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How To Choose a Pencil Sharpener

Updated: Sep 8, 2023


History of a Pencil Sharpener


A sharpener can be difficult to decide on if you don’t know what you need or what to even look for, let alone the amount of sharpeners available - let’s take the guessing game out of it and talk about it. Historically we have come a long way- but not too far from our roots.


Before there were sharpeners we used to use knives to create that nice sharp point and it was called whittling. It wasn’t until 1822 that a man by the name of Mr. C. A. Boucher from Paris had created a device to create a precise point on his pencils to help him with his work on pantographs. However, through other hands, the invention of the pencil sharpener had been patented later in 1828, by a man named Bernard Lassimonne. Bernard Lassimone was the world's first patent and many pencil sharpening devices were made using his patent with two sharp files set together at a right angle in a small block of rosewood. Fast forward through the 1830’s and 40’s some Paris based French people were creating simple pencil sharpening tools, and in America the first patented pencil sharpener bloomed in Bangor, Maine in 1855. Thus a quick run down of the history of our useful tool we use daily!


With the boom of manufacturing we have been able to make our blades sharper and smaller, and encase the blades with protective plastics, canisters for easy cleanup and even tiny motors to save our wrists from the pain of twisting! But, as you guessed it, there’s lots to choose from. So which one, two or three are best?


Since there are so many different kinds I will break it down into two different categories. Manual and Electric, and further break it down into subcategories of single blade, single helical and double helical blades. Because there are so many available I felt that these categories and subcategories will be able to cover most of the sharpeners out there- minus some of the oddball gems we may find.


So let’s dig into what we REALLY want to know…


What do I NEED!


Manual Sharpeners


Manual sharpeners are the most common and you can find them in just about any store, and most of the colored pencil brands manufacture their own brand. There are very few differences between these sharpeners though, generally speaking, they're compact with one to two sizes of holes and use a twisting motion of the wrist with mild pressure to create a sharp point. You will find other manual sharpeners that have several sized holes too, in order to help you find the size that fits your pencil. Most blades are secured with a tiny screw and are set in a plastic or a metal casing.


There are some pros and cons to these sharpeners, of course, but they are also easy on the bank and extremely available. These tiny sharpeners, typically single blade, I use mostly and no matter what brand, I gravitate towards them. I find that I have greater control in my points length and sharpness. This isn’t always the case though, as you will find that the twisting motion of the wrist puts pressure on the core causing it to break easily, thus ending the life of your pencils by millimeters each time they break. This can be managed easily by holding the pencil stationary and twisting the sharpener instead. Holding the pencil stationary can take a bit to get used to, so I would suggest holding the sharpener and twist in your dominant hand and use your non-dominant hand to hold the pencil firm . There are times as well that the pencils themselves have flaws like flaking or broken cores and using a manual sharpener could help you still get a sharp point without shaving the wood of the pencil itself.


Another type of single blade manual sharpener, just like the days before our fancy blades, you can use an Exacto knife or thin cutting tool to whittle away the wood to expose the core. This type of sharpening is used for those soft core pencils such as, pastels or Holbein. I personally wouldn’t use this on a prismacolor because they are a bit more brittle than Pastel and Holbein- even though they are considered soft too. The reason artists use a manual blade on these pencils is that they are such a soft core that the motion of the twist is bound to break the cores- you will find more in the pencil section about this topic.


Next up is a sharpener that is considered manually operating, but is somewhat of a simple non-electric machine. More than likely you have used one in school and some and it has been known to be called a hand-crank pencil sharpener. These are typically a single helical blade but can also have a double helical blade, which rotates when hand-cranked, around the pencil to create a sharp point. These blades rotate with the use of gears and shave small pieces of wood away to expose the core while sharpening it and typically have an automatic stop built into them. What that means is when your pencil reaches a certain point measurement, the blade cannot shave anymore away, thus saving your pencil from a quicker death!


Side note! Another fun way to get more life out of your cores is to get a sandpaper pointer. A sandpaper pointer is literally a 1”x4” sandpaper sheets that are fine grit mounted onto a wooden handle and used in between a manual sharpener or electric sharpener to get a sharp point over and over again, or to create an irregular point for those weird angles in shading. They can also be used to clean up blending stumps and erasers.


Electric Sharpeners


Electric sharpeners can come in three categories- battery powered, rechargeable, and the ones that stay connected to the outlet in your workspace. Some colored pencil brands also make their own electric sharpeners as well. I personally have never been a fan of the battery powered sharpeners, but absolutely love the rechargeable option. I have lots of cords and cables around my desk with my lightning and microphone, so the fewer cords the better, and less waste (changing out batteries monthly) is my favorite part.


These also have blade options with your helical and double helical blades. The only downside to the electric sharpeners, in my opinion, is that they tend to eat up your pencils like crazy! They do have an automatic stop built into them to make sure you don’t over sharpen, but I find that they still do eat up your stash! There’s virtually no control over how much these machines chew, but you do get FABULOUS points! I typically save my electric sharpener for the stubborn pencils that are flaking, or for my cheaper pencils in practice mode.


List of Manual Sharpeners

List of Electric Sharpeners

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