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Mechanical Pencil Month – Day 12: Twelve leads a-leaping

For the twelfth day of Christmas Mechanical Pencil Month, I present a whistlestop tour of twelve lead refills from my collection of [insert large number here]. They have been arranged in loosely chronological order and any resemblance to the lines of a certain festive ditty is purely coincidental.

1 – Mordan’s pure Cumberland lead

S. Mordan & Co. prepared Cumberland leads

A case of which came first, the chicken or the egg? As the originators of the propelling mechanical pencil, it is natural that Mordan should also have been one of the first makers of lead refills to fit them. The early pencils were available in five grades from very hard to very soft (namely VH, H, M, S, VS), diminishing in size towards the harder end. The fragility of these first leads is reflected in the design of their packaging, each lead being contained in a tiny glass tube within the slipcase.

2 – Prepared leads

Prepared Cumberland leads by Perry, Hicks and Wolff & Son

Representative of the many imitators that Mordan’s innovation spawned, this selection of of prepared leads by different makers expands upon the original five grades with a range of letters and numbers that reflect the increasingly diverse market for mechanical pencils aimed at different users. The refill box of “M” leads by W.S. Hicks for example was produced specifically for their “Celebrated Ladies’ Aluminium Pencils”, combining the fashionable ever-pointed pencil with the recently-discovered wonder material aluminium, a metal that was for a time more expensive than gold. To assist with the otherwise hit-and-miss job of selecting the correct leads for a pencil of unknown width, Wolff & Son made a lead gauge for the bewildering array of refills available.

E. Wolff & Son's lead gauge for ever pointed pencils

In addition to three of Mordan’s original five grades that were still in general use (H, M and VS) there was also 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, P and W. The missing 3 is presumably equivalent to Mordan’s M, while W stands for wide, a grade that was later offered by Mordan & Co.

3 – Faber’s Polygrades

A.W. Faber's polygrade leads for artist's pencils with moveable leads

Faber changed the face of technical drawing with their Artist’s Pencils with Moveable Leads, the forerunner of the modern draughting pencil. These leads were all 2 mm in diameter irrespective of their grade and were much longer than those previously produced. This made best use of the full-sized holder, which was equivalent in length and girth to an ordinary cedar-cased drawing pencil and had a manual clutch that was tightened by hand. As the Cumberland mines began to dry up in the second half of the 19th century, Faber sought out a new source of high quality graphite and eventually found it in Siberia. Faber’s artist’s polygrades became so widely used for draughting that manufacturers increasingly supplied drawing instruments with pencil holders designed around their 2 mm leads.

4 – Metal tubes

Metal tubes of mechanical pencil refill leads

It is almost impossible to avoid amassing copious numbers of these ubiquitous little canisters that began to find their way into drawing sets from the last quarter of the 19th century. Often anonymous, the leads inside vary in quality from top notch to unusable. Likewise, the metal tubes themselves come in an inconceivable array of different designs.


Mitsubishi Pencil Co. Golden Axe mechanical pencil with refill leads

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

6 – Glass tubes

Glass tubes of refill leads for different brands of mechanical pencil

By the first decades of the twentieth century, every mechanical pencil seemed to have its own proprietary brand of leads, from the square peg in a round hole of day four’s Eversharp 4 Square to the frankly pedantic 1.19 mm of yesterday’s Belfor Clicker. To make matters worse, most of these came in ultra-fragile glass tubes with fiddly cork lids, so in many cases the refills are now harder to find than the pencils themselves.

7 – Norm-minen

Norm-minen retail pack containing one dozen glass tubes of 1.18 mm leads

Despite Faber’s rationalisation of the lead refill to a nice round 2 mm, many pencils in Europe still used the Imperial lead size of 3/64ths of an inch adopted by Yard-O-Led and other contemporary British and American makers. Converted to metric units this is precisely 1.190625 mm (apologies to Belfor), but was usually referred to as 1.18 mm, a cumbersome number, but one that stuck. This pack of unbranded German “Norm-minen” sums up the conflicting standards in use, containing a dozen containers of a dozen leads 1.18 mm in diameter yet 100 mm long.

8 – Staedtler-Mars Lumograph

Staedtler Lumograph mechanical pencil lead refills

No survey of draughting leads would be complete without the colossus that is the Staedtler-Mars Lumograph, perhaps the best-known of all the brands pictured here today. The Lumograph range, launched in 1930, was specifically designed to be reproducible by copying machines, allowing drawings to be made in pencil without the need for subsequent inking-in. Staedtler held world patents on the formula developed by Karl Kreutzer (British patent here, US here), so for some years were unassailable in this particular field. The presentation and packaging of the leads was a key element of their appeal, from the early cardboard and wood slipcases to the later plastic “tambour” boxes which even featured a colour-coded end cap to fit Staedtler’s pencils, housed in a separate compartment at one end.

9 – Faber-Castell Flachminen

Faber-Castell Flachminen refills for flat lead pencils

For long lines, such as might be required in the process of “lofting” boat or aircraft designs at full scale, a sharpened mechanical pencil lead would soon lose its point. Enter the flat lead pencil, an early attempt to create a workable fineliner that could draw long lines of consistent thickness. Although still fragile, the shape of these unusual leads improved their resistance to breakage while delivering more lead to the paper. However, their existence was brief, as a direct consequence of the next item on the list.

10 – Pentel Hi-Polymer leads

Pentel Hi-Polymer lead refills patented in 1965

The first polymer lead was introduced by Pentel (at the time still officially called The Japan Stationery Co.) in the mid-1960s and revolutionised the mechanical pencil overnight. Where previously 0.9 mm leads had been the practical limit beyond which the graphite became too fragile to use without constant breakage, the addition of synthetic resins and plasticizers to the mix enabled fine leads of 0.5 mm, 0.3 mm and beyond. Once again, the world patents held by Pentel (see US patent here) gave them an unassailable monopoly on the new “fineliners”, which spelled the demise of not only the flat lead pencil, but the mainstream market for 2 mm leadholders in general.

11 – Film leads

Film leads by Staedtler, Pentel and Pilot

With the introduction of mylar draughting films, the traditional pens and pencils used in drawing offices were no longer up to the job. The abrasive surface of the film would quickly eat its way through ordinary steel pens, and regular pencil leads would be ground down to a powdery smudge. These specially-formulated film leads were much harder and could lay down clear, dark lines on the mylar that would not smudge, yet were easily erased. The harder grades could be readily traced over in ink, while softer leads were often adequate for finished photocopies in much the same way as Staedtler’s Lumographs had revolutionised the blueprint workflow decades before.

12 – Rotring leads

Rotring refill leads for 2 mm leadholder and fineliner pencils

If anyone could make spare leads cool, it was Rotring. Although they did not manufacture the leads themselves, Rotring’s packaging combined strong brand identity with the latest in industrial design to create products that people aspired to use. Rotring’s mechanical pencil range reached its zenith in the late 1980s with the Tikky and ArtPencil, but ultimately would not survive the oncoming juggernaut of computer aided design, which led to the German company’s sale to the rather less cool Sanford. Spare leads would never be the same again.

Sanford 0.5 mm refill leads

If you think I’ve missed anything, let me know!

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