The Difference Between Rollerball & Ballpoint Pens

by Deborah Mitchum; Updated September 26, 2017
Ballpoint and rollerball pens look similar but provide different writing experiences.

Ballpoint and rollerball pens are popular writing tools due to their availability and reasonable prices. At first glance they may seem very similar because their construction is nearly identical, but the variety of inks they contain creates a wider range of characteristics than you may think. Knowing more can help you choose the right pen for your next project.

History

Hungarian journalist Laszlow Biro had the idea for the ballpoint pen as we know it today when he noticed that newsprint ink didn't smudge like the ink from his fountain pen. He and his chemist brother George discovered that the thicker ink would not flow properly in a fountain pen and devised another design featuring a ball bearing at the end of a shaft that distributed ink as the pen moved across paper. They applied for an English patent in 1938 and secured investors in Argentina, where they had political ties. At the inception of World War II they fled to Argentina and opened a factory. Initial models fell short of their expectations and they let the patent expire. Milton Reynolds, an American salesman on vacation in Argentina, copied their design and began production in the United States in 1945.

Similar patents had been granted previously, one in the U.S. in 1889 to leather tanner John Loud and one in 1916 to German inventor Van Vechten Reisenberg. Both designs lacked mass production viability due to design flaws.

Types

Ballpoint pens and rollerball pens use the same ball bearing and shaft reservoir construction. Ink viscosity is the only significant difference between these types. Ballpoint pens use oil-based viscous ink while rollerball pens use a thinner ink, most often water-based or gel-based. Disposable and refillable versions of both are sold. Ballpoint pens sometimes feature a retractable nib that further prevents the ink in its reservoir from drying. Gel-based rollerball pens produce an opaque ink due to a higher concentration of pigment.

Qualities of Ballpoint Pens

Ballpoint pens produce marks that dry quickly and risk little smudging or bleeding. The ink's higher viscosity requires more force to draw the ball across the page, making it necessary to press harder while writing with ballpoints. This is not necessarily a detraction, because ballpoints can be useful for filling out carbon copy documents. Even when left uncapped, the ink's thickness makes it less likely to leak out when left in a shirt pocket.

Qualities of Rollerball Pens

Commonly known as "gel pens," rollerball pens with gel-based inks are popular for craft projects.

Rollerball pens require less downward force and produce marks that feel fluid because the water-based ink flows rapidly from the reservoir. The wetter ink, however, takes a few moments to dry and may produce smudging or bleed through to a subsequent sheet of paper. Rollerball pens may produce fuzzy-looking lines when used on matte papers because the wet ink travels through small capillaries. Unlike ballpoint pens, rollerballs will leak readily if left uncapped. Rollerball pens that use gel-based inks share these qualities but offer a broader range of color options.

Misconceptions

Thanks to their affordability and availability, ballpoint pens may be seen as writing tools too low-brow for artists, but recently some artists have adopted them, praising their colorfast inks and ability to produce clean or feathered lines. Artists including Juan Francisco Casas demonstrate the high art potential of the humble pen by producing drawings so crisp they may seem like photographs at first glance. The pen's multiple line characteristics make versions of pointillist techniques possible.

About the Author

Deborah Mitchum began writing in 1998. Her work has appeared in "Rational Southwest," "The Saltpeter Review" and "The Macguffin." Mitchum holds a Bachelor of Arts in professional and technical writing from Carnegie Mellon University.

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