Sharpeners are one of the more frequently discussed topics here, and I continue to get questions about them. Today, let’s take a look at the subject from a different angle: let’s talk about a few economical ways to sharpen colored pencils.
But first, since this is Q&A Wednesday, here’s the reader’s question.
What is the best – and most economical – way to sharpen colored pencils, particularly the softer ones?
I use an electric sharpener for graphite but it seems to “eat” colored pencils quite rapidly. Thank you.
I want to thank Kathy for asking this question. Most people want to know the best sharpeners. That’s an impossible question to answer because there are so many factors to consider.
But very few people ask economical ways to sharpen colored pencils. And there is a difference.
But before we get started, let’s consider sharpeners.
A Few Words About Sharpeners
The purpose of pencil sharpeners is eating pencils. Whenever you sharpen a pencil with a mechanical sharpener, the sharpener has to chew up enough of the lead to make a sharp point.
That’s true for graphite pencils, and it’s true for colored pencils.
But there are ways to sharpen pencils so less of the pigment is wasted.
I also suggest that Kathy find out if her electric sharpener is an auto-stop model. Sharpeners with an auto-stop feature automatically stop sharpening when the pencil is sharp.
Other types of electric sharpeners continue sharpening until you remove the pencil. It’s very easy to sharpen a pencil to a nub quickly if you don’t pay attention to the sharpener while you’re sharpening.
Economical Ways to Sharpen Colored Pencils
A Sharp Knife Works Wonders
The absolute best way to sharpen pencils with minimum waste is by sharpening them with a knife.
I use an X-acto knife, but any knife sharp enough to cut through the wood casing is suitable.
Sharpening pencils with an X-acto knife is also a great way to sharpen a pencil that’s prone to breaking. You can whittle away the wood casing with very little pressure on the pigment core itself.
This method requires extreme caution! It’s easy to cut yourself while sharpening pencils, and we most certainly do not want that!
How to Hand Sharpen Colored Pencils
Use a knife with a finely sharpened blade.
Hold the pencil in your non-dominant hand with the exposed pigment core facing away from you.
Hold the knife in your dominant hand, with the blade at a slight angle to the pencil. As you can see in the illustration below, the knife blade is nearly lying on the sharpened wood casing. This keeps you from gouging too much of the wood casing with each stroke.
Push the blade downward along the pencil with your thumb. Use light pressure and make as thin a cut as you can.
Always stroke away from yourself.
Turn the pencil between strokes and work around the pencil two or three times or until the sharpened end is as smooth or even as you prefer or until as much pigment core is exposed as you need.
Pointing the Pencil
To get a needle-sharp point, rub the pencil on an emery board. Roll the pencil as you stroke it along the emery board until the point is as sharp as you want it to be.
A sanding block or sand paper (not sanded art paper) also works for fine tuning a newly sharpened pencil.
One Word of Caution
Hand sharpening with a knife is a very economical way to sharpen pencils. But it’s not a fast method. For the best results, work slowly and carefully. Always stroke away from yourself, and always keep your knife sharp.
It also requires practice, just like drawing. So be patient. Injuries happen when you rush, so go slow and be careful.
Other Benefits of Hand Sharpening Pencils
Sharpening pencils with a knife allows you to more easily save pigment shavings. You can then soften them with solvent or Brush & Pencil’s Touch-Up Texture and use them like paint.
If you decide to use this sharpening method, get several small containers with screw-on caps to store the pigment. Label each one with the color and brand of pencil (if you use more than one type of pencil.) Then, when you need that color to “paint” with, you can mix a small amount of solvent or Touch-Up Texture and make use of this otherwise wasted pigment.
I found this very helpful article on sharpening pencils with a knife. The demonstration is with a graphite pencil, but the process is the same.
Pay Attention to the Length of the Sharpened Point
The length of the exposed pigment core on a freshly sharpened pencil also makes a difference.
The longer the tip, the more pigment has been left in the pencil sharpener.
There are times when you want a longer tip. Glazing with the side of the pencil works best if the exposed pigment is quite long.
But you really don’t need a long pigment core for most work, so look for a sharpener that doesn’t sharpen this way.
Keep Points Sharp While You Draw
One way I keep sharp tips on pencils is by alternating glazing with other types of layering.
I always turn my pencil in my fingers as I draw. I don’t know when or how I developed that habit, but I do it even when writing longhand with a pen. Turning your pencil helps keep the tip from getting flat on one side.
But it doesn’t keep the point sharp.
If, however, you do a little layering with the side of the pencil AND you turn the pencil as you draw, the tip will stay sharper longer.
And that pigment ends up on the paper, not in the sharpener!
Three Economical Ways to Sharpen Colored Pencils
And there you have it. Two suggestions for economical colored pencil sharpening, and a bonus suggestion for maintaining sharper points.
I hope you find them helpful.