How To Tell the Difference Between Ballpoint and Rollerball Pens

Behold the Subtle Differences Between Ballpoint and Rollerball Pens

Colored pens on the table

Ballpoint pens, in common use since the early 20th century, were hailed for their convenience. With their easy-to-use ball mechanism nib and long-lasting oil-based ink, they were far easier to use and carry than the traditional fountain pens of the day.

While the convenience was a breakthrough, many users missed the feel of a fountain pen and the look of its water-based ink on the page. Hence, the rollerball pen was introduced. The following are the key differences between ballpoint and rollerball pens:

  1. Distinguish between the different ink types. Rollerball pens are similar to ballpoint pens in that they use the same ball writing mechanism at the nib. The key difference however is that ballpoint pens use an oil-based ink which is quite viscous. Rollerball pens, on the other hand, generally use a more free flowing water-based ink which tends to saturate more deeply and widely into the paper than ballpoint ink. This gives writing performed with a rollerball pen the look of fountain pen ink on the page. For this reason, rollerball pens are often considered to be halfway between a ballpoint and a fountain pen. They have the convenience of a ballpoint pen but with the feel of a fountain pen.
  2. Notice how the nib is exposed. Most ballpoint pens use either a "push" mechanism or a "twist" mechanism whereby the user twists the barrel of the pen to introduce the nib. Rollerball pens, however, generally have a removable cap, much like a fountain pen. This is so that the water-based ink of the rollerball pen doesn't evaporate and dry out--an issue not generally experienced by the viscous oil-based ink of ballpoint pens. Premium brands such as Mont Blanc and Waterman rollerball pens are now being designed to avoid this problem.
  3. Consider the amount of pressure needed to write. Less pressure needs to be applied when writing with a rollerball pen, thus placing less stress on the hand.
  4. Observe the amount of time the ink takes to dry. The water-based ink of rollerball pens takes longer to dry, increasing the chances of smudging. The ink is more likely to "bleed" through the paper. Rollerball pens also use a greater amount of ink while writing compared to ballpoint pens. This means they generally run out of ink more quickly.

Nick is a long-time pen enthusiast and purveyor based in Melbourne, Australia.

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