Over the years I have lost, had stolen, or had pens that did not perform as I expected; mostly expensive pens. A few months ago I made it a personal mission to find a pen or pens that I like; because they look nice when I use them, and how they felt in my fingers, and how the ink was dispensed (thickness, color and consistency). Today, pens are a combination of ergonomics, chemical and mechanical engineering. Even in the everyday pedestrian pen category (PaperMate, Uni-ball, or Zebra) there is one for every writing occasion and style; the quill is long gone. Just take a look at the signing of the Declaration of Independence and there are great examples of putting a written image on paper.
I have always been interested in writing instruments since grade school, when penmanship was a big deal. The first pen we used in grade school was a fountain pen with a glass bottle of ink with a reservoir molded into the ink bottle. I found fountain pens to be interesting, but cheap pens made the experience time consuming and often messy. Then came the ubiquitous Bic “Banana” stick pen and I found writing with ballpoint pens great because the ballpoint pen ink would not bleed on my “Big Chief” tablet paper. But, fountain pens remain appealing for signatures on documents.
The heart of any writing instrument seems to be:
- Delivery system; how the ink is delivered to the paper surface.
- Type of ink that fits the mechanics of the pen; the color of ink, gel vs. traditional ink, liquid, etc.
- Type of paper that is compatible with the pen.
- Purpose of writing; is it note taking, precise characters, document signing, etc. Just remember, there are a lot of pens because there are a lot of writing tasks.
- Personal preference relative to thickness of the ink on paper, no ink blotches, no drag on paper.
But, the inherent task of any pen is simply to put an image, in ink, onto a paper surface. Contrary to fears of many decades ago, Microsoft Word has not made writing obsolete.
Aside from the ultimate purpose of a pen, we cannot overlook the fact that pens are also a style statement, status/prestige statement, personal comfort, preferences relative to the mechanics (click, twist, and cap mechanics), and for some, collectables. The former notwithstanding, there will always be occasions in which pens are a prestige, jewelry, or design statement and will have no bearing on the quality of the ink on paper.
Any pen a person chooses is really a conglomeration of subjective judgments-visual of the ink delivery system, color of the ink, feel of the point/nib on paper, and the physical feel of the device in your hand looking down on it and some aspects how your writing may appear to others looking at your work.
But there are other issues in selecting pens (inexpensive or expensive): weight, length, color, diameter, metal vs. plastic, trim options such as metal clip/metal tip and rubberized grip; the list goes on ad infinitum. In addition to style and prestige, pens aren’t just for work and home they are also used for awards, souvenirs, commemoration, and advertising. The price of the writing instrument is not necessarily an indication of the quality either, relative to how it places ink on a piece of paper. There are beautiful pens that have lousy ink refills, tips/nibs and reservoirs to hold the ink; they look good from an industrial design standpoint but are not fun or easy to write with.
Another issue when selecting a pen is to recognize the differences in quality of writing surfaces. For example, a fountain pen is not good on fibrous papers. With hundreds of paper options, the formula of the ink and delivery system become even more complicated. However, today most people write on journal paper or copier paper; great for ballpoints and the newer emulsion inks.
Let’s not forget the royal fountain pen; been around almost since time began. The utility aspects of this pen are not the same as the rolling ball tip pen (not to be confused with the “roller ball”), but it is a fun option. There are hundreds of nib styles of fountain pens, which deliver different feels and image styles to paper. And, don’t forget that the fountain pen offers hundreds of colors of inks in a bottle. As old as the fountain pen may be, millions of people prefer the fountain pen which is obvious by the number of fountain pen manufacturers and colors offered to these aficionados.
There are premium priced writing instruments such as Monte Blanc, Waterman, Pelikan, and Lamy, just to name a few, that come in rollerball, ballpoint and fountain pen formats. If style is a primary determent in a premium instrument selection, then there is a prestige statement and/or a personal design statement driving pen selection first.
I own Monte Blanc (fountain, rollerball and ballpoint), Waterman (fountain), Cross (fountain and ballpoint), and Namiki (retractable nib fountain pen). All have smooth nibs that do not drag on most paper, but ultimately I use them as a fashion statement. The ballpoint formats of these brands are not any more impressive than the #301 from Zebra or PaperMate.
To add perspective, we know fountain pens have been around since man discovered they could write with colored water and feathers. We know that ball points have been around since 1888. The real interesting thing is that the new innovation in balled pen systems is the inks!
Like wines, I am finding I have multiple moods for various pens on my desk. Some deliver colored inks, some are bold and broad, in some the pen itself is a rubber grip and some are all metal with a heavy feel; I now write with a pens that fits my mood and occasion. They are inexpensive enough that we should have many different pens-a different pen for all occasions, papers, and inks.
Idea Finder reports that the first commercial ballpoint pen was sold in New York in 1945 at Gimbels Department store for $12.50. With better inks of the time and an inventive spirit, Marcel Bich, a Frenchman, developed the inexpensive Bic pen in 1952 which sold for $0.19. Not just WWII pilots, but the common man had access to a rollered point writing instrument for everyday use.
JetPens has added some information as a guide to types of pens to consider. The main types of pens currently in use are ballpoint, gel, roller ball, and fountain pens. Each of these pens uses a different kind of ink, distinguished both by their material composition and their viscosity.
As stated earlier, Fountain pens are the oldest of these writing instruments. They rely solely on capillary action to draw ink from their self-contained ink reservoir. This requires a thin, water-based ink that will flow well and not damage the delicate internal structure of the pen if allowed to dry.
Now to recap the hollered tip technology. When the technology for a rolling ball tip was first developed, these “ballpoint” pens needed a very thick, oil-based ink to keep them from leaking.
Roller ball pens were later developed, and they were able to use a rolling ball tip with water-based ink similar to that used by fountain pens. In all roller pen devices that ball on the tip is actually a special metal that as crevices that capture ink as it moves around in the socket holding the tiny ball.
Gel pens are technically a subset of roller ball pens, since they also use water-based ink, but they use a much thicker ink that gives them a much different feel and performance from traditional roller ball pens (not to be confused with ballpoint), so they are almost always treated as a separate category.
Then you have the newest of the bunch: hybrid or “emulsion” ink pens. If you imagine that gel pens were invented as a way to make roller ball pens write more like a ballpoint, emulsion ink pens were invented to make ballpoint pens write more like a gel pen. They still use oil-based ink, making them a subset of ballpoint pens, but their ink is thinner, making it more consistent and less likely to clog or “glob” than a conventional ballpoint pen.
Pros and Cons:
Ballpoints are the most common, the most waterproof, and they can write on the widest range of surfaces (gel and roller ball pens aren’t good at writing on coated or glossy papers or on non-paper surfaces like skin). They also generally have the fewest color options and are the least pleasant to write with.
On the other hand, fountain pens have the smoothest writing and the widest color range of inks, but these inks are generally not waterproof and, having the “wettest” ink, are the most likely to bleed through lower-quality papers.
The other pens in between these two, with hybrid/emulsion pens being most similar to ballpoints, roller ball pens most similar to fountain pens, and gel pens about in the middle.
If you’re interested in pens there are some blogs that give a lot of information about inks and attributes of pen designs: The Pen Addict, The Clicky Post, Gourmet Pens, and Ed Jelley. For info on fountain pens specifically, The Fountain Pen Network is a good source.
Like most things in life, the devil is in the details, pens are no different.
Suggestions: Plan on buying a number of pens, don’t always consider the most expensive as being the best, try them out in your hand, keep a favorite for special occasion (signing documents, birthday cards, thank you notes), and keep a ball point, emulsion and fountain pen on hand in different color inks.
Thanks to JetPens for their input and research information. By the way, Jet Pens did not donate any pens for this article or pay for any mention. They are a good source for an extremely wide range of writing instruments.