Carrie L. Lewis, Artist

Teaching Drawing and Painting One Student at a Time

Broken Prismacolor Pencils and How to Repair Them

Broken Prismacolor pencils driving you to distraction?

You’re not alone.

After reading a recent post, Everything You Need to Get Started with Colored Pencils, Jana Botkin left the following question in the comments:

Will you address the fact that the majority of Prismacolor pencils are broken all the way through? Sanford denies there is a problem and blames the wrong sharpeners.

If you’ve been using colored pencils for very long or if you’ve participated in any social media discussions on the subject, you’ve already heard the comments. Perhaps you’ve even experienced quality problems with Prismacolor pencils, as I have.

My Opinion

I’ve observed over the years that most companies tend to follow the same course.

Someone has an idea for a new product. They’re passionate about that idea and product. So passionate that they spend time and money to start a business. Product quality and customer satisfaction is the most important thing and they’ll do anything to keep their customers happy.

Eventually, the company moves from the first generation (the person who started it) to the second generation. The founder dies and passes the company to children or maybe sells the company. The second generation owners may still be committed to quality, but they don’t have the same burning passion for the product that the original creator had. The product is still good and customers may not notice a difference, but there is a change behind the scenes.

The company is sold again. Perhaps it becomes part of a larger company. Just another department or product line. Quality is important, but maybe not as important as the bottom line. The company talks the talk but may be lax in walking the walk.

If a company goes through enough of these cycles, product quality begins to suffer to the extent that customers begin going elsewhere.

It’s not uncommon for many things to follow this course. It takes a lot of work to maintain principles, whether that’s providing the best colored pencil possible or sticking with a diet. It’s kind of like keeping water from running downhill. Possible, but not easy.

I don’t know beyond all shadow of doubt that this has happened with Prismacolor, but I have some very old pencils that bear the Berol name and some even older Prismacolor pencils with the Eagle name. It seems that every time the product lines changed hands, quality suffered.

Broken Prismacolor Pencils & How to Repair Them

What to Do About Broken Prismacolor Pencils

The CPSA taught a method of repairing them in the microwave. — Jana Botkin

There are two camps when it comes to the best response to broken pencils.

Send ‘Em Back

The first camp says the only thing to do is return the pencils if they’re new and came with broken pigment cores because you can’t repair the core. If you buy brand new pencils and discover the pigment cores are broken, return or exchange is probably the best policy if you can afford to wait for new pencils.

Unfortunately, broken pigment cores aren’t usually discovered until after you’ve started using the pencils. Most stores won’t accept a return on a pencil that’s been used.

And sometimes you drop pencils and they break. Prismacolor pencils seem to be especially prone to damage in this fashion. In this case, you don’t want to send them back.

Heat ‘Em Up

The second camp declares with equal conviction that you can repair broken pigment cores and they have just the solution.

Every source I looked at recommended 5 seconds in a microwave. What no one said was at what setting! (Start low and increase the setting if that doesn’t work.)

The reason this works is that wax melts when subjected to heat. Yes, even the wax binder in a Prismacolor pencil—or any wax-based colored pencil, for that matter. The softened wax melts, “healing” breaks or fractures. The wax cools, and the pigment core is restored.

I’ve never used this method of repairing colored pencils, but I have no doubt it’s one way to deal with the issue of breakage with Prismacolor colored pencils or with any other brand of wax-based pencils. How can I be so sure if I’ve never used this method?

Because I do have experience warming pencils in the sun and seeing how soft the pigment cores get. Granted, I wasn’t repairing broken pigment cores; I was attending a horse show. I’d taken my pencils along, but left them in the back window of the car while I watched horses. It was a sunny July day and when I got back to the car, the pencils were so soft I could almost paint with them.

That experience leaves no doubt in my mind that leaving pencils in a sunny window would be an excellent way to apply gentle heat to a pencil you suspect has a broken pigment core no matter where you live. The warmer climate in which you live, the less time it would take, but I’d still suggest that a few hours wouldn’t hurt the pencil. Check the exposed pigment core every couple of hours and see how soft it is, then use your own judgment on how much longer to leave the pencil in the sun.

Not Quite Convinced?

That’s okay. If you want to try either of these methods without exposing your pencils to possible risk, break off a few tips—yes, on purpose unless you have broken pieces of pigment lying around. Put them together in a small container and set them in the sun and see what happens. If you like the results, you can be more sure about using the same method for your pencils.

The Final Option

Of course, if you’ve had so much trouble with Prismacolor pencils that you’re ready to throw them over, you can always find a different type of pencil. There are plenty of high quality, artist grade pencils available. The most popular are Faber-Castell Polychromos, but there are others. Jana recommends Polychromos first, but for her students who are on a budget, she also recommends Staedler Ergosoft as a high quality, lower cost substitute.

I can’t recommend the following brands because I’ve never used them, but they are on my list of pencils to try (in alphabetical order).

  • Blick Studio Artist
  • Caran d’Ache Luminance
  • Derwent Coloursoft
  • Faber-Castell Polychromos
  • Lyra Rembrandt Polycolour
  • Staedler Ergosoft

What’s your favorite brand of colored pencil? Why do you prefer them?

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25 Comments

  1. Nice summary, Carrie! The CPSA recommended 15-18 seconds in the microwave, but watch until the paint on the pencil bubbles. Then let the pencil sit for an hour before doing a test sharpening. If it is still broken, redo.

    I’ve returned pencils directly to Sanford, and they chastised me for using the wrong sharpener, but said to return for unbroken pencils. Then they sent me more broken pencils.

    And like yours, my old pencils that say either Berol or Eagle are definitely better quality.

    • Jana,

      Thanks for the clarification. The best information I could find suggested five seconds, which hardly seemed long enough to me. The tip to watch for bubbling paint is great. Thanks!

      Returning product can be a nuisance. The response you get from the company depends on whether the company really wants to do what’s right or wants to protect themselves. I’ve heard enough complaints from enough artists, yourself included, to believe the problem is not related to sharpening as often as is claimed.

      I keep my eyes open for Berol or Eagle brand Prismacolors. They’re hard to find, but are occasionally available through eBay and similar sources.

      Carrie

  2. Kymberly

    Carrie,
    It seems like everyone is experiencing broken cores of their beloved Prismas. Returning them is an option but if you’re like me and had to wait almost 3 months to receive your pencils due to the high volume of purchases, then returning them isn’t something to consider unless you open the box and most of the pencils are broken. Seriously, why should I have to put them in the microwave or find a fix in the first place. Spending over $100 on art pencils was a big deal considering I’m on a budget. I did consider just ordering the just the few pencils I needed since Prismas have an open stock but even still, why should me or anyone else have to do that in the first place? The company needs to rethink their quality situation, when you spend that much on your product, you expect it to be good. As for using the wrong pencil sharpener, that’s just an excuse. I’ve bought 6 different ones including the Prisma sharpener and I’m still experiencing broken cores.
    I’ve tried lots of other brands including the Caran d’Ache Luminance, Derwent Coloursoft, Faber-Castell Polychromos and Koh-I-Noor woodless pencils and I love them all as well as my Prismas. The Luminance ,in my opinion, are the best pencils on the market. Yet the Polychromos are pretty great too, they just color a little different considering they are oil based instead of wax. But if you never tried Koh-I-Noor, their woodless pencils are pretty cool. They feel like your holding glass sticks in your hand and I was amazed on how well they laid down color. The only drawback is their largest set only contains 24 pencils. I just wished they had larger sets.
    Thank you Carrie for your article, good to know I’m not the only person going thru this problem. Now if those sitting behind the huge offices at Prisma would find a way to solve this ongoing problem, it would be nice.

    • Kymberly,

      A lot of people feel as you do. We’ve definitely entered a time in which quality control isn’t very good and it’s not just Sanford or Prismacolor.

      Thank you for sharing your experiences with the other brands. That will be of interest to a lot of readers, particularly the Koh-I-Nor woodless pencils.

      Keep on drawing. Don’t let broken pencils get in the way of making great art.

      And thank you for reading, too.

      Carrie

  3. Sue Schuetz

    koh-I-Nor woodless are no doubt my favorite. They are the best quality I have found. They work especially well with the Gamsol technique. The only thing is I wish they had more color options.

    For alcohol markers. I go with blick. They are more affordable then most on the market and good quality.

    Kind of stinks when we save and spend so much money on products and find them defective.

    • Sue,

      Thanks for your recommendations. Are the Koh-I-Nor Woodless pencils anything at all like Prismacolor Art Stix in laying down color? I have used the Art Stix and liked them for large areas, but I haven’t used them in a long time.

      Thank you also for the tips on alcohol markers. I’ve never tried these but I know a lot of artists are using them for mixed media work. Sounds interesting.

      Carrie

  4. Sue Schuetz

    Me personally because the Kohr-I-Nor are woodless and all pigment I feel they lay down very nicely. I use different blending techniques on most of my projects and I have the prismacolor and I find them way better for a fraction of the price. Plus they last a long time. I think it is personal preference. I personally feel the prismacolor has an inflated price tag for an inferior product.

    I use gesso and glazes alcohol inks come in handy for those projects.

    • Sue,

      Thanks again.

      Personal preference does play a huge role in colored pencil selection. There’s no doubt about that. Some artists like the feel of Prismacolor so much that breakage is a small price to pay, particularly if they don’t have a lot of broken pencils.

      Other artists wouldn’t touch Prismacolor with a ten-foot pole!

      Your drawing (painting?) method sounds intriguing. I use alcohol blends sometimes, usually after there’s a lot of pigment on the paper. But since you also mention gesso, and mentioned Gamsol in your previous comment, I assume you’re drawing on canvas or a rigid support?

      Carrie

      • Sue Schuetz

        Carrie, I use cardstock and prism papers. I am a quiller/card maker lover of paper textures, colors techniques of all types. Yes gesso and glazes can be applied to these both.

        I.E. let’s take a cob of corn for example. Once you have the image you use a brush and apply the gesso to each kernel giving the texture. By applying it to each kernel individually the correct lines will mimic what real corn would have.Next you apply the color alcohol ink, then apply the Aleenes paper glaze. It will give the corn a dimension and finish similar to real corn. Always let each layer dry before applying the next.

  5. Sue Schuetz

    Carrie,

    I am not familiar with that term. Has relief.

  6. Cyndi

    This is a very good article. I recently developed an obsession with colored pencil art. In my obsession, one by one, I bought at minimum at least a box of 12 of every available colored pencil at my local retail craft store. I used 40/50/60 % coupons to justify the cost of some of these. Overall, Color is my pick of them all. I have not had a break yet. I did learn a trick while sharpening. Hold the pencil stable, and rotate the sharpener ( reverse of how we normally sharpen). You can feel if the lead seems weak and adjust the pressure you apply while turning the sharpener. One more comment on selecting the “best” pencil. I think it isn’t so much that one particular brand is the single best brand, but it may be the best brand for you personally. I think this because we each have different pressure we apply and mediums we add to our art.

    • Cyndi,

      Thank you for sharing your tips. Turning the sharpener instead of the pencil is a great idea!

      The way an artist draws does influence his or her preference in pencils. If you draw with very light pressure or very rarely use heavy pressure, you’re likely to have fewer problems with broken or breaking pencils.

      If you use a lot of heavy pressure, you may have more difficulties.

      Finding the best pencil is a matter of doing what you did; trying as many different brands as possible and seeing which ones perform best.

      Thanks!

      Carrie

  7. Janice

    I found when using the microwave method on my Prismacolor pencils sometimes left the core crumbly. Possible heat setting too high.

    I have found supergluing the tip back on works best. You can sharpen right through the glue.

    Also, sharpening properly is important, turn the sharpener not the pencil to reduce pressure on the core.

    Love my Prismacolors for their great blending but use many others as well.

    • Janice,

      Thank you for the tips on repairing broken Prismacolor pencils! I’ve long glued pencil stubs to new pencils of the same color, but never thought of gluing broken tips to the pencil!

      Carrie

  8. Jean Smith

    When I have a broken lead in my Prisma colored pencils, I put a very tiny amount of Elmers Glue on the lead and fit it back into the pencil so that the broken parts line up. Once it dries, your good to go, at least till you sharpen it again. Altho sometimes there isn’t anymore breakage. Like everyone else, I’ve used Prisma for years and I’m frustrated with this lack of quality in today’s product. I have never had much luck with the microwave method. I have recently bought a whole set of Faber-Castell polycromos, and I supplement it with a few of my favorite Prisma’s colors. The FB’s are a joy to use, the core is bonded to the wood.

    • Jean,

      Gluing the broken tip back to the pencil is a great idea. I’ll have to give that a try the nice time I break a pencil.

      Thanks for sharing it!

      Carrie

  9. Kim Hoffman

    Do you leave the pencils lying down or do you stand them up for microwaving?

    • Kim,

      Lying down is probably best, but I don’t think it matters. The microwave is going to heat the pigment core evenly no matter how you place the pencil in the microwave, especially if your microwave has a turntable.

      Carrie

  10. Marie LaVasseur

    Have you tried laying your Prismacolor pencil on a heating pad?

  11. Emily Joyce

    I went to the art store with my friend yesterday, and she alerted me to the problems with Prismacolors–she recommended checking the pencil ends, to see that the pigment core was centered. I noticed at the store, that a great many of the pencils had cores that were not centered, so they will break when sharpened. I came home and checked my current supply. I have two sets by Sanford, in which many of the colors are cockeyed in the wood. I also have a Prismacolor “Scholar” set, made by Newell-Rubbermaid (of all things!) and they are nearly uniformly centered. I also have woodless by Ashleigh Nicole. And I picked up 4 Caran d’Ache yesterday to try out…I learned with Prismacolors, but I think I’m ready for a change.

    • Emily,

      Thank you for sharing your pencil buying experience.

      Your friend is correct: a pencil with the pigment core placed off-center is much more likely to break during sharpening. When I buy open stock, I always check to see that the pigment cores are centered.

      Something else to look for is curvature in the pencils. If a pencil isn’t perfectly straight, it is more likely to fail during sharpening. This is another test I give every pencil I buy open stock.

      I’m not at all surprised to hear that Newell-Rubbermaid pencils are more likely to have the pigment cores centered. That is the difference in corporate mindset between Newell-Rubbermaid and Sanford. The difficulty is that the quality of the pigment core in the Scholar pencils is not as high as the pigment core quality in the Premier/Soft Core pencils. As a rule, they contain more filler and wax and therefore don’t lay down color quite as well.

      It’s really too bad that Newell-Rubbermaid doesn’t own all of the Prismacolor brands!

      Let us know what you think of the Caran d’Ache. I’ve looked around my home town for open stock in this pencil and haven’t found any.

      I’d also be interested in your thoughts on the Asleigh Nicole woodless pencils, since the Amazon reviews are mixed.

      Thank you for visiting and commenting!

      Carrie

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