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May 22, 2020

How to: Sharpen a Pencil with a Pocketknife

Let's say you've read up on the merits of woodcase pencils and you've decided to become an inveterate pencil carrier. You've sorted your B's from your HB's, you've picked your favorite finishes and ferrules.  You've bought your dozen (or two) and are scribbling smoothly... until one day you find yourself with a dull point and no sharpener. 

But if you've got your pocketknife, you're just a few minutes from a fresh point! Let's take a look at how to sharpen a pencil by hand. 

How to Sharpen a Pencil with a Knife

 

But first, some pencil parts

Here's a quick brush-up on the pencil anatomy terms I'll be using:

Body: the main part of the pencil, i.e. everything between the point and the eraser. (Usually painted and/or lacquered.)

• Point: the whole cone beyond the body of the pencil, that is, all exposed wood and graphite. (I took this definition from David Rees, author of the informative and tongue-in-cheek How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants.)

Collar: the exposed wood. 

Tip: the exposed graphite.

 

How to shape your point

When you sharpen a pencil manually, you're working just like a sculptor, subtracting material to expose the workable point you're envisioning in your mind's eye.

First, I like to make a guide for my collar edge. Not only does this make the base of the collar neater, but it also helps prevent the collar from creeping down the body of the pencil farther than I intended.

I do this by scoring a mark with my blade all the way around the body. I want my point to be about an inch long, so I score my mark about that far down.

Next, I begin to expose the cedar by shaving off a little bit of the paint at a time, turning the pencil as I go as if it were on a really, really slow lathe. I'm right-handed, so I hold my knife handle with my right hand and apply pressure with the thumb of my left hand.

Now that I've shaved off a thin layer of paint, I'm applying just a bit more pressure to shape the cone towards the graphite. It's important not to rush this part, press too hard, or angle my blade too sharply, because this creates divots in the collar.

Now we're starting to see some graphite! I'll keep shaving off the cedar in little strips as I turn the pencil, making sure to ease off the pressure as I approach the tip to avoid breaking the graphite.

I like to shave it off in strips so I see a pronounced edge between the strips, then go around again and shave off the edges to make a smooth collar.

(Expose as much lead as you like! The benefit to a hand-sharpened pencil is that you can create a nice, long 3/8" tip, which will take twice as long to wear down to the collar as a machine-sharpened pencil.)

Now that I have a nice bit of graphite exposed, I'll hold the blade at a 90-degree angle and lightly run scrape away the graphite until I have a sharp tip.

All that's left is to stand back and admire my craft, then put that pencil to work!

 

Some points to consider (Sorry, I couldn't resist)

• Use as sharp a knife as possible. Dull knives are just a bad idea in general!

But practically speaking, the more dull the knife is, the more pressure it needs to cut, and the more pressure you use, the more likely you are to break your carefully-crafted tip.

• Keep your blade at a really shallow angle. Start by putting your blade flat against the body of the pencil and raising it just a little bit.

• Don't rush the process! (If you want it done quickly, use a sharpener already!)

Final thoughts on the "why" of it all

I'll admit that 97% of the time, I use an electric sharpener. So, why go to all that trouble to painstakingly hand-sharpen a pencil point that's just going to get dull again within 500 words or so?

Slowing down. I'll admit that this does not come naturally to me.

I spend my time running two businesses with my wife, an illustration studio and an artisan stationery and home goods brand, as well as raising a toddler and maintaining a lot of volunteer hours at my church. That's a lot of running around! Combine that packed schedule with being a pretty tightly-wound, type-A kind of person and I tend to get (in the words of Ferris Beuller) "a little keyed up." Slowing down is a really healthy discipline for me, so I like taking the time to do things that I can't rush.

Improving knife skills. I've always loved pocketknives, and good knife skills are ridiculously handy. So I'll take every chance I can get to improve my knifecraft.

•  Customization and versatility. When you use a pencil sharpener, you're bound by default to whatever kind of point it was designed to make. This is fine most of the time! But sometimes it's handy to have an extra-long point, like in the case of classical drawing or writing a book longhand. 

Also, with this method, you can sharpen anything that doesn't fit your standard sharpener, like carpenter pencils.

Beauty. One of my favorite quotes on design is from R. Buckminster Fuller: "When I'm working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong."

A dull pencil is a really simple problem, and hand-sharpening it may be a really small thing in the long run, but there's something kind of beautiful about shaping a point by hand.

 

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Andrew on May 27, 2020:

You should check out David Rees "How to Sharpen Pencils." There are some YouTube videos, but also a book. Very funny while still practical.


Art on May 25, 2020:

MY grandfather was a carpenter, like Normand's father. He taught me how to sharpen a carpenter's pencil, a writing pencil, and my knife. He showed me that the blade angle for a pencil is the same angle to use when sharpening the blade on a whet stone. The difference between the carpenter's pencil and a writing pencil is the amount of lead (graphite) exposed.


Art on May 25, 2020:

While the following goes agains the common mantra of "Never cutting towards one's body," cutting towards the tip with the pencil between the blade and one's thumb allows one to monitor the angle of the blade and control the pressure easier.

Following the admonitions to use a sharp knife and to move slowly will prevent any mishaps of cutting towards rather than cutting away.

Well, sure your lawyers would lose their minds if you gave the above instructions.


Martin Amell on May 24, 2020:

Ahh, the finer points of pencil sharpening. I have a sharpener and use it quite often, but the tip is always kind of dull no matter how long I stand there slowly cranking away so since it is a woodshop I happen to have handy an assortment of sandpaper to sculpt the tips of pencils to suit my needs. Pocket knife? I have a really bad habit of leaving it in the bathroom where it is of absolutely no use to me in the shop. Now I could just walk to the bathroom, but where's the fun in that when I already invested millions into a cheapo pencil sharpener? OK, I actually do use the knife when I remember to put it in my pocket. That's become a rare occurrence since my brain has aged along with the rest of my body and so I...uhhh...forget.


Martin Amell on May 24, 2020:

Ahh, the finer points of pencil sharpening. I have a sharpener and use it quite often, but the tip is always kind of dull no matter how long I stand there slowly cranking away so since it is a woodshop I happen to have handy an assortment of sandpaper to sculpt the tips of pencils to suit my needs. Pocket knife? I have a really bad habit of leaving it in the bathroom where it is of absolutely no use to me in the shop. Now I could just walk to the bathroom, but where's the fun in that when I already invested millions into a cheapo pencil sharpener? OK, I actually do use the knife when I remember to put it in my pocket. That's become a rare occurrence since my brain has aged along with the rest of my body and so I...uhhh...forget.


Normand McDonald on May 24, 2020:

Hey Joel, Your suggestion today warmed my heart.The only person I had ever seen sharpening a pencil this way was my late father.I can remember sitting at the kitchen table in the evening doing my lessons and yes, without fail I would break the tip off my pencil which had been sharpened at school with the sharpener earlier that day..I would take my pencil to my dad and he would fix it just right for me. It seems to me when he sharpened my pencils the tip remained stronger as he decided how fine a point to create. Having years of experience sharpening pencils this way meant it only took him a few minutes to get me back to my school work. He also used his pocket knife to sharpen his carpenter's pencils. They do not fit into a pencil sharpener.
Yes, the world seems to run all the time, Scripture tells us to ," Be still and know that I am God." Covid-19 has caused the world to slow down and to be still which is a very good think.Joel thank you for these great memories of my dad.