What's the Difference...Ballpoint Pen, Rollerball Pen, Fountain Pen?
Updated: Nov 29, 2022
Ballpoint pens, rollerball pens, and fountain pens still abound in our digital world. Each broad category has its advantages amid widely overlapping price points.
Ballpoint pens are available as ballpoint click pens, also called retractable pens, and ballpoint twist pens. Ballpoint click pens are generally crafted with a single barrel and the mechanism to advance or retract the writing tip located at the opposite end. This design imparts a ballpoint click pen's biggest advantage — one handed operation when a quick note is needed. This is no small consideration when one's nondominant hand is left to deal with nuisances like steering wheels and drippy takeout. Ballpoint twist pens can also be crafted as single barrel pens but quite commonly are longer, two barrel pens. Their twist mechanisms for advancing and retracting the writing tip can be found near the tip, at the center band if present, or at the end opposite the tip. Would-be inattentive drivers will find the twist mechanism less convenient. Regardless of the design, most people are quite familiar with the ballpoint pen because of the ubiquitous "disposable" pens offered freely by just about every local business. Heck, my septic tank pumping guy even gave me one with the memorable slogan, "We'll take crap from anyone."
If ballpoint pens are the workhorses of the writing pen world, it is due to their versatility imparted by more viscous oil-based ink. It is this very quality that allows you to scribble phone numbers on bar napkins or idly doodle Van Dykes and thick glasses on glossy magazine models. Although some noodle-armed adults and toddlers complain about the staggering pressure required to use a ballpoint, that tiny captive ball inside the writing tip does an amazing job of dispensing ink for tens of thousands words. The oil-based ink technology is so fantastic you can even fail to retract the writing tip and find your pen operable days later! We can't even malign the humble ballpoint pen for leaking, bleeding, or smudging much on writing surfaces. Lefties take note. Ballpoint pens deliver the near permanence you need when your signature needs to be extant years from now.
Rollerball pens also utilize a captive ball in the writing tip to dispense their ink hence the "ball" included in the name. However, the key difference from a traditional ballpoint pen is the ink in rollerball pens is a less viscous water based ink. This water based ink comes close to simulating the free flow of a fountain pen but with the simplicity of cartridge refills. Often thought of as "writers' pens," rollerball pens glide well across good quality writing paper, journal paper, and cardstock. This status as a writer's pen is also due in part to the finer line laid down by rollerball pens. For instance, a medium ballpoint pen and a medium rollerball pen will lay down lines 1.0 mm wide and 0.7 mm wide respectively. For more on writing pen tip size, please see What Is the Best Writing Pen Tip Size? Since rollerball pen ink is water based, the ink will evaporate more readily. Therefore, idle rollerball pens should be capped. Since rollerball pens tend to be larger overall than many ballpoint pens, capped rollerball pens make statement pens for elegant desks. Their larger size is also desirable for folks that just enjoy a larger, hand-filling pen or perhaps struggle with ailments like arthritis.
Fountain pens were once the standard until the 1960s ushered in advancements in ballpoint pen technology that supplanted their dominance. Most folks owned one or two quality fountain pens. When properly maintained, a fountain pen, and even its original writing tip called the nib, could often "outlive" its owner gaining status as family heirlooms. However, like many things in recent decades, the human desire for "easy" spelled the doom of the fountain pen.
Fountain pens like all worthwhile things require an investment of time. This might begin with just learning how to fill a new fountain pen (plug and play cartridge or from a bottle) or how to store it when not in use (vertically or horizontally...that depends). Importantly, fountain pen owners must be patient enough to learn a new fountain pen's idiosyncrasies. These individual characteristics stem from a fountain pen's ink feed mechanism to the nib and the nib itself. New owners tend to apply too much pressure to a fountain pen nib when very little is necessary. Fountain pen nibs glide easily on ink which is dispensed in what can be thought of as a very "controlled leak." The metal nib may be stiff like a modern ballpoint or more flexible than an owner too impatient to learn and coax it through a "break in" period. Fountain pens are so individualistic that fountain pen afficionados often maintain a suite of fountain pens, nibs, and inks to complement their writing mood. Fountain pens will deliver a smooth, authentic writing experience that with deliberate practice can even improve one's penmanship. Like rollerball pens, fountain pens are often considered beautiful accessories to any well appointed desk.