How to Sharpen a Colored Pencil – Top Tips and Tricks
Updated by Brandon F. on January 22, 2020
We get asked a lot about what the best way to sharpen a colored pencil is. Some people assume that you can simply stick a colored pencil into any traditional pencil sharpener but that is unfortunately far from the truth. Depending on the type of pencil you are working with, extra care and consideration must be made in order to ensure a quality point.
So why can’t you just use any pencil sharpener? The answer has to do with the “lead” in a colored pencil. While your traditional writing pencil will be made of a hard and brittle graphite lead, colored pencils can be made of much softer materials made of wax, oil, and even clay. This softer material can struggle to handle the roughness of many traditional pencil sharpeners.
However, don’t fret! There are still plenty of ways to sharpen a colored pencil. And some of them actually can use a “normal” pencil sharpener as well.
What to Consider When Sharpening a Colored Pencil
There are plenty of ways to sharpen a colored pencil. However, there are quite a few variables that you must consider beforehand. These considerations involve multiple aspects: the type of colored pencils you are using, the type of point you are after, and your desired application. We will go over each in greater detail below.
Type of Colored Pencil
Anybody who has tried out a few different sets of colored pencils will quickly realize that there are a lot of differences among colored pencil brands and colored pencil types. The performance, color output, blending ability, etc. are all unique. So it is no surprise that how you approach sharpening each one is unique as well.
Soft Colored Pencils
Soft colored pencils are typically made of wax and clay and excel at blending and allowing for deep, creamy application. However, this comes at a cost. The soft lead is very fragile and extra care must be taken while sharpening. The harsh and aggressive sharpening movements that many mechanical and electrical sharpeners have will simply be too much for a soft pencil lead and will results in constant breaking. Because of this, we recommend using a hand sharpener, knife, or a specialty mechanical/automatic pencil sharpener that is specifically designed for colored pencils.
Hard Colored Pencils
Hard colored pencils will be made of oils and more closely resemble a traditional pencil lead. This harder and more brittle material will be better-suited for more aggressive sharpeners and, in fact, may actually be easier to sharpen with them. Hand sharpeners and knifes can be used as well but we have noticed that the slower motion of these more oftentimes results in the tip cracking prematurely.
Specialty Colored Pencils
Specialty colored pencils are products that are outside of the norm of what a conventional colored pencil entails. These are pencils that are made of other types of materials such as graphite or chalk or that have exceedingly large or small lead such as the Prismacolor Verithin and Prismacolor Art Stix, respectively. These pencils really have to be approached on a case-by-case basis. We initially recommend sticking to a hand sharpener or art knife starting out (and in some cases, you will have to if the pencil is too large or too small to fit in a pencil sharpener).
Type of Desired Point
A quality colored pencil in the hand of an experienced artist can tackle a huge range of applications and settings. One of the ways that a colored pencil stands out from other art mediums is in its versatility. This is accomplished in many ways, including the ability to vary the tip size.
A sharp point is great for highly intricate areas such as hair on an animal, eyelashes, cracks on a rock, and other subtle features. In order to achieve a sharp point, however, you need both the proper pencil as well as the proper sharpener.
We recommend sticking with a harder lead material with a smaller core if you plan on doing a lot of highly detailed works. However, when you combine a hard material with a small point, you can struggle with a very brittle and fragile tip that is easily broken while trying to sharpen.
To combat this, we recommend using a hand sharpener or sharpening knife to get the razor-sharp point you are after. If you do prefer on using a pencil sharpener, try to go with one that is intended for colored pencils as these tend to be less “harsh” and operate with less friction. Having less friction would help to alleviate the tip breaking while trying to sharpen.
A dull point is good for applying a lot of color or general blending. Obviously, simply coloring with a sharp point will ultimately lead to a dull point, but there are also ways to achieve this result with a sharpener.
First, your softer wax-based pencils are going to be much better at creating a smooth and dull point for blending. The increased surface area combined with the softer material means that just about any type of sharpener will work here. Even your standard elementary school type pencil sharpeners should do fine.
The only thing we recommend keeping an eye on is that the sharpener is cutting down the pencil consistently. Some lower-end sharpeners have been known to wear down one side of a pencil sooner than the other. This not only reduces the life of a pencil but also makes it more difficult to get a good application.
A flat point on a colored pencil is good for scenes that need consistent, light color. Settings such as skylines, skin tones, etc. are perfect for using a flat point. An easy way to get a flat point is to start with a dull point and press the pencil against the paper. Without rotating the pencil, make several up and down strokes. After a few seconds, you will notice that a nice sloped flat point remains.
You can also achieve these other ways as well. Pencil sharpeners will struggle to achieve this look but you can easily accomplish it by grabbing your art knife and simply slicing off some lead at an angle.
Using Various Types of Colored Pencil Sharpeners
Now that we have discussed what to consider when it comes to your colored pencils, you should have a general idea of what type of pencil sharpener you need. We will list the various types of colored pencil sharpeners below and briefly discuss how to use them.
Electric Pencil Sharpener
Ohuhu makes a great electric pencil sharpener that can properly handle colored pencils. Check it out on Amazon here.
An electric pencil sharpener is the fastest and most convenient type of pencil sharpener and just about everybody has used one in their home or office setting. However, they are oftentimes not optimal for use with colored pencils.
They work by simply sticking the pencil inside the slot which triggers a sensor that activates the sharpening mechanism. The internal sharpening blades spin at a very high rate of speed and quickly sharpen the pencil to a fine point.
While good in theory, the simple fact of the matter is that many colored pencil leads are just too fragile for an electric pencil sharpener. You will find yourself grinding down half of a colored pencil before achieving the proper point that you are looking for.
However, this isn’t always the case. There are some art-inspired pencil sharpeners that are more tender and can adequately handle colored pencils. These pencil sharpeners will sometimes have variable speeds that are controlled by a knob and/or by the amount of pressure you apply to the end of the pencil while it is inside the sharpener.
If you want to use an electric pencil sharpener, we recommend trying it out on some older, used colored pencils first so that you have a better idea of the results.
Hand-Crank Pencil Sharpener
Hand-cranked pencil sharpeners are what many of us used while in elementary school. These crude devices were mounted on walls and could devour a pencil in mere seconds with a few spins of the crank.
The internal mechanism is very aggressive and grinds pencils to a pulp thanks to a lot of force and a lot of friction.
While there may be a few exceptions, we recommend avoiding these with all of your colored pencils. The process of sharpening them is simply too crude and you will find yourself destroying your favorite brands of colored pencils before achieving the point that you are looking for.
Handheld Pencil Sharpener
The Prismacolor Scholar Colored Pencil Sharpener is cheap but it does the trick. Check it out on Amazon here.
A handheld pencil sharpener is the small, low-cost sharpener that many of us tucked away in our backpacks when we were kids. They were equipped with an angled sharp metal edge that would sharpen the pencil while manually rotating it.
While these are a bit more laborious to use, the user has full control over application pressure, application speed, and the angle of the pencil. We love the flexibility that a handheld sharpener possesses. No matter if you are after a sharp point, a wide point, or a dull edge, a handheld pencil sharpener could meet your needs.
The main thing to consider about handheld pencil sharpeners is that they are only as good as their cutting edge. After a while, the cutting edge will become dull and you will find that the sharpener is more prone to breaking the pencil tip.
It is too much work to try to re-sharpen the edge of a handheld pencil sharpener and that, coupled with their low cost, makes simply tossing it and buying a spare the easiest solution.
A knife might seem like a rather crude device to use to sharpen colored pencils but, similar to the handheld pencil sharpener mentioned above, it does allow for great control and freedom in the type of point.
After a bit of practice, you can sharpen just about any type of colored pencil to any shape or size that you prefer. You can also focus more heavily on one side of the pencil, which allows for that flat edge effect we discussed above.
Similar to the handheld sharpener above, a knife is only as good as its edge. And over time, your edge will get a bit dull. However, unlike a handheld pencil sharpener, you can easily re-sharpen a knife (or in the case of box cutters, snap off the used piece of the blade) and bring it back to being basically as good as new. Due to the ease of sharpening as well as the higher asking price for a quality knife, we recommend trying to re-sharpen it as opposed to simply throwing it away (just be careful!).
If you are after the ultimate level of control, then sandpaper is your best bet. Rather than cutting or grinding off thick layers of pencil, sandpaper gently shapes it thanks to friction. However, it requires a ton of work that is mostly unnecessary.
The only scenarios that we could really see you need to worry about using sandpaper or a sandpaper block are if you want to make sure that the surface of a colored pencil’s lead is as smooth as possible before applying to the paper.
How to Prevent Colored Pencil Lead Breakage
No matter how gentle you are with your colored pencils, tips breaking are simply a part of life. One of the most frustrating things in the world is when you managed to sharpen the tip of your colored pencil to an awesome point only for it to break off the second you try to apply it to paper.
However, there are a few tips and tricks to help minimize this happening.
Use the Right Pencil for the Job
We sort of discussed this above, but make sure that you are using the correct colored pencil for the job. If you want an extremely sharp point, use a pencil with a harder lead. Even if you manage to get a pencil with soft lead to a sharp point, it will quickly fall apart upon even the most gentle application pressure.
You will save hours of frustration and wasted pencils by making sure that you have the correct tool for the job from the get-go.
Start with Light Pressure and Slowly Build Up
When making your first few strokes on a canvas, apply very light application pressure. The first seconds after a recently sharpened colored pencil hits the paper are when they are most likely to suffer from lead breaking and you can significantly reduce the likelihood of this happening by starting off gentle.
In fact, for highly detailed areas, consider sticking with a light application pressure and simply adding multiple layers to darken things up. Most quality colored pencils should layer well and you can achieve similar results of heavy hand pressure by just layering.
Pencil Fell or Stepped On? Try Heating it Up
This method won’t always work and is highly dependent on the specific pencil you are using. If you have a pencil that was dropped or stepped on and the core just seems to be broken into a million pieces, getting a sharp point is next to impossible.
Some pencil manufacturers have recommended applying subtle warm heat to the pencil. This can sometimes melt the internal lead and reform it into a solid piece.
Now we don’t recommend sticking a colored pencil in your microwave or popping it in your oven on broil, but laying your pencils out in your car during the summer for an hour or laying them on some asphalt in the sun for a little while can work wonders. You can also try sticking it under an incandescent light bulb.
Again, this won’t always work but if your colored pencil lead is already in shambles then what is the problem in trying?
Still Having Issues?
If you are still struggling to get your pencil to a fine point then it might be time to consider giving up. We have put our hands on a lot of colored pencils in our time and there can be quite a bit of variance in the consistency of the core from one pencil to another. Furthermore, the core consistency can vary a lot even on a single pencil from top to bottom! While higher-end pencils seem to struggle less with this issue, it is still observed from time to time.
If you are trying to use a pencil and the lead just won’t cooperate, grab your pencil sharpener and grind it down half of an inch. Sometimes the lead can have “kinks” and once you work past this area, the pencil is serviceable again.
If this method doesn’t work, sometimes it is best to just throw in the towel and try a different pencil. If there are major quality issues with a particular colored pencil or colored pencil set, the manufacturer will also sometimes replace the set at no cost to you. But you will have to contact them and go through that hassle.
Other Helpful Tips for Minimizing Colored Pencil Breakage
Lastly, we wanted to provide a few helpful tips and tricks that you can follow to help minimize lead breakage and maximize the life of your colored pencils.
Protect Your Pencils!
The Tran Pencil Case is great for protecting your colored pencil investment. Check it out on Amazon here.
The number one cause of pencils breaking is not properly protecting them. When not using them, put them back in their case. This helps to minimize the likelihood of them dropping and/or being stepped on.
Make sure that the case they are in is adequate. Most higher-end colored pencils will come in a thicker tin or wooden case but not always. If you purchase a set of colored pencils and it came in a cheap plastic pouch, you may want to consider buying a colored pencil case for them. We discuss some of our favorite colored pencil cases and holders here.
Make the Most of Each Pencil Between Sharpening
Let’s face it: even the most gentle pencil sharpener can still put quite a bit of strain on the lead of a colored pencil. There is a lot of vibration and force that can go into a sharpener (particularly electric and hand-crank) and this can affect the integrity of lead even below where you are sharpening.
Because of this, try to make the most out of the pencil between sharpening. For instance, use the pencil for the intricate areas when sharp and then move over to other areas of the canvas that also need the same color but don’t require a sharp point. This will not only help preserve your pencil but also increase its versatility.
Properly Maintain Your Pencil Sharpener of Choice
Know when to empty out your pencil sharpener to avoid potentially damaging your colored pencils.
Like most things, a pencil sharpener will require some level of maintenance. This can include things such as sharpening the blade, cleaning out the pencil shavings, or simply tossing it when its time has come.
A faulty pencil sharpener that is not performing in its prime can spell disaster for your pencils. Not only will it be tougher to get the point that you are after, but higher levels of friction and interference of shavings can add increased stress to the core of the pencil.
Do you really want to ruin your 200 dollar set of Faber-Castells over a 50 cent pencil sharpener? Know when to move to a new sharpener!
This one is sort of a no-brainer but it is still worth mentioning. You will have varying levels of control with every type of pencil sharpener. Even electric pencil sharpeners will require you to control how much force you apply to the pencil while in use.
No matter what type of pencil sharpener you are using, start off slow and gentle. Get a feel for how your sharpener communicates with your pencil before using a lot of force on it.
We hope that this huge article has assisted you in determining and using the best pencil sharpener for your particular colored pencils. Just like colored pencils, there are many different types of pencil sharpeners that each have their own intended applications, pros, and cons. Figuring out which is best for you and how to properly use it will not only increase the life of your colored pencils but also make them much easier to use.