Why Prismacolor Pencils Break so Often

Why Prismacolor Pencils Break so Often

Today’s reader question comes from a frustrated Prismacolor pencil user who wants to know why I think Prismacolor pencils break so often.

That’s a weighty question and open to all kinds of speculation. But before I share my thoughts, let me share the question.

Hi Carrie,

Prismacolor pencils break and break and break. Do you have an explanation and a solution? (I do, but I want to hear yours!)

Jana

Thank you for your question, Jana. I know you’re not the only artist interested in this answer!

Since Jana asked a two-part question, my answer is also two part.

Why Prismacolor Pencils Break so Often

The reason I believe Prismacolor pencils break so easily is the overall quality of the pencil.

Problems I’ve seen personally include pigment cores that are not centered, pencils that are warped, and casings that are split.

Any one of those problems contribute to breakage when you sharpen a pencil. Get a pencil with two of those conditions (or all three) and you may as well toss it or learn to sharpen it by hand, because most sharpeners are going to break the pigment cores.

I shared my thoughts on this subject in more detail in a post called Broken Prismacolor Pencils: How to Repair Them.

So what’s the solution?

Broken Cores

Leave your pencils in a sunny window for a few hours on a sunny day. The gentle heat softens the pigment cores. If the pigment core is cracked inside the pencil, the crack will “heal” when the pigment core cools and hardens again. Depending on where you are, I suggest two to three hours in the full sun in a sunny window.

Off Center Pigment Cores

Off center pigment cores are easy to spot. In this illustration, two of the blue pencils are badly off center and a couple of the other pencils are somewhat off center. If I were buying pencils, I would put these back on the shelf.

Off center cores are a problem because they don’t sharpen evenly. When you sharpen an off center pencil, the wood casing extends further down one side of the pencil than the other. The pigment core itself is also not sharpened on the “center.”

When you sharpen pencils like this, the sharpener puts unequal pressure on the wood casing and the pigment core, which can cause them to break.

(There are other problems in this batch of pencils that could cause breakage. For example, the dull green pencil at the bottom is actual oval shaped, not round. The blue pencil next to it has a slightly porous casing, which could also cause problems.)

Warped Pencils

Warped pencils have a curve in them from one end to the next, as shown below.

They don’t sharpen well either because the pencil isn’t straight. The more a pencil is warped, the more problems you’re likely to have with sharpening and breakage.

When I shop for pencils, I lay the pencils on a flat surface and roll them under my palm. That’s a fast and easy way to find warped pencils.

You can also just lay them side by side as shown below. It’s easy to see one of these pencils is warped! Roll the other to make sure it isn’t also warped.

Split Casings

Splits or cracks in the wood casing of the pencil is also a major contributor to breakage.

A split wood casing is not as strong as a solid wood casing. They may be all right to draw with, but sharpening a split or cracked casing puts uneven pressure on the casing, sometimes causing it to break, like the peach-colored pencil shown below.

Once the casing is split, it’s difficult to get reliable use out of the pencil. Prismacolors provide such smooth and creamy color lay-down because the cores are soft. Soft cores require solid support in order to perform well.

A weakened casing doesn’t protect the pigment core very well. Dropping a solidly made pencil isn’t likely to cause damage to the pigment core. Dropping a pencil with a weakened casing is.

Prismacolor Pencils May Break for Other Reasons, too.

Well-made pencils can be damaged in shipment, for example. The possibilities are too numerous to address in this post.

But it is my opinion that most problems are avoidable if you follow the suggestions above. There’s no reason to avoid Prismacolor pencils if you shop and purchase wisely.

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6 Comments

  1. Thanks, Carrie! I appreciate your thorough answer, complete with photos. There is one other reason that Prismacolor pencils are often unsharpenable (good word, eh?) I think they get dropped in shipping or stocking, and the core shatters because it is so soft/uncentered/cracked casing/warped. They arrive in our hands already broken!

    1. You’re welcome, Jana.

      I think your additional explanation is as good as any of mine.

      Most pencils are properly made, properly handled, and properly shipped. They reach the customer with no problems. But there are those occasions with a casing is cracked, a core is off center or broken, or when there are other problems.

      For those of us who really like using Prismacolors, it pays to know how to spot potential problems before you buy and how to remedy those minor problems that can be fixed.

      Thank you for your question!

    1. Patricia,

      When Prismacolor was at the top of it’s game, it was the most commonly available colored pencil in the United States. In those days, they were a great product and very high quality.

      They are still highly recommended based in large part because of that past reputation (in my opinion.)

      But they are also a wonderful pencil to draw with if you can either ignore or compensate for the declines in overall quality that have happened each time they’re sold to a different parent company.

  2. DaytonaGreg

    I’m positive that it’s because you’ve dropped the pencil in the past before putting it back in the box. When ALL THE OTHERS are fine and just a couple are impossible, we can readily assume, if core is not off center, it was dropped.
    If new, a pile of “Sage Greens” may have been dropped at the factory before splitting each to a separate assortment.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

      Pencils being dropped is definitely a problem. I admit that I’m not the most agile artist that ever lived, but our house is carpeted and unless I was working on location, it’s unlikely a dropped pencil landing on carpet would break. Even taking them to horse shows and other locations, I don’t remember breakage being a problem until the last five to ten years.

      Being dropped in the factory, roughly handled during packing or shipping, and any number of other situations could also contribute to broken pencils.

      However, I have Faber-Castell Polychromos (full set), Caran d’Ache Pablo (full set), Derwent Drawing and Derwent Lightfast (a few of each,) and a number of other types of pencils. Many of them come from other countries. They are all subject to the same hazards in packaging and shipping that Prismacolor pencils are, and I’ve had nowhere near the breakage problems with all of them put together that I’ve had with Prismacolors.

      I also have some very old Prismacolor pencils which have never broken.

      So I have to conclude that the real problems are those cited in this post: Off-center cores, warped pencils, and poor casings (among other things.) All of these things are quality control issues. Yes, you will find batches of good pencils, but they don’t happen often enough to make some artists want to take the risk of buying Prismacolor pencils.

      In defense of Prismacolor, some artists use nothing but Prismacolor. Cynthia Knox is the first artist to come to mind. So far as I know, she uses nothing but Prismacolor and she does wonderful work.

      Personally, I still like using them, too, especially on Stonehenge paper. But I find I’m reaching for them less and less often, and using them more for colors for which none of the other pencils have the right color.

      Thank you again for taking the time to read this post, and to share your thoughts. The pencils each one of us prefer is based on a lot of factors, including personal preference and availability.

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