The art of sharpening pencils

by Matthew James Taylor on 8 October 2007

The art of sharpening pencils

Welcome to the world of pencil sharpening - this may sound like a dull topic but there is actually a lot more to it than you think. There are a number of different sharpening styles and methods; all good artists should know them. The trick is using the right one at the right time.

Sharpening styles

There are four main points to select from; the one you choose will depend on the type of pencil you use, and the style of your drawing.

The standard point

A pencil sharpened in the standard point style

Everyone knows about this one, its trademark conical point is the most common and the most versatile of sharpening styles. If you're looking for a good all-rounder for most types of pencils then this is the best. Plus if you don't have a sharpening knife then you probably don't have a choice.

There are a couple of drawbacks with this style however. The standard point can get blunt quickly, particularly if you are using softer pencils such as charcoal. On larger drawings you will find yourself constantly sharpening the damn thing. Often lower quality pencils will contain a smaller diameter core of graphite; if this is slightly off-centre you will find the wood comes so close to the point on one side that it's almost unusable. This can very be frustrating.

See one of my drawings done with the standard point style: Winged Skeleton: graphite pencil drawing.

The chisel point

A pencil sharpened in the chisel point style

This is a rarely seen style where the end of the pencil is cut with a knife into a chisel shape. The main benefit of the chisel is its ability to draw two types of marks on the paper; thin dark lines from along the sharp edge and softer, wider lines from the flat faces. The soft lines are great for rough construction at the start of a drawing and simply turning the pencil on its edge gives you extra precision when you need it. Another neat feature is its 'self-sharpening' property. As you use the chisel on its face it actually helps keep the edge sharp. This means you can spend more time drawing and less time sharpening - great for softer pencils! The straight edge can also be used on an angle to give lines a calligraphy style.

One problem with the chisel design is it can be difficult to master. When drawing with the flat face it's all too easy to accidentally roll your wrist and wear away the corners of the chisel shape. It can also take a bit of work to carve the chisel to begin with. If you can overcome these minor annoyances then the chisel point may be for you.

See one of my drawings done with the chisel point style: Sitting girl in red: Sitting nude pose in red chalk

The needle point

A pencil sharpened in the needle point style

This is a specialist design that is carved with a knife into a sharp concave point. The idea is that such a fine point can wear down a long way before it actually becomes too blunt to use. This style is great for perfectionists who want precise control over their lines and extra fine detail.

There are a number of potential problems with this design. A fine point such as this is prone to constant breaking so it's only suitable for harder pencils. The needle point can only make the one type of mark too, a fine line, so there is not a lot of flexibility here. Colouring in large sections of solid tone can be very time consuming so you are limited to smaller sized drawings.

See one of my drawings done with the needle point style: Man with white beard: Graphite pencil portrait

The bullet point

A pencil sharpened in the bullet point style

This is my personal favourite and one I devised myself. In this style the wood is removed from the last centimeter of the pencil then the end of the lead is sharpened into a bullet shape. Two types of marks can be made from this design; a softer line from the side of the bullet and a sharp line from the point. Like the chisel, it has a 'self-sharpening' property. The bullet point is also good for hard and soft pencils.

There are not many drawbacks with this design except to say that it does take a minute or two to carve the design to begin with. If you haven't tried this before, give it a go.

See one of my drawings done with the bullet point style: Man on tall stool: Soft charcoal pencil rendered drawing

Methods of sharpening

Here are the four main methods that I use.

  • Traditional pencil sharpeners

    Sharpening pencils with a standard sharpener

    It's always handy to have one of these in your pencil case for a backup. If you like experimenting with lots of different media then it's a good idea to get your hands on the double sharpeners that have two different sizes. There are a lot of great pencils out there that are a little bigger than normal so if you forget your knife then you can still sharpen them.

  • Sharpening with a knife

    Sharpening pencils with a knife

    A knife is the most versatile method of sharpening a pencil. It can take a little practice but it's a very useful skill to master. Make sure you cut away from yourself and preferably over a bin. With softer leads try cutting smaller bits at a time to prevent breaking.

  • Using sand paper

    Sharpening pencils with sandpaper

    This is a neat little trick that I use regularly. Try clipping a little piece of sandpaper to your drawing board and if your pencil starts getting a little blunt just run it over the paper a few times to bring the point back. This is especially useful during quick figure drawings when there is no time to get out your sharpener.

  • Paper wrapped charcoal

    Sharpening paper wrapped charcoal pencils

    This is a very neat way to sharpen charcoal pencils. Simply pull back the string a little then peel off a roll of paper. The best thing about this method is you are left with the 'bullet point' style of sharpened pencil, very nice!

My 'Living Dead Dolls' Sadie Pencil Sharpener

My Living Dead Dolls Sadie Pencil Sharpener

This is my favourite pencil sharpener. It's a dolls head and you stick the pencil into her eye to sharpen it. There is a little button on the back of her neck that pushes the shavings out of her mouth, very nice!

Using short pencils

Drawing with a short pencil animation

Most people throw away their pencils when they get too short but I actually find them easier to use. When drawing I hold my pencil in two different ways; on its side or on its point. I'm constantly moving between the two positions as I draw and I find my hand gets in the way if I use a long pencil. With a short pencil I can fluidly and rapidly move without restriction.

I find shorter pencils so much better that I have even started chopping my new pencils in half after buying them. You get two-for-one that way! One word of advice however, after the chop make sure you make a note of the hardness on the other end, otherwise you will have all these mystery grade pencils!

So there really is a lot to say about sharpening pencils. Now with all this extra knowledge there is only one thing left for us to do… Happy drawing folks!

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