How many of us still draw by hand? Graphic designers nor architects work with pencil and paper these days, but fine art artists still do. The tools of the trade include high-quality pencils, sharpeners, brushes, palette knives and more. And, if we’re to believe the many Youtube channels on the subject, artists lie awake at night wondering which pencil is the best and which sharpener sharpens with the finest point.
That’s a caricature, of course, but there’s some truth in it, in that it is important to have a pencil that can be sharpened to a long point that doesn’t break with the least pressure, that draws a consistently grey or black line without biting into delicate paper surfaces, and that the point allows you to shade easily and well.
Pencils come in the most diverse of types and qualities. Important is that the wood of the holder has good quality, is preferably made of cedar and the graphite core contains graphite and very fine clay particles. A mechanical pencil is only convenient when we’re talking about some form of technical drawing. For art we use wooden pencils only — or pure graphite sticks. I personally like Tombow’s Mono 100 pencils and the Palomino brand too has good quality pencils, although they lack the standard hardness designation and that’s a pain.
To keep those pencils sharp and pointed, there are two brands of pencil sharpener that earn the label of best sharpeners for art. Both are made in Germany and both are handheld. The second-best is the Pollux sharpener from Mobius & Ruppert. The Pollux is known for its concave sharpening of the wooden part of the point. That concave result many people seem to love is the reason that it’s second-best, because, for shading, the concave is more of a nuisance than an asset. Moreover, the blade that came with my two Pollux sharpeners were blunt. I immediately needed to buy spare blades as the originals ruined my pencils.
The very best sharpener, in my opinion, is the Kum Meisterwerk or Masterpiece. This sharpener uses two-stage sharpening. You first cut away the wood in the first port and the graphite in the second one.
But that’t not all there is to it. The Meisterwerk comes with a plastic bumper that prevents you to sharpen pencil too far down the first port. That bumper can be removed so that you can lay bare a very long part of the graphite core. You do that when you want to have much graphite available for shading. The obtained point won’t be pointy throughout, of course, but it does give you an unprecedented and unmatched result that allows for very smooth shading.
The Kum Meisterwerk is made of magnesium. However, since a few months you can also buy one that has been covered in gold lacker, which makes for a fine present with the sharpening characteristics identical to the magnesium model.
There are yet other unique sharpeners available, of course. I just discovered a website of a small team of people who have created a sharpener which fully mimics the way people sharpened their pencils before the modern sharpener was invented, i.e. scraping off wood with a knife.
It’s the Makers Cabinet Høvel. This rather large brass device uses a blade that is fastened with a screw that you can tighten to cut off very fine slices or loosen up for scraping off more wood in one sweep. You stroke your pencil across the device and rotate it with every stroke so that you get a uniformly sharpened point — or perhaps you don’t want to rotate at all to get a more squarish “point” for a special effect.
From what I’ve seen on their website, the Høvel is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship and even if you ultimately decide against using it for pencil sharpening, you can place it on your desk in the optional wooden cradle just for looking at it — it’s that beautiful.
I haven’t used the Høvel myself and would certainly like to know how well it sharpens a pencil and how efficient a modern artist might find it but for now I’ll happily sharpen using my Kum Meisterwerk Gold.
Top image by Alexander Klink. Other images copyright their respective owners.