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…
The most basic type of pen, a
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
The ink in a fountain pen is water based, with
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.
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.
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.
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 Pensare 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 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.
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.
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 Â£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 Â£1, you’d still have plenty to choose from.
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 Tankis another pressurised pen, but disposable and much cheaper.
However, the main variations are rollerballs and gel pens, and we’ll come to those…
A ballpoint pen has a rolling ball at the end of a tube of ink. So does a
A ballpoint uses thick ink, made from an alcohol-based paste. A rollerball uses liquid ink, which is water-based.
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
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.
Only relatively recently introduced,
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.
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.
Gel pens are available with all kinds of strange inks, including metallic finish, and even inks containing glitter.
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.
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
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
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 Penis 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.
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.