On Pencil Sharpers, and the Secret to a Great Point.

Classroom Friendly sharpener: one of my favorite crank models, with a Deli I like very much.
Classroom Friendly sharpener: one of my favorite crank models, with a Deli I like very much.

[I wrote this as a guest post on PPIL’s Pencil Week (here). I thought I’d repost it since I’m up to my knees in reviews I need to take photos for, and the site’s been quiet.]

There are lots of different kinds of pencil sharpeners. One can do no better than to read David Rees’ How to Sharpen Pencils to learn all about them. My list is less specific than his and certainly not as…good, but I thought I might share how I actually sharpen my own pencils at the end, since I hear time and time again that the process gives some folks a bit of trouble.

Turn me. I make pencils sharp. Do it. Do it now!
Turn me. I make pencils sharp. Do it. Do it now!

Crank Sharpeners
These are sharpeners into which a pencil is inserted, which produce a point on the pencil by means of a blade or burrs which rotate around the pencil via a manual crank which is activated by the individual doing the sharpening. The Classroom Friendly sharpener is a great example of this (see here, here and here for a few reviews). These sharpeners sometimes have mechanisms that prevent over sharpening, but most I have encountered in schools and workplaces do not. As such, they tend to eat pencils. They also tend to have old, dull blades/burrs which prevent anyone from really using them effectively. I would not trust an untested crank sharpener to put a point on anything expensive or precious unless my life depended on it. And when I fear that my life might depend on a sharp pencil (!), I have a pocket blade sharpener or knife on me.

My much-beloved and coveted brass KUM wedge.
My much-beloved and coveted brass KUM wedge.

Manual Blade Sharpeners
These are sharpeners that require the user to rotate the pencil inside of the sharpener body, against a blade. Standard wedge sharpeners and Snoopy sharpeners fit into this category. These are generally my favorite, since I can control how much of the point I actually sharpen more easily. They are easy to use but not to master.

Knives
These can be “controlled” knives like The Little Shaver, a machete, short sword, pocket knife or purpose-built pencil sharpening knife. This is an intimate way to sharpen pencils that is generally frowned upon aboard airliners and some city buses. To use a blade, one simply cuts the pencil’s business end into a spear, blunt cone or wedge. This is not for beginners. Or maybe it’s perfect for beginners.

Electric Pencil Sharpeners
These work like crank sharpeners, only they have motors which drive the gears. I own two and more-or-less hate one of them. I find these the most difficult to use, despite their alleged convenience. I am working on a review of a yellow and green model that I like a little better.

The Secret
For pencil sharpeners whose cutting mechanisms rotate around the pencil, it is imperative to hold the pencil perfectly still. Most such sharpeners have no aperture into which to insert the pencil which matches its shape. As such, the cutting mechanism will not rotate around the pencil evenly and produce an even point without the pencil being held stationary, directly in the center of the chamber. I make such an aperture out of my thumb and a finger or two and then insert the pencil into the sharpener through my grip, with which I pinch the pencil in place. Try this with the wobbly sharpener in the library or the electric beast at your office, and you might be pleased at your new results.

For a manual sharpener, just jam that sumbitch in there, directly in the center of the hole, and turn the pencil against the blade. Hold it firmly and steadily, and cut the wood – don’t shave it in splinters. We are looking for strips of cedar to scent your pocket here. Any good sharpener of this type will have a shape which will sharpen your pencil evenly if you feed the pencil into it evenly. Do not be tempted to lean the pencil against the blade, as this will warp your point. Keep it centered, firm and straight. You’ll nail it every time.

3 Replies to “On Pencil Sharpers, and the Secret to a Great Point.”

  1. I find that high quality pencils, especially ones which are not too old, will sharpen well with almost any sharpener. I alternate between a Palomino (KUM) Automatic Long Point and a smaller green colored plastic sharpener which came with sone pencils from India. The smaller one is very sharp and works decentlky well with most pencils. The very cheapest pencils and old and somewhat dried out pencils do not sharpen well with these blade type sharpeners. For those I have better luck with an old Panasonic Auto Stop electric sharpener. The Mutsubishi Hi Uni and Tombow Mono 100 pencils seem to work best with the blade type sharpeners. When I make some space on my desk I will get a good vacuum base crank sharpener.

  2. I would add one more device: sandpaper. Good for adding an extra sharp point or for creating a chisel point for lettering.

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