Not everyone likes to use pencils on woodcarvings, but I think they just haven’t been using the best ones for the job. Not all pencils are created equal, and since I am a pencil fanatic from way back, I thought I would share some of my thoughts and experiences about integrating pencils into my woodcarving work flow.
While learning to carve I encountered several suggested methods for transferring design patterns to wood, and in most cases these were developed specifically as an alternative to the use of pencils. The most commonly employed method involves attaching a photocopy of the design to the wooden surface using spray adhesive. I rejected this method for two reasons: to avoid exposure to the fumes from the spray adhesive, and because having the paper pattern adhered to the surface of the wood blocks any visual clues from the wood itself as you make the important first cuts of a carving. Even though the paper does eventually get carved away as you progress, I feel that drawing directly on the wood itself is a more intuitive method for transferring design to wood.
The main reason given for avoiding using pencils on wood is the tendency for them to smudge, and the possibility for the smudging to give your carving an overall grubby appearance as you move your hands over the wood. This is why the choice of pencils is important, because it is possible to have the direct connection of drawing on the wood without the mess, but only if you use the right pencils.
I use three basic types of pencils in my woodcarving process:
- Something in a 2B to 4B range for initial transferring of design to wood
- A 2H pencil for drawing through the paper template
- A high quality HB pencil for drawing reference lines directly on the carving as you work – erasability is key
For the first type of pencil I have found that nothing works better than an Ebony pencil. I use the Eberhard Faber Design Ebony 6325, which is a vintage version of the ones currently being made under the Prismacolor Ebony name. Vintage or new, the graphite core of these pencils are the perfect match for drawing on wood, leaving a dark clear line on all but the darkest of wood tones. Ebony pencils are wonderful for drawing around the outside of a template for a cut line, and I find these are a great all-around shop pencil as well. The graphite does have a tendency to smudge, so I only use it early on in the carving process on wood that I know will be eventually removed because these lines don’t erase easily from wood.
The Ebony is also very effective for transferring a design using a photocopy. To do this I color the back of the paper with the Ebony pencil, and then use the second type of pencil in my list, a 2H pencil to draw over the design to transfer it to the wood. The paper template becomes its own graphite paper, and the transfer leaves just enough of a line that I can draw over the design again directly on the wood using the Ebony pencil. The choice of 2H pencil is less important than the other two types covered here, since the pencil itself is being used more as a stylus and the graphite doesn’t come into contact with the wood. One caution is to avoid using too much pressure when using the 2H pencil since it can leave a dent in softer wood – test it out on a scrap to see how much pressure is enough to transfer the design without denting.
The third type of pencil is a HB grade – not as soft as the Ebony, but much softer than the 2H – to draw directly on the wood to make reference lines during the carving process. My favorite pencil for this job is the vintage Eagle Draughting 314. You can still find the Eagle brand on eBay from time-to-time, as well as the equally good Berol version of this pencil, but the current General brand of the Draughting 314 does not have the same quality as its predecessors. If you can’t track down any of these wonderful all-around drawing pencils, choose a good quality HB grade pencil like the Hi-Uni or Tombow Mono brands. Whatever pencil you end up using, the primary concern is how well it erases from wood. Draw on your carving with a light hand so as not to leave any indentations, and test your pencil out on a piece of scrap wood first. I use this pencil to make reference marks on the carving as I am working, to transfer designs for lettering or chip carving, so it isn’t always something that will be carved away. I also use this pencil in the transfer process described above when I am working on very light wood, like basswood or Alaskan yellow cedar, to avoid the chance of errant smudges on the high points. For all of these uses you will need a good eraser – but not any eraser will do.
After trying many brands and types of erasers on wood, the only one that I have found that works well is the Tombow Mono smart plastic eraser. Other erasers can leave a terrible smudge, or a residue, or work small bits of themselves permanently into the wood grain. The Mono erases cleanly and leaves no trace. The Mono eraser is the essential tool in this process, and is likely the missing piece that leads others to avoid pencils altogether when carving. You may find other pencils that work just as well for you from the ones I mention here, but that probably won’t be the case for the Tombow Mono smart plastic eraser.
Since you have followed along this far I will assume you have a fascination for the subtler aspects of pencils, and so I will provide you with the following additional information:
- I’ve suggested all the best pencils for working on wood, without mentioning the BEST pencil ever – the Blackwing 602 made by Eberhard Faber and Faber Castell. If you are wondering if the Blackwing 602 works well on wood, the answer is a definite yes, but I save them for drawing, since I have so few, and they are so precious to me. The original Blackwing 602, which ceased being made in the late 1990s, is the best drawing pencil I have ever found, and I have spent quite a bit of time over the decades since they stopped producing them looking to find something that compares. Please do not let yourself be confused by the relatively new Palomino brand version of this pencil, as the only thing they share in common is the name. For a brief time I thought the Palomino brand HB and 2B drawing pencils offered a good alternative to the Blackwing 602, but I have since found a number of pencils that I consider to be far superior to the Palomino brand. Which leads me to the next point . . .
- If you are curious to know some the worst pencils for drawing on wood, they are the Palomino Blackwing line, as they are near impossible to erase. They don’t erase well on paper either, but that is another story for another day.
- If you would like to use some drawing and writing pencils of upstanding quality that are currently being produced, give yourself a treat and get a set of mixed grade Mitsu-Bishi Hi-Uni drawing pencils. These are top quality pencils, and a pleasure to use. Equally lovely are the Tombow Mono Professionals, get the ones made in Japan if you can find them.
- I have not received any compensation for recommending these items, these are products that I use myself with every carving I make. You can see these and other wood carving resources I have recommended HERE.