Wax-Based or Oil-Based?

Wax-Based or Oil-Based?

I received an interesting question recently. A reader wanted to know how to find out if a pencil is wax-based or oil-based.

That’s an easy question to answer and a difficult question to answer at the same time. Let me explain.

Finding out if a specific colored pencil is wax-based or oil-based is easy because most manufacturers tell you.

It’s difficult because not all of them do, and there is even some confusion about the accuracy of the information even when that designation is specified.

It’s also easy for me to make that determination because I’ve been using colored pencils for over 30 years.

But what if you’re new to colored pencils, or are still trying to figure some of these things out? Let’s take a more careful look at this question.

A Brief Look at the Making of a Colored Pencil

All colored pencils begin the same way that oil paints, acrylic paints, watercolors, and many other art mediums begin: with powdered pigment.

In order to make the pigment useful to us, it’s mixed with a combination of oil, wax, and other binding agents. This mixture allows the pigment powder to be molded into a “lead” core. It also allows the pigment to be transferred to paper simply by rubbing it on paper.

If you’d like a quick look at the manufacturing process for one of my favorite brands of colored pencils, check out this video from Faber-Castell. There are no details about ingredients, but it’s a wonderful “factory tour” for graphite and colored pencils.

The Difference Between Wax-Based and Oil-Based

So, technically speaking, all colored pencils are both oil- and wax-based.

At this point, you might be wondering what the difference is between a wax-based pencil and an oil-based one if they all contain wax and oil. That’s a good question!

The answer is in the proportion of wax and oil. If the binding agent of a pencil has more wax in it than oil, it’s said to be wax-based. If it has more oil than wax, then it’s oil-based.

How to Tell the Difference

Now to the reader’s question. How do you tell the difference between wax-based pencils and oil-based pencils?

Several characteristics will help you find out. Granted, these characteristics are not 100% accurate because pencils fall along a continuum from one to the other. But they are still a good set of guidelines.


The harder an artist grade pencil is, the more likely it is to have an oil-based binding agent. Wax-based pencils are generally very soft and waxy. That’s what makes them such a joy for most of us to use. Prismacolor pencils are a good example. They are soft and buttery going onto paper. That’s because of all the wax in the binding agent.

Faber-Castell Polychromos, on the other hand, are oil-based and they’re harder and drier in feel when you draw with them.

That difference is very characteristic. Oil-based pencils are, in general, harder and dryer than wax-based colored pencils.


For the most part, wax-based pencils are easier to layer color with than oil-based pencils. If you see a pencil described as “creamy” or “buttery”, chances are that it’s a wax-based pencil.

I personally find layering just as easy with one type of pencil as the other, but there is a difference in the feel. Depending on the paper you prefer, you may even think oil-based pencils feel “scratchy” when you draw with them. That’s because they have less wax to make them “glide” over the paper.

Easy to Break

Softer pencils are, by nature, easier to break under pressure than harder pencils. They can’t withstand as much pressure, so they break. This is especially true if you’ve put a really sharp tip on them.

Oil-based pencils will sometimes break, too, so this isn’t always a good way to tell the difference. But in general, the softer a pencil is, the more prone it is to breaking. The softer a pencil is, the more likely that it’s wax-base.

Wax-based or Oil-based?

So what is the best way to determine if a pencil is wax-based or oil-based?

My best advice is to contact the manufacturer. If you’re thinking about purchasing a new brand of pencils and you can’t find the information anywhere else, then contact the manufacturer or one of their representatives. That’s the best option for getting accurate information.

It may mean a delay in making a purchase, but if the difference is important to you, the delay could be worth it.

Got a question? Ask Carrie!

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  1. Ron

    Carrie, I find your responses to this question excellent. My experience has been that I was breaking the points of my Prisma colors rather easily especially as I first began using them. I didn’t know whether i had a bad patch of pencils or was I putting down too much pressure. Well, I believe it was I, as a man, not knowing the difference between applying a color light versus really light when using a wax-based pencil. 😉 Now knowing the issue, I still use my wax-based for most layering and use either Polychromos and Pablo pencils for detailing. As for matching different pencil types to paper type I’m still learning. Thank you!

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