Great Everyday Pens- The Gel Pen

When you think of gel pens you might immediately associate them with school supplies. However, these writing tools are not just for the classroom. In fact, they can enhance your everyday writing experience in ways you never imagined. The humble gel pen is often overlooked and not appreciated for the excellent tool that it can be. Whether you're jotting down notes, writing in your journal, or simply expressing your creativity, gel pens can take your writing to the next level. These incredible writing instruments are a game-changer when it comes to adding a touch of colour and vibrancy to your everyday writing tasks - should that be what you are looking for.

Beyond the initial image of gel pens as the colourful accoutrements to a students pencil case, gel pens are a multi-application tool suited to a number of daily uses at home, in business and…well, just about anywhere really!

We are about to embark on a discussion of the wondrous gel pen, its background, characteristics, advantages/disadvantages and essentially what they are and how they work. We will answer some frequently asked questions and explore some of the fantastic gel pens available at The Hamilton Pen Company.

The Importance of Choosing the Right Pen: The Joy of Gel

Did you know that the pen you choose can have a significant impact on your writing experience? Whether you're taking notes in a meeting or jotting down ideas, using the right pen can make a world of difference. 

Writing is not just a mundane task; it is an art form. Just like a painter uses a brush to create a masterpiece, a writer uses a pen to weave magic on paper. Regardless of whether you are scribbling down a shopping list, making notes in a meeting, crafting a letter to a loved one, creating something beautiful or jotting down your thoughts and ideas - Gel pens have a place in your everyday arsenal.

Gel pens are a popular choice for many writers and artists, thanks to their wide range of traditional and brightly-coloured, opaque inks and their overall versatility. Gel pens are also undeniably quick to write with, which holds enormous appeal in this fast-paced, digital age.

Gel Pens: A Quiet Evolution

You are not wrong to assume that gel pens are a modern day creation. First dreamed up in the early 1980’s, Japanese stationery company Sakura are credited with the invention and patenting of the first gel pen in 1982, extending that patent to the USA in 1983. The first releases from Sakura included the ballsign and the now infamous Pigma Micron.

Sakura Pigma Micron Pen Set - Black

The rollerball had been invented around a decade earlier, but Sakura set out to create a writing tool which provided the fluidity of the rollerball with the added benefit of the ability to write on any paper.  With rollerballs becoming more popular, it was clear to Sakura that they had fallen behind. Rather than starting the race from behind, they aimed to create their own aspect of the ideal pen: gel ink. 

Sakura started their multi-year research in the early 1980s by researching thixotropic materials. Thixotropic materials are solid when not moving but become a liquid when they are agitated and will then start to flow. This property is useful for a number of reasons - a major one being to reduce the risk of leaks and explosions.

The goal of the research was to innovate on the recently invented rollerball, making the watery ink more versatile.  The key to this was not only the concept but also the thickener. All sorts of materials were tried — from egg whites to grated yam, to seaweed — but nothing met the demands of Sakura’s research and development team. In the end, a sharp-eyed employee saw a newspaper advertisement for a newly developed food additive called xanthan gum. The material was used as a thickener in jellies and soups at the time and is now widely used in a whole host of household items, cosmetics and foods.

After testing and development,  it was established that Xanthan gum was the solution (pun intended) that Sakura were looking for and on October 20th 1982, a patent was filed. The technology was further developed between 1982 and 1984 establishing the gel pen as a viable and exciting product. 

In 1988,  the Ballsign 80 was introduced in Japan. This name was not thought to be suited to the American market, so the “Gelly Roll” name was created. By 1989, the Gelly Roll was becoming popular in the USA and across the globe and the market began to explode with attractive inks, intriguing compositions (metallic, fluorescent, glitter and even scented options began to emerge) and ergonomic barrels. 

Sakura Gelly Roll Moonlight Fluorescent 12 Mix Pack Rollerball Pens

It can be said that Sakura’s Gelly Roll popularised the Gel Pen and it was certainly a foundation for the incredibly popular format of pen. The array of options for gel pens is astounding - though do not be distracted by the dazzling lights of variety, the beauty of the gel pen also lies in its base-level ink characteristics, strong colour application (also in more traditional tones of blue, black and red which MAY be seen as more appropriate for formal or corporate settings) and ease of use.

What is a Gel Pen?

The mechanism inside a gel pen is much the same as those within rollerball and ballpoint pens. In fact, gel pens use the same mechanism of a metal ball inside the tip of the pen that gets coated with ink and is transferred onto the surface. It is the viscous ink producing a delightfully smooth flow which makes the gel pen stand out from the crowd. 

Composed from powdered pigments within a water-based gel consisting of biopolymers such as xanthan gum. Ink from a gel pen is thick and produces a wonderfully opaque line on the page. This pigmentation allows pen manufacturers to produce a comprehensive range of ink colours with an enviably high colour saturation making gel pens very well suited to so many different applications beyond writing. Gel pens are commonly used in art, note taking, journaling and other creative enterprises. In addition, gel pens can offer tips finer than are available with most other pen types - making the gel pen a brilliant choice for many people with many pen needs.

How are Gel Pens Different From Rollerball and Ballpoint Pens?

There is sometimes confusion between gel, rollerball and ballpoint pens - unnecessarily so! The main difference between these three pens is the ink contained within them. To oversimplify the technology and artistry in many of these pens , we can think of them as follows;

  • Rollerball pens - Contain water based ink made with chemical compound dyes
  • Ballpoint pens - Contain oil based ink made with chemical compound dyes
  • Gel pens - Contain water based gel ink made with powder pigments

The confusion comes in the myth that the name of the pen comes from the type of tip. Each of the above is delivered using a bearing based system called a ballpoint tip BUT that does not make them a ballpoint pen…A rose by any other name and all that! The bearing ball and socket dispensing ink from a reservoir system is a successful one and each of the ink types discussed have small adaptations allowing for ink to be delivered perfectly for its type allowing for a clean, smooth line.

It begs the question of why all three are not just known as ballpoint pens...the type of ink used within a fountain pen does not make it less of a fountain pen?!…and the simple answer is purely that the oil based ink was the first of the three in production and they used the name ballpoint. So when rollerball ink was conceived, the term ballpoint was already in use and for marketing reasons and to ensure the customers knew they were getting something new and innovative, a different term was needed for that type of pen but with a different type of ink.

Ultimately, it is down to the ink. But, dear readers, the differentiation is key!

Ballpoint pens with their oil based ink are known for their quick drying properties (almost instantaneous) . The ink is thick and pleasantly scratchy upon application and gives a distinctive tactile experience. 

Caran d'Ache 849 Brut Rosé Ballpoint Pen

Rollerball pens with their water based chemical compound dye inks are slower drying than ballpoint pens and the ink tends to produce a richer colour but because it is thinner ink it does tend to run out faster than ballpoint pen ink. The water based ink saturates the page more deeply and thus tends to create a more vivid line than a ballpoint. 

LAMY AL-star Rollerball Pen - Black Purple

Gel pens with their gel based ink share the vivid tones associated with rollerball ink and the water resistance (when dried) associated with ballpoint ink. Gel ink is often considered the best of both on paper (pun intended) but as I always state - preference for writing instruments is so very personalised and comes down to each individuals preferences that for some people they don't necessarily want the smoothness of gel or rollerball ink and others enjoy the thinner and more fast flowing ink of rollerball over ballpoint and gel inks.

Kaweco Student Rollerball Pen - Translucent Blue

Because gel ink uses pigment there are seemingly endless colour variations available which is a huge selling point for the gel pen. Rollerball pens are perhaps the smoothest of the three options and ballpoint pens win the prize for almost instantaneous drying and a delightful tactile feel that the other two pen types do not possess in the same way. I like to think of them as siblings…all connected and similar in some ways (delivery mechanism) but each has their own personality and special characteristics. 

Cross Bailey Rollerball Pen - Matte Gray

It should be noted that sometimes gel pens are labelled as rollerballs even though they contain gel ink. Perhaps because they are so closely related or perhaps because rollerball 'sounds better'. The name 'gel pen' is so closely connected to the colourful pencil cases of our youths that it can be hard to distinguish between those kinds of gel pens (which absolutely have a place on your desk!) and the sophisticated and stylish 'gel pens' of today.

Which Type of Pen Should I Choose?

The important aspects to consider when deciding which pen to choose include;

Thickness - the size of the tip or nib of a pen affects user experience as well as drying time and suitability for handwriting styles. Gel pens come in a wide variety of tip sizes, the smallest (as far as i can tell) being the extra extra superfine pitt artist pen (Faber Castell) which is a staggeringly fine 0.05mm and the widest tips sitting around the 1.5mm mark. The standard tip size for a ballpoint ink pen is 1.0mm and the standard tip size for a rollerball or gel pen is 0.7mm. There are obviously variations within each type but on the whole, ballpoints will be largest and rollerballs and gel pens tend to sit around 0.7 or 0.5mm unless they are size specified. You may find that brands originating in countries such as Japan or China where their language characters demand a finer stroke, 0.25mm and other super fine sizes are far more common than with western brands.

Pilot G-2 Rollerball Pen - 14 Colours

Design -  more than just aesthetics, the design and ergonomics of a pen can dictate the comfort of using the pen over time. An example being that the elegance of a slim barrel may not be suited to extended periods of use or for those with bigger hands as the grip may become uncomfortable and cause hand cramping. You should also consider weight and balance and even shape. For some, material will also play a huge role. There are many people who love the feel of textured metal on a pen barrel…for others its nails on a chalkboard.

Cross Classic Century Rollerball Pen - Medalist

Ink dry speed - left-handed individuals will be more familiar with this than many of us but the speed the ink dries can be an absolute dealbreaker. For slow and purposeful writing it may be less of a consideration but the reduction of smudges for left-handed individuals and those with unique handwriting styles is often down to the speed ink dried. Personally, as someone who tends to write everyday notes pretty quickly, a quick dry ink is very important but when undertaking something more deliberate and considered, the speed an ink dries is far less important. It is worth thinking about what your pen will be used for when looking for preferred ink types. 

There are several other features that can be considered on a pen-by-pen basis…for example, gel pens have innumerable colour options as well as formulas allowing ink to be erased. It may also be a consideration of permanence and waste that leads you towards one pen or another so if this is important, look out for pens which can be refilled rather than single use.

Monteverde Ceramic Gel Rollerball Refill to fit Parker Pens - Various Colours

So, What is So Special About Gel Pens?

Known for their unique ink formula which has a low skip rate and quick drying meaning less smudging, gel ink is a popular choice for those who enjoy smooth flowing ink which creates defined lines. Gel pens are a great option for tasks requiring precision and neatness and the variety of tip sizes is also a huge benefit to many - especially those using pens for art and creative activities.

Gel pens require very little pressure to write making them comfortable and effortless to use. This means they can be used for longer periods of time making them hugely popular for students.

One of the most exciting aspects of gel pens and felt tips is the wide range of vibrant colours they come in. From bold and bright to soft and pastel, there's a colour for every mood and occasion. Whether you're underlining important points in your notes or adding a splash of colour to your bullet journal, these pens allow you to express your personality and make your writing visually appealing. 

Pilot G-TEC-C4 Rollerball Pen - Pack of 10 Colours

Gel pens and felt tips come in various tip sizes, allowing you to experiment with different line widths. Whether you prefer a fine and precise line or a bold and dramatic stroke, these pens give you the flexibility to create the desired effect. You can add emphasis to certain words or create beautiful calligraphy with ease.

The variety and versatility of gel pens is largely unmatched by its counterparts and is absolutely a part of their charm!

Frequently Asked Questions About Gel Pens

Q: Are gel pens and felt tips suitable for left-handed writers?

A: Absolutely! Gel pens and felt tips are perfect for left-handed writers as they dry quickly, minimising the chances of smudging. Lefties can enjoy a smooth writing experience without any smudged ink.

Q: Can I use gel pens on different types of paper?

A: Yes, you can use these pens on a variety of paper types. Whether it's regular notebook paper, cardstock, or even glossy paper, gel pens glide effortlessly, ensuring a consistent and vibrant result.

Q: How long do gel pens last?

A: The longevity of these pens depends on the frequency of use. However, with their high ink capacity, gel pens can last for a considerable amount of time, making them a cost-effective choice for everyday writing.

Q: Are gel pens waterproof?

A: Yes, most gel pens are waterproof once the ink has dried. This makes them ideal for use in bullet journals or for creating artwork that you want to preserve.

Q: Can gel pens be refilled?

A: Some gel pens are refillable, while others are not. It's always a good idea to check the packaging or product description to see if your gel pen can be refilled.

Pen Tips and Tricks: Unleash Your Inner Wordsmith

Are you looking to take your writing skills to the next level? We've got you covered! Here are some pen tips and tricks to help you unleash your inner wordsmith:

  1. Experiment with different pen types: From gel pens to fountain pens, there's a whole world of pens out there waiting to be explored. Try different types to find the one that feels like an extension of your hand.
  2. Play with colours: Don't be afraid to add some colour to your writing. Use different ink colours to highlight important points or simply to make your notes more visually appealing.
  3. Practise your handwriting: Good penmanship is a skill that can be developed with practice. Set aside some time each day to work on your handwriting and watch it improve over time.

Kaweco AL Sport Rollerball Pen - Deep Red

In conclusion, gel pens are the perfect writing tool for everyone. Their smooth ink flow, vibrant colours, and comfortable grip make writing a pleasure. Whether you're a student, an artist, or just someone who enjoys writing, gel pens are a must-have. So why wait? Grab a gel pen and start writing!

Let's embrace the beauty of writing and the joy it brings to our lives. Remember, a pen is not just a tool; it is an extension of your thoughts and emotions. So, pick up your favourite pen and let your words flow like poetry (especially if you are writing poetry!)

Until next time, happy writing!


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