Get the Lead Out: The Rise and Fall of Mechanical Pencils


It is a wide collection of details and history that attach to mechanical pencils. For many years, until the 1970s, the typical mechanical pencil used a 0.5 mm lead. There were several manufacturers – Kohinoor, Faber Castell, Lamy, Caran d’Ache, Parker – and the pencil of choice used the 0.5 mm size lead.

But the quality of the lead began to deteriorate. The lead became cheaper and less discriminate. In a way, it was similar to the light bulb, which also lost much of its distinction but did become cheaper. They both were now mass-produced commodities, especially in the United States. They followed in step with the Bic razor and fast food. And, some would say, education and spelling. I remember when the light bulb was a brilliant construction, when the threading was precise and the glass carefully sealed.

A few years ago, I asked the head of Caran d’Ache why his leads were literally twice as expensive as other leads. He said that when you make a pencil lead, you choose the graphite, from a 99 percent pure quality down to 60 percent pure graphite. Like coal, the better graphite was more expensive. And the sand that they use to bind the lead, they purchased from the Belgian Congo. Also expensive. But, he noted the lead is superior. It has a finer, more even touch. You can tell the difference by using it, if you pay attention, but you cannot tell the difference by appearance.

Most importantly, it is not fragile, it does not break. In the 1970s, the 0.5mm lead, now produced as inexpensively as possible, began to break, like a cheap stick. And each person blamed themselves – they were obviously using too heavy a hand. Instead of blaming the lead, they blamed themselves, quietly. 

The solution was simple – use a larger lead, a 0.7 mm, that will not break. Almost suddenly, the 0.5 mm mechanical pencil, the very standard bearer, became near obsolete. Everyone went for the larger size lead and that took care of the lead breaking. The 0.5 mm became the fading relic. And by the 1980s and ’90s, there were literally no mechanical pencils in the 0.5 mm range. Even Caran d’Ache, the stubbornest of Swiss manufacturers, changed their most famous pencil to the 0.7 mm size. They literally stopped making the 0.5 mm. The customer had moved on.

There are, of course, people who still use and intend to use a 0.5 mm mechanical pencil. Lamy still offers both sizes in their more expensive line. But you must keep track of which size you are using. If you should refill your pencil with a larger lead, or perhaps a less precise lead, then your pencil will clog with the fatter lead.

It was once a tradition that the eraser of a good mechanical pencil would also have, on its interior end, a filament that was precisely the width of the pencil lead size. If your mechanical pencil was failing to advance the next lead, then you could use the filament to clear the barrel, so to speak. If you did not have such a filament, then, in a sense, you were out of luck. Your pencil was stuck. The tolerances are precise.

Needless to say, the migration to the larger 0.7 mm lead created a much bigger case load of jammed pencils.

Ten years ago, when the Peter Miller Bookshop was on First Avenue in the Market, a woman came in with a large cosmetic case, filled with mechanical pencils, of all sorts and colors. She asked if someone could please help with these pencils, they all need some repair. She left her name, and phone number on a slip in the case.

When I came in, Lisa, the manager, explained that the customer had indeed purchased all of the pencils from us. They were in three of four different lead sizes and from different manufacturers – there were probably 16 of them in the case, and each one needed attention. Was that OK?

I went in the backroom, we had a long, free table. I brought a good light over to it, an assortment of different lead sizes, some sheets of white paper to work on and as many of the filament ended erasers as I could find. And, an assortment of different eraser sizes. And a magnifying glass.

Some of her pencils had been so well used that their size designation had literally worn off. They were the hardest, for you had to find their width. And some of the pencils, in an attempt to get them to work, had been stuffed with different size leads. They were plugged.

Each mechanical pencil had its own deconstruction. And some are simply more precise than others. But they do come apart, carefully. They are a quiet act of engineering. Using the filaments, and in a few cases, strands of electrical wire and picture hanging wire, I managed to get the pencils clear and unclogged. Then they had to be refilled with the proper lead. And, in what is always a difficult case, they each take their own particular eraser – each one.

Finally, I had them back in perfect working order. I rubbed them all down with a cloth and put them back. We let her know they were ready, we charged her for leads and erasers and she was thrilled. How lovely, she said, and off she went. 

Repairs, there is something wonderful about proper repairs. 

Peter Miller
Peter Miller
Peter Miller runs the Peter Miller Design Bookshop, in Pioneer Square, in the alley between First Avenue and Alaska Way. He is there, every day. He has written three books, Lunch at the Shop, Five Ways to Cook, and How to Wash the Dishes. A fourth book, Shopkeeping, A Manual, will be published in Spring 2024, by Princeton Architectural Press.


  1. yes! yes! yes!!!

    i guard my mechanical pencils with a cadre of doberman pincers…(just kidding, but almost…)

    now, about those beloved rapidographs… anyone remember drawing, with pride, those super fine, lovingly executed, mighty elegant lines…

  2. I have a supply of .5 lead because I like, well, I prefer, fine points in pencils and pens, too, although the latter are difficult to find. Now I cannot find the mechanical pencil for which I purchased this lead. What to do? I likely can figure it out, but since I loved this article, I choose to ask instead.

    Thank you for bringing light into this grey day!

  3. My needs are much more plebeian — I like to use a fine point pen, but it can be an inexpensive ball point. Lately, with pandemic supply troubles, it’s been hard to find them, but my sister shared her stash with me.

  4. THANKS for writing this. Fun read. Regarding the precision of the components, the barrel needed to fit tightly around the lead to keep the lead from rotating… so you could wear a slight bevel/angle on the tip for lettering purposes… i.e., thin verticals with thicker almost “calligraphy-like” horizontals and curves (for example, the letters B, D, L, P, R, etc. and of course many others). High-tech was… mylar sheets with pin-registration holes punched at the top. Erasing shields. Drafting brushes. And the little eraser crumbs (from a small can with a perforated top) that you would lightly sprinkle on your paper to keep it clean. But if you had a “drafting arm” (instead of a conventional “cable and rollers” straight-edge with triangles) you were REALLY a pro… and didn’t need the eraser crumbs — as much. LOL.

  5. Japanese mechanical pencils are all about the 5 lead. Also a great assortment of different kinds of leads in 5 and 3. Check out the Kuru Toga line (the lead rotates on purpose)
    That said, i am a 7 or 9, 2B. Kokuyo mostly. I order on JetPens, now that UBooks has decimated its stationery department, and Kinokuniya is a mess.
    My sister took all the ballpoints (Bic, acquired at Target)

  6. I have a small drawer full of .5 mechanical pencils dating from my early career as an accountant and systems analyst. They share space with my larger collection of fountain pens. Both are sleeping used due to Bill Gates and the PC revolution, but both hold a deeper place in my heart.

    Thanks, Peter, for the great reminder and break from the political and cultural wars.

  7. I lost my beloved Faber Castell Pencil some years ago, I found one on eBay it was going for over $200 ! I had a Rotring .5 in solid brass for a while also sadly lost, I purchased a Kura Toga and I still use it. Once upon a time I was a draughtsman and I have owned many cheap but serviceable Pentels despite computers I still love mechanical pencils thank you for this enjoyable article


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