Pen Types – Ballpoint, Fountain, Gel, Rollerball, Marker

I figured we could do with a page explaining the different types of pens there are, and I figured it should be easy enough to write. It was only when I came to start that I realised I actually didn’t know what the difference is between most types, so I had a bit of research to do. Fountain pens and ballpoint pens are reasonably obvious, but what actually makes a rollerball different from a ballpoint? And what’s actually different about gel ink?

A bit of reading around (mainly on Wikipedia) answered my questions, so here goes…

Dip Pens

The most basic type of pen, a dip pen is usually just a nib in a simple holder. Not much more sophisticated than a quill, and not much easier to use.

The nib is usually a thin piece of metal with a slit cut into it that the ink runs down. A cut out section at the top of the slit can hold a drop of ink in place, to give you a bit of marking time between dips.

Ink

Can use almost anything, but the main reason to use a dipping pen is that you can use pigment inks which can’t be used in fountain pens. Pigment inks are commonly waterproof and opaque.

Usage

You need to keep an open pot of ink, and keep dipping the nib into the ink. Tap or blot away any excess, then use the pen.

Why Use?

If they’re so much work, and so much harder to use, why would anyone bother? Not many people write with dip pens any more, but they’re still reasonably popular with artists and cartoonists. A fountain pen can’t be used with India ink, and most fountain pen ink isn’t as black as good dipping pen ink can be.

Dip pens are also cheaper than fountain pens, and changing nibs is fairly easy, so artists can keep a number of nibs and holders handy, and switch quickly to what they need.

It’s also much quicker and easier to change ink colours with a dip pen – you don’t need to empty the pen and clean it out first.

Fountain Pens

The fountain pen builds some extra convenience on top of a dip pen, at the expense of some flexibility and cost.

The nib is fed through a tube from an ink reserve held in the pen. In some pens, this is just the body of the pen, filled with an eyedropper. In most modern fountain pens, this is either a plastic cartrige, or a converter that allows you to fill the pen by dipping the nib in ink and pulling a lever (or similar – there’s lots of variations).

Ink

The ink in a fountain pen is water based, with dye rather than pigment. That means it’s relatively slow to dry (compared with alcohol-based inks), and it’s transparent, so you won’t get quite such a solid black.

Pigment inks can block up a fountain pen. It might work, but the pen might gum up after a while, so don’t risk it with an expensive pen.

Usage

Although more convenient than a dip pen, fountain pens are generally seen as fairly old-fashioned these days, and certainly don’t have the ease of use of a ballpoint pen. They have to be held with the nib the right way round, and the nib requires reasonably careful handling.

Why Use?

For most people, ballpoints have pretty much replaced fountain pens, but they still have a following. There’s something a bit more ‘classy’ about a fountain pen, certainly.

One real advantage is that no pressure is required to make the ink flow – as long as the nib touches the paper the ink will flow. This can reduce hand strain when using the pen for a lot of drawing or writing. If you’re trying to hand-write a book, and fountain pen may be easier on your hand than a ballpoint.

Softer nibs are available for some pens, allowing more variation in line – pressing on a little harder will cause the split in the nib to open up, writing a broader stroke.

Variations

  • Rotring‘s Isograph pens are modern versions of an early type of fountain pen – a thin tube is used instead of a nib. This style of nib is only really seen in technical pens now.
  • Parallel Pens are a novel take on the fountain pen – two plates are held very close together, and the ink flows between the two, rather than through a split in a single plate. A very wide nib can be made, and can flow ink quickly to the full width. See our review of Pilot Parallel Pens.

Ballpoint Pens

A ballpoint pen uses a thicker ink, with a ball in the tip of the ink reservoir. When the ball is pushed against the paper and dragged along the surface, it gets turned, and pulls ink out of the pen.

Ink

Ballpoint ink is a thick (viscous) alcohol-based ink, using dye for colouring. The ink doesn’t seep into the paper, so can be used on fairly thin sheets, and won’t ‘feather’ through the surface.

Most modern ballpoint ink actually becomes thinner when under pressure, so as the ball is pushed in by pressure on the page, the ink becomes more liquid, flowing more easily. As soon as the ink is deposited on the page, it becomes thicker, and dries quickly, making it less prone to smudging.

Usage

A ballpoint needs to be used at a fairly steep angle – held more upright than a fountain pen – and needs a fair amount of pressure to be maintained against the page to keep the ink flowing.

Why Use?

By far the biggest reason for using ballpoint pens is convenience – they’re commonly available just about anywhere, they’re cheap, and they’re very easy to use. They’re fairly resilliant, so you’re unlikely to break one by being heavy-handed, and if you do – so what? Chuck it in the bin and buy another.

Almost any style or price you could want in a pen will be covered by several manufacturers. If you want a ballpoint to cost you £35, and to have green ink, you would have plenty to choose from. If you want it with black ink, a green body, and to cost you under £1, you’d still have plenty to choose from.

Variations

  • Space Pen – uses a pressurised refill, so it can write in zero gravity. Or, more practically, can write when held upside down – very useful if you write on paper stuck to a wall or notice board, and maybe if you tend to make notes whilst lying down. The Uni-ball Power Tank is another pressurised pen, but disposable and much cheaper.

However, the main variations are rollerballs and gel pens, and we’ll come to those…

…any time…

…now…

Rollerball Pens

A ballpoint pen has a rolling ball at the end of a tube of ink. So does a rollerball pen. So what’s the difference?

The ink.

Ink

A ballpoint uses thick ink, made from an alcohol-based paste. A rollerball uses liquid ink, which is water-based.

Usage

The liquid ink helps a rollerball to move more smoothly than a ballpoint. The ink flows quickly and easily, and rarely skips. Because it’s water-based, it also takes longer to dry, so can be more prone to smudging.

Another problem is that the liquid ink will tend to soak through the paper more than ballpoint or gel ink, which can give you a ‘feathering’ effect, and soak through to the other side of thin paper. The thin paper in Moleskine notebooks, for example, can be a problem for some pens. (Good pens to use with a Moleskine is a whole article in itself, though – I’ll work on that sometime soon.)

Why Use?

A rollerball could be seen as being part way between a ballpoint and a fountain pen. The slowness of drying makes them a bit less convenient than a ballpoint, but they need less pressure to write with, and tend to feel fast and smooth.

Personally, I tend to wipe over what I’ve just written with my knuckles as I write the next line, so something that dries slowly is a real problem – if you don’t have that problem, you might find a rollerball a good compromise.

Gel Pens

Only relatively recently introduced, gel pens are hugely popular. Many of the most popular disposable ballpoints are gel ink pens, and more and more refillable pens are becoming available as gel pens – like my favourite Cross Ion.

Ink

The key is the ink. It’s a pigment ink, in a water-based gel carrier. Because it uses pigment instead of dye, it’s opaque. This means you can use a light-coloured gel pen on black paper, and black gel ink can be really black.

Personally, I like black ink to be very black, so gel pens suit me well. The only problem is that the water-based ink is usually fairly slow to dry, so smudging can be a problem.

Usage

Gel pens tend to write quite smoothly, and don’t require much pressure, but the ink doesn’t flow as easily as liquid ink, so can skip. The problem varies with different pens and inks, but as you release the pressure on the page, most gel pens will skip a little – the line won’t fade – you’ll just get patches of nothing. This can make them less suitable for drawing, as you can have great trouble getting any subtle shades. If you want sold colour only, though, they can be ideal.

Variations

Gel pens are available with all kinds of strange inks, including metallic finish, and even inks containing glitter.

Markers

A marker pen (commonly called a ‘felt-tip’ or ‘fibre-tip’ here in the UK, sometimes referred to by the trade name ‘magic marker‘ in the US) is a tube of ink with a porous nib that the ink soaks into.

Ink

The ink in a marker often uses either xylene or toluene as a solvent, both of which are toxic. Sharpies are probably the most common type of marker in the world, though, and they’re alcohol based instead, and non-toxic.

Usage

Markers are very easy to use, and the ink usually dries quickly. Lots of colours are available.

They’re rarely refillable, though, and very few ‘good quality’ pens are available. Even in most art circles, they’re usually seen as a childish thing, only really taken seriously by comic artists, especially for mangaCopic markers, for example (which are refillable).

Why Use?

If you’re drawing comics, they’re ideal. Not so much for most other things, though higher quality narrow-nibbed markers can be good for drawing. Staedtler’s Mars Professional pen is winning a few friends, for example.

Variations

  • Brush Pens – some markers are available with a brush-shaped tip. In some, this is just a fibre tip, shaped like a brush – still firm like most marker tips. In others, this tip can be soft, and actually behaves like a brush. The Pentel Brush Pen is a bit different – it’s actually an ink-filled tube with an actual brush on the end.
  • Paint Markers – again, often using xylene or toluene as a solvent, these actually draw with a layer of pigmented paint, and once dry, colours can be overlayed one on dop of another. Can also usually mark on black, and on almost any surface, including glass.

Conclusions

The type of pen you use can depend on a number of factors, but hopefully this article has helped you to understand the differences a bit better – writing it has certainly helped me 🙂

It probably won’t change your favourite, but you might know why you like it so much now.

Over to you

So, which type is good for you? Why? Have I missed any other significant types?

Let us know about your favourites in the comments, and why you like them so much.

Me? I love my little Cross Ion gel pen, but for the most part these days, I use a pencil. But that’s another article.

34 thoughts on “Pen Types – Ballpoint, Fountain, Gel, Rollerball, Marker

  1. There were such things as fountain pens that took pigmented ink: Rotring Art Pens. These were intended for calligraphy, had broad nibs and a long tapered top, like they were emulating the shaft of a quill. I still have one, but haven’t used it for years. Pigmented ink (I used Rotring’s own) doesn’t work as well as ordinary ink, tending to be “thick.” Certainly you were less likely to get such good contrast between thin and thick strokes. But, pen and ink did actually work.

  2. I love their little story.

    I can’t really comment on Mont Blanc from experience, but plenty of people on Fountain Pen Network love them – people who know more about fountain pens than I do. I get the impression they are excellent quality pens, but certainly not as far ahead of everything else as they would like you to think. They aren’t the only ones to want to keep an air of exclusivity about them – some brands don’t like to sell to people who sell at a discount, or who also sell Pilot G2s.

  3. Mont Blanc sound a bit like Leica, only more snobby. (!) Are they scared that people who buy the Pilot G2, a pen that’s cheap, ergonomically outstanding, and has good ink, will wonder why anyone would bother wasting astronomical sums to look like fashion victims?

    (I realise later gel pens might have caught up or surpassed Pilot’s ink by now, but it’s still pretty good).

    Is the “exclusivity” bit why Cult Pens don’t stock Lamy or Cross? I think you can Google people who claim to sell Lamy at discount prices, but I suspect their discounts are pretty modest.

  4. …but I think you might be right about it being marketing over craftmanship. Just looking at Cult Pens (where Michael works), there are quite a few options there…

    That’s just really what I could think of off the top of my head. It’s worth going along to Cult Pens and having a play with the Pen Finder.

    [image:2458 size=small]
    Sam Randall
    Ain’t Life Grand?

  5. Hello, I am looking to buy my fiancee a worthy pen for his wedding present but am not familiar with the fine writing instruments available to me. Can anyone kindly provide recommendations? I know MonteBlanc is typically known for having fine pens but could a majority of the price be due to their marketing rather than craftsmanship? Their pens are nice, but I’m looking for value. Thank you for your help! Kris

  6. I’ve heard that Rotring Art Pens could use pigment ink – Michael Nobbs used one for years with Rotring drawing ink – but I don’t think they were ever intended to take it, and it could clog them. Rotring sell the drawing ink for the Isograph pens, and the Art Pen took standard International fountain pen cartridges.

  7. Ah, found it… the original card thingy the Rotring ArtPen was sold in. Anal, maybe; but I kept it because it’s also the only instruction book. It says, in part: “rotring offers two special inks for use in the ArtPen. 1. Deep black, lightfast, pigmented ink. 2. Sepia, not lightfast.”

    Note that it doesn’t say the pigmented ink is the same ink as used in rotring drawing pens.

    I find I didn’t in fact use any sort of rotring ink, probably because the shop didn’t have any. Instead I used Faber-Castell “Higgins” (made in USA) waterproof calligraphy ink (black).

  8. There are a few classic tricks:

    • Scribble with it a lot.
    • Breathe on the end.
    • Shake it about.
    • Lick the end.
    • Leave it on the edge of your desk until someone steals it, and steal one that works from someone else. Don’t take the one right on the edge of their desk.

    Scribbling often works, but you’ve probably tried that. Not sure about breathing and licking – doesn’t seem all that likely to work to me. Just leaving it point downward for a few days might do some good – letting gravity do the work – but the ink is pretty thick.

    Some don’t run out of ink so much as have the ball wear out, so it might be that the pens, or at least the refills, are just too badly made to get through all the ink. Decent brands should be ok – even Pilot’s cheapest ballpoints use tungsten carbide balls that should last to the end.

  9. I found this article “On Selecting a Writing Instrument” at http://arkanabar.tripod.com/pens.html Looks good to me; any comments?

    If rollerball ink is based on mainly dye dissolved in water, then it sounds much like fountain pen ink. In which case, why hasn’t someone invented a rollerball that can be refilled in the same sense that a fountain pen can? I realise you probably couldn’t suck ink “through the ball,” but something else should be possible. That would allow a much wider range of colours and ink types.

  10. Hey nice forum, thought I’d add my two cents worth. I classify pens into two basic groups: free ink and cartridge. Free ink pens are those that require refilling using liquid inks. These pens have the versatility of all dip pens and brushes, they require a greater degree of skill in their use, but, of course, the result is worth it. Cartridge pens aren’t refillable (without replacing the entire cartridge). All cartridge pens have a limited useful life, are very easy to use and fail as soon as an air space occurs between the tip and reservoir. I have found some very easy solutions to the common failures of cartridge pens. To prevent cartridge pens from drying out: put the cap on, put the capped pen in an air tight jar. I have many markers and ballpoints stored this way that have hung around in my studio for over thirty years and they are still working quite well. I live in a very dry and dusty climate and the “store in a jar” method came about because of the dryness. Storing the pens in a cool place also helps. Typically the drying out of pens and markers occurs from the tip back into the reservoir. By reducing the air pressure at the tip any liquid ink will flow toward the tip again (I do this by sucking the air out of a closed steel container using a vacuum pump). This works well in ballpoints but not so well in markers where the flow of ink requires that the “felt” is unclogged and still porous. There are many types of “felt” and judicious dissection of expired pens will clue in most of the users as to the specific mechanism. I’ve found that the true felt pens (ones that use a matted fibre) have the least problems with clogged pores. Pens that use a multiple tube bundle are the worst (these are unfortunately the most current). I have had limited success in getting bunged up pens to flow again. Centrifuging the pen by mounting it at an angle in a power drill will sometimes get broken ink columns in the reservoir to migrate to the tip. I have had no success with trying to get the ink to flow better by applying low heat. It seems that the cartridge enclosure just allows the air to expand and capilliary action keeps the ink from flowing together past the air bubbles. Pen cleaner liquid is available from most drafting supply houses as are ultrasonic pen cleaners. I’ve not tried to use either on ballpoints or marker pens. Blending pens are now common, and might be useful to dissolve ink clots but again I’ve not tried this.

  11. Hello ,I’m not sure the price range or “name dropping” status you are looking for in a gift pen.Mont Blanc pens are safe,more known as a staple status symbol for those not in the know.Unless of course you get one from a limited series such the Agatha Christie pen which is limited but avaiable on e-bay Or if you are very wealthy they make a diamond and ruby,emerald or sapphire in 18 k white gold(Cartier and Mont blanc team up,available for $730,000 dollars,no that is not a typo..My best advice if you have not already found one,try looking in a magazine called “Stylus”.Beautifully designed,creative,and some are fairly pricey.I love the Ferrari de Varese,and the Danitrio.You really can’t go wrong with a Dunhill ,or Pelikan either.If you don’t want to spend that kind of money,and want to possibly one day build to that, try a website called http://www.giftvalues.com,I just found their catalog and they offer attractive pens and collections as well as displays,refills replacement nibs etc. These pens are the well crafted “inspired by” cousins to the ones found in stylus. I hope this was helpful.

  12. This is just a p.s. to add to my previous comment,not knowing whether you fiancee is a writer or not,(this is just a preference of mine)try to find a pen with a screw on cap,but also one that the cap can be screwed onto the other end. I had a beautiful Sailor Pen Co. Maki-e pen and the cap rolled off of my desk and was never seen again.Just a thought. also a particuilarly inspiring issue of Stylus is oct/nov 07,it features a pen with my namesake,I snag mine in the Pres. club at the airport,but you can also go to http://www.stylusmag.com... Please let us know which choice you make!

  13. I have several ballpoint bens that won’t work–they have dried out but there is plenty of ink left in the barrel. Is there a way to get them to write again?

  14. That looks like a decent article – a good long list of things to think about. I did once go through all my own requirements and preferences, which I intended to turn into an article or post of some sort, but never did. Maybe I’ll get around to it at some point.

    As for why nobody has invented a rollerball that sucks up fountain pen ink, they have. Monteverde make the Mega Ink Ball, which does just that. Part of the reason it’s so uncommon, though, may be connected with the fact that they provide three tip sections with the pen. It seems like they expect them to wear out, though they certainly should last for quite a few refillings.

  15. Well, well! Thanks for that! Though I’d suspect that part of the reason for their rarity is the cost. Not many people going to pay $175 upwards for a rollerball.

  16. You’d probably have to ask Faber-Castell what solvent they’re using, but I suspect they wouldn’t tell.

  17. Hmmm… tried Googling discount Lamy, just to be sure… no chance! Best you get seems to be free postage on more expensive orders.

    {sigh}

  18. we had new faber castelmrker multimark 1513. we did not use it for one month and now its ink has dried. is there a way to reuse it by using some solvent or something. kindly let me know if there is a way. thanks

Comments are closed.