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What’s the difference between a Ballpoint and a Rollerball?

As similar as these two types of pen may look, they’re actually quite different - they use different ink, different types of ball, and they feel quite different in use.

Example of art being made with ballpoint pensPhysical Differences

Ballpoint pens use a thick paste ink, which was the main innovation in their invention. Many attempts had been made to make a ball-tipped pen, but they’d almost all used liquid ink, as used in fountain pens. None had worked quite well enough to be practical for day to day use. László József Bíró (whose name lives on as a common name for ballpoints) had the idea of using thick ink, similar to that used for printing newspapers.

That brought a new problem - the ink was too thick to just flow from the pen. But with the addition of a rough ball, that could ‘pull’ the ink from inside, to get it to the paper.

It sounds simple, but it took many years of experimentation and testing, trying different types of ink and balls; and some very precise manufacturing, to actually make it all work.

The rollerball was developed years later, in the 60s, by Ohto in Japan. Liquid ink is held behind a very precisely-fitted smooth ball, made of metal or ceramic, tight enough to keep the ink inside normally, but just loose enough that it can flow past when there’s contact with paper.

Gel pens are a variation on the rollerball - the same construction, but used with different ink, which can hold particles suspended in it for dense colour pigment or even sparkling glitter.

Rollerball pen tip, from a Montblanc special edition rollerball penDifferences in Use

While modern ballpoint pens can feel pretty smooth to write with, there’s always a bit of force needed to make the ball turn and pull the ink out of the refill and onto the paper. Most people are fine with that, but some really do prefer the smoother feel of a rollerball or even a fountain pen.

That’s not to say the ballpoint doesn’t have its advantages over the rollerball. Ballpoints can vary their line width in a nicely expressive way, putting down more ink with a bit more pressure, making them a favourite tool of some artists. And they’ll write well on almost any paper - the ink was initially developed from ink used on newspaper, after all. Rollerballs can be a bit more fussy about their paper.

A rollerball can also leak, if the tip is damaged, or left in contact with something, while ballpoints are more resistant to that - it takes a lot more damage to let that paste ink out.

They both have their fans, and it’s very much worth trying both types of pen, to see which suits you better. The smoother feel of a rollerball appeals a lot to many people, but there are many others who prefer the extra resistance the ballpoint has.