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How to Sharpen Pencils for Drawing (Beginner’s Guide)

Sharpening your pencil can be a difficult task. One wrong turn and suddenly you find yourself with a really short pencil and tons of broken lead scattered on your desk. Crazy how a task so simple can render an artist in tears.

Artists often sharpen their pencils by ditching the sharpener, taking a razor or a sharp knife, and cutting around the tip of the pencil. This draws out the lead which can be useful for shading.

To get the tip really pointy, use sanding paper to sand the tip down.

You may be wondering, why not use a regular sharpener? A regular sharpener is fine, however, they’re usually prone to breaking leads, even if you’re careful. Plus it can’t draw out the lead unlike a knife and a razor can.

To know more about how to properly sharpen your pencil, keep reading!

Table of Contents

    How to Sharpen Pencil

    There are many ways to sharpen a pencil. You can choose to go the normal route and use a handheld sharpener or do what most artists do and use a knife or a razor. You can also use a mechanical or electrical sharpener if you find sharpening to be tiring.

    Handheld SharpenerPlace the pencil inside the sharpener’s hole and turn it. Don’t turn it too fast or chances are, you’ll end up breaking the lead of the pencil.
    Knife/razorPoint the pencil tip away from you and place your index finger at the bottom of the tip of the pencil. Gently push the knife through the wood with your thumb.
    Electric sharpenerSimilar to the handheld sharpener, simply put the pencil in the sharpener’s hole, except this time, instead of twisting the pencil or the sharpener, all you have to do is hold the pencil and let the sharpener do the work.
    Ways to Sharpen a Pencil

    A tip for when you’re using a handheld sharpener is to make sure the blade of the sharpener hasn’t gone dull yet. The duller the blade is, the easier it is to break the pencil.

    If you find that the blade is dull, simply replace the blade with a new one or sharpen the blade with a sharpening stone.

    However, most artists don’t sharpen with your typical handheld sharpener. Instead, they often use razors and knives. This is because, with these tools, they are able to draw out the lead more, allowing for better shading. Something you can’t do with a handheld sharpener or electric sharpener.

    Why Do Artists Use a Knife to Sharpen Pencils?

    Artists often use knives or razors to sharpen their pencils as it allows them to bring out the pencil’s lead more, something you can’t do with your typical sharpener. The more the lead protrudes, the easier it will be for shading or coloring in dark areas.

    Some artists even sand down the lead just to get it nice and pointy. Of course, this doesn’t mean that just because most artists do this, you have to as well. If you’re more comfortable with a sharpener then that’s fine.

    Sharpening your pencil with a knife can be tricky as one wrong move can cost you a whole lot of lead. So it’s best to be careful when doing this method.

    If you need a video guide to sharpening with a knife, have a look at this video:

    How to Sharpen with a Knife

    I suggest investing in high-quality pencils with strong leads, if you can’t do that, keeping your knife sharp helps prevent this problem as well.

    How to Sharpen a Pencil without a Sharpener

    To sharpen a pencil without a sharpener, first, get a sharp knife or razor. Hold it with your dominant hand while your non-dominant hand holds the pencil.

    Place the knife between your thumb and index finger and point its sharp side towards the tip of the pencil (make sure the tip of the pencil is pointed away from you). Hold the knife down with your thumb then push it gently with your other thumb from your non-dominant hand.

    Do this until you get the lead out. It’s up to you how long you want the lead to be but try not to make the lead too long. The longer the lead is, the easier it’ll be to break or snap, especially if you’re one to often drop your pencils.  

    Once you have the lead out, you’ll notice that the tip of the lead will be blunt compared to if it were sharpened by a sharpener. To fix this, simply get sanding paper and sand down the tip till it’s smooth and sharp. Try to be very careful in this part of the process as you’ll likely break the lead off if you sand a little too hard.

    Once you’re satisfied with the length of the lead and the sharpness, you can start drawing!

    Is It Better to Sharpen a Pencil without a Sharpener?

    It isn’t necessarily better to sharpen a pencil without a sharpener. As long as you get the pencil sharpened, how you do it doesn’t matter. However, if your aim is to draw the lead out so you can shade better, sharpening using a knife or razor instead of a sharpener is definitely a lot better.

    There’s also a matter of comfort. Some people are more comfortable sharpening their pencils with a knife than they are with a sharpener so they stick to using knives. Some are afraid to handle knives so they just use a sharpener instead. Both are valid.

    As I said, as long as the pencil is sharpened and you can draw with it, it doesn’t matter what tool you use to get it sharpened.

    Pencil Sharpening Tips

    Here are a few tips I have before sharpening your pencil:

    • Make sure the blade of the sharpener or the knife you’re using is not dull. If the blade is dull, you’ll likely break off the pencil lead more times than you’ll get it sharpened. Working with a dull knife can be dangerous as well.
    • Try not to get frustrated when your pencil breaks more than once when you’re sharpening it. While it is awful to see how much lead and time you’ve wasted just sharpening a pencil, getting frustrated over it won’t help. It may even discourage you from drawing.
    • Try not to drop your pencil. Dropping your pencil can cause the lead to snap or break, especially if you’ve already drawn out the lead with your knife. When you’re done with your pencil, put it in a safe spot and avoid dropping it.
    • Sharpen multiple pencils. This way, you don’t have to pause your drawing and interrupt your creative process every time your pencil breaks. You can simply move on to the next pencil and set aside your broken one for you to sharpen later.

    How to Sharpen a Pencil without Breaking the Lead

    There’s no guarantee that your lead won’t break no matter how careful you are, but to prevent this from happening, always make sure your sharpener’s blade or your knife is sharp. If it’s dull, you’re more likely to break the lead when sharpening.

    Another thing to watch out for is the quality of your pencils. Sometimes it’s not the sharpener’s fault why your pencil keeps breaking, sometimes it’s the pencil itself. Try to get your pencils from a reputable brand.

    It doesn’t always have to be expensive pencils. Some cheap drawing pencils can last you for a long time if you’re careful with them. Just make sure they come from a brand that sells high-quality pencils. If you’re not sure what pencils to buy or where to look, read our other article here What Are the Best Pencils for Drawing?

    How Do You Sharpen a Pencil Perfectly?

    There’s no perfect way to sharpen a pencil. Each time you sharpen your pencil, there’s no telling whether it’s going to come out great or broken. But either way, the goal is to just get it sharpened without wasting any lead.

    All you can do is try to avoid breaking the pencil while sharpening, and this can be done by:

    • Make sure your sharpener/knife isn’t dull
    • Invest in a high-quality pencil

    As for sharpening it, there’s no one perfect way. It all depends on your tools, your pencil, and what you’re most comfortable with. If you like to go down the traditional route, then a handheld pencil will probably be enough for you.

    If you’re looking to shade better with your pencil, then using a knife or razor to sharpen your pencil will probably be more useful. If you’d like to save yourself the hassle of manually sharpening your pencil, an electric sharpener may be what you’re looking for.

    Either way, as long as you get your pencil sharpened and you’re able to draw, how you sharpen your pencil doesn’t really matter.

    Best Artist Pencil Sharpener

    • Staedtler Metal Double Hole Sharpener (Handheld)
    • X-ACTO Pro Electric Pencil Sharpener (Electric)
    • JARLINK Electric Pencil Sharpener (Electric)
    • Prismacolor Premier Pencil Sharpener (Handheld)
    • Carl Angel-5 Pencil Sharpener (Mechanical)

    Staedtler Metal Double Hole Sharpener

    This handheld sharpener is small enough to fit in your bag but not so small that you’ll easily lose it. It comes with two different-sized holes, one big and one small, with razor-sharp blades that’ll ensure a sharpened pencil.

    X-ACTO Pro Electric Pencil Sharpener

    This electric sharpener comes with 6 sharpening holes to accommodate different pencil shapes and sizes. It plugs directly into the wall and comes with an easy-to-empty shading bin. It is a bit pricey though (given that it’s electric) with a list price of $77 ($29 as of now) and it also isn’t very convenient for traveling.

    However, it can save you the hassle of twisting and turning your pencil for sharpening.

    JARLINK Electric Pencil Sharpener

    If you’re looking for a cheaper electric sharpener, then try JARLINK. It’s a bit bigger than X-ACTO but it does the job just as well. It comes with a heavy-duty blade that sharpens your pencil in around 3-5 seconds. It’s automatic so all you have to do is place your pencil inside.

    That said, it only comes with one sharpening hole, so bigger pencils or pencils with odd shapes may not be able to fit in this sharpener.

    Prismacolor Premier Pencil Sharpener

    Another good handheld pencil sharpener is Prismacolor’s Premier Pencil Sharpener. Its steel blade is high quality and it comes in a sort of cylindrical form, making it easy to hold. Although it has two holes, both holes are of the same size so there isn’t much variety when it comes to what pencils you can sharpen.

    It is, however, small so it can fit in your bag or pencil case perfectly. It’s also specifically designed for Prismacolor pencils so if you’re a fan of the brand, then this sharpener is best for you. It has a list price of $9 but at the moment is $6.

    Carl Angel-5 Pencil Sharpener

    Carl Angel-5 is a durable mechanical sharpener that comes with one sharpening hole and a handle for you to manually rotate. It also has a clear shaving bin that’s easy for you to take out and clean. The sharpener has an auto-stop feature that’ll stop the sharpening process once the pencil is sharp enough. This way, you can avoid accidentally over-sharpening your pencil and breaking its lead.

    It also has a desk clamp to keep it from sliding off of your desk while you’re sharpening. It costs $22.

    These are all the sharpeners I think would make a great addition to your desk or fun box of art supplies. If you’re not a fan of using pencil sharpeners, a small kitchen knife or razor will do the trick. At the end of the day, as long as your pencil is sharpened and ready to be used for drawing, what you use to sharpen it doesn’t really matter.

    Thanks for reading!  

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