Choosing the perfect pen for the job has never been easier with our simple guide
Arguably the most common tool for everyday writing, the ballpoint pen dispenses ink by channelling it down a plastic reservoir over a small, hard ball which is free to roll on contact with paper. The sphere is usually made of made of brass, steel or tungsten carbide, between 0,7 and 1,2mm in diameter. The ink used in ballpoint pens is a paste, based on a dye mixed into an alcohol solvent. The ink dries almost immediately on contact with paper and is not prone to smudging or leaking. These pens have the advantage of being reliable and affordable. They also last longer than other types of pens.
A rollerball pen dispenses ink through a ball tip similar to that of a ballpoint pen. Rollerball pens were initially designed to combine the convenience of a ballpoint pen with the smooth, “wet ink” effect of a fountain pen. A tiny ball, between 0,5mm and 0,7mm in diameter, transfers the ink from the reservoir onto the paper. Rollerball pens after a smooth writing experience as the instrument moves easily across the writing surface. The inks used in rollerball pens are either liquid inks or gel-based inks, and are less viscous and therefore more easily absorbed by paper. Rollerball pens can be prone to smudging, leaking and bleeding through the paper. If the cap if left off a rollerball pen, the ink tends to dry out.
A gel pen uses ink in which the pigment is suspended in a water-based gel. This makes the ink thick and opaque, allowing it to show up clearly on dark surfaces.
Gel pens are similar to rollerballs, and consist of a barrel with the writing mechanism and a cap, and a reservoir filled with ink. The barrels can be created in many different sizes and designs, and may contain rubber or plastic finger grips. The average size of a gel pen’s nib ranges from 0,18mm to 1,5mm. Gel pens can create bolder lines and may be able to write on unusual surfaces. The gel ink does not bleed through most papers. However, these pens are prone to smudge more, due to the ink being wetter. They also skip occasionally, as the ball is less evenly coated with ink, and they are more likely to leak. Gel pens use more ink than other types of pens, and therefore require frequent refills or replacements.
These pens have a porous tip of fibrous material. The smallest, finest-tipped markers are used for writing on paper, while medium-tip markers are often used by children for colouring and drawing. The larger markers are used for writing on boxes, whiteboards and for chalkboards in the form of permanent and whiteboard markers. Highlighters also fall into the felt-tip pen category, as do election and security markers. The latter pens contain fluorescent inks that only show up under special lighting conditions.
Pens for art
Originally available in blue ink or black, and later red and green, pens now come in a much wider range of colours. Gel pens in particular are available in myriad colours, including metallic colours like gold and bronze; glitter effects; neon colour; pastel tones; invisible ink; glow-in-the-dark inks; and other vibrant shades.
Archival pens contain ink that is permanent, durable and chemically stable. This means that anything written or drawn in this type of ink will last longer over time than items created in traditional ink. Archival ink is used for preservation purposes, ensuring pieces will not fade over time. Pens labelled as suitable for archival use are tested to be fade-resistant, lightfast, bleed-proof and waterproof.
A fountain pen is a type of pen that delivers water-based liquid ink through a nib. The ink flows from a reservoir through a “feed” to the nib, and then through it. The nib has no moving parts and delivers ink through a thin slit to the writing surface by means of gravity.
Fountain pen reservoirs can be refillable or disposable. A pen with a refillable reservoir uses a piston-like mechanism to draw ink from a bottle through the nib. Alternatively, it must be refilled with an eyedropper. Refill reservoirs, also known as cartridge converters, are available for some pens which use disposable ink cartridges.
Fountain pen nibs
A fountain pen will only write as well as the nib it is paired with, and therefore is an important consideration when choosing your pen.
A nib is a thin, pointed piece of metal which draws ink from inside the pen and channels it through a small slit using capillary action.
The four most important characteristics when choosing a fountain pen nib are tip shape, tip size, flexibility and the material the nib is made from.
Nib tips can be shaped in different ways, allowing the user to create different kinds of lines.
The vast majority of fountain pen nibs have round tips, which create uniform lines regardless of the direction or orientation of the nib to the paper. Another type of tip is the calligraphy (or italic) nib.
They are wide and flat, creating wide vertical strokes and narrow horizontal strokes, and are ideal for calligraphy. However, they require more practice and attention to use than round nibs. Other nibs shapes are less common and more specialised. They include left-handed, oblique, zoom and Arabic/Hebrew nibs.
The tip size of a nib will have the biggest impact on how a fountain pen writes. A larger tip size will create wide lines suitable for bold writing, while smaller tip sizes create a line width closer to that of a typical ballpoint or gel pen. There are four tip sizes: extra fine, fine, medium and broad.
The most common italic nib sizes are medium italic (1,1 mm). Japanese fountain pens typically have much smaller tips than non-Japanese or “Western” brands, due to the denser, more complex nature of Japanese writing.
Broader nibs often have higher ink flow than finer nibs, resulting wider and thicker lines. The faster ink flow lubricates the nib to create a smoother, more effortless writing experience. It is, however, more likely to feather and bleed.
Finer nibs have a more controlled flow, making them more tolerant of varying qualities of paper. They are, however, not as smooth as broader nibs and can dig into the paper.
Line width is determined by the type of ink and paper used, as well as the pressure placed on the nib, which causes it to splay. The amount a nib will splay is called its flexibility. Nibs used to have much higher degrees of flexibility when scripts such as Copperplate were in regular use.
Modern fountain pens use firm nibs that have little flexibility, and even “flexible” varieties are quite firm.
Nibs are made from gold or stainless steel, but the material has little impact on the output of the fountain pen.
Although these types of pens are no longer in common, some calligraphers and artists use them:
A dip pen (or nib pen) consists of a metal nib mounted on a handle made of wood. It has no ink reservoir and must be dipped continuously when drawing or writing. The nib works on the same premise as a fountain pen, and has a few advantages. It can use waterproof inks, such as India ink; drawing ink; acrylic inks, which clogs a fountain pen; or iron gall ink, which can cause corrosion in a fountain pen. Dip pens are now mainly used in illustration, calligraphy, and comics.
The ink brush is the traditional writing implement used in East Asian calligraphy. It is made from bamboo, or red sandalwood, glass, ivory, silver, and gold. The head of the brush is made from the hair (or feathers) of a wide variety of animals, such as chicken, goat or rabbit.
Modern Asian calligraphy may also be done using a pen, but pen calligraphy does not enjoy the same prestige as traditional brush calligraphy.
A quill is a pen made from a flight feather of a large bird such as a goose. Quills were used as instruments for writing with ink before the metal dip pen, fountain pen and ballpoint pen came into use. Quill pens were used in medieval times to write on parchment or paper.
A reed pen was a pen cut from a reed or bamboo, with a slit in a narrow tip. Its mechanism is essentially similar to that of a quill. The reed pen has almost disappeared, although it is sometimes still used by young school students in some parts of India and Pakistan. The quill replaced reed pens.
3D pens, such as the 3Doodler and Lix, are essentially tools filled with malleable, melt-able filament that enable you to sketch in the air in any design you please. Some pens are large and bulky, while the newer ones are shaped more like the pens we know and love. Coloured plastic is melted and extruded through the nozzle of the pen. Once the melted plastic is exposed to air, it immediately cools and hardens. This allows it to hold its shape and become a free standing structure.
A pen that picks colours
There is a new prototype called the Scribble Pen which allows users to draw in 160-million colours.
The Scribble Pen is a real-life colour-picker that is capable of first sampling and then drawing in 16 million different shades. It is about the same size as a felt-tip pen, but contains a 16-bit RGB colour sensor and microprocessor on one end. The colour picked is then mixed in the barrel of the pen, using water-based dye inks in the usual cyan, magenta, yellow and black, and white too.
The pen is capable of saving 100 000 unique colours in its internal memory. The nib is self-cleaning and doesn’t clog up. The inks are available in individual cartridges.
The pen was launched on Kickstarter for $150 (R2 100) and will likely sell for around $300 (R4 200).
Pens that scan
A new range of pens takes portable scanning power to a whole new level of productivity and professionalism. Scanner pens, such as the DocuPen, offer high-quality image scans while boosting organisation and improving efficiency.
These pens have rechargeable batteries, RAM to store scans with, and some even have a microSD expansion.
They work in a similar way to highlighters in that they must be pulled over the surface of the paper.
The size of a pen scanner is not much larger than a ballpoint pen. They can connect to computers in a variety of ways. Some have USB connectors while others are wireless.