In praise of the humble ballpoint

I have a problem.

Given my role in extolling the innumerable (sometimes intangible) virtues of fountain pens, I find myself using ballpoint pens a whole lot more than I should. Let’s give credit where it is due – ballpoints are a true revolution and I actually like using them for daily writing and jotting down quick notes.

Don’t get me wrong – fountain pens are still awesome icons of design, which I collect and admire. I enjoy the entire process of filling and using fountain pens, but the convenience and reliability of a high performance ballpoint pen is not to be discounted.

Caran d'Ache Goliath (1)

Notice I said “high performance”, not “branded” or “expensive”. Not all ballpoint pens are made equal – some are an absolute chore to write with while others cost just a few dollars and are an immense pleasure. Just because the pen happens to be expensive does not mean it has substance. Smoothness is also not the only indicator of a good ballpoint cartridge.

Top three ballpoint pens

Photo: Caran d’Ache

1. Caran d’Ache

Caran d’Ache ballpoints are my writing instrument of choice in almost any and every situation. All their pens come with the same refill. The medium cartridge is reliable, lays down a consistent line without ink blots or splitting, and writes up to 600 A4 pages, according to the manufacturer. I found this to be true – after more than a year of daily use, I asked myself when the refill was going to run out. It still hasn’t run dry at this time.

The only weakness of the Caran d’Ache is that it is a rather dry writer and does not lay down an intense line. The consistency is definitely exemplary, though. The feel is smooth but not overly so. I would say that it offers just the right resistance and doesn’t glide uncontrollably over the paper.

Photo: Fisher

2. Fisher Space Pen

Fisher touts its pressurised refill technology as being able to write “in zero gravity, underwater, over wet and greasy paper, at any angle, and in extreme temperatures”. The technology was first patented in 1965, and approved for use on all manned NASA flights till today. There are many alternatives today, such as the Tombow XPA and Airpress as well as the affordable Uniball Powertank.

Fisher’s pressurised refill do indeed offer many advantages compared to typical pen refills. They lay down a vivid line without splits, and can weather the elements. Cartridges also last very long, have virtually unlimited shelf life, and are fairly affordable. However, they have their weaknesses – they blot when left unused for short periods and the thixotropic ink causes the pen to have greater resistance on paper.


Photo: Uniball

3. Uniball Jetstream

The Uniball Jetstream is presently the best ballpoint pen one can get for just a few dollars. There are a number of varieties – multi pens, normal ballpoints and even a premium model which comes with a silicone gel section for the most comfortable writing experience. The Jetstream is not exactly a ballpoint – rather, it contains gel like ink which it lays down with intense colour.

The only weakness of the Jetstream refill is that it cannot take the slightest knock or the line will split – this is something which annoys me to the depths of my soul. I used to carry around many spare refills just in case the pen fell of my table in school. The Jetstream is slightly too kiddy for me given that I’ve progressed on to designer stationery, but it is still unmatched in smoothness, even when put side-by-side with refills from prominent luxury pen manufacturers.

An inky problem?

Fountain pens need to be filled with ink and they often create a mess. They’re choosy with the kind of paper they can be used on and bad papers simply bleed through and feather. You also can’t hold a fountain pen upside down as it requires capillary action to work. Fountain pens (even the most ruggedised) are rather delicate and unsuitable for use in harsh conditions such as the rain or mud.

The unassuming ballpoint can be rotated and held at any angle relative to the paper. It can write on uneven surfaces and used with the cartridge inverted (especially pressurised cartridges). Above all, ballpoint pens are clean and efficient – they don’t dry out when left uncapped for short periods and are suitable for left handers, who push against the paper and cause smears when ink hasn’t dried.

Caran d'Ache Goliath (4)

At this point, some of you fountain pen lovers would decry heresy, but putting the cognitive dissonance aside, I think ballpoints do indeed deserve their place in the modern world. It is true that fountain pens make writing more effortless and improve your strokes by slowing them down. That being said, I don’t recommend fountain pens when you’re rolling about in the dirt, in the pouring rain, signing important documents or during a school test.

Use ballpoint pens? Share your views on why you use them, and what your favourite ballpoint pens are!

* The top three ballpoint pens listed above aren’t an exhaustive list and they are simply my personal preference.

Leave a Reply