Sometimes it seems like we get the question "How do I sharpen this?" more often than we get questions about pencils themselves. The world of sharpeners seems simple on the surface, but there's actually so much to these tools that can be considered, from the type of point a sharpener makes, to the size of pencil it accommodates, to type of sharpening mechanism. As an amateur sharpener collector, I've become quite fond of digging into the history of these objects, one that's littered with a lot of patents and not a lot of stories to go with them. Let's dive in!
A Brief History of Sharpeners
The first patent for a pencil sharpener was issued in 1828 to Bernard Lassimonne, but it didn't exactly fly off the shelves. Lassimonne's sharpener was super complicated - it involved two metal files, a block of wood and a lot of patience. Up to that point, people already had a simple way to sharpen pencils - a knife. It wasn't until 1847 that a simpler sharpener solution was patented and mass-produced. Theirry des Estivaux developed what's known as a prism sharpener, which is still a very common type of handheld sharpener today. You'll know prism sharpeners as the block or wedge-shaped type, in which you insert a pencil into a angled cone with a blade, and twist it clockwise or counter-clockwise to neatly slice off wood and bring a pencil to a point.
Of course, though the prism sharpener and linear sharpeners (which are just a modified type of knife, like the Little Shaver or the Pencil Peeler) worked well for personal use, they still required a bit of patience and effort from the user. Hand crank sharpeners were first introduced in the 1880's as a quicker alternative, particularly for office use. These machines used planetary (epicyclic) gears to rotate either the pencil or the sharpening mechanism, sometimes both.
Hand crank sharpeners have come in many different varieties, using sandpaper, metal files, modified knives, or cylindrical milling cutters. The Gem sharpener, patented in 1886 by Gould & Cook, used gears to rotate both the pencil and a sandpaper disc. The A.B. Dick Planetary Pencil Pointer (say that 5 times fast) was introduced in 1896 - this sharpener held the pencil in a fixed position, while two milling discs rotated around the pencil. A personal favorite of mine, the U.S. Automatic, introduced by American Pencil Sharpening Company (better known as APSCO) in 1906, has a deadly-looking gear made up of three sharp blades that ingeniously rotates the pencil while slicing shavings off.
It wasn't until 1904 that the spiraled bur that we know in crank sharpeners today was introduced. According to the Early Office Museum (which is an excellent resource for all things office-related!), the Olcott Climax pencil sharpener was the breakthrough for the sharpening world - the design of the blades circling the bur put less pressure on the point of the pencil, and the blades lasted much, much longer than milling discs or single blades. Shortly thereafter, familiar companies like APSCO and Boston introduced their own versions of the Climax, and the rest, well, is history.
Types of Sharpeners
There's so many sharpeners out there, it's hard to list them all. Much easier, however, is setting them apart by category. I think you could say there are 4 main types of sharpeners that all can be filed under, and if they can't, they're usually a sort of combination of these types (see note on electric sharpeners).
1. Linear sharpener/knife: I won't make a huge distinction between linear sharpeners and knives, because they work essentially the same way: you use a sharp blade to manually whittle a pencil to a point. These come in various shapes and sizes, from foldable pocket knife-types, to U-shaped bladed types like the Pencil Peeler. (I'd consider ones with a lever, like the Little Shaver, to be a knife hybrid, as they don't have gears like a hand crank).
Benefit: Control of the angle and shape of your sharpened point. The blades on these are often easy to re-sharpen.
Downside: Messier than most, and they have a bigger learning curve than other sharpeners, and please don't cut your fingers off.
2. Prism sharpener: These are the most common type - they're the kind that comes with a sharp blade attached to a plastic, metal, or wooden base with a cone fashioned into it. This type of sharpener can come with or without a shavings reservoir, can positioned to be right or left-handed, and will make consistent points. Prism sharpeners can be manufactured with different angles or blade sizes to produce different point lengths on a pencil, such as with the Masterpiece or the Pollux. They can also be adjustable by adding a knob that either moves the whole angle of the blade (like the T'Gaal) or elongating the inner cone itself (Dux Adjustable). These also can come with a small hole and a jumbo hole to accommodate regular and jumbo pencils.
Benefit: Fool proof, consistently-sized points, and these can be relatively mess-free with a reservoir.
Downside: These don't give many options for point shape variation, and they can be unforgiving if you do not hold your pencil perfectly straight inside. Many do not have replaceable, or easily sharpened blades, so they tend to be disposable once dull.
3. Sandpaper: From nail files, to artist paddles, to just a sheet from your local hardware store, the grit of sandpaper is excellent for filing wood and graphite. Sandpaper paddles are often found in drawing kits, especially those that contain fragile materials like 6B pencils or charcoal sticks. They can be tricky to get right, but are excellent with odd sized pencils or soft materials like pastels.
Benefit: With practice, you can control the amount of pressure put onto the point of your implement, so fragile tips can be handled with care. You can also control the angle and shape of your point, or refine jagged edges from knife-sharpening.
Downside: SUPER messy. I find sandpaper also takes a lot longer than other types of sharpening.
4. Planetary/Crank sharpener: Planetary sharpeners describe any sharpener that uses a crank and a set of gears to rotate the sharpening mechanism. Most commonly, these have cylindrical helix burs that shave the pencil with a series of small cuts that result in teeny curly shavings. There are also types that combine blades with gears, so you get the chiseled result of a knife-sharpened point, with the consistency of a regular bur sharpener. There are also lots of designs out there that have adjustable point length, so you can get both short or long results from the same sharpener.
Benefit: These usually work faster and tidier than handheld sharpeners. They are also often designed to accommodate multiple pencil diameters and shapes.
Downside: Cheap ones can often "eat" your pencil by pulling too much in (though nice ones will have a stopping mechanism built in). Also, they are super bulky, so not ideal for carrying around.
A word on electric sharpeners: These work the same way as a hand-crank sharpener, though they rely on electricity instead of your sweet biceps to power the machine. These are either designed with conical burs or have a prism sharpener with a blade inside. And, unfortunately, they often suck.
Working with your sharpener
One of my favorite things about working for CW is trying out every type of item we have and taking lots of "scientific" notes about the product's results (see how obsessive I got with erasers here). Thus, I've spent a considerable amount of time trying out each and every sharpener we've carried (here's last year's sampling!), and troubleshooting common sharpener problems. Here's a couple notes on sharpener use and care!
Hold your pencil straight!
This tip is kind of a no-brainer, but a crooked hold is the leading cause of pencil death worldwide.
But seriously, if your pencil is inserted at the wrong angle, you will end up with a very bad sharpen, with the wood covering up one side of the graphite, or you'll end up with a broken pencil. This goes especially for long point or curved sharpeners, like the Pollux.
Watch out for dull blades!
If a sharpener is consistently breaking a pencil, there's usually two reasons why it could be happening: it's either a bad pencil or it's the sharpener (or see the tip above and try again). The sharpener is the most common culprit, simply because so many styles aren't made with good blades. Cheap sharpeners get dull extremely quickly!
You'll notice your sharpener is dull if it doesn't make a clean turn around the pencil, and instead makes sloppy, chunky cuts and shaving bits. Dull blades will also often snap the pencil's core.
Take care of your blades!
Most quality sharpeners, such as the brass Bullet by M+R or the brass Block by Dux, have replacement blades that are easy to come by, it's just important to find the right ones. Unfortunately, replacement blades are not universal, but if you've got a good name-brand sharpener you should be able to find the right ones. We stock replacement blades for: Bullet, Round Double Hole, Masterpiece and Automatic Long Point, and Pollux and Castor.
If you can't replace the blade, you can try giving it a good clean with some canned air (to get any bits that are jammed inside or underneath), some alcohol wipes and some Q-tips. That will give a little extra life to the plastic sharpeners that don't have replaceable blades.
Canned air is especially useful for cleaning burr sharpeners as well. Those babies tend to get lots of pencil crud stuck in amongst the gears or in between the spirals, which will make for a sad sharpening experience. A little blast of air and some swipes with a cotton swab can solve a world of problems with a burr.
Use the right screwdriver!
To replace sharpener blades, all you need is a screwdriver and new blades. That being said, I've gotten a lot of inquiries about stuck blades or screws, and the problem is almost ALWAYS the screwdriver, not the sharpener. If you can't turn the screw, make sure you're using the right size screwdriver! Eyeglass screwdrivers are usually too small, and will just spin around and strip the screw head. I've found a size PH1 (that's Phillips head size 1) is the best size for sharpener screws, and that has worked for me pretty universally between Kum, M+R, Dux and Dahle. I have this Homaster set from Amazon for fiddling with small machines, and the largest screwdriver in the set is the one I use for sharpeners.
So here's your prompt for the month: Sharpen up your sharpening! Find a minute to take apart your prism or Classroom Friendly and clean off all the caked-on graphite, or spend some time with an X-acto knife refining your hand sharpening game. Bonus points if you consult David Rees, prince of pencil sharpening, on the matter.
Also, I don't know first aid, so. You know. Be careful with your blades!
P.S. Here's a little peek at some favorites in my sharpener collection.
- Pencil shaver, c. 1890s, Germany
- Plastic carousel, astronaut and thermos, c. 1970s, China (The carousel spins when you sharpen a pencil!)
- Bakelite Scotty dog and airplane, c. 1920s, USA
- Dux Adjustable Sharpener, c. 1940s, Germany - check it out compared to the modern one!