that I will probably throw in the trash.

The award goes to:

bic EXTRA-FUN pencils

bic EXTRA-FUN pencils writing

BiC and their #2 XTRA-FUN Pencil

hexagonal, multi-color wood case

12 pack (10+ 2 free) for $2.97 at Walmart

These come in mixed colors, wood case, with a funky white erase that is attached with a plastic (not metal) connector.

While these were not prone to breakage, they come in fun colors, and they erase about as well as the others (those are the only good things I can say about them)… Oh, and they are made in France, which is cool…

They are squeaky, scratchy, and the cores are extra hard.  They also have a waxy feel when you write with them, similar to using a really cheap colored pencil. 

It is really hard to make a dark mark.  I doubt that they actually qualify as a #2 pencil (the marks may not be dark enough for standardized testing).  You can clearly see the difference when comparing them to the other pencils.

They also seem to have some kind of a weird binder in their core.  When I sharpened them (which did not make it easier to make a darker mark) and then wrote with them, instead of the tip powdering when I started the write (really common with wood case pencils) it sort of crumpled.  It was weird and something I’ve never seen before.  I suspect they’ve added something to the core to make it less prone to breakage, but it seems to have negatively impacted the performance of the pencil.



A note about the pictures in this post---all pictures are untouched except for cropping and watermarking.  The examples of pencil writing were scanned at 600 dpi as jpgs.  What you are seeing onscreen should be very close to what I am seeing on the original papers.

To recap:

The Best:

Staedtler Rally

Papermate Mirado Design 

Papermate Mirado Black Warrior 


Pretty Good:

Casemate (Walmart) No. 2 Premium

USA Gold



Dixon Ticonderoga black

Dixon Ticonderoga yellow

Papermate Mirado Classic



Dixon #2

Casemate #2


Don’t Buy These:

BiC #2 XTRA-FUN Pencil


Whew! Now, I need a nap.

If you found this review helpful, please click one those social media sharing buttons below and share it with your friends or pin the picture:

Which Pencil is Best?! Homeschooling Hearts & Minds Compares and reviews 11 different pencils!

At some point I may also tackle the mechanical pencil question (though the number of different mechanical pencils available is just wow!---I might need a wealthy patron for that one, ha ha).

Did I miss your favorite pencils? Drop me a comment or an email letting me what your favorite wood case pencil is. 

You might also like:

Comparison Review of Crayola vs. Expo Washable Dry Erase Markers

Please note: This post contains affiliate links.  If this post is helpful to you, please consider supporting Homeschooling Hearts & Minds by using one of my affiliate links (it adds nothing to your cost).


  1. Thank you for your post. After trusting Ticonderoga for several years (after reading another bloggers' tips on pencils), I was sorely disappointed a year ago when I bought a 20 pack (figuring it would last several years!!) and the very first pencil out kept breaking--while attempting to sharpen it. I lost over half the pencil before it finally kept a point. I was not a happy camper. Actually took a picture of it so if the rest of the pack had issues--I'd contact the company. Well, almost half the pencils are duds, the other half--absolutely great. I guess, I'm not too surprised at your findings. Thank you for all the info.

    1. Thank you for your observations, Rhoda. Yes, I too have been burnt by Ticonderoga of late. I had tried the Black Warriors a while back and I do like them---but they keep rolling off the table! Can we please have reliable pencils that stay put. ;)


  2. That's funny! We got a pack of those XTRA Fun ones free somehow, and I didn't like them, either.

    For mechanical pencils, I like the big triangular Paper Mate ones.

    1. We have liked those triangular mechanical pencils, too. My kids lose them, though---I think this is the primary reason I haven't switched to mechanical. It seems all our pencils disappear, no matter how many I buy.


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