Nothing is as frustrating as colored pencils that keep breaking.
There are many reasons why your pencils might keep breaking. But sharpening them the wrong way is one of the most common reasons.
Compared to graphite pencils, the “lead” in a colored pencil is actually a combination of pigment and a binder such as oil or wax.
This means that colored pencils are more likely to break than graphite pencils.
Read on to learn how to sharpen your colored pencils without breaking them.
3 ways to sharpen your pencils
You can use many different tools to sharpen your pencils.
However, the most common options are:
- Handheld sharpeners
- Electric sharpeners
I’ll omit other tools such as sandpaper blocks because they aren’t used as often.
So let’s see which of these three is the best for sharpening colored pencils.
1 Handheld pencil sharpeners
We are all familiar with the good old handheld pencil sharpener.
The best thing about this type of sharpener is that you have very accurate control on how much you sharpen your pencils.
By only sharpening the pencil a little bit at a time, you can be sure you didn’t shave off too much.
Moreover, these sharpeners are very sturdy and can last forever.
I remember using the same pencil sharpener all through primary and middle school.
But using a handheld sharpener with your colored pencils for that long would be a huge mistake.
Although they might look great on the outside, the blades inside can get dull quickly.
A sharp blade can produce long and continuous pencil shavings. Whereas a blunt blade will only result in small bits and pieces.
If that starts to happen, you know it’s time to replace the blade or buy a new handheld pencil sharpener.
Best way to sharpen colored pencils with a handheld sharpener
Hold the pencil in one hand and the sharpener in the other hand. Ideally you want to hold both of them horizontally.
After placing the pencil inside the sharpener, you want to rotate the sharpener.
I know you probably are used to turning the pencil while keeping the pencil still. It feels very counterintuitive to turn the sharpener instead.
But by letting the sharpener do all the work you can reduce the stress on the pencil and reduce the risk of breaking the lead.
Moreover, you want to apply very little pressure and let the blade do all the work. If it feels like you need to press too hard, it probably means the blades inside the sharpener are dull.
2 Electric pencil sharpeners
Next up is the electric pencil sharpener. These are often used in classrooms since small children constantly break their pencils.
However, whether buying an electric pencils sharpener as an artist is a good ideal is more contentious.
Sure, you can save a lot of time.
The problem is that most electric sharpeners don’t give you a lot of control. Because they are so fast, you easily remove too much wood and precious lead. And the resulting tip is always the same shape.
Moreover, some electric pencil sharpeners also vibrate, which can break the lead inside your colored pencils. Especially if you use pencils with soft lead, this can be a big problem.
Additionally, some of the lead might get stuck inside the sharpener as well. If you use the sharpener for longer periods of time, it can heat up and melt the lead. Which often results in clogging or breaking the sharpener.
Also don’t forget that electric sharpener require batteries or a cord, so they aren’t as portable as the other options.
Best way to sharpen colored pencils with an electric pencil sharpener
If you do decide to use an electric sharpener, you want to make sure you don’t waste money and overdo it.
Try to sharpen your colored pencils only a few seconds at a time.
It’s also good practice to sharpen some graphite pencils every now and then. The graphite lead will kind of function as a lubricant and prevent the wax or oil binder of colored pencils from building up.
Additionally, you want to frequently open up the sharpener (if possible) and clean the blades with a Q-tip.
The last option is to use a knife. This can be either a special pencil knife or a regular utility knife.
It might be the most dangerous options of all 3, but many professional artists like to use a knife to sharpen their pencils because it gives you total control.
You won’t shave off too much like with an electric sharpener.
But more importantly, you can control the length and shape of the tip with a knife. Sharp or dull, long or short – with a little practice you will be able to shape your pencil tip exactly the way you want.
Having a special pencil tip is important for many intermediate and advances drawing techniques.
For example, a long tip is ideal for overhand drawing and applying color evenly. Whereas a short sharp tip works better for rough sketches.
How to use a knife to sharpen colored pencils
Hold the pencil in your non-dominant hand and the knife in your dominant hand. Make sure to use the knife away from your body.
Shave away small pieces bit by bit and rotate the colored pencils while doing so. This will make sure that your pencil will be symmetrical.
When sharpening colored pencils with a knife, always make sure to use a sharp knife.
Some people make the mistake of using a dull knife thinking it’s safer. However, dull knives are actually more dangerous because you need to press harder and the knife might slip unpredictably.
Moreover, the extra pressure might break the lead in your pencils.
Tips for sharpening colored pencils
All three options above are very different. They give different degrees of control and some sharpeners are more likely to break the lead than others.
However, there are a few general tips that will help you to sharpen your pencils.
- Clean shavings immediately: you want to remove any shavings that get stuck in the sharpener to prevent them from interfering with the blades.
- Sharpen patiently: you don’t want to lose money be over-sharpening your colored pencils. Be patient and only sharpen a little at a time so you can check when you are done.
- Keep your pencils sharp: sharpening a dull tip takes a lot more effort and you will have to remove more lead.
- Store your pencils safely: accidentally dropping your colored pencils is the fastest way to break the lead inside. So when you don’t use your pencils, make sure to store them safely.
- Know what pencils you are using: colored pencils that have wax binder are more suitable for making dull tips, while oil based colored pencils are better for making sharp points.
How do you fix colored pencils that keep breaking?
Do your colored pencils keep breaking, even though you are following all the tips mentioned above?
Then there is a big likelihood that the lead inside your colored pencils is already broken.
Maybe someone dropped them in the store. Or maybe it was handles roughly during shipping.
In that case it doesn’t matter which sharpener you use or how careful you are.
However, not all is lost.
You can try to fix your broken pencils by placing them in a warm place.
This might melt the binder in the color pencils and fuse the broken pieces back together.
Of course, this doesn’t always work but it’s worth a shot.
Some people have taken the above advice a little too far and tried to heat their pencils in the microwave or oven.
But I don’t really recommend either of these 2 options though, since the wooden casing can easily split through the middle or start to smoke.
In short, most people like to use a handheld sharpener, electric sharpener, or knife.
Using a knife gives you the most control over how much wooden casing you remove and the size/shape of the pencil’s tip.
If your colored pencils keep breaking while sharpening, it might be that the lead is already broken. You can try to fix the lead by placing your pencils in a warm environment to fuse the lead back together.