How to Sharpen Prismacolor Pencils
Prismacolors Crumble Easily
Prismacolor colored pencils (both Premier and Premier Lightfast) and Prismacolor watercolor pencils are all prone to internal breakage. Other brands of colored pencils can have this issue too. Some are worse than others, but Prismacolors, the most common brand in the US, are the very worst.
What Is Internal Breakage?
Internal breakage occurs when the lead breaks inside the wooden barrel and you can't tell the pencil is broken, or the lead is cracked and breaks when a sliver causes it to catch while being sharpened. Every artist who's ever used Prismacolors runs into trouble sharpening them—the point breaks off while sharpening, over and over and over. You pay over a dollar for one pencil and what you get after sharpening is a two-inch stub shorter than the color you just replaced. Ow.
How Can You Prevent Internal Breakage?
In this article I'll go into the two main ways to prevent this problem:
- How you sharpen your pencils
- How you handle and store them
What's the Best Sharpener for Prismacolor Pencils?
To sharpen your Prismacolor pencils, the options are:
- Prismacolor sharpeners
- Other hand sharpeners
- Electric sharpeners
- Sandpaper paddles or pocketknives
Prismacolor Premier Pencil Sharpener
Sanford Prismacolor has been working on the breakage problem and has at least one good solution in a specialized sharpener: the Prismacolor Premier Pencil Sharpener. This sharpener is the best hand sharpener to use with Prismacolors, and it's worth the money.
It costs a little more than normal pencil sharpeners, but it's in the price range of other good artists' pencil sharpeners—and it will pay for itself rapidly, considering the number of replacement pencils you won't need to buy. I have several of these sharpeners because when I first tested it, I found I lost fewer points.
The physical design of the holder seems to guide the pencils in just right and keep them from wobbling or going at an angle. It's got a sleek design, and it is shaped like a little black plastic cigar with a silver band around the middle. The bottom is the shavings receptacle and the top just protects it from dirt and moisture.
Other Hand Sharpeners
Any brand-new pencil sharpener may do a decent job with Prismacolors. If you are using a normal one, try the wide-hole side rather than the narrow hole you use for Verithins and normal pencils. It's a little gentler on the point and less likely to twist the core. I've had good results with brand new Alvin Brass Bullet sharpeners and the General's Little Red All-Art sharpener. The latter is also shaped like the wide side of a double-hole one, and it can handle over-wide pencils.
Another good solution is an electric sharpener. Some artists swear by them; others hate them and claim they can knock points off worse than hand sharpeners. I bought one and it's been a great convenience. In the studio, I prefer to use that, because the grinding mechanism is self-sharpening and I don't wind up having to stop and change blades so often.
When using an electric sharpener (whether a battery, an AC, or a crank-handle grinding sharpener like the old-school ones), keep the shavings receptacle clean so that it doesn't mash up into the grinder and choke the machine.
Remember: Clean your sharpener every few times you use it by running a normal HB pencil into it. This pushes the sticky bits of Prismacolor core through, and the graphite lubricates the grinders.
Sandpaper Paddles and Pocketknives
Some artists recommend using a sandpaper paddle for sharpening Prismacolors and other types of colored pencils, or to use a pocketknife. Both of these seemed slow and cumbersome to me compared to either a sharp blade in a hand sharpener or an electric, but they will give custom point shapes, especially if you like shaving your pencil down to a chisel tip instead of a cone-shaped sharp point.
Tips for Using Pencil Sharpeners
Have Spare Blades Handy
If you buy a brand-new set of Prismacolor pencils, none of them are pre-sharpened. Be sure to have an extra blade or two handy because if you got a big set, you may wear out the blade just sharpening the set once. Always keep extra blades and sharpeners handy.
Test Your Blades Before Use
If you're not sure whether a sharpener has a dull blade, test it with a cheap normal pencil. Compare it to a new sharpener just out of its wrapper. If it takes more pressure to turn the normal pencil and sharpen it, the blade is dull and should not be used for soft-core artist-grade colored pencils, as you may risk losing a lot of money replacing them.
Replace Your Hand Sharpener Blades
The most important thing to remember is a hand sharpener needs a sharp blade. Even if you buy the specialized Prismacolor colored pencil sharpener—which does have an engineering solution to keep soft, waxy points from snagging and breaking off—once the blade dulls, it's going to be as hard on them as any normal one. Pencil sharpener blades need to be replaced as often as razor blades, and for the same reasons. They dull—and they can still cut you when they're so dull that they would break the points off normal pencils. So as soon as that new sharpener starts giving any resistance while you're sharpening, replace the blade or stop using it for Prismacolors.
Fresh blades in pencil sharpeners are a good idea anyway, because if they get too dull, they'll damage more than just your delicate Prismacolors. A very old blade can even crunch up the kind of HB pencil you get for free at the grocery or bank.
Where to Find Replacement Blades
You can find replacement pencil sharpener blades at Blick now; they're about two or three for a dollar and much cheaper than a new Prismacolor sharpener. Some artists save money on replacement blades by stocking up on cheap children's sharpeners every year at the back-to-school sales in great quantity, then breaking them open and throwing out the case to put the blade into an expensive sharpener like the Prismacolor Premier Pencil Sharpener. It's sometimes cheaper than the replacement blades, but I hate throwing away the extra plastic, so I order replacement blades.
Keep Your Blades Clean
Part of the problem with any pencil is that the blades in sharpeners can get gummed up with bits of the previous pencil's shavings. Even with a fresh blade, it's good to wipe it clean with a soft cloth and blow into it to knock out any loose shavings before sharpening.
How to Care for Your Prismacolors
You can also avoid internal breakage by making sure your pencils are properly stored and cared for.
Prismacolor Tins Aren't Safe
Prismacolor tins aren't very good for keeping your pencils safe unless you keep them absolutely flat on a shelf and never tilt them. This means if you buy a set, carry it home flat. Don't let them put it on end in the bag. Carry the bag flat.
The lids come off easily, so tape it shut or never let the tin go on an angle. When I open any tin of Prismacolors that's been on an angle, all the pencils have rolled to the bottom and banged into each other. This can crack the leads in the casing. I love these and have used them for 30 years, so I learned to carry the tins flat and hope they were handled gently by the seller. Usually the pencils in tins are not as damaged because the stores and certainly the online companies know to pack them flat with plenty of padding.
Quick Fix: Some other brands have taken measures to protect the delicate pencils like adding a thin layer of foam over the styrene tray inside the tin. These are great. What works just as well is cutting a piece of flannel (preferably white) to fit inside the tin over the pencils. Make sure to cut the flannel with pinking shears so it doesn't unravel. You may need two layers—it depends on the tin. It should fill the space between the lid and the pencils and squish down when you tape the lid shut.
Invest in a Pencil Case
What I found more effective than the tin, and nearly as convenient for Prismacolor storage, is to get a good permanent pencil case like the Global Classic leather cases or the nylon easel cases made by Tran or other manufacturers. Prismacolors that get moved from their native tin into cases live a lot longer, and I've been able to use all the core instead of collecting a tray of broken points to mash into powder and spread with a brush.
- Leather Cases: Personally, I like the Global Classic leather cases the best. Leather is tough, and it adds one more layer of resilient padding around the whole set. It also smells nice, and it feels a bit special to be using something genuine and giving my fine art supplies the best care.
- Leather Alternatives: If you have an objection to using leather products, the Global Classic isn't your only option. The nylon and padding and cardboard cases like the Tran Deluxe or the ones at ASW do work just as well. ASW carries some inexpensive elastic-band easel cases that are great. They cost quite a lot less than the fancy leather ones and protect just as well with padding and elastic bands to keep them from banging into each other or anything else.
- Stay Away From Mesh or Zipper Bags: I never store Prismacolors in loose mesh or zipper bags where they bang into each other and other supplies. That will cause internal breakage every time they rattle. I use those for pens and other drawing implements that aren't as fragile. They're fine for most graphite pencils, but the softer types of colored pencils are expensive and delicate.
Home Storage Solutions
Once I get a Prismacolor set home, I will put the pencils into something a lot safer for them than a Prismacolor tin. The tins are nice to keep on the shelf to store spares, stubs, and other loose pencils—they're pretty collectibles and I like them, but I don't expect them to protect their contents if they're moved. So they stay where they are and don't get moved often. For everyday use, there are several solutions:
- In a studio, you can keep them in cups as many artists do. Don't let the cups drop off your table.
- Carousels are popular—vertical storage is handy. But don't let your cat in the studio to knock it over.
Remember: Try to avoid ever letting loose pencils fall on a hard floor. Carpet can sometimes protect dropped pencils from internal breakage, but not if they knock against each other.
What If You Need Replacement Prismacolors?
If any pencils within a set are damaged, I find that out when I'm sharpening the set and then contact Blick immediately. If I have to keep sharpening till the stub is half-mast on a brand new pencil, it's time to tell Blick or wherever I bought it that I need one that isn't damaged. Blick will replace any pencil that's ruined or any pencil that is missing from the set in any set. This isn't just Prismacolor––any brand of colored pencils. In a large set, you stand a chance of getting two Dark Brown and no Sepia, because the person packing the tin grabbed a similar color and gave you a duplicate. Report that and you'll get the missing color from the seller out of open stock.
Don't Buy Your Replacement Pencils In-Store
I order my replacement pencils online. The volume of business that big companies like Dick Blick or Jerry's Artarama do in replacement Prismacolors means that they're not going to be handled very much between the time the warehouse employee opens a box of a dozen Canary Yellow and the time one of those gets grabbed to pack into your order.
In brick-and-mortar stores, however, the open stock pencils go into displays and don't sell as fast. Someone's going to bump into the display and knock the whole thing over at fairly frequent intervals. Kids will pull the pencils out to play with them and drop them, and a store employee will pick them up and re-shelve them more or less by color. This means I wind up buying one that's crumbled all the way through, because I couldn't tell that the pencil had taken that damage. Almost every time I've bought replacements at a physical location, I've had at least one or two that I had to return with my receipt to get a replacement. Sometimes I've had to go back two or three times.
It's probably less of a problem if you purchase replacements by the dozen. This may make sense for some colors, especially if you do very large colored-pencil paintings. But at any given time there are always some colors that you definitely need, but only for a little half-inch-wide area. So I seriously recommend buying replacements online, or if you're a regular at a local store, asking someone to open a new box from the back for your pencil instead of just grabbing from what's in the rack and hoping it's still good.
Do Other Colored Pencils Break Like This?
- Derwent Drawing Pencils, Derwent Coloursoft, Derwent Inktense, Caran d'Ache Pablo, and other very soft colored pencils all may have this problem.
- Prismacolor Verithin and Col-Erase colored pencils don't have this problem. They handle about like normal graphite pencils and you don't need to take special care with them. The softer the lead of your colored pencils is, the more likely internal breakage is a problem.
- Oddly enough, woodless colored pencils like Cretacolor Aqua Monolith, Derwent Aquatone, or Koh-I-Noor Progresso colored pencils are far less prone to breakage. The lacquered surface of woodless colored pencils is sturdy and tough.
- Prismacolor Art Stix don't tend to break unless you deliberately break a stick to get a shorter bit to turn on its side like a pastel.