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I wasn't aware that there could be a proper or improper way to sharpen a pencil till I read this (Keep pencil leads from breaking during transportation?):

I sharpen my drawing pencils the "proper" way, with a knife.

Why is sharpening with a knife considered better than sharpening with a sharpener?

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Alright, full disclaimer. I wrote that original comment:

I sharpen my drawing pencils the "proper" way, with a knife.

I was intending to be tongue-in-cheek, because you may find a lot of comments or tutorials online insisting that this is the right way to sharpen a pencil.

I don't think that it's the case, but I've now written a little tutorial about the "proper" way to sharpen a pencil, and also some pointers about sharpening pencils in general.

Why use a knife?

Using a knife to sharpen your pencil allows you to control the length and the shape of the exposed core. This, then, gives you more control over the types of strokes you'll be able to make. Longer points mean you can lay down wider lines.

A knife is very helpful for sharpening graphite, charcoal, and pastel pencils. These types of materials hold up to the process better, and wider lines are more likely to be sought from them. As John Cavan pointed out, colored pencils don't really hold up to the process.

What you'll need:

enter image description here

  • A sandpaper pad or block
  • A pencil
  • A very sharp knife
  • A quick way to get rid of the shavings

The knife needs to be very sharp, because you don't want to apply much pressure to the pencil at all. The more pressure you have to apply, the more likely you are to break the exposed core or cause internal stress fractures that don't show up until much later.

Since the knife is very sharp, please be careful. I prefer to use a utility knife, as shown, because the blades are sharp and easily replaceable when dull. I have used pocket knives before, but sharpening them is a whole other process. If you've never used a utility knife before, be aware that they generally come with spare blades inside them, so you don't have to buy extras right away.

If you've only just started sharpening pencils this way, please use cheap pencils. It's very common to break pencils until you get the hang of this. Practice the technique on something you're fine with throwing away. That said, be aware that some cheaper pencils use really cheap wood, which may be harder or more prone to splitting. You generally won't have that problem with actual art pencils.

I usually sharpen directly over a small trash can, but today I'm doing it over some scrap paper I can just pick up and shake out.

1. Starting

Always hold the knife with the blade facing away from you. If you're concerned about the shavings flying into your eye, wear safety goggles.

enter image description here

Hold the knife at about a 90 degree angle to your pencil, with the blade laying nearly flat against the wood. With the hand holding the pencil, put your thumb against the back of the blade and apply a slight pressure. You will start sharpening by pushing against the knife with your thumb, but holding the knife completely still. The hand with the pencil will do all the work, adjusting the speed and pressure.

Do shallow but long strokes:

enter image description hereenter image description here

You should end up with plenty of shavings, as you can see.

2. Refining the tip

As you start to expose the core, be careful not to nick it. At first you'll start with only a small bit exposed, but then slowly work your way to exposing the full length you want. Make sure you're not just taking wood off the very front, but going back further up the pencil.

enter image description hereenter image description here

As picture above, I started by exposing only a small amount, but then shaved portions away from the entire tip to have more lead exposed. If you only work towards the front, the cone of the wood will be too short and increase the likelihood of breakage.

Once I have what I feel is about the correct length, I test the angle of the wood against a flat surface.

enter image description here

If I can't get the wood flush with the surface, that's no good. The purpose of this type of sharpening is to allow for strokes using the full flat of the lead. If the wood is curved inwards (as seen above) or too short, then trying to use the flat may cause breakage. If the slope doesn't flow well into your actual core, then trying to lay the flat of the pencil down may only yield strokes with part of the tip.

I wasn't happy with my slope, so I worked at it some more. At this point, I do small, quick shavings while rotating the pencil. I'll do this by using the knife to do the work, instead of pushing with my thumb, as it's much faster. However, I've practiced on a bunch of pencils and I'm confident I won't gouge my wood or break the lead.

I ended up with a much smoother slope.

enter image description here

3. Perfecting the point

As you may have noticed, my point is still blunt! You don't need to sharpen that with the knife, as that's where the sanding pad comes in.

enter image description here

Hold the pencil between your thumb and two fingers and roll it so that pencil rotates. You'll do this while rubbing the lead point along the sandpaper. Make steady, even strokes. Like before, only the pencil should move, and not the sandpaper. As you roll the pencil, the goal is to get a full 360 degree rotation, or close, in one full stroke.

The reason for this rotation is that it keeps the point centered in the core and keeps it conical. If you don't rotate enough, you may end up with more of a wedge or oblong shape. Those can be quite useful, if it's your goal, but generally you don't want those other shapes.

You can also sharpen the point by sanding with your strokes following the length of the pencil, instead of perpendicular to the pencil. (I think of it as "up and down" instead of "side to side").

enter image description here

This lets you more easily match the point to the slope of the wood, if that's you're intent. You still need to rotate the pencil as you do this. I spent time making my slope nice, so I used a combination of strokes to get the point to match.

In the end, I made a nice, long point.

enter image description here

As you practice, you may end up making short or longer points, depending on your preference (or skill). The longer the point, the wider the strokes you can make, but also the more likely you are to have breaks while sharpening, using or storing your pencils.

4. Clean up

Your sandpaper pad may look pretty grim after this. But if you bang it on your table or inside your bin, a fair amount of dust will come off. You can use one sheet for a considerable number of pencils, so don't throw it away too soon.

enter image description here
Before
enter image description here
After

Then, before actually using the pencil, you need to clean it off, too. I typically make a bunch of test strokes, and even rub just the wooden part on the paper. A lot of the dust from your core will laying on the surface, and if you don't wipe it off you may end up laying down some accidental, very dark lines.

You can use a cloth for this, but I usually just use scratch paper.

enter image description here

The proper way, in general

The keys to a sharp pencil, without breakage, are generally the same whether you're using a knife or a hand sharpener:

  1. Have a sharp blade
  2. Move the pencil, not the blade

I have a handful of sharpeners just like this:

enter image description here

They work great for me. I just keep it steady in my offhand, and turn the pencil with my other. The blades are replaceable, but I have so many sharpeners that I haven't had to do that, yet.

In fact, I only sharpen one set of by 9B - 9H range of pencils with a knife, and the rest get the hand sharpener treatment.

I avoid electric sharpeners for anything but writing pencils. They violate one of my guidelines, because the blade moves and not the pencil, so I already distrust them. Something about the process seems to increase the chance that the lead cracks internally, and I just end up sharpening them over and over.

They also get gummed up by colored pencils. Some companies make electric sharpeners just for colored pencils, but I haven't tried them so I can't comment.

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    I admire the effort you took with this answer. That alone deserves an upvote. – f470071 May 18 '16 at 16:37
  • Great answer! But please now extend it to covering sharpening pencils so they look like this, thanks! (Just kidding ... but this is really a good answer.) – davidbak May 18 '16 at 23:38
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    Hold the knife at about a 90 degree angle to your pencil. Did you mean something different there? 90 degress would be perpendicular to the pencil and you would be just cutting down into it. Even 45 seems extreme for the process you are laying out here. – Matt May 19 '16 at 11:42
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    @Matt Let me figure out how to reword. The whole knife and pencil form an "L" shape, but the blade itself is almost flat against the pencil. – Web Head May 19 '16 at 15:05
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    @CreationEdge I understood clearly your answer to Matt. There you told about Knife's long-axis; not the knife's (and its blade's) plane. – Always Confused Oct 18 '16 at 10:10
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The word "proper" is in quotations for a reason: many artists share that opinion, but it's opinion. The proper way depends on you.

The reason for knife sharpening of pencils is so that you're able to expose more lead at once to facilitate different shading techniques and to minimize lead wastage from standard sharpeners.

However, for colored pencils, many just use really good classic hand sharpeners. This is because many of them are quite fragile and would break too easily if too much of the lead was exposed. Prismacolors, which are very popular, break very easily and so you generally want less of the lead exposed.

So, the tl;dr response to your question is: no, but many do based on their techniques.

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    I would second this with the reference that in my few college drawing classes, all the professors required/requested that we have both a small pen knife, exacto or similar AND a very sharp twist style sharpener. They both have their uses. – BrownRedHawk May 18 '16 at 11:35
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I use any kind of sharpener to get some of the outer wood off and expose the graphite. I create the tip with sandpaper.

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    Hi Tommy, welcome to Arts & Crafts! The OP was asking about why one way of sharpening is better than another -- can you give some more details about how this method provides the best results, and for what application? – Erica May 19 '16 at 16:30
  • Much closer to me – Always Confused Oct 18 '16 at 10:02
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I prefer a mixture of knife ( /blade) and sharpener (instead only sharpener) mainly for economy purpose. (For safety and better-grip, visitors could use knife, not blade) for the following causes:

  1. Most pencils (here), especially the branded ones (!) , doesn't have the lead at exact central axis of the pencil.

Theoretical and practical A: what should it be theoretically. B. What happens practically.

As a result, after sharpening the pencil, the open-portion of lead obtained, is un-uniform as follows:

oblique

these leads breaks down frequently (may be due to un-even supports) while use, and very-frequently when being sharpened.

Also, sometimes the wood/ polymer quality varies. Sometimes, if a wooden-pencil left for few years, the wood become quite more cracky. these add-up to breaking.

I easily avoid this problem by using a blade or knife.

  1. Secondly, a Pencil sharpener gives 1 specific, conical shape to the lead (which is expected for education purpose). But when it is art; various-other tip-shape could be required such as chisel or dome shapes etc, where the knife is more helpful.

Chisel

At the same time, for thicker-lead pencils, making a pointed cone using a sharpener means lot of wastage. A knife helps to reach a pointed tip losing much lesser amount of graphite; so that the pencil could be utilized for longer time.

  1. Some very thick pencil doesn't enter into the sharpener at all.

However for first 2 cases, since sharpener works much faster (especially when it is educational purpose); at-first I little sharpen it, and stops before it reaches the lead. Then with a blade I cut-out adequate-amount of lead.

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