If you work with colored pencils as an art medium, undoubtedly you have experienced the frustration of sharpening your colored pencil in a handheld sharpener and it keeps breaking again and again. It’s broken down to the wood with no visible pigment showing.
The electric pencil sharpener manufacturers say not to sharpen colored pencils in them. And, I have even heard another artist say never, never sharpen your colored pencils in an electric sharpener. So, short of doing a little whittling to get a point or grinding on sandpaper (I don’t recommend either) what should you do?
I will give you my simple advice for how to sharpen colored pencils while at the same time lowering your stress level! I don’t stress over sharpening my pencils because my way of dealing with sharpening is quite simple and time-tested as I have been working with colored pencil for many years!
Handheld and Electric – Mostly Electric
So here’s my secret for no-stress sharpening: In general, I either sharpen my pencils in a handheld sharpener to just renew the point or sharpen in an electric sharpener for more extensive sharpening. I do this so automatically that I have virtually eliminated all the frustration and guesswork on which way I should go. And more often than not, yup, I use the electric. I will explain a little later why I think that’s OK (aside from the fact that I have anywhere from 30-80 pencils to sharpen after some of my colored pencil classes. Needless to say I would have no wrists left if I had to sharpen them manually!)
Handheld Sharpeners – Do They Work?
Basically, I do my colored pencil art with a sharp point through about 75% of the project so I’m sharpening often. You’d be surprised how fast a point gets dull even doing light layering – especially with brands with softer leads like Prismacolor. (I love Prismacolor but it does need sharpening more often.)
So to just give the pencil a fresh, sharp point, I simply use a handheld sharpener and give it a couple of gentle rotations holding it tight.
These handheld sharpeners work pretty well and there are many, many kinds on the market. If the pencil wiggles around in the hole (i.e. has too much “play”), then chances are it may break as you’re sharpening it. Sharpeners where the pencil has just enough room to turn work the best.
So my purpose for using these sharpeners mainly is to maintain the sharp point. If the point is very dull, I don’t waste time trying to sharpen it in the handheld as the number of revolutions necessary to sharpen can sometimes break the lead (in my experience) plus it’s just more efficient to use the electric sharpener.
Another thing you can try for the handheld sharpeners is to turn the sharpener, not the pencil when you sharpen. Do it slowly and deliberately holding the pencil tightly all the way into the sharpener. This does seem to work maybe 8 or 9 times out of 10. Not bad, eh? But if you’re trying to save time, the electric is still faster :).
One more note about manual sharpening… The crank sharpeners that we had in the olden days in our classrooms as kids I never use, nor do I own one. I read that they are simply too rough on colored pencils to do the job well. I cannot speak from experience, though, since I haven’t tried them.
Electric Sharpeners – Ok to Use?
If the pencil breaks down to the wood during trying to use a handheld sharpener, I don’t keep trying to sharpen it in the handheld sharpener as I have learned (the hard way) that a 7-inch pencil can quickly be reduced to half that size when you keep trying and it keeps breaking. All that does is shorten the life of your pencil and increase your stress! So, if it breaks to the wood, I simply use the electric sharpener.
Also, at the end of a work session when I may have multiple pencils, it simply saves time to resharpen all of them in the electric and makes for quick easy clean up.
The one pictured here made by Bostitch is a pretty good one that I have used for years. It delivers a nice long, very sharp point that’s good for that fine layering or sharp detail and the long length of lead showing is great when you are using the “flat” stroke. (See my post on Basic Colored Pencil Techniques).
But what about the warnings about electric sharpeners you ask? One of the main reasons for not using colored pencils in an electric sharpener is because of the binders (wax or oil ). They can clog up the machine. And the softer the pencil you typically use, the faster this could happen. Plus, as the sharpener gets clogged, it can also tend to chew up your pencils (and who wants their expensive Prismacolor pencils chewed up, right?)
It has been said, however that if you run graphite through the sharpener also, it will help clean the blades. So after you are all done sharpening for the day of using colored pencils, I recommend running some graphite pencils through it.
What about Battery Operated Sharpeners?
Personally, I don’t use battery operated sharpeners. I’m sure there are good ones out there. But in my opinion, based on my experience, many don’t have enough power to give you quality sharpening and could chew up your pencils.
Having said that, I did a little research and found a couple to try. Two brands that seem to be better quality and kid-friendly as well are Tripworthy and Office Goods. I have actually just purchased one of them online and will let you know how it works. (I will add it as an update to this post in the future). It sure would be a lot more portable than carrying a plugin sharpener when I’m on the go!
Update: I have purchased the Tripworthy battery operated sharpener and I love it! It does NOT chew the pencil and puts a long and very sharp point on it. Very lightweight, portable and takes 4 AA batteries. I highly recommend it!
Whatever you do, I do not recommend taking a brand new pencil out of the box and start using it without sharpening it. The manufacturer’s “sharpened” point doesn’t pass muster with this artist!
Plus, after they have been sitting in the store awhile (or on your shelf awhile), the wax binder may “cloud” the point a bit, preventing its true rich pigment from being applied. This is another reason to sharpen often, too. It refreshes the color!
Keep it Simple
When needing to crank out a commission or art projects for my workshops and classes, I don’t have time to worry or stress over sharpening my pencils. So I keep it simple for how to sharpen colored pencils: brief turn or two in the handheld to refresh the point and electric for dull, broken or multiple pencils.
Questions or comments? Please don’t hesitate to add them below.