How To Keep Your Pencil Notes From Smudging

So you prefer to write with a pencil. It’s a sensory experience all of its own. Besides, you can easily erase and correct a mistake without using that sticky whiteout, and your handwriting looks better in pencil anyway. The only trouble is those faint graphite clouds that appear on the paper without your permission – smudges!

You can keep your pencil notes from smudging by changing how you hold your hand against the page, putting a piece of paper under your hand when writing, and using a harder pencil. When your notes are finished, you can spray them with a fixative, like a hairspray, or interleave them with wax paper.

Pencils write less permanently than pens, so if you need your notes to last for a very long time, it may be better to use a pen. Also, handwriting in pencil, unlike pen, can easily be altered with an eraser, so if there is a risk that someone else might change your notes, preferably use a pen. The fact that you can easily alter penciled notes can also be an advantage if you want to work them up into an article or book, for instance.

Hand Position When Writing For Avoiding Smudges

Smudging can occur because the outer palm of your writing hand rests heavily on the paper. If your working surface is horizontal, e.g., a writing desk, this is a natural position, but it can lead to smudging. You can try using a tilted writing surface if this is an available option, but if not, you can still remedy the problem by altering your hand’s placement on the page as you write.

Try minimizing the contact of the palm of your hand with the paper. You need to find the most comfortable way for you, but you could try resting only your pinky finger, curled or straight, on the page. Alternately you could try writing using just your wrist as a fulcrum without your palm or any fingers touching the paper. If you minimize contact with the page, you reduce the chance of smearing.

You can also position a second piece of paper under your hand when writing. This helps to prevent smudging. As it is living tissue, your skin exudes natural oils and perspiration, to which the graphite from the pencil sticks and then smears across the paper as you write. Putting another piece of paper between your hand and the writing surface prevents this from happening.

Some Pencil Types Smudge More Than Others

Pencil leads are made of graphite, not the toxic metal that environmentalists lose sleep over. When the graphite is transferred onto the page, it is effectively a powder. Powders don’t seep into the fiber of the paper like inks do. This means they can be rubbed off with minimal effort. You don’t need an eraser to obliterate writing in pencil; sometimes, a tissue or fingertip is enough.

Today’s pencils have a mixture of graphite and clay in them, which can be varied to create harder or softer leads. You can avoid a lot of smudging by using harder pencils.

Pencils are classified for hardness using the numbers 2 to 9 and the letter H. So, for example, a 7H pencil is much harder than an H or a 2H pencil. The only drawback is that they write a lot lighter, so if you are already someone who barely touches the nib to the paper, using a hard pencil may make your notes less legible.

The very light-colored, hardest pencil starts at 9H and then gets softer, going all the way down to 2H, then H, and then F. An F means the pencil can be sharpened to a fine point. The dark (Black) leads start from HB (Hard Black) to B, to 2B going all the way up to 8B and 9xxB, which is the very darkest and softest. HB is a combination of hardness and blackness.

All of the pencils with only a B in their name have softer, darker leads and will smudge more. So, for example, 2B is much more likely to smudge than HB. Pencils that are 4H and higher shouldn’t smear very much at all, but they give you much lighter writing. HB is a popular compromise for most people, but the black in it can leave smudges.

The American system just uses numbers to classify pencils. A number 2 (#2) pencil is similar to an HB pencil, while a #1 is much darker and softer. A #3 is lighter and harder because it has more clay and less graphite.

Smudging Can Occur If Pages Rub Together

Your notebook may be kept in your backpack, handbag, or pocket, which are not static environments. The pages may rub together due to the book moving around when you carry it between classes or meetings. This friction can cause your penciled notes to smudge.  You can cut pieces of wax paper the same size as the pages and put it between them to avoid this.

There is a special kind of paper, called glassine interleaving paper, that artists use to put between their drawings. This paper is translucent and acid-free and is designed for storing and protecting delicate artwork. If your notes are very important, you may want to try interleaving them with glassine paper.

You can also spray your notes with hairspray, but it can cause a yellowing effect on the page. For notes, this is not usually a problem, but for a drawing, it might be. Certain hairsprays are more effective than others, so you may have to be experiment with a few different kinds to find the best one.

You can also cover the pages in a cut-to-fit transparent plastic film that is sticky on one side. This film is sometimes used to cover school textbooks. It can be a laborious and rather expensive undertaking if you have many notes to protect, but it might be worth it if it’s just a few.  

When reading your notes, you shouldn’t use your finger to trace the words. You should avoid touching your handwriting entirely if you want to prevent pencil smudges. You can buy acid-free page protectors into which you can slip your notes if they are not bound into a notebook.

Paper Type Can Cause Smudging

Paper varies significantly in its characteristics, and some kinds of paper are not suitable for writing on with a pencil. Paper with a sheen, waxy, or glassy paper will not hold graphite well, as anyone who has used a soft pencil on tracing paper will attest. It is easy to smudge the lines.

Better quality paper retains the graphite well. Paper that has a slightly textured surface is preferable to extremely smooth paper when writing with a pencil. If the paper has too much tooth, it takes too much graphite off the pencil, which leads to smudging.

A paper’s tooth describes the feel of its surface. The more tooth it has, the rougher it feels. Fine-toothed paper is smoother and is suitable for use with pencils. Sketching paper has a finer tooth than drawing paper and is also lighter.

The pages of a spiral-bound notebook are more likely to rub together than those of a cloth-bound one. You can prevent this by putting a rubber band around it. The tighter the binding of your notebook, the lower the likelihood that the pencil will smudge.


Pencil is always more likely to smudge than more permanent forms of writing, but there are many things you can do to keep it to a minimum. Choose your pencil and notebook or paper carefully. Minimize your writing hand’s contact with the paper. Prevent pages of handwriting from rubbing together by putting a rubber band around the notebook or enclosing them in protective covers. Treat them with a fixative spray to stabilize the graphite on the page.

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