Graphite Pencils

Review: Caran d’Ache Graphite Grafwood Pencils

This is my review of the Caran d’Ache Grafwood Pencils. These are from Caran d’Ache’s graphite pencil range. I tested the six pencil set and have to say, this will be a mostly positive review. The Grafwood pencils aren’t perfect however so we’ll go through some of their limitations as well.

When I was selecting pencils to review for this website, Caran d’Ache was one of the brands I was most hesitant about. These graphite pencils by Caran d’Ache are more expensive than other brands and I was worried that I wouldn’t notice enough of a difference to justify the price.

Tactile Experience

caran d'ache grafwood pencil review
The pencils give an excellent tactile feeling.

I can notice the difference in tactile quality immediately when I compare these pencils and a cheaper set. There is no doubt about it, the Caran d’Ache Grafwood pencils are a luxury art product. The graphite nibs of the Grafwood pencils glide across the page like butter, yet without having the plastic feeling of other cheaper brands.

The balance between smooth gliding and friction is perfect with these pencils. That was the very first thing I noticed about them. Some pencils can have so much friction or grip on the paper that they feel scratchy. Others have no grib at all, making them feel like plastic. The Grafwood pencils by Caran d’Ache are for me at least, a perfect tactile experience for graphite pencils.

Is it worth paying more just to have the better tactile experience whilst drawing though? That depends entirely on your own priorities and budget to be honest. I’ll get more to value for money later on in this review of the Grafwood pencils.

The Quality of the Graphite

Cat drawing detail (done with Caran d'Ache pencils)
Detail of a drawing I made of my cat with the pencils

The graphite quality in Caran d’Ache’s Grafwood pencils is in my opinion second to none. The graphite is very consistent and during my test with them I didn’t notice any irregularities (I’ve done quite a few detailed graphite drawings with them). By irregularities I mean areas of the pencil where the graphite gets softer or harder. I’m also referring to brittleness and fragility.

During my entire Grafwood review, the pencils were consistent all the way through. Meaning unless you drop the pencil, you are very unlikely to get any variation in the quality as the pencil wears down over time.

Shading Quality

As I already mentioned, the tactile experience of Caran d’Ache’s Grafwood pencils is excellent. Now I’m sure you want to know if that translates to quality whilst shading. Short answer – yes it does!

When shading with the Grafwood pencils, I don’t have to make much effort at all to hide my pencil strokes. The graphite is so smooth and consistent, so shading blocks of tone uniformly is easy.

Key Drawing with Caran D'Ache Grafwood Pencils
Key Drawing (Click to enlarge)

For example take a look at this drawing I did of my keys. This drawing required a lot of uniform tone because the material of the keys is metal. I built this drawing up from light to dark, so worked the darkness of the overall piece up over time.

Caran d'Ache key drawing
Detail of key drawing

Even with the quite hard 2H Grafwood pencil, shading a uniform tone is easy. In fact, I love the 2H pencil way more than I thought I would. Usually I don’t touch 2H pencils but found this one to be perfect for putting down base coats of graphite.

As the pencils get softer (and therefore darker) they are just as easy to shade with. The only thing that gets different is that as the pencils get darker, you need to pay attention more to the pressure you are using. That is the same with all dark pencils though. You need to use the same pressure if you want a uniform tone across a large area.

Line Quality

When doing line drawings, predictably the Caran d’Ache Grafwood pencils produce an excellent result. My only wonder here though is why you would use these pencils for line drawings in the first place.

The Caran d’Ache Grafwood pencils are top quality graphite pencils. They are best reserved for your best graphite artwork. If you simply draw cartoons and gesture drawings with them, you’re not really getting the most out of them. Why? Because these pencils are so excellent for shading. If you are only drawing lines, you don’t need that kind of quality (at least in my opinion you don’t).

Closest thing I did to a line drawing (click to enlarge)

It’s the same thing for writing with Grafwood pencils. Yes they’ll feel absolutely great if you write with them or draw graphs. Yet I don’t understand why you would pay so much to do that with them.

Should that hold you back if you really want to buy Caran d’Ache Graphood pencils though? No but it’s something to consider at least!

Performance on different kinds of paper

Grafwood pencils performed excellently on every kind of paper I tried them with. At the time of this review, I tested them on six different paper types. These weren’t just box shading tests, I actually drew pictures so that I could see how they perform in a real piece of art.

I tested them with the following sketchbooks and paper:

  • Moleskine smooth 165 g/m2 (111 lb) paper
  • Seawhite smooth 130 g/m2 paper
  • Daler Rowney rough 150 g/m2 paper
  • Strathmore Toned Tan 118 g/m2 (80 lb) paper
  • Arteza rough 180 g/m2 (110 lb) paper
  • Canson 1557 rough 120 g/m2 (73.7 lb) paper

Grafwood pencils perform well on all of these paper types, however they tended to do better with the lighter grades of paper. The Canson 1557 is an excellent paper for these but my best experience was with the smooth paper (Moleskine and Seawhite sketchbooks). They did fine on thicker mixed media paper, however that kind of paper isn’t really as suited to graphite.

Here is a gallery of the drawings I did on different paper (click to enlarge):

I wrote which paper and pencils I used on each sketch.

Difference Between Grafwood Pencil Grades

I only got the six pencil set of Grafwood pencils. For me and my artwork, six pencil grades is already more than enough.

The Caran d’Ache Grafwood pencils I tested were:

  • Caran d’Ache Grafwood Grade 2H
  • Caran d’Ache Grafwood Grade HB
  • Caran d’Ache Grafwood Grade 3B
  • Caran d’Ache Grafwood Grade 5B
  • Caran d’Ache Grafwood Grade 7B
  • Caran d’Ache Grafwood Grade 9B
Cat Drawing
Example of a drawing with all six pencil grades. Click to enlarge

2H is the lightest tone pencil and 9B is the darkest. The difference between 2H and 9B is extreme, you can notice immediately (like with all pencil brands I’ve tried).

The difference in tone between the lightest three pencils (2H, HB and 3B) is also quite noticeable. If I shade uniformly with all pencils, I can tell which pencil is which when the final tone is laid down. This is important because if I’m buying different grade pencils, I want to have a noticeable difference between their tonal range (otherwise it’s pointless in having the extra grades).

One criticism I have for Caran d’Ache’s Grafwood pencils is that I don’t feel very much difference between the darker grades. Again, if I go from 3B to 9B then there is indeed a big difference. Yet if compare each of these darker pencils to their closest neighbour, the difference sometimes isn’t clear enough.

For example, I find it almost impossible to tell the difference between the 7B and 9B pencil grade with these pencils. I also find it difficult to tell the difference between 3B and 5B. Comparing 5B and 7B reveals a little bit more of a difference however.

Is it really a big deal that there is little difference between the darker grades?

It depends on how much you rely on pencil grade for tonal values. A professional artist will be very happy with these pencils because they will be very used to altering the pressure they use to adjust tonal values. Indeed, such artists may be content with using only one grade of pencil in the first place.

With the three lighter grade pencils, you will be able to rely more or less on the pencil itself to decide the tonal value. This means you will find it easy to control the darkness / brightness using the 2H, HB and 3B pencils.

With the softer / darker three pencils, you will need to pay more attention to the pressure you use. For example if you are drawing a very dark piece, you will need to adjust the pressure you use while switching between 5B and 7B. If you don’t adjust your pressure, the tonal value won’t change very much to the naked eye.

How do you sharpen the Caran d’Ache Grafwood pencils?

The pencils arrive like pencil A – but with normal pencil sharpeners you’ll get B or C.

Soon after I began my test with these Caran d’Arche graphite pencils, I realised I couldn’t use my usual pencil sharpeners. Leading my to the question… how do I sharpen Caran d’Ache pencils?

The main problem and biggest criticism I have of the Grafwood pencils is that they are a very particular circumference. They are larger than most other graphite pencils, yet they aren’t so wide that they’ll fit into any old two way sharpener. You know the sharpeners I mean, the ones with a small and big hole on them.

When you first open your Caran d’Ache Grafwood pencils, the pencils all have very long and sharp nibs. The way they come is the perfect length for me. Yet as soon as you try to sharpen them in a normal pencil sharpener, things get ugly.

Using a standard pencil sharpener you cannot get a sharp or long nib on these pencils. For example I tried sharpening them with two different Faber Castell pencil sharpeners and neither of them could sharpen the Grafwood pencils properly. I managed to sharpen the Grafwood pencils in a very cheap non-branded sharpener in the end, yet the nibs were short and weren’t pleasant to use.

How to get the pencils as sharp as they came

In the end, I bought the Derwent SuperPoint rotary pencil sharpener and found the Grafwood pencils are far better when coming out of that. When using the Derwent SuperPoint sharpener, I can get the long sharp points the Grafwood pencils came with.

However the Grafwood pencils still aren’t totally compatible with the SuperPoint sharpener. They are slightly too wide for it so struggle to go in. They do sharpen of course but it is a bit of a struggle.

Caran d’Ache sell their own pencil sharpener but at over 100€ / £100 / $100 it is out of the price range of most people (including me). I don’t think Caran d’Ache has purposely made their pencils the circumference they are for this reason, yet it is still inconvenient. I would prefer it if they slimmed down the pencils so that more pencil sharpeners are compatible with them.

The Grafwood Pencil Tin and Packaging

Caran d'Ache Grafwood Pencils Review
The six pencil Caran d’Ache tin.

Graphite pencils can quickly make a fabric pencil case dirty and black, so it is important for these type of pencils to come in a good tin. The tin that my six set of Caran d’Ache Grafwood pencils came in is great. It’s small, it fits in most bags and it opens on a hinge (which I prefer).

Caran d'Ache Grafwood Pencils Review
Showing the hinge on the tin.

The six pencil set comes in a decent tin however I quickly lost the foam padding that was at the end of the tin. It is very easy to lose because it isn’t glued or anything. By losing it, the pencil nibs are liable to knock against the metal tin and get damaged. That’s only if I carry them around in a bag regularly though, which I don’t.

For the 15 set of pencils, they come in a metal tube. I haven’t used this but again it makes carrying it around more practical. That metal tube will fit in most bags. It also has foam padding on the inside end to protect the pencils inside as they move around.

The packaging and tins don’t contain plastic, which really adds to the quality of the product. For that reason, if you’re buying these Grafwood pencils as a gift then they’re going to look more premium than other brands.

Gallery of pencil images: (click to enlarge)

The Appearance of the pencils

Caran d'Ache grafwood review

As you may have already noticed, the Caran d’Ache Grafwood pencils have quite a distinctive look. Each pencil is a different shade of grey. The different shades represent the tonal value of the different pencil grades. It’s a really clever way to show the difference between the tonal values and helped me a little bit when I was reaching for different pencils while working.

The difference between the shades of grey aren’t extreme enough for me to be able to tell the difference between the 7B pencil and the 9B pencil. Yet it still helps. If I’m going from HB to a darker pencil, it makes finding what I’m looking for easier.

Winsor and Newton’s graphite pencils use a similar colour scheme to distinguish each pencil grade but they don’t colour the entire pencil like Caran d’Ache do. The Caran d’Ache pencils look better and perform way better.

Caran d’Ache Grafwood Review Conclusion

Pros

  • Excellent line and shading quality.
  • Very consistent graphite quality.
  • Pleasant tactile experience.
  • Smooth and easy shading.
  • They glide across the page.
  • Pencil tins are good.

Cons

  • They aren’t compatible with a lot of pencil sharpeners so you may need to buy a new one.
  • The difference between darker grades is sometimes difficult to distinguish.
  • More expensive than other brands.
portrait pencil
A portrait I did of my girlfriend with the pencils (click to enlarge).
BTW – she runs a great tea blog in French at couleursdethe.fr.

The Grafwood pencils by Caran d’Ache offer an amazing quality that I’m sure any professional artist will appreciate. These are premium pencils and you really can’t go wrong by trying them out. The line quality is excellent, the shading quality is too and the graphite consistency is constant. The small six pencil set that I bought is an excellent range and I totally recommend them. Caran d’Ache also sell a 15 pencil set of Grafwoods that is also worth considering.

All grades of Grafwood pencils I tried were excellent. They glide across the page smoothly with just the right amount of resistance. My only criticism of the grades is that between neighbouring darker grades of Grafwood pencils there is little noticeable difference (eg between 7B and 9B).

The only thing to keep in mind with the Grafwood pencils is that you need to make sure you have an appropriate pencil sharpener for them. Caran d’Ache Grafwood pencils have a very particular circumference, so they won’t fit in a great range of pencil sharpeners. I use the Derwent SuperSharp sharpener with them and am very happy with the result. For best results you’d need to use the more expensive Caran d’Ache pencil sharpener.

Are the Caran d’Ache Grafwood pencils worth the cost? In my opinion yes. They are the best pencils I’ve ever used. I’m currently in the middle of reviewing 10 brands of pencil and Caran d’Ache is the best quality. Despite the sharpening problem, I can’t deny them the top place. The real question you need to ask is what do you want to draw?

If you want to draw detailed or realistic graphite pieces, Grafwood is an excellent choice. Likewise if you are looking for a gift for an artist, Grafwood pencils would probably be very appreciated. Yet if you are the kind of person who uses graphite pencils only for gesture drawings, line drawings and cartoons, these pencils may be too expensive for what you’re doing. It’s not that you shouldn’t use them… but really they are going to be most appreciated when used for shading etc.

What materials and tools work well with Caran d’Ache Grafwood pencils?

Here would be my ideal materials and tools to compliment the Caran d’Ache Grafwood pencils with:

  • Derwent SuperPoint Pencil Sharpener
  • Caran d’Ache Pencil Sharpener
  • Staedtler Mars Plastic Eraser
  • Tombow Eraser Stick
  • Conté à Paris Pencil Smudgers
  • Moleskine Art Sketchbook
  • Seawhite Travel Journal Sketchbook
  • Canson 1557 Sketchpad

You can buy Grafwood pencils from any of the following shops!

They generally cost more than other brands. In Aug 2020 I paid €28 for my set of six. The set of 15 is €40 at the time of writing. Per pencil they are around €3.89 (when bought separately). You can visit the shops below to compare prices and see which sells them cheapest whenever it is you are reading this!

Amazon UK – Amazon USA – Amazon CA – Amazon AU – Amazon NZ

Hobbycraft (UK)

Rougier et Ple (France)

Amazon FR – Amazon DE – Amazon ES – Amazon IT

Caran d’Ache Official Store