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Sharpening Colored Pencils

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An editied virtual roundtable discussion held online. Transcribed for the March 2010 GNSI Newsletter column "Ripped From The List "- edited by Stephan DiCerbo, and now edited for online presentation. This version has been further edited down for web presentation.

Question from Bruce: Glendon, have you ever had someone burst into the store you manage announcing loudly, “I found it!” A way to sharpen color pencils without the leads breaking!” If so, would you kindly pass along the specifics of this person’s discovery. Many of us, I suspect, are not amused by this constant annoyance. It appears that a bump forms somewhere along the sharpening line that causes the pencil to wiggle. I should probably note that I use the little red General sharpeners. Does anyone have any experience with the Dahle pencil sharpener? If it works as stated it might be worth the $50.

Kathleen: I would suggest looking for those little German metal pencil sharpeners. I have one that is solid brass, round, with two holes, one for the fat and the other the normal sized pencils, that I found at a local old-fashioned stationers. I only wish I knew where I could find new blades! Or do you think they can be sharpened effectively? The metal Helix sharpeners aren’t bad either, but not great. One of the best pencil sharpeners I have for my colored pencils came in my set of Faber-Castells, I think it was a set of 48s. …

I had some Prismacolor pencils that I would sharpen down to stubs before they would have a point that wouldn’t fall out. I think it’s actually either one of two things: some shrinkage between the lead and the wood that makes them loose, or breakage inside from being dropped or mishandled along the way.

PS: Alvin has a couple of pencil sharpeners that might work for you. They’re about 89 cents. They also have the brass ‘bullet’ for about $4, but it’s only for the skinny pencils, I think. The woodless Kohinoor are nice. I think you actually suggested I buy those, didn’t you?

Jane: I have been using the portable Panasonic KP4A sharpener for years. If you insert the pencil and apply gentle pressure you will get a perfect point every time. Every once in a while one of my students will push too hard and get a point stuck in the sharpening mechanism. I get it unclogged by vigorously pushing a sharp graphite pencil into the sharpener...clearing the mechanism. Worth a try if you are tired of those hand sharpeners—and these are light enough to travel.

Glendon: Actually Bruce, lots of people have had that complaint in the past. We dropped Prismacolor, the most popular brand because of it. Sanford was bought by Berol about 9 years ago, and the quality dropped. It is not, IMO the sharpener, though most people figure that. It’s the quality of the leads. Not to be “art store” guy shilling his wares, but we try to switch most people to the Polychromos by Faber-Castell. It seems to satisfy, and I have not had any returns for leads breaking, like, ever. A: From Kathleen Garness Yep. I love Faber-Castell. Nice range of colors, not much ‘bloom’. The Berol Verithins, if you can find them, are great for tiny details because they’re harder.

Alice: I second the recommendation for Faber-Castell. Their colors are beautifully subtle, not too bright or garishly Crayola-colored. They blend into water easily and smoothly. The lead is fairly soft though, so the points get blunted often and you have to keep sharpening them, though unlike Prismacolors, they don’t break often. I also got a Faber- Castell sharpener for about $5 from Blick, which has a shorter, larger hole for colored pencils. The shorter point keeps the Prismacolor lead from getting too long and snapping. Though it does require more sharpening, since the point becomes a fat stub quickly. Doesn’t completely solve the problem of breaking leads, but I’ve had less lead breakage with this sharpener.

Glendon: Yeah, I’ve always found watercolour pencils have softer leads too. Leads are delicate. If the shippers and receivers drop a box, they’d break. If they sit on an unheated truck overnight at a loading dock somewhere, they could break. That doesn’t happen often, at least in my experience, because they are usually shipped with paints from the same distributor and those have heated trucks in winter. There’s a lot of things that could happen before you crack open a set and ogle the colours. The Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer line is, IMO, a quality product. I use them occasionally for quick colour roughs for clients. I’d say a step up from the Derwent, though those are also very good, better than Staedtler’s watercolor pencils.

Alice: I couldn’t find one of those shorter-point sharpeners locally, so I’ll look in Blick. The shorter point sharpens more quickly, and as you noted, colored pencils require sharpening often.

Consie: I would agree about the Faber Castell Albrecht Durer watercolor pencils. They are VERY nice—I’ve tried a lot of watercolor pencils, and these are my favorites. They can blend into clean washes if you want, they can leave some pencil lines if you want, you can dab a brush directly on the lead and use it as a color from your brush that way - they are very nice, and very versatile.

Glendon: thanks again for the recommendations. It’s difficult to believe that almost anything shipped doesn’t get a jolt somewhere along the line. Thanks to all.

Bruce: Kathleen, both those pencils get my vote, except the Verithins don’t have a wide range of colors. In particular Berol seemed to skip a dark walnut brown, which I use a lot. Thanks!