The Ultimate Guide to Different Pen Styles: Ballpoint, Rollerball, Fountain Pen, and Gel Ink Pen

By Daniel Whitehouse

Two engraved pens sitting in pen holder

The Ultimate Guide to Different Pen Styles: Ballpoint, Rollerball, Fountain Pen, and Gel Ink Pen

By Daniel Whitehouse

"What's the difference?"

"What's the difference between ballpoints, rollerballs, fountain pens, and gel ink pens?"

We hear this question all the time from our clients.

The pen style you choose says a lot about who you are. This is because pens are more than just functional writing instruments: they’re symbols. These symbols subtly communicate to others. Oh, you’re a doctor who writes with a Black Cross Classic Century II Ballpoint? You might have refined but not overly ostentatious tastes, and your job most likely requires a pen that's going to get a lot of use. You’re a student majoring in English? Maybe a Waterman Hemisphere Black Fountain Pen will give you an extra bump of inspiration.

The barrel design of the pen is the first thing people see, and it communicates a lot about you to others. But it’s not everything.

When you’re looking for the pen that best fits your personality, the ink style is just as important - if not more important - than the overall look. 

There are four basic ink styles:

  • Ballpoint
  • Rollerball
  • Fountain Pen
  • Gel pen

Ballpoint Pens

Waterman Hemisphere Stainless Ballpoint Pen

Ballpoints are the most popular style of pen. The best things about ballpoints are how reliable and consistent they are. They’re also cheaper and easier to manufacture which means they’re basically everywhere: the Bic Cristal, for example, is the highest selling pen in history (selling 57 every second), and it’s even been put in the MoMA’s industrial design collection.

Ballpoint ink is actually a kind of oil-based paste that dries really quickly and rarely smudges. Ballpoint ink has a thick texture when it smudges before it's dry (of which most lefties are well aware), but really great ballpoints like the Waterman Hemisphere (pictured above) balance the smoothness of the ball with the viscosity of the ink, meaning smoother writing. If you get a ballpoint and it feels chalky, it’s probably because either the ink is too thick or the ball is not quite smoothed out (or both).

Rollerball Pens


Parker IM Rollerball Pen


Rollerball pens, like this Matte Blue Parker IM, are similar to ballpoints, but they're distinct: Rollerballs use the same mechanics as a ballpoint, but they usually have water-based ink (though some use gel). And most luxury rollerballs come with a cap rather than a twist-action retractor.

Water-based ink obviously acts a little differently than oil-based ink. Rollerballs need way less pressure to leave a line, taking less of a toll on your hand and wrist, and the ink seeps deeper into the page, giving it a really full, dark character. Basically, rollerballs make signatures look really, really good while also just being a little more forgiving on the hand. And while you'll probably run out of ink in your rollerball before your ballpoint because the water-based ink runs a lot quicker, don't worry: ink refills (especially Cross pen refills) are really affordable and easy to replace.

Here it is: the basic difference is that a rollerball pen is liquid ink while a ballpoint is a paste.

Fountain Pens

Waterman Expert Fountain Pen

Fountain Pens like the Waterman Expert (pictured above) and Cross Townsend are iconic writing instruments. Who doesn't love the elegant swoop of a fountain pen nib? It's just classy. But it's also functional.

Fountain pens have a replaceable ink cartridge or converter in the barrel, and they have a nib instead of a point. The nib is sort of like a wing with a cut running down the middle, forming what are called "tines". Ink flows between the tines down the ink channel.

When you press down on the page, the two tines spread out, causing more ink to flow down the channel between them. To illustrate, put your pointer and second fingers together and press down on a hard surface. As hard as you try to keep your fingers together, by virtue of the pressure put on them, they’ll spread out just a little bit. That's kind of how tines work.

The flexing tines actually give you better control over the thickness and darkness of the lines you make with the pen. But don’t press too hard, or else you might break the nib, especially if it’s made of solid gold.

Like the rollerball, fountain pen ink is water-based. The primary benefit of this is the sheer ease of writing, but you’ll also have to refill the ink more often. This isn't always a drawback: some people really enjoy refilling their pen; it lets them feel more involved in the life of their pen, a bit like a someone who works on their own car, but not as intense. Refilling more isn’t always a bad thing.

Gel Pens

Parker Jotter Gel Pen

Finally, gel pens also technically have water-based ink, but they have a higher color pigment to water ratio. In short, it’s got the same watery flow as a rollerball or fountain pen, but a thicker, more bold coloring. They work really well over dark colors or slick surfaces. They take a little longer to dry than any other ink style, but they’re also less likely to bleed through a page.

A great example of a gel pen, and a staff favorite, is the Parker Jotter. It's just great. It feels good in your hand, it's the perfect length, and the click is EXTRA satisfying.

Which is best?

Like I said at the top, ink style is really important for communicating your personality. However, you can only really figure out which style best fits you by trying one or more styles and comparing them. It might be good to think about getting a pen set, like this Cross Bailey Medalist Ballpoint and Fountain Pen Set, and working from there. Personalized pen sets will save you cash and maximize the value of your purchase, especially if you're trying to find out what writing style fits you best. And if you’re buying a gift for someone else, like a boss or coworker, and you don’t know which ink style might best suit them, ballpoint and rollerball pens are probably the safest bet. 

The process of trying out new luxury pens can be a lot of fun and really satisfying. Along the way, you might develop an affinity towards different barrel and ink styles, particular companies, and even the paper you use.  Your first engraved pen will really speak to others about who you, and that's just the beginning.


Daniel Whitehouse

Daniel is the President and CEO of Dayspring Pens. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their four children. Learn more about Daniel's bio.

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