Fountain Pen, Rollerball, and Ballpoint

"What's the difference?"

We hear this question all the time from our clients.

The style of pen you choose says a lot about the kind of person 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 probably have refined but not overly ostentatious tastes, and your job most likely requires a pen for constant 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, but it’s not everything. When you’re looking for the pen that best fits your persona, the ink style is just as important - if not more important - than the overall look.

There are four basic ink styles:

  • 1. Ballpoint
  • 2. Rollerball
  • 3. Fountain Pen
  • 4. Gel pen

Ballpoint Pens

Waterman Hemisphere Stainless Ballpoint

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. 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.

Ballpoints work just like the name suggests: there’s a little ball in the point that rolls on contact, cycling ink from the tube cartridge behind the ball onto the page. Most ballpoints are either click pens or twist-action.

Ballpoint ink is actually a kind of oil-based paste that dries really quickly and rarely smudges. This is why ballpoints often have that oily feel. But really great ballpoints like the Waterman Hemisphere Black with Gold Trim 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 a combination of both.

Rollerball Pens

Parker IM Rollerball

Rollerball pens like the Matte Blue Parker IM are a really great medium between ballpoints and fountain pens (more on those later). They use the same mechanics as a ballpoint, but they usually have water-based ink (though some use gel).

Water-based ink obviously acts a little differently than oil-based ink. It needs way less pressure to leave a line, and the ink seeps deeper into the page, giving it a really full, dark character. It makes signatures look really, really good. Rollerball pens are typically capped pens, to keep the ink from drying out.

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

Fountain Pens like the Waterman Expert and Cross Townsend are iconic writing instruments. 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 down the middle, forming what they call 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 middle fingers together and press down on the table. 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.

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. Some people really enjoy refilling their pen; it lets them feel more involved in the life of their pen. So refilling more often 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 then 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.


Which is best?



Like I said at the top, ink style is really important for communicating the kind of person you are. 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. Along the way, you might develop an affinity towards different barrel and ink styles, particular companies, and even the paper you use. If you’re buying a gift for someone else and you don’t know which ink style might best suit them, ballpoint and rollerball pens are probably the safest bet.