An Artist’s Pencil with Movable Lead
Clutch pencil, lead holder, mechanical pencil, draughting pencil, automatic pencil, technical pencil, refillable pencil and propelling pencil are just some of the many names given to a spring-loaded or twist-fed holder with a drawing lead that extends as the lead is used up. The lead holders are made for a variety of lead thickness, refill leads are sold separately and the holder lasts for many years. Technically all the sizes and types are ‘clutch pencils’ as the mechanism of the device that holds the lead is a clutch (a jawed pressure clamp). But often ‘clutch pencil’ is used for the 5mm and 5.6mm size, ‘lead holder’ is used for the 2mm size, while the other names usually refer to just the thinner lead holders.
I thought clutch pencils would be a bit anachronistic, but there are still many clutch pencils available, and there are good reasons to use them.
- Clutch pencils stay the same size as they are used up and so remained balanced in the hand.
- They are environmentally sound because they are refillable.
- You don’t have to remove wood for them to be usable, they are always ready.
- They are reliable instruments with a gratifying weight in your hand.
- The wider leads are especially useful for smooth even shading.
- The mechanical pencils (a clutch pencil with a thin lead) provide lines of constant thickness so are often used for technical drawing, but many fine artists use them to draw.
- The mechanical pencils (a clutch pencil that contains a delicate lead) don’t need sharpening. The other sizes may be sharpened or not, as needed.
Your drawing tool doesn’t change over time
A clutch pencil body stays the same size over time as the lead is used up, neither the length nor weight changes, it feels the same always, the balance remains true. If an artist does long period of gradual shading and the wood-cased pencil keeps getting shorter and lighter as they sharpen it, it can be frustrating. A clutch pencil is a precision instrument and many artists who use lead holders draw for hours at a time and the quality of their tool is important to them. Many say that their favourite leadholder has given them years of loyal service.
Thicker leads – bold sketching or even shading
The 2mm and 5mm lead holders have a small amount of weight that can help with creating more even shading. Because you can extend the lead out you can work with a wider area of the lead. You can sharpen the lead in a normal pencil sharpener or on sandpaper, you can turn the pencil as you use it to keep the point sharp or some artists like that the thickness will vary and give an expressive line, like calligraphy.
Thin leads – precise drawing
At 3mm, 5mm or 7mm, a mechanical pencil provides lines of constant thickness without requiring sharpening, for precise control. Thin lead technical pencils have a narrow tube sleeve at the tip from which the lead protrudes that allows the pencil tip to be run along a straight edge for drawing precise lines. This ‘lead sleeve’ might be in a fixed position or retractable.
Things to consider when choosing a clutch pencil
A pencil for drawing is a highly personal tool and each artist has different preferences for weight, balance, size and shape of the barrel and size of the lead. Some artists prefer a light or heavy pencil, some prefer the balance towards the tip or towards the centre, some like a smooth barrel and some like a knurled grip-zone so they can slowly rotate it as they draw to keep the tip even more precisely sharp.
- Size of lead you wish to work with
- Width of barrel for fit in the hand
- Length of pencil for fit in pocket or notebook
- Shape of barrel for grip and to stop it from rolling off a table
- Weight of pencil for balance and comfort
- Texture of the grip-zone
- Notebook or pocket clip which also stops it from rolling off your table
- If it has an eraser
- If it has a sharpener or pointer
- The method of propelling – is it a drop-slide or an automatic advance system
Type of mechanism in the leadholder
There are three basic types of mechanism:
Ratchet – the lead is advanced by a fixed amount every time the mechanism is clicked or twisted using either an end push-button, a side button, or a twist. (Automatic)
Twist-slider – the lead is advanced in a continuous manner as the mechanism is twisted and the lead slides up or down. (Jackson’s Art don’t stock any of this type.)
Clutch – the jaws grip the lead and a push-button opens and closes the jaws allowing the lead to slide freely. (Free Sliding or Drop-Slide)
Some clutch pencils come with a sharpener/pointer inside the removable push-button.
Like a standard wood-cased pencil they are available in different hardnesses of graphite, though not as wide a range as wood-cased pencils – usually HB to 6B – as well as some charcoal and coloured chalk leads in the 5.6mm size.
Many of the thin lead mechanical pencils come with an eraser in the end, either under the removable push button or by twisting out.
Some have pocket/notebook clips, some of which are removable.
The thin leads do not need sharpening.
For the 2mm pencils a ‘lead pointer’ is available or you can use a piece of sandpaper. Some of the 2mm pencils come with a lead pointer in their push-buttons.
For the larger leads sharpening involves only the lead and not any wooden casing so if you require it you can create a precisely sharp point quickly. You can sharpen the 5.6mm leads in a normal pencil sharpener or with sandpaper.
The 5.6mm pencils hold one lead at a time. The thin lead pencils have spares in the barrel.
When choosing your lead you will want to decide:
- Lead width – fine lead for precise lines or wider lead for shading or covering large areas.
- Lead hardness – when choosing a graphite lead you will have a choice of lead hardness, 6B usually being the softest and therefore the darkest.
- Lead composition – with the 5.6mm leads you have a choice of lead colour and composition. Graphite leads, chalks, sepia, red chalks, and charcoals are available.
Clutch Pencils for 5 to 5.6mm leads
To load a new lead, keep the push-button depressed and feed a new lead in through the front of the pencil.
Unlike the thin leads the 5.6mm leads do not snap while you are drawing, even when you apply a lot of pressure. This size can be used with graphite leads, chalks, sepia, red chalks, and charcoals from 3mm to 5.6mm. If you have leads that have broken in their box they can still be used because they are fed in through the front and the jaws will hold even a small piece of lead.
None of these have erasers in the push-button. Three have sharpeners in the push button. One is ‘automatic’, advancing the lead in increments, the rest move the lead with a drop slide action.
Koh-I-Noor Clutch Pencil for 5.6mm Leads 5347
‘Versatil’. Triangular plastic barrel with indents running the length for griping. Push button – drop slide.
Koh-I-Noor Clutch Pencil for 5.6mm Leads 5311
Solid metal barrel in matte black with indents running the length to aid grip. At 120mm long it is a bit shorter than the other 5.6mm pencils. Unusual for a 5.6mm pencil, there is a pocket clip, it uses a strong bolt to attach it. Push button – drop slide. The push-button has an integral sharpener.
Cretacolor Wooden 5.6mm Clutch Lead Holder
‘Ecologic’. This smooth, wooden holder looks beautiful and feels substantial, without being too heavy. It has a curved ‘waist’ in the grip-zone. Push button – drop slide. It holds 5 to 5.6mm leads. Cretacolor 5mm leads are available in 13 variations of graphite, coloured chalk, charcoal and nero.
Koh-I-Noor Clutch Pencil for 5.6mm Leads 5340
Aluminium hexagonal barrel and brass components, feels very solid. Push button – drop slide. The push-button has an integral sharpener.
Koh-I-Noor Clutch Pencil for 5.6mm Leads 5640
‘Automatic’. Aluminium octagonal barrel and brass components. Automatic advance mechanism, which extends lead with each click of the push-button, like the type that a thin-lead mechanical pencil has, rather than the usual gravity feed of a most clutch pencils. The push-button has an integral sharpener. At 128mm long it is a bit shorter than the other 5.6mm pencils. Replacement leads are a tight fit but will insert.
Koh-I-Noor Clutch Pencil for 5.6mm Leads 5353
‘Versatil Soft’. Round matte black all-metal barrel with rubberised coating. Push button – drop slide. The push-button has an integral sharpener. At 109mm long it is the shortest of the 5.6mm pencils Jackson’s stock. Comes with 6 coloured metallic leads in a storage box.
Clutch Pencils for 2mm leads – Leadholders
To load a new lead, keep the push-button depressed and feed a new lead in through the front of the pencil.
Unlike the thin leads the 2mm leads do not snap, even when you apply a lot of pressure. They are a pleasure to work with.
None of these have erasers in the push-button. Some have lead pointers in the push button. One is ‘automatic’, advancing the lead in increments.
Faber Castell 2mm Clutch Pencil 9400
The barrel is robust, well-balanced and feels solid, comfortable to hold. Lovely weight and balance. Lightly ribbed plastic finger-grip zone, hexagonal barrel.
Our most popular of all types of clutch pencils.
Push button – drop slide.
There are four hardness of Faber Castell 2mm lead available: graphite 3B, 2B, B and HB. The leads are 125mm long and come as 10 in a superb storage box. Each individual lead is stamped with the hardness rating.
A separate little lead pointer device is available.
Koh-I-Noor Toison D’Or 2mm Clutch Pencil 5900
‘Golden Fleece’. Hexagonal barrel, no texture in the grip zone. Removable pocket/notebook clip. Unscrew the push-button and inside is a lead pointer.
Push button – drop slide.
Koh-I-Noor 2mm refill leads are 120mm long and come in 2B.
Koh-I-Noor Notebook Automatic 2mm Clutch Pencil 5608
Unusually short clutch pencil for keeping with your notebook.
Automatic advance mechanism, which extends lead with each click of the push-button, like the type that a thin-lead mechanical pencil has, rather than the usual gravity feed of a most clutch pencils.
Because of its short size standard length refill leads will need the ends snapped off to take them from 120mm down to 90mm, which is very easy to do. Leftover lead pieces can still be fully used.
Knurled metal finger-grip zone. Removable pocket/notebook clip.
Unscrew the push-button and inside is a lead pointer.
Clutch Pencils for thin leads – Mechanical Pencils
Extra leads are loaded in the back and stored in the body and are fed into the jaws when the old lead is removed.
They all have erasers in the back end, one under the push button the others twist it up.
They all have a small metal tube around the lead opening. This works well for running the pencil along a straight edge for very accurate drawings.
Pentel 0.5mm Lead Clutch Pencil P205
The classic engineer’s pencil, it has a removable pocket clip. It is supplied with 6 Super Hi-Polymer HB leads. ‘Super Hi-Polymer’ means less lead breakage. The refill Super Hi-Polymer graphite leads come in hardnesses: 4B, 2B, B and HB. It has an eraser under the push-button cover and takes eraser refills sold in packs of four.
Koh-I-Noor Mechanical Pencils in .3mm, .5mm, .7mm
These Mephisto mechanical pencils 5005, 5055, 5035 come in three thickness, indicated by colour and number on the barrel. The grip-zone on the barrel is rubber. It has a removable pocket clip. They are supplied with one lead. The rubbers in the back of the barrel can be accessed without removing the push button cover, by twisting the barrel, and are quite long (see photo above) so will last a longer time.
Artists Who Use Clutch Pencils
Clutch pencils are always ready to use!
“I currently have three clutch pencils, two Staedtler and one Faber Castell, all 2mm leads. I particularly like the Staedtlers because they have a pocket clip and a neat lead sharpener in the top. I use them because I got fed up with conventional wooden pencils breaking when I sharpen them, if you drop a clutch pencil you still end up with useable shorter lengths, and it only takes a couple of turns in a pencil sharpener to bring the lead to a fine point rather than standing over a bin trying to sharpen a wooden pencil with a knife. Although the sharpener in the end of the pencil is OK in an emergency I prefer to use the Faber Castell 2mm sharpener that is designed for these pencils, the point is lethal!
I run life drawing sessions so the main use is to quickly draw the model between talking to students. Depending on the length of the pose I can draw rapid line drawings or with longer poses they are good for building up quite dense tones. Ingres said that drawing is the probity of art, to simply draw with a sharp pencil responding immediately and instinctively to a situation is often the start of the creative process for me, and the clutch pencil is always ready to do that.”
“I use the Rotring 0.5mm clutch pencils, it’s the older version of the Tikky I use it with 2H leads (Pentel) (editor’s note: Jacksno’s will soon be stocking a Rotring clutch pencil). I also have a unknown one which is fatter with a rubber grip. Although I have numerous other makes these are my favourites. I keep a couple on the go at once so I can have different leads in each, 4B etc.
I use mine for all my drawing whether its in my sketchbook or on watercolour paper. My usual approach to drawing is to start with my clutch pencil and then move to standard pencils
when I need to. I like the fact that I can get a super fine line and keep it razor sharp all the time without having to stop and sharpen again. I have dropped mine a few times over the years
and even if the lead breaks it still pops out, no such luck with standard pencils! If i’m doing a full blown drawing I will constantly go back to my clutch and tighten up areas that need it
and will more often than not finish with it using it to blend some of the other graphite from normal pencils.”
“I use the thick clutch pencils mainly – 5.6mm. The one I use the most is a Cretacolour one, which must have been the first one I bought, on a whim, just for the novelty and because it was affordable. It’s always in my bag, so probably my favourite because it’s nicely weighted and feels really comfortable to hold.
I use clutch pencils for all sorts of drawing, preparatory sketching and notation. I use them in place of regular pencils, which I hardly ever have now. I like them because they’re really comfortable in the hand, plus it’s very easy to get a range of marks with the fatter ones. You can sharpen the lead to a point but also use it well-rounded for easy tonal drawing. They’re refillable and durable, and I really like things that are made to last, rather than having to keep buying new. I think I’ve had the Cretacolour one for over 10 years. I love that you don’t need a regular pencil sharpener or knife to use these, and the leads don’t tend to break either. They are also really good for mixing with other media, like other coloured pencils, watercolour and ink.”
“I use Faber-Castell TK9400 clutch with 6B lead and a TK4600 which is much thinnerand a big fat Koh-i-Noor for laying down large areas. I like to work on boards primed with Daniel Smith Watercolor Ground and i like to work BIG so the clutch is great for this though I go through leads like water and I press on hard. I also use mechanical pencils.
all artist’s images are copyright of the artist
Click on the underlined link to go to the Clutch Pencils section on the Jackson’s Art Supplies website.
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