It is an unexpected delight to be asked to write about my hand sharpening of wooden pencils. I have been reaching for a blade over regular sharpeners for more than two decades. My method is now automatic, and I admit that I spend a little bit more time getting the point I need than most other people I know. This is mostly due to my training in art. Almost every artist who has had a hand in my education has encouraged the use of a blade in sharpening. I clearly remember being told to throw away my sharpener by one of the better artists I have had the privilege to be intimidated by. There is no better way to shape a pencil point into a mark-making tool than with the blade of a super sharp knife. Most of my pencils are the shape they are to accomplish particular tasks. The point is for working in detail, and the length is for shading techniques. Many artists will have a variety of pencils that have been sharpened differently for set tasks. However I have been able to use the one style of point for all purposes. I do not like to swap pencils as I work.
For many years I used a click utility knife as they were cheap and easy to buy, but I was disappointed with them in the end. This was for two reasons. The first was how quickly the blades became blunt. I found this could be as little as a few days. The ones I used were the snap-off variety which were designed to be disposable. I do not like generating needless waste, so the click utility knife was not ideal. Secondly, the plastic handles would break, or the plastic end that assisted with snapping off the blade would go missing. I wanted a better option. I tried a number of cheap folding blade pocket knives, but found them to not be sufficiently sharp. I attempted to hone them but I never got this quite right. Many times it felt as though I was trying to sharpen pencils with a butter knife. Quite a few pencils looked as though they had been chewed by some small animal.
After much trial and error I came across the French Opinel Carbon Steel knife. This is a wonderful tool! The Opinel is not a fancy knife, and comes in a range of sizes. My pick is the No 6, which only costs $12AU. It has a very basic twist lock and a rounded raw wooden handle. Most importantly, it is very, very sharp. It cuts into cedar with ease and it can be sharpened easily with a small diamond hone (these are common in most hardware stores). This knife has yet to fail me, and it is a must on my list. It lives permanently in my pocket.
I really do not think there is much to the way I sharpen. It is but a matter of practice. I use both thumbs to push assist on the back of the blade. I also tend to move the pencil back and forth, not the blade. A short video I have taken (see below) will show this clearly. Unlike Mr. Rees, I cut the wood and the graphite at the same time. I think that this works better, as the wood and graphite become a more uniform shape. I work by turning the pencil in a circle, as is the usual method. The graphite receives its final shape by being scraped with the blade lightly whilst turning the pencil. I will then fuss a bit with the shape of the wood, cutting very small slithers off. This is just for aesthetics. The result I want is a very long point that tapers to a very sharp point. It seems that the longer the taper is, the less likely it will break in use. A metal cap will be needed to carry the pencil around though. I have put holes in clothing and fingers in the past.
(This is my technique, please excuse the painters’ hands. Years of solvents have taken their toll.)
Pencils have become more of an interest over the past few years, and as most who read this blog, I have collected some fine specimens both modern and vintage. But my hand sharpening has been with me for a very long time. This may be the result of all the nasty plastic novelty sharpeners that have eaten pencils in my childhood. I admit that there are days I will use my baby blue Carl Angel-5 hand crank sharpener, but a machine will always produce a machine-like result that is devoid of personality. At this point I am tempted to get poetic and talk about working with the texture of the wood and allowing the natural wood grain to dictate the stroke of the knife, but that would be an over embellishment. I do believe a little of this, but not enough to make a point out of it (no pun intended). I draw almost every day, and 95% of the time I will draw in graphite. I will not use the eraser for anything other than adding light to reflective surfaces of drawings. Hand sharpening is part of my preparation and helps me focus on what I am about to use a pencil for.
Writing about the ‘Hows’ and ‘Whys’ has been fun as I usually just ‘do’. If you have never pointed your pencil with a blade, I personally would recommend it. You may create your own favorite point and possibly even work on your skill to the stage where your sharpeners become pretty decorations collecting dust on a shelf.
(Many thanks to Luke, whose technique I am practicing presently!_