H, HB, B: What is the Difference Between Charcoal Grades?

Nitram Charcoal is available in B, HB, and H, but what do all those letters mean? Think of pencil leads. They range from the hardest, 9H to the softest 9B. For artists, 2B graphite provides a good range of grayscale values and blend-ability, but there are times when something lighter, crisper and shaper is needed, so the artist will select something in the H range. When darker is desired, an artist will choose something higher in the B range.

H, HB, B

B (Soft) Charcoal

The principals of charcoal are the same as graphite. Nitram B offers a rich black color. A very soft charcoal, it can be easily blended and erased. Nitram B is great for landscape and portraiture, particularly expressive drawing. The soft charcoal works well for adding the darkest darks to a drawing and can be blended out to gray tones. Its versatility makes it a great foundation for portraiture, especially when working hair or skin tones. The charcoal lifts easily with a kneaded eraser and, because it is so forgiving, it can be worked and reworked until the proper value is achieved. The B baton works for both undertones and finishing touches, when the darkest shade is needed.

HB (Medium) Charcoal

Nitram’s HB is a medium soft charcoal, preferred for drawing and sketching. Nitram HB’s superior hold is perfect for homogenizing tones and retaining tonal detail. HB charcoal works well for mid-tones and for bringing together light and dark shapes. Nitram’s HB is also a great choice for “scrubbing”- the use of a bristle brush for adding texture and smoothing transitions. When scrubbing, it’s best not to overwork with the brush because value can be lost. A light touch can achieve smoothness and texture without compromising the paper or the drawing. The HB baton and a bristle brush are a perfect combination for creating hair. Using the B charcoal first, blend to a gray tone, and it will leave a good tonal surface for defining planes and values with the HB baton.

H (Hard) Charcoal

Nitram H is a harder charcoal and produces a lighter tone. The Nitram baton can be sharpened to an extra fine point for creating crisp definition. It works well on fine areas, especially when creating portraiture, buildings and objects with intricate details. The H baton can be maneuvered for the finest details, such as eyes, nose, mouth and teeth in portraits; tires, steering wheels and chrome when drawing vehicles and roof shingles and wood on houses and barns. Harder charcoal doesn’t erase as well as soft charcoal, but Nitram is not as difficult to erase as some charcoal pencils can be, nor will it streak the paper with a permanent black that won’t budge with an eraser or blending stick. Keep in mind that charcoal, no matter what the grade, will be darker than graphite of the same grade. The advantage of charcoal is that it produces a darker, richer value than can be achieved with graphite. Another advantage is that the H charcoal is not in pencil casing. This eliminates the problem of “tripping” over the string when drawing. Nitram also offers three sizes of extra soft round batons that offer rich blacks. Unlike vine and willow charcoals, Nitram’s extra soft batons, as well as Nitram’s other grades, have the ability not to crumble. If accidentally dropped, there’s a good chance it won’t break or shatter.

H, HB, B

There are no steadfast rules for drawing and sketching with charcoal. Some artists prefer to use one hardness grade for an entire drawing, while others use several. For those new to the world of charcoal drawing, experimenting with each grade, both alone and in combination, will help determine personal preference.


  • what about vine charcoal? No. 2, No. 3, No. 17, No. 60 or No. 800. are the higher numbers harder and/or darker?

    and also, are willow batons graded only with letters for Soft, Medium and Hard or can they have number gradings as well?


    ernesto cumpian
  • Have bought the starter kit which contains sticks of 4 colours with no indication what the colours mean. Please enlighten!

    Linda Hubbard

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published