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  • Writer's pictureJason Morgan

How to Sharpen pastel pencils - and what goes wrong!

The eternal question - "How do you get your pastel pencils SOOO.... Sharp?" It was a question I was asking myself 7 years ago when I started pastels. I had purchased my 1st set of pastels - Carbothello - and they came with a small plastic sharpener in the tin, but boy was that useless. The pencil nibs kept breaking, it was so frustrating. I started my usual YouTube search for the answers, but so many artists used different ways, from sharpening with a blade to an electric sharpener. It seemed like there was no easy, universal answer - with coloured pencils it seemed just about every sharpener worked.

Why were pastel pencils so different?

I began my own tests and purchased a LOT of sharpeners and tried a LOT of different methods, and I won't bore you with a load of details because I'm sure your just like I was and you want the info ASAP so you can just get drawing. (if you want to learn even more I will put some videos i've made below), but long story short - here's what I found. AND PLEASE bear in mind this is just what I prefer to do myself, other artists have different ways, so test some of the ideas out in the videos when you have time.

OK, so what do I use? What works?

Well, after testing all those different sharpeners I found this -

The sharpener I preferred was a crank handle sharpener. To be more specific The Swordfish IKON It had excellent reviews, but those were with coloured pencils, but my own tests showed it worked well with pastel pencils too - it created a great point, was easy to mount on to my desktop and was a LOT less hassle than using a blade. I was delighted when I found this sharpener worked so well, better than the rest.

Oh No! No what's wrong? But after using it for a while I found the blade started to chew up the pencil wood a bit. Where it initially created a lovely tip and smooth tapered wood area at the end of the pencil, now the wood was rough and the tips sometimes broke, especially on the lighter coloured pencils. Turns out the lighter the pencil generally the softer the nib seemed to be, hence the breakages, and the wood was going rough as the sharpener was going blunt - Damn! So SOON! ??? I soon worked out that keeping the sharpener blade clean by sharpening a woodless pencil every few pastel pencils helped the blade to last longer (it was lubricating the blade).

Pastel pencils are very tough on sharpener blades due to the abrasive nature of the high pigment content - So DON'T EXPECT THE BLADES TO LAST FOREVER (in ANY sharpener) and that is another good thing about the IKON, you can buy replacement blades (in the UK - im not sure about other countries).

Dont' Sharpen Pastel Pencils too much! Another thing to keep in mind is that pastel pencils are not hard tipped like most coloured pencils are, they are more fragile (BUT pack more colour vibrancy) so you just can't sharpen them to a pin sharp point like some coloured pencil brands. If you do one of two things will happen, they will either break in the sharpener or they will break when you try to draw with them. So test that for yourself and watch my video for more details. you will soon realise how sharp you can go.

Other brands of sharpener work well too, but you really want to get one which you can get replacement blades for, so keep that in mind in your country.

Not all Pastel Pencils Sharpen Easily

The softer the pencil, the more prone it will be to snapping and basically be a real pain to sharpen. The softer brands are Caran D'Ache (they dont easily fit in a sharpener like IKON as they are a little thicker :( ) and Gioconda. Harder / easier to sharpen brands are Carbothello and PITT and Derwent.

When you want to sharpen these softer brands you really need a pretty new blade in your sharpener, I keep two sharpeners on my desk, one has a new blade for soft pencils, the other is an older blade for harder pencils. Alternatively you can use a blade to sharpen instead, see my videos below.

Various ways to sharpen Pastel Pencils

How to sharpen

When to change the blade

How to change the blade

What about electric sharpeners?

Well i've found that the nibs break in ALL sharpeners at some point in time, and electric sharpeners are usually a nuisance to get the nib out of the mechanism, with IKON I can do it in about 10 seconds, with my electric sharpener I need to undo screws and take the mechnism apart. so for sharpening pastel pencils I NEVER use an electric sharpener. Hope you have found this video useful - if so please let me know below

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