If you’ve ever been frustrated by colored pencils that break as you sharpen them, you’re not alone! Colored pencils are prone to breakage whether you’re using inexpensive student grade pencils or high quality artist grade pencils.
Colored pencils are fragile by nature. The core of a colored pencil is made of pigment mixed with either a wax-based or an oil-based binder that holds it together. This colored core is softer than the wood casing that protects it, making it more vulnerable than most people realize.
Here are some tips for limiting breakage when you sharpen your colored pencils:
- If you use a handheld sharpener, try holding the sharpener in your dominant hand and your pencil in the other. Then turn the sharpener not the pencil, as you hold your pencil straight, in a fixed position. This reduces stress on the pencil’s soft core. If your sharpener has more than one hole, use the larger one, which will give you a wider angle and a stronger point. In general, handheld sharpeners give you more control than electric or battery sharpeners, and there are lots of good choices in a range of prices.
- If you use an electric or battery operated sharpener, you’ll have a lot less control than with a handheld sharpener, so you’ll need to be extra careful with the amount of pressure you apply. With these sharpeners it’s easy to over-sharpen and grind down soft pencils, so an auto-stop pencil sharpener would be a good choice. To prevent a waxy build-up on the blades of your sharpener (which can also cause pencils to break), sharpen a graphite pencil after about every 12 colored pencils or so. Also, avoid long sharpening sessions as this will not only be hard on the motor of your sharpener, but can also heat up the blades, causing them to pull the core right out from your pencil!
- Some people like to use sharpeners designed for make-up pencils. These often have two hole sizes, to accommodate both regular and jumbo pencils (use the larger hole if you’re sharpening colored pencils). These are made specifically for softer pencils, but I’m not convinced they don’t use the same kind of blade as a regular pencil sharpener. I haven’t actually tested one of these, but they’re an option.
- Whichever style of sharpener you use, make sure your blade is sharp! A dull blade will “catch” on the soft core as it passes over it, causing the core to break. How can you tell if your blade is sharp? It’s easy…. just look at the shavings! If they’re long, continuous pieces, you have a sharp blade. If your shavings are in lots of short, choppy pieces, your blade is dull and can damage your pencils. Many sharpeners have replaceable blades. If you can’t replace the blade, replace the sharpener when the blade becomes dull.
- Avoid crank-style sharpeners! You often find these sharpeners mounted to the wall in classrooms. These dinosaurs are like a death sentence for colored pencils! If you still have one of these in your classroom, make sure you also have a good alternative for your students to use when working with colored pencils.
- Many professional artists use a knife to sharpen their colored pencils. While this would be more gentle than using a sharpener on your pencil’s fragile core, it’s not a good choice for students! If you’re looking for the ultimate in control and safety, the very best option is a sandpaper sharpener pad. You simply rotate your pencil as you rub it against the sandpaper to create as much or as little of a point as you need.
But how about those pencils that still keep breaking.… almost like they’re already broken on the inside??
Well, they may be broken on the inside! Just because a colored pencil looks like it’s in one piece, that doesn’t mean the core isn’t already broken in one or more places inside the wood casing. This can happen as pencils get dropped or roll off desks in the classroom, but it can also happen in transit before they even reach the store you buy them from. This is frustrating because you can’t tell from looking at it if a pencil is broken on the inside. Many colored pencils (including Prismacolor) are “spot glued” rather than being completely encased with glue, making them especially vulnerable to this kind of breakage.
One possible solution for dealing with inside breakage is to heat your colored pencils, causing the core to melt slightly and fuse to itself again. If you can leave your colored pencils in a warm sunny spot for a while, even in a hot car, that may help…. but that’s not always possible.
Another option is to lightly “bake” your colored pencils in the oven. Lay them in a single layer on a parchment covered baking sheet and place them in a cool oven. Then, turn the oven on and set it to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Let your pencils bake at this temperature for 5 minutes, then turn the oven off and let them cool completely before removing them from the oven. I’ve heard that some people heat their colored pencils in the microwave, but I don’t recommend that.… many pencils have metallic lettering on them which could cause sparks — or worse!
If you don’t want to bring your colored pencils home to bake them, you could also use a hair dryer to heat them. Every art room needs a hair dryer, right?
Occasionally, the core of a colored pencil will be off-center, which can also cause it to break as you sharpen it. You can usually identify this problem by looking at the unsharpened (flat) end of the pencil. If you can see that the core is not in the exact center, a sandpaper sharpener will be your best bet.
When introducing any new medium, I always talk to my students about any special care that’s required. Students feel empowered when they learn something new that will help them be more successful. Treating colored pencils with care and using appropriate sharpeners will ensure that your colored pencils ‘go the distance’ in your classroom!
Watch this video from Dick Blick for a good colored pencil sharpening tutorial…
Have you found a favorite sharpener for your colored pencils? Have you ever tried heating them, or tried another technique I haven’t mentioned?