How to Sharpen Colored Pencils


How to Sharpen Colored Pencils for Limited BreakageIf 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?

18 Responses to How to Sharpen Colored Pencils

  1. Denise April 22, 2014 at 1:16 pm #

    Thanks for the tips. I had some col­ored pen­cils donated to the library and had a dick­ens of a time sharp­en­ing them. Just tried the dom­i­nate hand tech­nique and no more bro­ken leads. Yay!

  2. Amanda April 23, 2014 at 7:10 am #

    Great arti­cle!
    I’ve had suc­cess with Cray­ola col­ored pen­cil sticks. No, they aren’t pris­ma­color and you really can’t sharpen them to a point (but you can use the edge). My ele­men­tary age stu­dents did enjoy them and the sticks are great for apply­ing color to large areas. Hav­ing taught stu­dents through 12th grade, I would even sug­gest them for older stu­dents as well.

    • Cheryl Trowbridge April 23, 2014 at 8:20 am #

      Great idea, Amanda! I wasn’t famil­iar with those so I looked them up — they remind me of a heftier ver­sion of the con­struc­tion paper crayons or maybe the “Cray­ola Twista­bles” col­ored pen­cils. Def­i­nitely worth try­ing! Thanks so much for shar­ing that!

  3. Anne Sokoloski April 23, 2014 at 8:24 pm #

    I LOVE THIS SHARPENER FOR MY COLOR PENCILS. I know, I’m shout­ing. But, really, it is the only sharp­ener I haven’t lost my patience with. It does ‘over-sharpen’ if you let it auto stop, but I teach first grade so I do all the sharp­en­ing, so I had to find a way to be faster.

    • Cheryl Trowbridge April 25, 2014 at 11:49 am #

      Wow — great tes­ti­mo­nial, Anne! I haven’t tried this sharp­ener, but I plan to order one so I can check it out. I’d love to hear from oth­ers who have tried it. Thanks for shar­ing your experience!

  4. Phyl April 25, 2014 at 8:37 pm #

    Love this post! What great, prac­ti­cal sug­ges­tions. I love that there’s new stuff for me to learn even after teach­ing so long. Thank you!
    Phyl recently posted..What makes an artist an artist?My Profile

    • Cheryl Trowbridge April 26, 2014 at 7:12 am #

      Thanks, Phyl! I know what you mean… I learned a lot just research­ing this! We never stop learning!!

  5. Miss April 27, 2014 at 8:07 am #

    Some great tips here! I’m always obsessed with get­ting the right tools for the job in the art room. I keep an elec­tric sharp­ener at my desk– some­times after school or dur­ing lunch, I’ll have a keener stu­dent do a bunch of sharp­en­ing for me. I have an X-acto brand one that works well. I never use it dur­ing class, though, as it’s so noisy and then I find it makes the kids nois­ier– some sort of weird chain effect, lol!

    My absolute favourite sharp­en­ers for my stu­dents to use dur­ing class are the clas­sic old-skool hand­held metal sharp­en­ers. Any brand that’s made in Ger­many (ie: Staedtler). Must be all metal– not the cheap plas­tic ones.

    These lit­tle suck­ers are tough as nails (you can drop them, step on them, what­ever– they’re inde­struc­tible) and they’re also super sharp and stay sharp. I keep them in lit­tle wide-mouthed yoghurt tubs to catch the shav­ings.
    Miss recently posted..Fan­tasy Build­ing DesignsMy Profile

    • Cheryl Trowbridge April 27, 2014 at 3:34 pm #

      Julie, what a great idea to keep the hand­held sharp­en­ers in yogurt tubs! Why had I never thought of that?! I agree that those all-metal sharp­en­ers from Ger­many are awe­some. My favorite (for my per­sonal use — too expen­sive for a class set!) is the M & R Dou­ble Hole Sharp­ener, because you can sharpen crayons in it, too, or use the wider hole to get a wider angle point for col­ored pen­cils. You just have to fig­ure out how to keep the shav­ings off the floor, but you solved that with the yogurt tubs… thanks!

  6. Rina April 28, 2014 at 9:02 am #

    Hi Cheryl
    Thanks a mil­lion for this post! I have been look­ing for the per­fect col­ored pen­cil sharp­en­ing solu­tion. My hand­held, two-hole sharp­ener just isn’t cut­ting it (ha!). I will inves­ti­gate your sharp­en­ing options for next year. Pin­ning!
    Rina recently posted..iPad Blended Self-PortraitMy Profile

    • Cheryl Trowbridge April 28, 2014 at 10:13 am #

      Thanks, Rina! I have a cou­ple of new options I’m try­ing out and I’ll post updates as I find new and bet­ter solu­tions. So stay tuned!

  7. Kim Hyman May 24, 2014 at 6:28 pm #

    Great post. I find col­ored pen­cils to be so frus­trat­ing because of the con­stant break­ing and was def­i­nitely lack­ing knowl­edge on how to avoid the break­ing. Thanks, thanks, thanks for your insight and knowl­edge. I’ll be heat­ing those pen­cils in the future and replac­ing my pen­cil sharp­en­ers if they are dull. Also edu­cat­ing my stu­dents about the dom­i­nant hand. Who would have guessed there was so much to learn about sharp­en­ing a col­ored pen­cil!!
    Kim Hyman recently posted..Kinder­garten Tex­ture discovery!My Profile

    • Cheryl Trowbridge May 25, 2014 at 3:59 pm #

      Yes, Kim… sharp­en­ing a col­ored pen­cil seems like it should be sim­ple enough, doesn’t it??! I’m glad this was helpful!!

  8. Kelly June 4, 2015 at 7:50 am #

    What about using the heat­ing tech­nique for cray­ola dry erase pencils?

    • Cheryl Trowbridge June 4, 2015 at 10:16 pm #

      I’ve never used the Cray­ola Dry Erase pen­cils, but they sound amaz­ing! If you try that, please let us know how it works!


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