Getting to Know an Old Standby

There’s no doubt, laptops and smart phones are necessary tools to survival in the modern world — but sometimes, old-school is still the best way to go. That’s why we all keep pens on our desks and in our purses and pockets. Whether you’re jotting down some important notes during a conference call or writing an overdue letter to your grandmother, a pen is the fast, convenient go-to tool. No logging in or worrying about battery power. Just pop the cap and apply to paper.

Even in this digital age, every exec has a favorite instrument for signature. As an ode to the über-tool of business, here’s how to choose the right pen — and use it correctly. By Tony Bridges Originally published in the Dec 2010/Jan 2011 issue of 850 Business Magazine

There’s no doubt, laptops and smart phones are necessary tools to survival in the modern world — but sometimes, old-school is still the best way to go.

That’s why we all keep pens on our desks and in our purses and pockets. Whether you’re jotting down some important notes during a conference call or writing an overdue letter to your grandmother, a pen is the fast, convenient go-to tool. No logging in or worrying about battery power. Just pop the cap and apply to paper.

Fortunately, there have been some improvements in pen technology so we aren’t stuck with the same cheap, boring ballpoints that got us through school. Trying to find the right pen at Office Depot can be a little confusing now, though, with all the different labels: ballpoint, liquid ink, gel, hybrid, rollerball.

What you need is an idea what different pens do, so you can decide which one works best for you.

To begin with, what all the labels basically come down to is ink. Even more simply put, thick ink or thin ink. Thicker inks dry quickly, last longer and make neat, but uninspired, lines. Thinner inks generally dry slower and run out faster, but make sharper, more vibrant lines.

Pens are classed by the types of ink they use and the delivery system.


These use a thick, oil-based ink that is essentially a paste. A ball at the tip of the pen picks up the paste and presses it onto the paper. The ink is carried in an alcohol solvent, which dries quickly, leaving the ink stuck to the paper.

Obviously the advantage to ink that dries quickly is that it’s less likely to smudge. And, because the ink is thick, less of it comes out as you write, so ballpoints tend to last a long time. The ink is also far less likely to bleed through the paper.

However, the thick ink is more prone to clumping and takes more writing pressure to apply to the paper. Since you have to press harder, it makes for a less comfortable writing experience.

Examples of ballpoint pens are the Uni-ball Power Tank, the Paper Mate Phd. and the Pilot Dr. Grip.


These use a thinner, water-based ink that comes out as a liquid (which is why you also see them referred to as liquid ink pens). The design is basically the same as a ballpoint: a ball held in a cone-shaped or pronged tip that picks up the ink and rolls it onto the paper. The solvent, water, is slower to dry than alcohol.

Since the ink dries more slowly, it is more prone to smudging, especially for lefties whose hands drag over the lines as they write. The thinner ink also flows out of the pen at a faster rate, so the ink cartridges have a much shorter life than ballpoints. And paper absorbs the ink more readily, so bleed-through is a concern.

The main advantage of these pens over standard ballpoints is that the ease of flow makes writing extremely smooth, and the richer saturation is just more attractive.

Examples of rollerball or liquid ink pens are the Pilot VBall, the Bic Grip Roller and the Pentel EnerGel.


OK, this is where it can get kind of confusing, because this ink is used in both ballpoint and rollerball pens. The ink is a water-based gel that isn’t quite as thick as typical ballpoint paste, but isn’t quite as thin as rollerball liquid. It’s delivered the same, via a rolling ball.

The idea of gel ink is to achieve a balance so that it dries quickly and is less likely to blot or smudge, but still flows freely enough to write more smoothly than a standard ballpoint. Because gels use pigments, rather than dyes, there also is more variation in the colors available.

Gel pens, like liquid ink rollerballs, create bold, rich lines and tend to write quite comfortably. But the thicker ink also tends to clump occasionally, like ballpoint ink, and doesn’t always coat the ball evenly, leaving skips in the line.

Examples of gel pens are the Pilot G2, the Pentel Hybrid Gel Grip and the Uni-ball Signo 207.

So which one is best for you? That really depends on the type of writing you do the most, and what your priorities are when choosing a pen — the cost, the writing experience, or the way it looks on paper.

Expense: Ballpoints use less ink, which means buying fewer refills, and they’re less prone to dry out when not in use. They’re dependable, inexpensive everyday writers that will get the job done.

Feel: Rollerballs float across the paper nearly as smoothly as fountain pens for the most graceful, comfortable writing experience. You can use them for long periods of time without cramps or fatigue.

Appearance: Gels produce the cleanest, most precise lines without sacrificing vibrancy. They’re perfect for adding bold signatures to documents, for writing journal entries, or for artwork.

Then, if you’re like most people, comfort is probably a deciding factor when you’re trying to choose the right pen. A pen that writes beautifully and reliably isn’t worth much if it’s so uncomfortable to use that you rarely pick it up.

First, make sure you know how to hold the pen properly. That might sound silly, but the way you hold your pen can affect both your comfort and the neatness and accuracy of your handwriting.

There are two basic pen postures.

1. Between your index finger and thumb, with your index finger relatively straight along the barrel of the pen. The underside of the pens rests on your middle finger, near the last knuckle. The upper barrel of the pen rests in the “valley” between thumb and forefinger. This puts the pen about a 45-degree angle to the writing surface.

2. Between your index finger and thumb, with the index finger curled and the thumb straight. The underside of the pen rests on your middle finger. The upper barrel rests against the side of your forefinger, midway between the first and second knuckles. This puts the pen closer to a 90-degree angle.

When you write, it should be with a motion of your lower arm, not just your fingers. For more detailed instructions, we highly recommend Dyas Lawson’s excellent article at

Once you’ve got the grip down, you need to find a pen that will comfortably allow you to maintain that proper hold.

Look for a pen that writes smoothly without requiring a lot of pressure. The pen should glide across the surface of the paper with no stops or skips. It’s also important that you pick a size that comfortably fits your hand. If the pen is too small or too large, your grip will be off and writing for longer periods may be uncomfortable.

According to an article in the British Medical Journal, “a fat pen with smooth flowing ink is much less likely to cause trouble than a thin and scratchy ballpoint; the latter almost forces itself to be gripped tightly, and resistance from friction (or drag) between pen and paper increases the intensity of contraction of the intrinsic muscles. This provokes pain and results in loss of control.”

In a small-scale study of pen design at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, researchers found that participants preferred larger pens. However, the same study also revealed that smaller pens produced more drawing and writing accuracy, something to keep in mind when making your selection.

It’s also important that the pen you choose have a comfortable, textured grip for your fingers and thumbs. A smooth-barreled pen will allow your fingers to slide down toward the tip, into that pinched grip that makes for cramps and poor handwriting.

If you’re concerned about getting maximum comfort out of your pen, you might consider an ergonomic model such as the Dr. Grip gel pen.

Any way you approach it, your best bet probably is to start out with a good ballpoint or gel pen and try using it for a while. You can always trade up if you want a smoother writing experience and don’t mind the added expense. But we’re betting that once you pick up the right gel pen, you’ll be perfectly happy to stick with it.

Getting to the point


  • Thick, oil-based ink in an alcohol solvent that is pressed into the paper by a ball in the tip.
  • PROS: dries quickly, less bleed-through, long life, best value
  • CONS: prone to clumping, requires more pressure to write, less comfortable
  • Examples: Uni-Ball Power Tank, Paper Mate Ph.D., Pilot Dr. Grip


Rollerball (Also called liquid ink pen)

  • Water-based ink that flows onto paper via a ball in a cone or pronged tip.
  • PROS: smooth writing, richer color, most graceful and comfortable writing
  • CONS: prone to bleed-through and smudging, shorter life
  • Examples: Pilot VBall, Bic Grip Roller, Pentel Energel



  • Thick, water-based gel ink that uses pigment instead of dye and is dispensed through either a ballpoint or rollerball.
  • PROS: smooth writing, rich color, more variation in colors, dries more quickly than rollerball and less likely to smudge, cleanest and most precise, vibrant lines
  • CONS: may clump or skip
  • Examples: Pilot G2, Pentel Hybrid Gel Grip, Uni-Ball Signo 207


Getting the Ink Out

It’s happened to all of us, one time or another. Ink attaches to your clothing and, voilá! Your outfit is ruined. Use these tips from Uni-Ball to possibly save your fine threads. Always test a stain removal solution first on a hidden or inconspicuous part of the garment (or take a swatch of fabric from the seam allowance).

Water-Based Ink (containing water-soluble dyes):

Washable garments:

1. Soak in skim milk 1/2–1 hour. With old toothbrush or cuticle brush, scrub the stain.

2. Rinse with warm water.

3. Combine powdered color-safe bleach (such as Clorox-2) with warm water to the consistency of undissolved sugar. Put this mixture on the stain for 1/2–1 hour. With old toothbrush or cuticle brush, scrub the stain. Rinse with warm water.

4. Repeat step 1 and 2, if necessary.

5. Launder with protein-based detergent (such as Era Plus). Make sure the stain is completely removed before putting article in dryer, as this may set the stain.


Gel Ink (containing pigmented, water-base ink)

Washable garments:

1. Use household ammonia and water. I tsp of ammonia per gallon of water. Add a protein-type detergent (such as Era). With old toothbrush or cuticle brush, scrub stain.

2. Rinse with warm water.

For dry-clean only garments, take them to a commercial dry cleaner who employs a “spotter” and advise him of the type of ink that makes up the stain.