How to Sharpen Colored Pencils – Simplified

If you work with colored pencils as an art medium, undoubtedly you have experienced the frustration of sharpening your pencils. You try to sharpen them in a handheld sharpener, and they keep breaking again and again.

It’s broken down to the wood showing no visible pigment.

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!

A preface: I no longer stress over sharpening my pencils. That’s because my way of dealing with sharpening is quite simple and time-tested. I have been working with colored pencil for many years, so I speak from experience.

Handheld and Electric – Mostly Electric

Here’s my secret for no-stress sharpening: In general, I either sharpen my pencils in a handheld sharpener to just refresh 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!)

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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 Kum Wedge Sharpener  and give it a couple of gentle rotations holding it tightly.

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. The reason is that 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 method

Another thing you can try for the handheld sharpeners is to turn the sharpener, not the pencil, when you sharpen.

Turn it slowly and deliberately holding the pencil tightly, pushing it 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-type sharpeners that we had in the olden days in our classrooms as kids is something I never use, nor do I own one.

They are still sold. However, I have 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 while using a handheld sharpener, I don’t keep trying to sharpen it. I have learned (the hard way) that a 7-inch pencil can quickly shrink to half its 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 Bostitch QuietSharp Executive Electric Pencil Sharpener

(pictured below). This great sharpener is a good quality one and is fast.

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 Bostitch and makes for quick easy clean up.

It very quickly delivers a nice long, very sharp point that’s good for that fine layering or sharp detail. (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, it’s true.

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 or other brand of pencils chewed up, right?)

How do you solve that issue? It has been said that if you run graphite through the sharpener also, it will help clean the blades. So after you are all done sharpening the colored pencils used that day, I recommend running some graphite pencils through it to prevent the clogging issue.

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 (Click here to check price) and I love it!  It does NOT chew the pencil and puts a long and very sharp point on it. It is very lightweight, portable, and takes 4 AA batteries.  I highly recommend it!


Special Tip

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. I just pop it into the handheld for a brief turn or two to refresh the point or the electric for dull, broken or multiple pencils.

Questions or comments? Please don’t hesitate to add them below. Your email will never be shared.

Thanks for reading this and here are more posts you may find interesting:

==>Click here to read about Koh-i-Noor Woodless Colored Pencils<==.  They are the easiest to sharpen!

Crayola Twistables never need sharpening. ==>Click here to read about them.<==

Have an artful day…



16 thoughts on “How to Sharpen Colored Pencils – Simplified”

  1. I have to admit to sharpening mine with a Stanley knife! I know it’s quite dangerous and I wouldn’t recommend it purely because of that, but you do get a beautiful sharp point. It’s funny my Art teacher in high school showed us how to do it many moons ago – wouldn’t be allowed these days I bet.

    I love your site by the way, it is so colourful and bright makes me want to break out those pencils and get colouring.

  2. I loved this post! As a retired teacher, I can so relate to the colored pencil dilemma. I confess, I hid my very favorite pencils. Keep on writing.

  3. wow lol you mean im not surpose to sharpen my colored pencils with my bushcraft knife. I always have trouble trying to get them sharp for me kids. i will try this out next time they need them sharpen ty

  4. Elaine, a great explanation on sharpening coloured pencils. I used to (many years ago) us these a lot, so I know what you mean about sharpening a pencil down to a very short length.

    So a great reminder if I decide to restart using them. I actually have a couple of adult colouring books packed away somewhere. Now to find them!

    As per Heidi, I have used a Stanley Knife and various box cutters. It is actually a shame they probably aren’t allowed anymore. Maybe if students learned how to use them properly they would be less dangerous.


  5. I have a hand held sharpener and tons of color pencils, well because I love art, but one thing i hate is that I can never get my pencils sharpened the way I want them, like when I first buy them at the store and their all pretty right out the box. Once I wear them down and try to sharpen them it becomes an endless cycle of sharpening only for it to break when I press too hard on the sketch paper. So frustrating. This goes for my charcoal pencils as well and I end up just putting them in a box and buying new ones. I really need to invest in an automatic sharpener. That would probably save me a lot of head ache and extra pencils. Thanks for sharing.

  6. You learn something new every day! I have often wondered how artists kept their patience when using pencils. My experience with (kids) sharpeners and pencils, in general, is sort of nightmarish. You have opened my eyes up to an actual solution that may make having them around for the kids to not be such fight. I will be keeping my eyes open for an electric sharpener. 😉 While our coloured pencils are cheap, maybe the fight to sharpen them without eating them up can be waylaid a bit. Thank you for the possible solution. Sometimes it’s the simple things. 🙂

  7. Great information! Good colored pencils are not cheap! I get so frustrated when I break a pencil while sharpening. Usually I blame my own handling of the sharpener, but now I am reconsidering. It makes sense to buy better sharpeners for my better, more expensive, colored pencils. Thank you for the great information on a subject I needed to put more thought into, instead of throwing money at buying new pencils when they break. Keep up the great posts!

  8. Hi Elaine
    I have just found you, and this is the first time I have found a site on coloured pencils, spent an hour soaking up all the info, and now you have given me fresh interest in my Prisma Colors which I have used once with no success at all.
    They cost a lot of money and was so disappointed.
    Haven’t got the invisible pencil, but with all your advice I will have another go.
    Kind Regards Anne.


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