The best ink pen
While the concept of applying ink to paper with a stylus can be traced back to ancient Egypt and China, the modern self-contained ink pen is a relatively new invention. Split quills gave way to metal nibs, then morphed into self-filling fountain pens, and finally to the modern ballpoint pen. Even in an age where most printing is done electronically, there are still times when a ballpoint pen performs an essential function, such as an authorized signature or a last-minute edit.
Ink pens can also be used in artistic ways, as with cartoon inking or freehand drawing. Many English teachers still prefer to use a red pen to grade their students' work, and color-coding paperwork is a common practice in offices. Higher-end ink pens make great gifts, especially as part of a quality writing set.
If you are in the market for a collection of everyday ink pens or a special writing tool, read our buying guide. At the top of our list is Paper Mate's InkJoy Retractable Ballpoint Pens, an affordable set of retractable ballpoints with a wide array of colors to choose from.
Considerations when choosing ink pens
Although modern ballpoint pens are arguably the most popular form found on desks today, there are several other types of ink pens available, each with their advantages and disadvantages. For calligraphy and other formal writing, some users prefer the line produced by a fountain pen. Ink flows through a cartridge inside the barrel, and a split metal nib creates the writing point. These pens can be messy, however, and the writing nib only works in one direction at a time.
The classic ballpoint pen contains a tube of pressurized ink that flows to a tight-fitting metal ball bearing. As the bearing rotates, it deposits a line of ink onto the writing surface. Ballpoint pens can create a line in any direction -- even upside-down -- but can run out of ink without warning. The quality of the line can also be variable.
A felt-tip pen uses an ink-saturated capsule to deliver a bold, smooth line. Felt-tip pens are available in a wide array of colors and are often used for creative projects. The ink inside a felt-tip pen can dry quickly if not properly sealed, however, and it doesn't work well on certain writing surfaces.
When fountain pens were still in vogue, users generally had to choose between blue or black ink. When the ballpoint pen became popular, manufacturers started offering other shades, primarily red and green. These additional colors became a form of shorthand, indicating corrections or approvals. Ink color makes a difference under certain conditions, since some electronic ink readers cannot "see" shades other than dark blue or black.
It's not unusual to find sets of felt-tip pens in different colors marketed toward visual artists and coloring-book enthusiasts. The depth and quality of color can vary from set to set.
Ease of use
The shape and size of an ink pen's barrel plays a major role in how comfortable it is to use. Some models contain ergonomically designed channels or grooves to guide the user's fingers into position. Others have a smooth, tapered barrel that requires a stronger grip for control. A barrel that is too large or too small can cause unwanted hand fatigue. The ink pen should also feel balanced in the user's hand, meaning the weight is equally distributed across the barrel.
Many ballpoint pens have spring-loaded buttons that retract the writing tip when not in use. This mechanism should work smoothly, and the writing tip should remain locked in place during use. Some ink pens cannot be refilled at all, but others allow users to replace a spent cartridge with a fresh one. Finding suitable replacement cartridges for a specific brand should be a consideration.
The least expensive ink pens on most store shelves are basic non-retractable ballpoint pens, often sold in bulk for less than $10. Higher-quality retractable ballpoint and felt-tip pens generally cost between $10 and $20, while gift-quality fountain and ballpoint pens can cost $25 or more.
Q. Can the ink in my ballpoint pen freeze during extremely cold weather?
A. It depends on the formula of the ink, but a water-based ink can indeed freeze if exposed to cold weather conditions. The pen should be fine to use after the ink has had time to thaw to room temperature.
Q. I'm learning Japanese calligraphy. Can I use a standard size ballpoint ink pen?
A. A standard size ballpoint pen generally draws a line one to 1.2 millimeters thick, which works well for English calligraphy. However, drawing Asian characters can require an ink pen with a finer point, in the .5 millimeter range.
Ink pens we recommend
Best of the best: Paper Mate's InkJoy 100RT Retractable Ballpoint Pens
Our take: This variety pack from a well-respected brand goes beyond the traditional blue, black, and red palette, allowing for color-coding and artistic applications.
What we like: Choice of ink colors for both professional and artistic uses. Streamlined design is easy to control in hand. Retractable click tops protect tips. Comes with 20 pens per package.
What we dislike: Some ink colors seem to flow better than others. Reports of dried ink upon arrival.
Best bang for your buck: BIC's Round Stic Xtra Life Ballpoint Pen
Our take: For offices who need to order multiple packs of replacement pens, this blue/black assortment from BIC is definitely a bargain.
What we like: Affordable price point, especially when ordered in bulk. Transparent barrel allows users to check ink levels. Even flow of blue or black ink.
What we dislike: Some pens can leak or dry out prematurely. The ink color is not as dark as other brands.
Our take: Those seeking a well-crafted ink pen as a gift should consider the PILOT MR Retro. There are a lot of styles and colors to choose from, and a gift case is included.
What we like: Impressive brass and stainless steel barrel with a retro design. Fits well in hand. Traditional nib, gel roller, and ballpoint models available.
What we dislike: Ink cartridges can be difficult to remove and replace. Finish is not durable.
Michael Pollick is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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