Pens Should Be Simple – Ballpoints Are Not Rocket Science

For many years I have bought pens I refer to as “non-statement” pens, and put them everywhere; in my cars, bedside, in all my coat/jacket pockets, in the spiral binding on my journal, golf bag and of course my office. From buying lots of pens I formed opinions about what ones are the best for my use. I like fountain pens too, but those are a different subject and they are really not practical for every application.

I have “statement pens” such as Lamy, Monte Blanc and Pelican that I like for high level meetings and signing documents (fountain pens primarily) but now I want to address some top-of-the-mind considerations in selecting economical, workhorse, office pens that you don’t mind being a little rough with.

It may be ridiculous to most, but pens are very personal tools for writing in business and for casual use. We all write letters, sign credit card receipts, we may keep logs and journal entries, etc. Sometimes we use pens for tools and sundry chores for which they were not intended; they may be abused is my point.

I want to bring the simple task of pen selection to a slightly higher level of consciousness. Here are some of my considerations when buying a new style pen. Bear in mind that the real task of a pen is to simply put ink on paper concisely, but still the process needs to be enjoyable and comfortable; it’s just nice to see something written with clean lines and might also communicate a subliminal message about your style; nice colored ink, no blobs, no smudges and the right thickness of ink.

Basically, there are 4 bottom-line considerations: the tactile aspect, look of the pen (the barrel), mechanicals (retractable or twist style), the ink formulation and how it performs relative to your needs, paper you write on, preferences, and the refill/cartridge design that comes with the pen. Probably in the end you are only interested in getting an impression or line of link on paper.

Here are some of the attributes you might consider when looking for an everyday yeoman’s type pen-ballpoint, gel, or rollerball.

Look and Feel

· How does it feel in your hand and specifically, how does it feel in the writing position? Some pens are fat and some thin and this is the first thing you will notice.

· Texture-because some people’s hand/fingers get oily or feel like they perspire, some kind of texturing in the area where you hold the pen is desirable. Smooth barrels tend to slip between the fingers during use.

· In the area where you hold the pen, is there a contour that naturally fits the fingers or is it perfectly round? The reason to consider this is, a pocket clip rubbing against the hand during writing can become annoying.

· Metal versus plastic-some all metal pens are heavier; that may be positive.

· Appoints-Most pens are all plastic and some come with chrome finished clips, silver tips and silver retractable plunger mechanisms. I get selective relative to the color of the barrel.

· Stick versus retractable pens-often a stick pen is what is called for, especially with a cap closure.

· Size of the refills/ink cartridge-I have one pen that is 0.30 mm and I never use it because of the width of the line and also a wimpy line of ink is not the image I want. Conversely, when I proof read documents I like a stick pen, red or burgundy ink color, and a 0.50 mm ink line.

· Writing environment-consider if you write in bed, in cold, or in damp weather. If you write in such environments you will be limiting your choices to 3 or 4 manufacturers who put out pens capable of writing in these conditions and angles.


Look and feel is only half of the equation, what about the ink and how that ink looks on paper? Ink color-I am in a wine related business and I like to write with burgundy colored ink. Some pens do not come in ink colors and yes, some pens do come with colored ink (in new pens) but they do not sell refills of that original color-go figure.

· Color-I prefer blue and burgundy colored ink. In companies they specify use of a certain color ink. For example, black ink shows up better when copying documents. Personally, I do not like black ink and is less impressionable.

· Styles-today pen manufacturers offer: ballpoint pen ink, gel, and a new emulsion type ink. Ballpoint inks have evolved and come in multiple colors, they dry quickly and the ink flows well. This latter point can also become a problem; the newer ballpoint ink formulations can leave blobs and bleed. Some new ballpoint pens also offer little resistance on the paper when writing as new ballpoint inks flow so smoothly. Some people like the positive feedback with a slight drag on paper.

· Gels don’t seem to be bold in color. In addition, with gel and emulsion inks, the ink seems to dry on the tip relatively quickly and when you start writing after a lengthy pause the ink is dry and the line of ink tends to skip or leave voids until the flow resumes.

· Emulsions still tend to have a bleed through issue with certain paper and colored ink selections.

Gels and Emulsions type inks I do not enjoy because they write with a gliding sensation. I like a pen that has a little bit of paper drag to them allowing me to be a little more deliberate in my writing style.


A common problem with all manufacturers is that some ink cartridges/tubes leave huge blobs of ink when writing cursively. Looping letters such as “S’s” or “T’s” are especially prone to lay down a thick blob where the pen changes direction quickly and does not dry quickly. Lefties are left with smudges.

Some pen designs made by major mass market manufacturers use proprietary refill designs for each style pen they make-gel, ballpoint, roller ball. One manufacture uses the Parker design refill for their pen refills but use a proprietary technology to put the ink under pressure to allow it to write in cold, heat, on damp surfaces and upside down.

The ink reservoir/refill/cartridge unit (whatever nomenclature you prefer) is the mechanism that contacts the paper to apply the ink. Often times a brand, or a style within the brand, has the refill that will drag, scratch or dig into the paper which causes the ink to seriously skip and leave a scratch mark on the paper. If you can live with that then no real issue.

An equally serious issue with some refills and their ink is that the ink will simply not get used up. Some of my refills still have tubes half full of ink that will not dispense. Even with some manipulation such as using hair dryers or running hot water over the ink tube, the ink simply will not start running again.

Interestingly, most mass market pens are manufactured in Japan. Brands such as Uni-ball, Zebra, Pentel, and Pilot are all Japanese brands. Bic owns many styles of ballpoint pens. If you include high-end pens and fountain pen manufacturers worldwide, there are about 115 manufacturers of all varieties of pens. It seems that some of the manufacturers have been around since the late 1800’s.

Personally I like smaller diameter pens, plastic or metal barrels, click retractable, burgundy and blue ballpoint ink, a refill with a 0.7 mm thickness ink tip, rubberized or textured grip and a metal pocket clip. I have found that all pens (ballpoint, gel or new emulsion inks) will skip and leave blobs of ink on paper. The one that fits my style best today are some of the Zebra styles.

Mass market pens are priced as high as $8.00 and as little as $0.50. But, I do remember when Bic ballpoint pens sold for $0.25 each, we called them Bic Bananas. For business purposes, pens are a standard promo product with personalized imprints. Some of these pens offer a very nice feel and quality of writing. There are hundreds of shapes and sizes of these promo pens and most can be had from $0.35 each to $2.50 each with advertising imprints with quantity orders.

Office supply chains do carry a vast supply of pens but they are bundled with multiple colors and quantities in a package. Yet some stores also have manufacture displays where you can try out pens. Personally, I have now reverted to going on-line to see available pens and read reviews. But if you think you are odd to be interested in a simple mass market pen, just check out pen blogs on-line; there are a plethora of blogs that focus on most all types of writing instruments, even the cheap “everyday” models.

Good hunting for that everyday pen that is your personal favorite that writes in a style that suits you.

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