Similarly to how your brush’s size will restrict the level of detail you can get in a painting, finely rendered drawings are a result of finely sharpened charcoal or graphite pencils. With a little practice and a bit of patience, you can turn any pencil into a high quality artist’s tool.

How To Sharpen Pencils the Atelier Way

Recommended Materials & Tools

I suggest a hooked carpet blade instead of a more traditional straight razor blade but technically either will work. I have found the process easier to control with a hooked blade though and the little extra expense will pay for itself in the long run with fewer broken charcoal/graphite cores.

Removing The Wooden Barrel

Shaving off a Pencil's Wooden Barrel

Position your pencil in your left hand and the blade in your right. Keep the blade stationary and *pull* the pencil against the blade by pushing away from it with your left thumb (see video). This is more stable than pushing the blade against a stationary pencil, which is more likely to break the charcoal/graphite.

Slowly work around the graphite or charcoal, removing the wooden barrel a sliver at a time in long, slow motions.

I generally aim for about 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch of exposed charcoal and 1/2 inch to 1 inch of graphite.

Sharpening the Point

Sharpen with fine sandpaper (eg: 220 grit), rolling the pencil between your fingers as you go to keep the point even.

Don’t push down on the pencil too strongly or you are liable to snap the core. Aim for light pressure as you run the pencil tip back & forth over the sandpaper at an almost horizontal angle.

The longer the taper, the slower the graphite/charcoal will dull but keep in mind the point will be more fragile.

Enjoy Your New Tools

Sharpening your pencils like this is simple and readily mastered, but expect to break a graphite/charcoal core from time to time, as sometimes a core gets cracked in the wooden barrel during transport.

I have found this process is a great meditative way to get in the right mindset at the start of each studio day.  It allows me a transition period between the concerns of life outside the studio and the focus needed for a successful day of drawing.


Sharpened Charcoal Pencils