If you have ever wondered what goes into making the most common writing instrument in the world, the ballpoint pen, you are not alone.
This article will break down the process of how ballpoint pens are made from a basic overview to the raw materials and the step by step manufacturing process that makes a ballpoint pen.
Let's start with a look at the basics..
How are ballpoint pens made: The Basic Process
How ballpoints are made is a relatively simple process.
A small metal ball is clamped into a chamber, loose enough to still roll and move and tight enough not to fall out, with one end opened into the ink reservoir and one end that exposes the ball.
The ink reservoir is filled with oil-based ballpoint ink.
Then, a barrel and grip are placed around the ball-and-socket mechanism and ink reservoir, and the ballpoint pen is ready to write.
Next up: what raw material is necessary to make a ballpoint pen.
The raw material of a ballpoint pen can vary greatly depending on what the material of the barrel, but as a general rule ballpoint pens are made with the following raw materials:
- Tungsten Carbide
- PPC (small pellets of plastic heated and molded into the needed shapes)
Ballpoint pen ink is a little harder to pinpoint down to specific raw ingredients since every manufacturer has a different proprietary formula. The general components of ballpoint pen ink are as follows:
- Pigment or dye: carbon, eosin, crystal violet, phthalocyanine blue, etc.
- Vehicle: Kerosine, linseed oil, rosin, etc.
- Lubricant: fatty acids like oleic acid
- Thickener: Tripropylene Glycol Methyl Ether, Glycol TPM, etc.
- Surfactant: polyoxyethylene alkylamine, polyoxyethylene alkylamide, alkylalkanolamide, etc.
Common materials used in ballpoint pens
Some of the other materials that you can come across in ballpoint pens include:
These materials are all most often used on the barrel or clip of the pen.
Luxury pens will use precious metals or rare materials. While different materials will be used for novelty pens that might include a flashlight or multifunction capabilities.
How Are Pens Made? A Look at the Manufacturing Process
Now let's break down the manufacturing process that goes into how pens are made.
Following proprietary formulas of each pen manufacturer, raw ingredients are added to a batch tank and mixed.
Some materials need to be heated or cooled to a certain temperature to yield the ideal cohesion of materials, in which case the ingredients will be added at specific times and increments.
Batch mixers may have automatic controls that release the materials at computerized intervals. Computerized batch mixers will also vary mixing times as necessary and inject the right pigments to create whatever color ink is being made.
Quality control tests are done on each batch of ink in the pen making process to ensure proper ink flow and measure the effectiveness of the ink.
The Plastic Components
The plastic components of pens are made with PPC pellets (or sometimes powder) that are measured and poured into a hopper.
Depending on the part being made and the manufacturer, the PPC pellets either move through an extruder or into an injection molder.
Both extrusion and injection molding have a similar methodology. But one of the major differences is that one heats the PPC to the consistency of putty while the other turns the pellets into a liquid.
For an extruder: the pellets move through a large spiral screw that heats the PPC into a thick putty-like substance. The high viscosity mass is pushed into a die where it cools to the desired shape, cut, and expelled.
Extruders are typically used only for simple shapes such as the pen barrels or refill cartridge.
For injection molding: the pellets are heated into a low viscosity liquid and injected into a mold where it cools and is ejected in the shape desired.
Injection molding is used in more complex shapes like the clip, cap, or pieces of a click mechanism.
The Metal Components
The metal components of a ballpoint pen generally consist of the ball, the pen tip that holds the ball, the spring and sometimes the body of the pen.
The balls of the pen are tungsten carbide balls that are purchased already made by the manufacturer.
An aside: the tungsten carbide ball is not actually a smooth round ball. The surface of the ball contains numerous divots and the ball itself is sometimes hollow, all so that the ball holds onto the ink better as it transfers it from the ink reservoir to the writing surface.
As for the rest of the metal components in a pen, the casting of the metal pieces is not unlike the extruding process for the plastic parts.
Small discs of metal (often brass, steel, or aluminum) are heated till they are malleable. The discs are then moved into a compression chamber corresponding to the shape desired.
A steel rod rams the metal into the chamber, forcing a spring backed ejector plunger to retract and pushing the metal disc into the die cast mold.
As the steel ram and the ejector plunger move back to their original positions, excess metal is removed and recycled and the die molded part is produced.
The Filling Process
Next, the ink refill barrel needs to be filled with ink.
There are two different methods for this process.
The plastic refill body and the metal ballpoint tip are joined. Ink is then injected into the refill through the tip of the pen.
The plastic barrel is filled with ink and joined to the metal tip. The refill is then placed in a centrifuge which spins the ink cartridge with such force that the ink moves within the ink chamber to the tip of the pen. Silicon is injected into the open hole of the refill to seal it.
How a Pen is made: step by step assembly
Now that all the parts have been manufactured, the pens must be assembled.
Capped Ballpoint Pens
Capped ballpoint pens like Cristal Bic Pens are the simplest when it comes to assemble.
Step 1: The ballpoints are pressed to the stamped metal tips/refill cartridge.
Step 2: This is placed inside the barrel of the pen and sealed.
Step 3: The point is capped and any additional seals, finishes, or decorations are added.
Click-Action Ballpoint Pens
Step 1: The plastic push button is dropped into the barrel, followed by the thrust device (also called the rotor).
Step 2: The ink cartridge is inserted tip side up.
Step 3: A steel spring is placed over the cartridge tip to provide resistance for the push mechanism.
Step 4: The barrel grip section is joined to the topside of the barrel, sealing the pen.
Step 5: Quality control testing is done on the click mechanism to make sure the metal tips eject and recede properly.
Twist-Action Ballpoint Pens
Twist-action ballpoint pens follow a similar assembly line process to the click-action ballpoint.
The only assembly line difference is the thrust device is inserted into the cap of the pen so when the pen cap is twisted the writing tip ejects.
Cost of making a ballpoint pen
In his incredibly informative article on the cost of manufacturing a ballpoint pen, Christoph Roser found pens, when bought in bulk from a manufacturer in China, available for a whopping $.035.
Roser estimates the cost of material and production at around $.0201 for the most entry level click-action ballpoint pen.
|Component||Weight (g)||Material||Material Cost ($)||Production Cost ($)|
Chart courtesy of Christoph Roser
Now for higher end luxury ballpoints, there really is no set price for expensive pens. Luxury goods and precious metals, not to mention craftsman labor, will all have major impacts on the cost of how luxury ballpoint pens are made.
What Are the Different Types of Ballpoint Pens?
What makes a ballpoint pen is the writing point (the ball-and-socket) and the oil-based ink that dispenses fast drying, paste ink which can write on most surfaces.
Within that category, there is a wide range of different types of ballpoint pens available by desired specifications.
By Color Ink
Black and blue are by far the most common ballpoint pen ink colors, but ballpoint pen ink can be found in any color with some manufacturers willing to custom color match to a desired color if pens are being bought in bulk.
The main ballpoint pen mechanisms are:
- Capped - the pen cap is removed in order to write
- Click-action - a button is placed either in the cap or along the barrel that ejects the ballpoint pen nib when the button is depressed to enable writing and re-pressed to retract the point
- Twist-action - the pen cap is twisted clockwise until it locks into place ejecting the writing point and counter-clockwise to retract the nib
Ballpoint pens can be found with plastic, metal, or wood finishes.
As a general rule, plastic pens are most often disposable, while metal and wood finishes contain an ink cartridge that can be replaced as needed.
Price point has the biggest impact on the finish of the pen. A plastic pen is often at the lowest end of the price range, sometimes costing only a few cents, while metal finished pens like gold, silver, or metal coated in high-quality lacquer can make a ballpoint pen cost hundreds of dollars.
Multifunction ballpoint pens will include some other kind of tool or functionality in addition to a ballpoint pen.
This may be as simple as a ballpoint pen that alternates between different colored ballpoint inks, or it can be as complex as a ballpoint pen that is also a multi-tool such as a USB drive, a clock, or a pocket-knife.
A novelty pen is any ballpoint pen that is made with some sort of fun or unique feature.
This could mean the entire pen is shaped like a car or an animal, or it could mean the barrel of the pen lights-up or glows in the dark.
A novelty pen typically has some sort of gimmick and are wood or plastic pens although you may find some luxury finishes in novelty pens.
What Was a Pen Made Of 1,000 Years Ago?
1,000 years ago pens were made out of whittled reeds or swan feathers cut into quills.
Pens could not retain large quantities of ink, so a naturally occurring hollow tube was cut into a point with a slit down the center of the point to channel the ink.
The pen was then dipped into ink repeatedly through the writing process to refill the hollow chamber.
The dip pen was eventually, though briefly, replaced with the fountain pen, but fountain pens had a short life as the most popular writing instrument due to the rise in manufacturing and the invention of ballpoint pens.
The rise of the ballpoint pen goes hand in hand with the rise of manufacturing. BIC pens in particular were the first mass manufactured pens that were easily accessible and cheap.
Now when you think of an average pen, ballpoint pens, not fountain pens or quills, come to mind.
Ballpoint pens are made with precision manufacturing equipment in a process that is pretty straightforward.
By molding and forming all the right parts into the right shapes and mixing the ink with a tried and true formula, thousands of ballpoints are made everyday that enhance the quality of writing worldwide.
What part of the manufacturing process did you find the most interesting?
Leave a comment or a question below.
And be sure to check out some of my other informative articles on ballpoint pens:
- How Do Fountain Pens Work?
- How to Remove Ballpoint Pen Ink Stains
- What Are The Best Brands of Fountain Pen?