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Sharpening your pencils

This is one of the most read pages on the site. If you have a pencil, you need to sharpen it to a good point to enable you to do a decent job with working a picture. Too many students keep working with a blunt pencil and wonder why they don’t get good results. When taking courses, this is a topic that always comes up and invariably results in a demonstration of how to sharpen a pencil to a good point with a craft knife. You can use a sharpener, but it needs to be a good one and price is not always an indication of quality. The little block sharpeners with a blade can be excellent when they are new, but can be exasperating when they go blunt and start breaking off the point. Coloured pencils of the wax variety can clog up sharpeners, so it will be necessary to use a graphite pencil in them from time to time to lubricate and clean the cutters.


I will examine, below, the best ways of sharpening pencils, and some of the various sharpeners that I have used over the years ( I have a substantial collection ! ). I listed far more on the old Topics site, but listings get out of date and good brands usually stay good, so I have reduced the range covered to a selection of the better options. HOW DO YOU SHARPEN A PENCIL ? Silly Question ?   Everyone knows how to sharpen a pencil ! Well, not exactly a silly question.   There are a considerable number of options, and sharpening the point comes up more often that most from students on courses and visitors to demonstrations. SHARPENERS  -   AN OVERVIEW A pencil is no use unless it is sharp.  If you don’t like sharpening pencils there are lead holders available and Caran d’Ache sells watersoluble coloured leads, but I believe this is an expensive option. Apart from when you work the woodless ‘crayon’ type of pencils, using a sharpener is essential A sharp knife with a replaceable blade is invaluable - not only for sharpening up a point, but also for scratching out pigment from the paper surface.   The topic below covers first some general notes and then notes on the use of a knife and finally  details of the different brands of sharpeners available ( in the UK ). Various Pencil Sharpeners Low  cost hand sharpeners with a blade are excellent when they are new. There is a case to be made for buying a box full at 15p each and throwing them away as they start to become blunt.  You can tell when this happens as the pencil wood tears rather than be sliced, and the core pigment tends to break as it is stressed by the old edge of the blade. Manual desktop sharpeners are available, but I suggest that you check whether they have a spiral cutter or a blade inside.  If they have a blade, I wouldn’t purchase, as you are paying a lot just for a fancy box to put the shavings in. The sharpening will be no better than the cheap in-the-hand model. Low cost, handle driven, desktop sharpeners with a spiral cutter ( open the rubbish tray and look inside ) start at under £5 (I have bought them from Lidl supermarket for under £4 and on the Internet for under £10 with P & P).  Jakar do a state of the art one which should last a lifetime and will cost you around £30.  There is no need to spend more. Low cost sharpeners often produce a fairly short pencil  point - not as fine as the more expensive models - but only testing will show how the one you are looking at will behave. Sharpeners that produce a shorter point are more suitable for softer pencil brands like Prismacolor, Luminance, Coloursoft etc. The longer pointed sharpeners are fine for the brands with a harder pigment strip - like Polychromos , Pablo, and the Derwent Procolour, Artists & Studio lines Battery driven sharpeners are convenient, tend to be noisy and certainly expensive to run. They come into their own if you stray from mains electricity, but I also find that the motors tend to have a short life. Dahle battery sharpeners cost around £20 without the batteries.   There are several mains powered models on the market. Swordfish machines are available at a wide range of prices from £25 to £85.  The Jakar Mains model costs around £40 and is an excellent one and produces a long fine point.  In the past I have recommended Amazon.co.uk ( or other national Amazon companies ) as a good place to look for different sharpeners. You will need to search within the site for ‘pencil sharpeners’ and the last time I looked, they listed 40 pages of sharpeners of all types The pages list sharpeners starting with hand held ones at 10p and moving on to manual desktop models at £5 or less up to £85. .  I suggest you also look at main pencil suppliers - though their selection may well be more restricted Look for a helical sharpening system and compare some brands which are virtually the same machine but are very different in price. Swordfish, Jakar, Dahle all make very good machines.  Rapesco, Helix etc make low priced ones which will often produce similar results.  Pencil manufacturers like Caran d’Ache and Staedter also produce branded machines which vary between very expensive and very cheap. Note that in the last couple of years more manufacturers have brought out machines that will sharpen different diameter pencils. Some have a selection of holes and some will alter the settings with the change of a switch.  Most pencils conform to the 8mm size maximum, but some of the Derwents and one or two other brands are larger and the newer machines will go up to 11mm diameter . I use a Jakar electric and a Jakar hand driven desk top machines and use three large Swordfish machines for workshops and courses. They were expensive, but have lasted the course of several years hard work. As they say..... You pays your money, and you takes your chance ! When using wax and oil based pencils in a sharpener with a helical ( or spiral ) cutter, it is best to put a graphite pencil through the blades from time to time. This helps clean the cutters and lubricate them. Coloured pencils can produce a build up of wax/oil binder in the cutters that jams them, and for this reason some manufacturers specify on the boxes that the sharpeners are suitable only for graphite pencils.  I wouldn’t get too concerned about such warnings, just use the graphite pencil to clean the cutters from time to time. A Reader has asked about the best sharpener to use on a softer brand of pencil ( like Derwent’s Coloursoft, or Prismacolor). There are two possible problems with using a sharpener for Coloursoft ( only one of which applies to Prismacolor ). Firstly, Derwent’s Coloursoft is a thicker pencil than many brands, coming in at just over 8mm diameter.  Most brands are around 7.5mm thick.  Cheaper brands of sharpener may not take the 8mm pencils.  If you are going to use Coloursoft and use a helical sharpener, you will need to check the size pencil it will take. Secondly, the softer pencils will break more easily if sharpened to a fine point.
These three Coloursoft pencils have been sharpened in three different helical sharpeners.  The top (finest) point is from the Jakar Mains Electric desktop model 5151.  A superb point that will break off almost instantly any pressure is applied.  This point will be quite stable in a harder pencil like Polychromos or Pablo etc, but is only suitable for very light and delicate work with Coloursoft.  Once the tip has gone, however, the point is stable and great to use. The second sample (in the middle) is from the Jakar manual machine (5160).  A shorter point and a more robust one for a soft pencil.  As less core is visible, the pencil will need sharpening more often. The third (lower) example is from the low cost Lidl helical sharpener. A very much more robust point but not a long lasting one. The sharpener is, however very much cheaper than the others. Note the cheaper sharpeners are not so accurate in cutting the pencil centrally, so the available colour strip is sometimes cut off centre and not therefore always uniform in length.
Average working length of core available ( tip to wood ) Top       approx 12 mm            Centre    approx 10 mm Bottom    approx  8 mm
The alternative to pencil sharpeners is to use a knife with a replaceable blade. There are several brands on the market. I use a yellow handled Olfa knife which takes a fine pointed blade. This can be used for sharpening pencils and for working on the CP surface as well. Replacement blades are inexpensive and come in a box with a slot for storing old blades. The Knife usually gets used for sharpening watercolour pencils, where I may well need to use the pigment for making up washes of colour for underpainting. We will look at how to set about sharpening a pencil with a knife.
SHARPENERS  -   USING A KNIFE A knife needs to be sharp and you need to use it with care and under control.  You will see below how I use my thumb to control the exact pressure on the pencil point with the knife blade.  Sharp blades are essential.  More injuries occur from blunt knives than you would think.  I always use a knife with a replaceable blade - and one that can be renewed easily. I show a selection of cheap knives below.  Most have a break-off blade that can be advanced from the holder, one is a cheap throw away knife and one is made by Olfa and has a small pointed blade inserted and locked into position.  This last knife is the one I use most and can also be used for working colour on paper by scratching the pigment away as the cutting edge is on the slant ( most cheap knives have blades that cut in line with the handle). That is the OLFA knife on the extreme left. The technique I show for sharpening is the method that I use.   There may be other techniques, but I can only demonstrate the way I do it ! Taking knife and pencil and holding it over a surface or container to take the pigment and wood shavings, I start by holding the knife handle quite loosely in my right hand and control pressure and movement with my left thumb. The pencil is also held firmly, and the cut is taken from a little way back down the pencil barrel in an upward curve so that the knife is almost parallel with the point as it leaves the pencil tip
Carry on working round the pencil in this way to leave the original colour strip virtually untouched. If your knife is sharp and you cut with care, you can leave the pigment strip as it was manufactured. We can then approach sharpening the tip and this - once again - needs care with the knife and control from the thumb
You can take this point as sharp as you need. If I were sharpening a Staedtler Karat Aquarelle, I would go sharper than this example on the Right, but the Faber Castell Albrecht Durer Aquarelle is a little softer than the Karat and I have left the point with some support from the wood. I always allow more support for softer pencils, though I like to have a good length of colour showing on aquarelles as I will also be taking pigment off the pencil point with a scrape from a knife and would want to avoid taking wood if I am using the colour to mix a colour wash !
A CLOSER LOOK AT SHARPENERS IN DETAIL Some years ago,  I asked members of the UKCPS members Internet Forum for their views on the different brands of sharpeners available.  The replies have told me that opinions on sharpeners are as varied as the people commenting!   Over the years I have been as avid a collector of sharpeners as anyone, (A ‘collector’ being defined as anyone who needs ‘one’ and has bought three or more), and I certainly have my favourites and those I would not buy again. For those new to the choice available, I must first point out the three different systems for putting a point on a pencil.  Firstly is the knife, an open blade, which depends on the skill and practice of the individual. There is the problem of disposal of the ‘bits’, the acquiring of the skill and the maintenance of the sharp knife.  The system is very portable, though, and works very well.  With practice, you can get exactly the shape of point you desire. Secondly are the simple bladed sharpeners like those shown here (Staedtler and Dux), There are a wide variety of these, some with containers for the refuse, and most pencil manufacturers market them. A correspondent speaks very highly of the Faber Castell canister sharpener which she uses for Supracolor with great success. Derwent suggest using a pastel sharpener for Coloursoft as the pencils are slightly larger than some mechanical sharpeners will take These sharpeners are great when new, and the blades are at their best. They tend to deteriorate with the decline in blade edge and need early replacement. They are inexpensive, though, and require no power other than a good wrist. Looking at other types of small pocket sharpeners, we come to the KUM ‘automatic’ long point sharpener - about £4 or so from the SAA. This has a two stage process and also the benefit of spare blades and a small container for bits. There is not much ‘automatic’ about it and it does need a fair amount of practice to get a good result. However, It will go easily in a pocket. I gave up on mine, trying to get the advertised ‘long’ point without a lot of breakages.   The Sharpening System I have found best, uses spiral cutters. for those who are new to this field, spiral cutters look like this inside the case    ........... These grind material off a pencil in small flakes and therefore apply much less stress with fewer breakages of the point. First among the powered sharpeners is the small RoDahle oval cased, battery machine which is sold under a variety of names and brands (including Swordfish) and is another import from China. Whilst these are excellent when new, the motor tends to be only suitable for light use and tends to burn out if used for frequent sharpening. They are expensive on batteries unless you find one with mains adaptor  or use re-chargeable batteries.  Price around £25 complete. I see that some of these machines now offer twin sized pencil sharpening Bearing in mind how cheap good sharpeners can be, I feel these are an expense too far. I will move on the the Swordfish mains model 40050 which is very strongly built and has an auto stop to save your pencils being over sharpened away..  Cash and carry price for this was under £20 and the only problem I have found is the cut-out which operates if the machine gets warm through use - the manufacturers warn it can take a time to reset after 20 minutes of continuous use I have used these for workshops and they are very heavy and very reliable. I think the normal retail price is up in the £45 bracket so they were a real deal when I purchased them.  Some Swordfish  machines now offer a range of pencil size options for a few more pounds - could be useful. The old Derwent powered machine seems to have disappeared from the market in favour of hand machines ( which have had good reviews ). I haven’t sampled them but reports are good Most power sharpeners are sold for graphite use ‘only’, as graphite lubricates the mechanism and wax seizes it up - the solution is to run a graphite pencil through the machine from time to time to clean and ‘oil’ it.   The last powered machine I show here  is from UK Art materials supplier Jakar who have the machines made overseas and branded to their name The current models are both sold as suitable for CP use.   The mains model Jakar 5151 is very solidly built and has lasted well under test on my desk for four years.   It sharpens efficiently and replacement spiral cutters can be obtained over the Internet.  Not cheap, at between £30 and £40 but I think it is proving to be a long runner. The powered Jakar 5151 is my ‘STAR’ Machine The Hand Cranked system The final category and the final examples shown here are the hand machines - the ones that look like the old pencil sharpeners you may have used at school.  The first tested model is the Jakar 5160 which comes with a table clamp, but is actually heavy enough to use without.   It is efficient, strips down readily for cleaning, costs nothing to run, has a pencil holder, an autostop which sometimes works to cut it out when the point has been sharpened and it is quiet - ideal for a classroom or workshop situation.  The price is around £25 but the quality is there in the build and it looks as if it will run for ever.   I have been told of several other hand machines - including one on sale in Lidl supermarkets from time to time for well under £5 and whilst made from mainly plastic parts, did have a spiral grinding mechanism and worked well on tests.  I have bought several batches of these for onward sale to students in classes, and whilst they are lightweight, and they don’t produce as long and fine a point as the Jakar machines, they are perfectly adequate and buyers have been very happy with the value.   The illustrated machine here is a well built machine from Rapesco - about £15 You can also buy similar machines from the Internet and suppliers like Amazon have a huge range of all kinds of sharpeners at a wide choice of prices ranging from £7 up to £15 for a simple plastic bodied hand operated desktop machine. If you want a reasonable quality one,  and have to buy over the internet without seeing the machine, I suggest you look for the main brands like Swordfish, Jakar, Rapesco, Dahl, Helix and Derwent as these will have a better build quality and be more certain to do a reasonable sharpening job
TO SUMMARISE: Cheaper machines often produce a shorter, less fragile point. The dearer machines produce a fine long point that needs care in use You seem to get pretty much what you pay for.   Battery machines tend to be flimsy and expensive to run. Mains machines need mains power, which can be a problem if you are working outdoors.   Hand cranked machines still seem to have the edge, provided that they are solidly built but they are often designed to produce a medium but strong point   Whatever the maachine, do make sure that the cutters are spiral grinders if you are buying a battery, mains or hand cranked machine, If you are happy with the inexpensive pocket sharpeners, make sure that you buy a good brand, and replace them at the first sign of a blunt blade.
Page last revised ….. February 2019
NOTE as with all products, prices of sharpeners change and any figures quoted here are only valid for 10 minutes !