Ballpoint Pens

A ballpoint pen, also known as a “biro” and “ball pen”, is a pen that dispenses ink over a metal ball at its point, i.e. over a “ball point.” The metal commonly used is steel, brass, or tungsten carbide. It was conceived and developed as a cleaner and more reliable alternative to quill and fountain pens, and it is now the world’s most-used writing instrument.

The first patent for a ballpoint pen was issued on October 30, 1888, to John J. Loud, a leather tanner, who was attempting to make a writing instrument that would be able to write on his leather products, which then-common fountain pens could not.

Although Loud’s ballpoint pen could be used to mark rough surfaces such as leather, as Loud intended, it proved to be too coarse for letter writing. With no commercial viability, its potential went unexploited and the patent eventually lapsed.

László Bíró,László Bíró, a Hungarian newspaper editor frustrated by the amount of time that he wasted filling up fountain pens and cleaning up smudged pages, noticed that inks used in newspaper printing dried quickly, leaving the paper dry and smudge free. He decided to create a pen using the same type of ink. Bíró enlisted the help of his brother György, a chemist, to develop viscous ink formulas for new ballpoint designs.  Bíró’s innovation successfully coupled ink-viscosity with a ball-socket mechanism, which act compatibly to prevent ink from drying inside the reservoir while allowing controlled flow.  Bíró filed a British patent on 15 June 1938.

The manufacture of economical, reliable ballpoint pens as we know them arose from experimentation, modern chemistry, and precision manufacturing capabilities of the early 20th century.

Ballpoint pens are great for when you need:

  • A rugged pen tip that will receive harsh use
  • The need to press hard on paper, such as through carbon forms
  • To change pen colors quickly
  • To loan your pen to others

Rollerball Pens

Roller ball pens are pens, which use ballpoint-writing mechanisms with water-based liquid or gelled ink, as opposed to the oil-based viscous inks found in ballpoint pens. These less viscous inks, which tend to saturate more deeply and more widely into paper than other types of ink, give roller ball pens their distinctive writing qualities. The writing point is a tiny ball, usually 0.5 or 0.7 mm in diameter that transfers the ink from the reservoir onto the paper as the pen moves.

Rollerball pens were introduced in 1963 by Ohto, Japan who was at the time known as Auto Japan. There are two main types of roller ball pens: liquid ink pens and gel ink pens. The first type uses an ink and ink supply system similar to a fountain pen, and they are designed to combine the convenience of a ballpoint pen with the smooth “wet ink” effect of a fountain pen.

Advantages of Rollerball Pens

Gel inks usually contain pigments, while liquid inks are limited to dyestuffs, as pigments will sink down in liquid ink (sedimentation). The thickness and suspending power of gels allows the use of pigments in gelled ink, which yields a greater variety of brighter colors than is possible in liquid ink. Gels also allow for the use of heavier pigments with metallic or glitter effects, or opaque pastel pigments that can be seen on dark surfaces.

Liquid ink roller ball pens flow extremely consistently and skip less than gel ink pens do. The lower viscosity of liquid ink increases the likelihood of consistent inking of the ball, whereas the higher viscosity of gel ink produces “skipping”, that is, occasional gaps in lines or letters.

In comparison to ballpoint pens:

  • Less pressure needs to be applied to the pen to have it write cleanly. This permits holding the pen with less stress on the hand, saving energy and improving comfort. This can also translate to quicker writing speeds. This is especially true of liquid ink pens.
  • The inks usually have a greater range of colors due to the wider choice of suitable water-soluble dyes and/or to the use of pigments.

They tend to write more clearly than ballpoint pens do.

In summary, you may want a rollerball pen if:

  • Want a more permanent ink, since the ink flows more into the fibers of the paper
  • Want a smooth writing experience, since ink is thinner and flows easily
  • Need less effort to write, great for arthritis or for quicker writing speed
  • Want more colors of ink, since water-soluble dye allows for greater color ranges
  • Need the ability to have a finer point tip

Disadvantages of Roller Ball Pens

There are a number of disadvantages inherent to roller ball pens:

    • Water-based roller ball ink is more likely to smudge than a ballpoint pen’s oil-based ink because water-based ink dries more slowly than its counterpart. Also if one writes in a notebook, closing it before the ink dries can stain the opposite page. Gel ink dries much more rapidly than liquid-ink, making it much more, but not completely, resistant to smudging. This can also prove a problem for left-handed writers.
    • Roller ball pens with liquid-ink are more likely to “bleed” through the paper. Liquid ink is more readily absorbed into the paper due to its lower viscosity. This viscosity also causes problems when leaving the tip on the paper (to pause for a thought for example). The bleed-through effect is greatly increased as the ink is continually absorbed into the paper, creating a blotch. This does not affect gel-ink roller ball pens as much. This is one way through which the thickness of gel-ink gives it an advantage, in that it isn’t as prone to being absorbed. Though the bleed-through effect of a gel-ink roller ball is greater than that of a ballpoint, it is usually not too significant.
    • Roller ball pens generally run out of ink more quickly than ballpoints because roller balls use a greater amount of ink while writing. This is especially true of liquid-ink roller balls, due to gel ink having a low absorption rate as a result of its thickness. Neither lasts as long as a ballpoint.
    • Uncapped roller ball pens are more likely to leak ink when, for example, placed into a shirt pocket, but most pens include caps or other mechanisms to prevent this from happening.
    • A roller ball tip is more likely to clog and jam when writing over correction fluid that has not yet completely dried. This often renders the ink cartridge useless.
    • Roller ball pens generally run out of ink more quickly than ballpoints because roller balls use a greater amount of ink while writing. This is especially true of liquid-ink roller balls, due to gel ink having a low absorption rate as a result of its thickness. Neither lasts as long as a ballpoint.
    • A liquid-ink roller ball may leak during flight on an airplane with a pressurized cabin, although variations that are leak-proof are created to be airplane safe.


Fountain Pens

A fountain pen evokes the memory of the type of pen used hundreds of years ago, where the pen tip was dipped into ink.  The first fountain pens making use of all the key ingredients appeared in the 1850s.  In the 1880s the era of the mass produced fountain pen finally began.  At this time fountain pens were almost all filled by unscrewing a portion of the hollow barrel or holder and inserting the ink by means of an eyedropper—a slow and messy procedure. Although these pens are still had by enthusiasts, modern fountain pens use ink cartridges, so they combine the convenience of the modern dye-based inks with the smooth writing experience of the nib. During the 1940s and 1950s, fountain pens retained their dominance: early ballpoint pens were expensive, were prone to leaks and had irregular ink flow.  The fountain pen continued to benefit from the combination of mass production and craftsmanship. This period saw the launch of innovative models such as the Parker 51, the Aurora 88, the Sheaffer Snorkel, and the Eversharp Skyline and (later) Skyliner, while the Esterbrook J series of lever-fill models with interchangeable steel nibs offered inexpensive reliability to the masses.

   These pens are great when:

  • You want to make a statement as the pen has a distinctive look
  • Want a status symbol or a pen that serves as a piece of art
  • Want the permanence of ink that flows into the paper
  • Want to write easily and smoothly with little effort
  • Have the convenience of cartridges to replace the ink colors
  • You want ability to have a finer point tip

No matter which type of pen you choose, select one that uses quality materials and workmanship.  You won’t be disappointed with a high-quality handmade pen.


The modern fountain pen nib may be traced back to the original gold nib which had a tiny fragment of ruby attached to form the wear-point. Following the discovery of the Platinum group of metals, which include ruthenium, palladium, osmium and iridium, a small quantity of iridium was isolated and used on the iridium-tipped gold dip pen nibs of the 1830s. Today, nibs are usually made of stainless steel or gold alloys, with the most popular gold content being 14 carat (58 1/3%) and 18 carat (75%). Gold is considered the optimum metal for its flexibility and its resistance to corrosion, although gold’s corrosion resistance is less of an issue than in the past because of better stainless steel alloys and less corrosive inks. Gold nibs are tipped with a hard, wear-resistant alloy that typically uses metals from the platinum group. The tipping material is often called “iridium”, but there are few, if any, pen makers that still use tipping alloys containing the metal. Steel nibs may also have harder tips; those with un-tipped steel points will wear more rapidly due to abrasion by the paper.

The nib usually has a slit cut down its center, to convey the ink down the nib by capillary action, as well as a “breather hole” of varying shape to promote the exchange of air for ink in the pen’s reservoir. The breather hole also acts as a stress relieving point, preventing the nib from cracking longitudinally from the end of the slit as a result of repeated flexing during use. The whole nib narrows to a point where the ink is transferred to the paper. Broad calligraphy pens may have several slits in the nib to increase ink flow and help distribute it evenly across the broad point. Nibs divided into three ‘tines’ are commonly known as ‘music’ nibs, as their line, which can be varied from broad to fine, is suited for writing musical scores. Although the most common nibs end in a round point of various sizes (fine, medium, broad), various other nib shapes are available. Examples of this are oblique, reverse oblique, stub, italic and 360 degree nibs. Flexibility is given to nibs in several ways: first, thickness of the nib metal changes flex. When the nib alloy has been pressed thick it will result in a hard nib, while thinly pressed nibs are more flexible. Nibs can be pressed so that it is thinner at the tip and thicker at the feed to mitigate stiffness or to give a more controlled flex. Second, the curve of the nib determines in part how stiff the nib will be. Nibs pressed into more deeply convex curves, or into three or five faceted curves, will be stiffer than flatter nibs. Third, the “breather hole” size, shape, and position alter the stiffness. Heart shaped holes will improve flex as they widen, while round, small holes stiffen the pen. Fourth, the length of the tines determines how far they can spread under pressure.  Shorter tines make a stiffer nib. Fifth, the alloy used can affect stiffness: as mentioned before, gold is considered superior for its flex compared to steel. Moreover purer gold (18k, 21k) is softer than most lower gold (14k) concentration alloys.

Fountain pens dating from the first half of the 20th century are more likely to have flexible nibs, suited to the favored handwriting styles of the period. By the 1940s, writing preferences had shifted towards stiffer nibs that could withstand the greater pressure required for writing through carbon paper to create duplicate documents. Furthermore, competition between the major pen brands such as Parker and Waterman, and the introduction of lifetime guarantees, meant that flexible nibs could no longer be supported profitably. In countries where this rivalry was not present to the same degree, for example the UK and Germany, flexible nibs are more common. Nowadays, stiff nibs are the norm as people exchange between fountain pens and other writing modes. These more closely emulate the ballpoint pens modern users are experienced with, but are often described as feeling like “writing with a nail” by those who prefer the feel of a more flexible nib. More flexible nibs can be easily damaged by ballpoint users who write with excessive pressure. Ideally, a fountain pen’s nib glides across the paper using the ink as a lubricant, and requires no pressure.

Users are often cautioned not to lend or borrow fountain pens as the nib “wears in” at an angle unique to each individual person. A different user is likely to find that a worn-in nib does not write satisfactorily in their hand and, furthermore, creates a second wear surface, ruining the nib for the original user. This, however, is not a point of concern in pens with modern, durable tipping material, as these pens take many years to develop any significant wear.

Filling Mechanisms

The reservoirs of the earliest fountain pens were mostly filled by eyedropper. This was a cumbersome and potentially messy process, which led to the commercial development of alternative methods that quickly dominated the industry. However, newer, more convenient filling mechanisms have never entirely displaced “eyedropper-filling” pens in the marketplace, and they remain widely manufactured today. For some the simplicity of the mechanism, coupled with the large volume of ink it can encapsulate, compensates for the inconvenience of ink transfer.

After the eyedropper-filler era came the first generation of mass-produced self-fillers, almost all using a rubber sac to hold the ink. The sac was compressed and then released by various mechanisms to fill the pen.

The Conklin crescent filler, introduced c. 1901, was one of the first mass-produced self-filling pen designs. The crescent filling system employs an arch-shaped crescent attached to a rigid metal pressure bar, with the crescent portion protruding from the pen through a slot and the pressure bar inside the barrel. A second component, a C-shaped hard rubber ring, is located between the crescent and the barrel.

In 1907 Walter A. Sheaffer patented the Lever filler, using a hinged lever set into the pen barrel, which pressed down onto a bar, which in turn compressed the rubber sac inside, creating a vacuum to force ink into the pen. Introduced in 1912, this innovation was rapidly imitated by the other major pen makers. Parker introduced the button filler, which had a button hidden beneath a blind cap on the end of the barrel; when pressed, it acted on a pressure bar inside to depress the ink sac.


Inks intended for use with fountain pens are water-based. These inks are commonly available in bottles. Plastic cartridges came into use in the 1960s, but bottled inks are still the mainstay for most fountain pen enthusiasts. Bottled inks usually cost less than an equivalent amount in cartridges and afford a wider variety of colors and properties.

As fountain pens are not tightly coupled with their inks as is with ballpoints or gel pens. Some care must be taken when selecting ink. Contemporary fountain pen inks are almost exclusively dye-based because pigment particles usually clog the narrow passages.

Traditional iron gall inks intended for dip pens are not suitable for fountain pens as they will corrode the pen (a phenomenon known as flash corrosion) and destroy the functionality of the fountain pen. Instead, modern surrogate iron gall formulas are offered for fountain pens. These modern iron gall inks contain a small amount of ferro gallic compounds, but are gentler for the inside of a fountain pen, but can still be corrosive if left in the pen for a long period. To avoid corrosion on delicate metal parts and ink clogging a more thorough than usual cleaning regime – which requires the ink to be flushed out regularly with water – is sometimes advised by manufacturers or resellers.

Some pigmented inks do exist for fountain pens, but these are uncommon. Normal India ink cannot be used in fountain pens because it contains shellac as a binder, which would very quickly clog such pens.

Inks ideally should be fairly free flowing, free of sediment, and non-corrosive, though this generally excludes permanence and prevents large-scale commercial use of some colored dyes. Proper care and selection of ink will prevent most problems


A patent for an ink cartridge system for fountain pens was filed in 1890. In the early 20th century, cartridges made from glass and thin copper tubing were made. However, the concept only became successful and popular after the introduction of molded plastic cartridges, firstly by Waterman in 1953.

Most European fountain pen brands (for example Caran d’Ache, Faber-Castell, Michel Perchin, DuPont, Montegrappa, Stipula, Pelikan, Montblanc, Monteverde, Sigma, Delta, Italix and Rotring) and some pen brands of other continents (for example Acura, Bexley, Retro51, Tombow and Platinum (with adapter)) use so called “international cartridges” (AKA “European cartridges” or “standard cartridges” or “universal cartridges”), in short (38 mm in length, about 0.75 ml of capacity) or long (72 mm, 1.45 ml) sizes, or both. It is to some extent a standard, so the international cartridges of any manufacturer can be used in most fountain pens that accept international cartridges.

Also, converters that are meant to replace international cartridges can be used in most fountain pens that accept international cartridges. Some very compact fountain pens (for example Waterman Ici et La and Monteverde Diva) accept only short international cartridges. Converters cannot be used in them (except for so-called mini-converters by Monteverde). Some pens like modern Waterman pens have intentional fittings, which prevent the usage of short cartridges. Such pens can only take a proprietary cartridge from the same maker, in this case the long Waterman cartridges.

Also, converters that are meant to replace international cartridges can be used in most fountain pens that accept international cartridges. Some very compact fountain pens (for example Waterman Ici et La and Monteverde Diva) accept only short international cartridges. Converters cannot be used in them (except for so-called mini-converters by Monteverde). Some pens like modern Waterman pens have intentional fittings, which prevent the usage of short cartridges. Such pens can only take a proprietary cartridge from the same maker, in this case the long Waterman cartridges.

Many fountain pen manufacturers have at various times developed their own proprietary cartridges, for example Parker, Lamy, Sheaffer, Cross, Sailor, Platinum, Platignum, Waterman and Namiki. Fountain pens from Aurora, Hero, Duke and Uranus accept the same cartridges and converters that Parker uses and vice versa (Lamy cartridges, though not officially, are known to interchange with Parker cartridges also). Cartridges of Aurora are slightly different from cartridges by Parker. Hero, Duke and Uranus have made few fountain pens that take international cartridges. Corresponding converters to be used instead of such proprietary cartridges are usually made by the same company that made the fountain pen itself. Some very compact fountain pens accept only proprietary cartridges made by the same company that made that pen, for example Sheaffer Agio Compact and Sheaffer Prelude Compact. It is not possible to use a converter in them at all. In such pens the only practical way to use another brand of ink is to fill empty cartridges with bottled ink using a syringe.


Today, fountain pens are often treated as luxury goods and sometimes as status symbols. Fountain pens may serve as an everyday writing instrument, much like the common ballpoint pen. Good quality steel and gold pens are available inexpensively today, particularly in Europe and China, where there are “disposable” fountain pens such as the Pilot Varsity. In France, in particular, the use of fountain pens is well spread. To avoid mistakes special ink that can be made invisible by applying ink eradicator is used.

Fountain pens can serve various artistic purposes such as expressive penmanship and calligraphy, pen and ink artwork, and professional art and design. Many users also favor a fountain pen’s air of timeless elegance, personalization and sentimentality, which computers and ballpoint pens seem to lack, and often state that once they start using fountain pens, ballpoints become awkward to use due to the extra motor effort needed and lack of expressiveness.

For ergonomics, fountain pens may relieve physiological stress from writing; alternatives such as the ballpoint pen can induce more pain and damage to those with arthritis. Some also believe they could improve academic performance. In some countries, fountain pens are usual in lower school grades, believed to teach children better control over writing as many common mistakes of people not used to handwriting (like too much pressure or incorrect hold) feel unnatural or are almost impossible when using traditional pen tips.

Some fountain pens are prized as works of art. Ornate pens may be made of precious metals and jewels with cloisonné designs. Some are inlaid with lacquer designs in a process known as makie.  Avid communities of pen enthusiasts collect and use antique and modern pens and also collect and exchange information about old and modern inks, inkbottles, and inkwells. Collectors may decide to use the antiques in addition to showcasing them in closed spaces such as glass displays.