Let’s talk tools of the trade. A good pencil sharpener is aside from the pencil itself, the most valuable tool you’ll be using as an artist. A sharp point is essential for technique and a good pencil sharpener can also extend the life and utility of a colored pencil you paid good money for. In this post we’ll guide you in choosing a great pencil sharpener for your artistic pursuits.
What to Look For
Colored pencils come in a range of different colors and sizes with changes in the diameter of the lead, the size of the barrel, and the shape of the casing. A standard color pencil comes in an 8 mm barrel, however novice-grade pencils tend to run a little bigger because many are made for classroom use and toddler hands. Artist and professional grade colored pencils tend to run at the standard 8 mm size with differing core thickness, so if you work primarily with good quality pencils, you can use the same sharpener across a lot of brands.
Sharpeners also differ in their degrees of sharpening angles. The reason this is important, especially concerning colored pencils, is that the sharpening angle will determine how much lead is available per use. If your work involves detail and you need to maintain a constant sharp point, choose a pencil sharpener with a smaller angle (say, 74 degrees). If on the other hand, you want to avoid sharpening constantly, a sharpening angle closer to 80 degrees will give you more exposed lead to work with.
Most colored pencils come in a rounded wooden barrel, but certain premium-grade pencils are designed in a hexagonal shape for better grip. There are also triangular barrels, but those are more specialized colored pencils, usually novice grade, and designed for small children. Most sharpeners are made to handle a range of different shapes, however there are specialized sharpeners designed for specific shapes, if you prefer to be precise.
Not all pencil sharpeners sharpen your lead to a sharp point and this is because some are designed simply to expose the lead, giving the artist a more blunted point to work with (shading over large areas, blending, etc.) and others, such as sharpeners designed for graphite pencils or precise detail (drafting pencils) sharpen to a precise point.
Tip: If you only want to buy one pencil sharpener, go with one that sharpens to a fine point. You can always blunt it by shading lightly on a piece of scrap paper.
Colored pencils, especially artist and professional grade, come in a wide range of lead content, some quite fragile. Sharpeners can be quite harsh on lead and even on the wooden part of the pencil. It is important to sharpen colored pencils with a gentle pencil sharpener that won’t hurt the integrity of your tools. Find something that is gentle on both the lead and the wood because cracking in the wood compromises the core.
Lastly, look for a sharpener that leaves the wood clean. This is especially important for colored pencils because the lead is softer and if you’re using something oil-based, it can smear your work. An artist takes so much care not to smudge with his hand, so make sure that you don’t overlook something like stained wood.
Our Top 4 Recommendations
The following recommendations are what we consider to be the top 4 pencil sharpeners for artists who use colored pencils. Some of them are designed for use with regular graphite pencils and others are made specifically for colored pencils.
The Kum Automatic Brake Long Point
This is a two-step sharpener designed for graphite pencils. We are recommending it for colored pencils because its genius design allows you to sharpen in a two-step process, for a precise, clean, and very gentle finish.
The Kum Automatic Brake Long Point has two sharpening holes, one to shave off the wood, and another specifically for the lead. While you may be put off by the two step process, keep in mind the value of your colored pencils. This sharpener lengthens the life of your pencil because nothing is disposed of. The wood shavings and colored shavings are separated, allowing you to save precious pigment and utilize every bit of what you paid for.
The Derwent Battery-Operated Pencil Sharpener
Derwent makes some of the world’s best colored pencils and also happens to have a line of pencil sharpeners designed to sharpen five different pencil diameters, specifically colored pencils.
Other than its versatility of use, this is a pretty standard battery operated pencil sharpener. It does not separate wood shavings from lead shavings, so that is something to consider if you’re frugal about pigment waste.
Prismacolor Pencil Sharpener
Designed for use alongside Prismacolor colored pencils, this is a German-crafted pencil sharpener with a simple design and wide range of use. The best feature of this pencil sharpener is the blade- a high quality, rust and blunt-resistant blade that is long lasting and gentle on your colored pencils.
The simple, transparent slide cover makes it easy to monitor the accumulation of shavings and its small size makes it very portable.
X-ACTO Cut All Lightweight Knife
The most dangerous, but precise of sharpening methods is using an X-acto knife.
Premium-grade colored pencils have softer cores and depending on their formula, can be damaged easily by electric or hand-held pencil sharpeners. The idea here is to shave off the wood, expose the lead, and then sharpen the lead gently by shaving off the pigment to produce a fine point.
An X-acto knife also allows you to separate wooden shavings from pigment shavings. This is especially nice if you like to reuse your pigment, as the knife can give you a fine, colored powder to work with.