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, that may help. Leaving them in a hot car for an afternoon is another great idea!

I’ve heard that some people heat their colored pencils in the oven or microwave, but I don’t recommend that…. many pencils have metallic lettering on them which could cause sparks – or worse! Leaving them in the car on a sunny day (even in winter!) is an easier and much safer option.

Another option is to use a hair dryer to heat your colored pencils. Every art room needs a hair dryer, right? Perfect for those pencils that fall on the floor….

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? Do you warm them in the sun before sharpening, or have you tried another technique I haven’t mentioned?

24 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!

    • Cheryl Trowbridge April 22, 2014 at 3:51 pm #

      Woo hoo! I’m glad that worked for you, Denise!!

    • Mona April 22, 2016 at 4:32 pm #

      Great tips… after years of my prismacolor color pencils being ground down, and spending more money than necessary, I am having great results. Thank you!!!

  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!

  9. Barbara Newson December 5, 2015 at 2:03 pm #

    Out of the 36 colored penciles I purchased in a set one started breaking new out the box. Others started to break until over half the box is now breaking. It is really frustrating to me to have them break so often. I use the bigger hole of the sharpner and they still break. No children are using these only me. Disappointed :(

    • Cheryl Trowbridge December 5, 2015 at 5:51 pm #

      So sorry to hear you’re having this problem, Barbara! It sounds like your pencils may have broken cores from being dropped during shipping. You could try heating them with a hair dryer or leaving them in a hot car for an afternoon. That’s so frustrating when that happens!

  10. Anonymous July 28, 2016 at 9:22 pm #

    Please don’t tell people they can bake or microwave colored pencils! Most people overbake or over microwave them anyway, but, most importantly, IT ISN’T SAFE!! I know many police officers and firefighters, and you would not imagine how many small and large house fires this rumor has caused. And, as a nurse myself, I’ve seen several awful burns from people having tried this. In fact, prismacolor addresses this exact subject on their website. They, of course, say not to do this.

    You really should tell people to only leave their pencils in a sunny window, or a sunny spot, or (my absolute favorite) in their car for a while (cars get hot, even on winter days). I’m a big fan of prismacolor pencils, and I’ve not ever had a problem with breakage because when I buy a new tin or a replacement pencil, before I ever sharpen or use them I put them in the sun to heat in case there are cracks/breakages in the core.

    Thanks for the interesting articles. I actually was looking for a better option for good colored pencils for my friend’s son to take to school, and came across the article comparing pencils. He dislikes crayola colored pencils, because he’s allowed to use artist grade pencils at home. Artist grade pencils are too expensive to take to school as the other children want to use them as well, but don’t know how to use pencils with care. I’ll have to purchase a set of Prang to see if he likes them (as well as the lyra slim ones someone else mentioned. I used to use those myself, and liked them, but had forgotten about them) and hopefully we can find a good compromise.

    Please encourage your readers not to microwave or bake their pencils. Also, imagine if a child heard the same rumor and tried this-it could have a terrible outcome.

    • Cheryl Trowbridge August 2, 2016 at 9:34 am #

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts on how to avoid breakage with colored pencils! I agree with you… even though my directions would be safe if followed correctly, many people do like to “customize” instructions and in this case, even a small change could result in a big problem. So I removed that section from my post. Thanks again for taking the time to comment!


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