Thursday, 11 March 2010

Product review: Derwent Battery Operated Helical Pencil Sharpener

Derwent Battery Operated Helical Pencil Sharpener

Product: Derwent Battery Operated Helical Pencil Sharpener
Summary: I've tried two and neither have worked properly. I've also heard from a fair few fellow pencil artists of various degrees of experience who have also tried this sharpener and also had problems. I'm not happy and I know Derwent is trying to find out why the problems are happening. This is NOT a recommended purchase.
Technical Details:
  • 11cm(w) x 7.5cm(h) x 6.4cm(d)
  • it's not light - it takes 4 AA batteries
Who should buy this? A difficult question. In principal, it has the scope to be an ideal pencil sharpener for those wanting to be able to transport a helical pencil sharpener outside the home or studio (eg to class or into the field). On the other hand it's not that light or compact and the problems with usage suggest it might be better to wait until Derwent have at least got the latter fixed.
Who should not buy this? Anybody wanting a needle sharp point quickly and every time they insert a pencil. The best bet for this is a mains powered helical sharpener.
  • velvet feel black plastic
  • looks neat
  • stable with rubber feet and weight of the batteries
Think Again?
  • hole does not seem to like the larger Derwent pencils
  • very difficult to detect the polarities for the batteries
  • not a particularly lightweight portable sharpener with four AA batteries in place
  • shavings receptacle fits neatly but does not click into place - which always worries me
  • poor track record in terms of ones I've tried. One didn't work and the second couldn't produce a sharp point (see picture below)
  • expensive (recommended retail price is two thirds that of a mains powered heavy duty helical sharpener with thermal cut out!)
Manufacturer / Distributor: Derwent Retail price: £19.99
Suppliers: various eg Artifolk (16.99)

I've held off from reviewing this sharpener for a while as it was new to the market and there seemed to be some teething problems. However I'm continuing to hear about people who are having problems with this sharpener (notably one tutor who got several for a class and then found that 10 out of the 12 were faulty in some way) so I've decided it's about time I did a proper review.

It's not good news.

The first one sent to me for review by Derwent failed to work at all and had to be sent back. I spent ages inserting the batteries, trying them in diffierent configurations, finding a different set of batteries, repeat as before etc etc. It was very frustrating but Derwent were very helpful and sent me another one to review.

The design and practical issues that I noted at the time (quite apart from the fact it didn't work were as follows.
  • Batteries:
    • The batteries required are described as 4 x 1.5V AAsize UM3 batteries. I've never heard of UM3 batteries. Google suggests they are batteries used in the USA. The standard batteries that I use for virtually all my needs are always described as AA LR6 batteries.
    • Design wise, the polarities information relating to inserting the batteries correctly is a lot more difficult to detect than on alternative brands of battery powered sharpeners. You need a very good light to see them on the inside of the battery cabinet (ie black on black in a dark space!). Finally I also found them on the underside of the lid of the battery cabinet - which is not where the leaflet says they are.
    • I gather there has been some suggestion of 'battery-related' problems but I don't know whether this is due to people not using the right batteries, not being able to work out how to get them in correctly or just bad connections I don't know. What I do know is that there are too many different ways of failing to get the batteries to operate properly!
  • Shavings bin: The shavings receptacle didn't give me a lot of confidence that it would stand up to a lot of removal and reinsertion. It's only got one tiny plastic tab (very easy to break) and it doesn't have a nice 'click' when put back in place - which always worries me when there's scope to dump pencil shavings everywhere. Helical pencil shavings are also a total nightmare to clear up due the fact they are so very fine. I really like shavings receptacles which are very easy to pull out and slot back first time every time - and this one didn't. Plus being able to see easily where to slot them back makes the chances of getting it right much more likely. My view was that there's quite a lot of scope for design improvment in this area.
  • Cleaning brush: It comes with a brush for cleaning out the helical blade but I wondered at the time how long it would be before it was lost. I started off keeping it in the shavings receptacle but now can't find it! If it had a gripper (maybe underneath?) which kept it with the sharpener it would be a much more practical idea. However we've all got ready access to brushes for performing the same task so one has to question whether it's really necessary. This is already an expensive sharpener and if I were Derwent I'd be looking for ways of making it more cost competitive.
  • Size and weight - it's nice and neat if used at home. However the only real reason for having a battery powered helical sharpener is to use it out of the home and 4 AA batteries do not make this nice and light to carry around. There must be a way of creating portable battery powered sharpeners which use smaller lighter batteries! It's also more bulky than the Panasonic battery powered helical sharpener I bought from Staples in the USA which I have used as part of my sketching toolkit.
  • Instructions: Text on the instructions is completely unreadable by me even with my reading glasses. It's far too small and fails all accessibility vision tests for people with vision impairment. Lots of recreational artists are rather older and more likely to have impaired vision re reading. I'm in my mid 50s and needed a magnifying glass to read what the instructions said.
In addition, the hole does not seem to like the larger Derwent pencils - a problem which happens often with other sharpeners but one would have thought would not occur with a sharpener that has Derwent's name on it.

The second sharpener Derwent sent me to test worked - but wouldn't produce the very sharp point that I associate with a helical cutting blade. You can see thre results in my comparison test picture. I took two blue Derwent Coloursoft pencils and sharpened the Indigo one in the battery powered sharpener and the Prussian Blue one in the mains powered helical Jakar Electric Pencil Sharpener which I reviewed on Monday. As you can see there's quite a difference in the points achieved. The very sharp point produced by the Jakar is perfectly possible in any helical sharpener - if they work well. This one does not. Below is a picture of a test I did for this review this morning.

Comparison: Helical sharpening two Derwent Coloursoft pencils
(left) Indigo - sharpened using the Derwent battery operated helical pencil sharpener
(right) Prussian Blue - sharpened using Jakar Electric Helical Pencil Sharpener - Model 5151

It proved very difficult to get a decent fine point. When I realised how much time I was spending trying to get a point I realised that it's actually quicker and simpler to use a manual sharpener.

The sad part of this review is that Derwent produce a lot of good quality merchandise and I'm very disappointed to be having to write a review like this. However this time Derwent seem to have commissioned a sharpener which is not performing well for a number of people. I've heard from leading artists and others to the effect that they have given up on this sharpener. It does appear to be working for some people but the sheer fact that so many people have been making adverse comments makes me think it's time for a radical rethink.

What I would say is that Derwent were very pleased to get feedback from me about the sharpener. I told them I'd heard of similar complaints from others but did not 'name names'. So if you've got one of these and you've had problems can I suggest you get in contact with Derwent. I'd recommend using the website enquiries form and addressing your comments to Barbara Murray who is the Technical Manager at The Cumberland Pencil Company at Derwent House in Cumbria.

What I'd like to see

I'd love to have a battery powered helical sharpener easily available in the UK. It's not easy to find them. However I'd like to see Derwent getting their designers to address the following:
  • ideally make it a lot lighter by using batteries which are lighter if that's possible given the load requirements.
  • make it a lot more compact if targeting the portable market. It's bigger and bulkier than alternatives and hence more difficult to pack.
  • convert the batteries required to rechargeable batteries (or suggest rechargeable batteries are used). Using conventional AA LR6 batteries is going to make this sharpener an expensive proposition if this sharpener is used on a regular basis
  • make the polarities for the batteries crystal clear. Black on black is a really bad idea! My bottom line standard for this is that I should never ever have to peer and scratch my head before finding a way of shining light on the subject so I can see which way round they need to go in! Test models with people with poor vision.
  • always make sure that the shavings bin delivers a nice reassuring click when put back in place
  • make all fixing tabs of robust materials
  • make instructions easy to read
For the record my alltime favourite for battery powered helical pencil sharpeners is the Panasonic KP 4A - see my website for comments and picture - it does the same job but is much more compact and hence I've used it a lot while travelling. Whereas I think I'd think twice about taking the Derwent one.
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Malcolm Cudmore said...

I've posted twice on the UKCPS forum about these sharpeners in the face of pretty comprehensive negatives about them. I can't be the only person in the world who's got one that works? I have some criticisms - but not so comprehensive as yours. I bought mine at The Pencil Museum last year and have used it a lot. I get consistently good very sharp points and my shavings chamber clicks firmly into place. I agree that the labelling for battery polarity is bad but I don't agree that the weight is a problem. In fact, I think it needs the weight of the batteries to help keep it stable and stop it feeling too flimsy. Battery usage feels quite high (although, in fairness, I don't have another brand to do comparisons with) and it tends to "chug" a little (I can't imagine that it will ever feel as powerful as a mains sharpener). It has a tendancy to be a little "eccentric" - i.e. it can sharpen the pencil a bit off centre. To counteract this tendancy, I slowly revolve the pencil against the direction of the sharpening. I actually forget how much I paid for mine (I think it was around £10 as it had been opened and used as a demonstration model). It sits on my desk in the studio and I've stopped using the two hand-cranked helical sharpeners that are also on the desk. I've carried it home to work there and in my bag to drawing sessions (although I mostly use Conte or other pastel pencils for life drawing and the sharpener is not suitable for these materials). I certainly think Derwent should address the polarity labeling and I accept that I may just be lucky and have ended up with a good model. I hope that your blog is sufficiently visible for Derwent to take notice of genuine concerns about the product but, in my personal experience, I think it warrants 5 out of 10 rather than a complete "panning".

Making A Mark said...

Thanks for the comments Malcolm - it's good to have an alternative perspective from somebody who has one which works.

It's always very difficult to be positive about equipment which doesn't do the job.

I know I'd feel very differently about it if it only cost £10 and worked!

I'd be interested to know whether you would have paid the £20 normal retail price (or even the price you can get it for discounted).

Malcolm Cudmore said...

Without going back and looking at receipts,I can't verify the £10. However, I probably would have paid the regular retail price. I may have been a bit more critical though - but, in fairness, I don't have comparable alternatives to judge it against. I paid considerably more than that for one of my hand-cranked helical sharpeners which is nowhere near as good and is far more eccentric in its action. I probably should save up for a mains powered one now!

Making A Mark said...

If we ignore the performance issues, I think the main issues for me are that:
(a) if using at home I'd rather spend an extra £10 on the mains powered one where you can get replacement blades and you don't need to keep forking out for batteries
(b) the size/shape of this one means it's not so easily portable in a backpack for sketching trips as other helical battery powered sharpeners

Zsu said...

I bought one of these a few days ago, with great expectations - I love the small manual sharpeners made by Derwent and hoped to get similar excellent points only easier.
But when I tried it, half the time the points refused to go sharper no matter how long I kept it going! I have never used an electric/battery operated sharpener before so I assumed I was doing something wrong...

Making A Mark said...

That's why I wrote the review Zsu. I think most people assume they're doing something wrong when they run into a problem unless they've read about other people having the same sort of problems on the Internet.

Zsu said...

Funny thing, now that I commented here, the sharpener suddenly started to produce perfect points! Either it needed some time to "warm up", or I unconsciously figured the right way to use it, or it just got scared... :D

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