Trying to choose the right pen, but confused by all the different labels: ballpoint, liquid ink, gel, hybrid, rollerball? Yeah, we don’t blame you; it can get a little overwhelming.
But that’s good, too, because it means you have plenty of options when looking for a pen to fit your needs. All you need is an idea what the different pens do, then you can decide which one works best for you.
We’ll try to help you out with that.
Let’s start here: What all the labels basically come down to is ink. Even more simply put, thick ink or thin ink. Thicker inks dry quickly, last longer and make neat, but uninspired lines. Thinner inks dry slower and run out faster, but make sharper, more vibrant lines.
Pens generally are classed by the types of ink they use and the delivery system.
Ballpoint pens – These use a thick, oil-based ink that is essentially a paste. A ball at the tip of the pen picks up the paste and presses it onto the paper. The ink is carried in an alcohol solvent, which dries quickly, leaving the ink stuck to the paper.
Obviously the advantage to ink that dries quickly is that it’s less likely to smudge. And, because the ink is thick, less of it comes out as you write, so ballpoints tend to last a long time. The ink is also far less likely to bleed through the paper.
However, the thick ink is more prone to clumping and takes more writing pressure to apply to the paper. Since you have to press harder, it makes for a less comfortable writing experience.
Examples of ballpoint pens are:
Rollerball pens – These use a thinner, water-based ink that comes out as a liquid (which is why you also see them referred to as liquid ink pens). The design is basically the same as a ballpoint: a ball held in a cone-shaped or pronged tip that picks up the ink and rolls it onto the paper. The solvent, water, is slower to dry than alcohol.
Since the ink dries more slowly, it is more prone to smudging, especially for lefties whose hands drag over the lines as they write. The thinner ink also flows out of the pen at a faster rate, so the ink cartridges have a much shorter life than ballpoints. And paper absorbs the ink more readily, so bleed-through is a concern.
The main advantage of these pens over standard ballpoints is that the ease of flow makes writing extremely smooth, and the richer saturation is just more attractive.
Examples of rollerball or liquid ink pens are:
Gel pens – OK, this is where it can get kind of confusing because this ink is used in both ballpoint and rollerball pens. The ink is a water-based gel that isn’t quite as thick as typical ballpoint paste, but isn’t quite as thin as rollerball liquid. It’s delivered the same, via a rolling ball.
The idea of gel ink is to achieve a balance so that it dries quickly and is less likely to blot or smudge, but still flows freely enough to write more smoothly than a standard ballpoint. Because gels use pigments, rather than dyes, there also is more variation in the colours available.
Gel pens, like liquid ink rollerballs, create bold, rich lines and tend to write quite comfortably. But the thicker ink also tends to clump occasionally, like ballpoint ink, and doesn’t always coat the ball evenly, leaving skips in the line.
Examples of gel pens are:
So which one is best for you? That really depends on the type of writing you do the most, and what your priorities are when choosing a pen – the cost, the writing experience, or the way it looks on paper.
Expense: Ballpoints use less ink, which means buying fewer refills, and they're less prone to dry out when not in use. They’re dependable, inexpensive everyday writers that will get the job done.
Feel: Rollerballs float across the paper nearly as smoothly as fountain pens for the most graceful, comfortable writing experience. You can use them for long periods of time without cramps or fatigue.
Appearance: Gels produce the cleanest, most precise lines without sacrificing vibrancy. They’re perfect for adding bold signatures to documents, for writing journal entries, or for artwork.
Your best bet probably is to start out with a good ballpoint or gel pen and try using it for a while. You can always trade up if you want a smoother writing experience and don’t mind the added expense. But we’re betting that once you pick up the right gel pen, you’ll be perfectly happy to stick with it.
That's our take – but we want to hear from you. Which pen is working best for you right now?