It’s an item we rarely give much thought; the humble pen is over a thousand years old and is so ubiquitous we’re rarely found without one to hand. It’s for that reason I’m shocked by how few men seem to enjoy a good quality pen as part of their everyday carry.
While guys often boast about their latest smartphone gadget or business app, few strive toward perfection when it comes to exploiting their writing apparatus. Outside of a tie clip or pocket square, few accessories distinguish themselves quite like a top-quality writing implement.
If you’re thinking it’s about time you ditched that leaky biro first acquired at Fresher’s week, but aren’t sure about your where your next step lies, take a look at the following two-part guide to get you writing in style…
A Short History
Throughout much of the pre-twentieth century period, pens were simply tapered quills or reeds dipped in ink; although rather sophisticated wooden pens were developed as early at the 1600s, the quill was still in widespread usage all the way until the 19th Century.
It was only in 1822, with the mass manufacture of steel nibs, that metal pens became readily available. Still, these were rudimentary devices requiring manual dipping between pen strokes, and it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that fountain pen usage became widespread.
At this time, the technology behind the pen developed rapidly with the invention of free-flow ink and iridium-tipped gold nibs, whilst mass-manufacturing techniques led to widespread availability and readily affordable products.
In the twentieth century, further technical innovations were made. Thermoplastics replaced hard rubber to enable creation of a greater range of designs and manufacturers began to create better, easier-to-fill mechanisms. Fountain pens continued to dominate well into the 1950s.
By the mid-1960s, ballpoints had taken dominance in the marketplace where they remain to this day, having overcome their early reliability issues. It was during this decade other innovations like the fiber tip pen and highlighter were created.
In the ‘70s, rollerballs found their way to the marketplace. Again, while earlier models were plagued with the typical difficulties of new technology, in subsequent decades reliability, popularity and widespread usage has continued to increase.
There are almost as many types of pen as there are species of animal, and the number is growing day-by-day. Hyperbole aside, the following list should provide you with enough information on the most common varieties of pen style:
Defined by the iconic metal nib and internal reservoir, the fountain pen dispenses ink through gravity and capillary action allowing writing to occur with little or no added exertion.
Unlike modern alternatives, the fountain pen can evoke expressive cursive with ease and help those with joint pain due to the pen’s low demand on grip and pressure for correct operation. Similarly, the elegant design provides a more visually pleasing aesthetic device than many contemporary counterparts.
However, even advanced fountain pens are designed in such a way that a high-volume of ink will be released should the pen start leaking. In the same vein, the fluidity of fountain pen ink means it hits the page wet, leaving even the most agile fingers prone to marking and staining.
Some fountain pens may also require emptying during air travel, as a dramatic change in cabin pressures can force ink to exude from the nib.
This model uses a small spherical ball in the tip of the nib to dispense ink whilst simultaneously drawing more from the reservoir.
Economical, largely reliable and convenient, ballpoint pens can be found just about everywhere; from office desktops to travelers’ backpacks, the ballpoint is virtually inescapable.
While requiring more pressure to write than most pens, it does give the ballpoint the advantage of being less prone to leakage. That said, writing on low-friction surfaces like glossy paper is nearly impossible, and who hasn’t picked up one of these without doing a ‘scribble test’ before use?
Relying on an oil-based ink, you may find poor quality ballpoint pens leave splotchy grease dots that can smear and mark the page if due attention isn’t paid.
An advancement of the ballpoint method with the key difference being the low-viscosity ink suspended in a water-based gel.
Combining the convenience of its predecessor with the smooth, satin “wet look” ink of a fountain pen, rollerballs tend to write more clearly and cleanly without needing the ‘scribble test’ to pull extra ink from the reservoir first.
Requiring less pressure to work than the ballpoint, other advantages include the wide spectrum of available colours, bolder outlines and the ability to write on smooth surfaces.
When it comes to disadvantages, the rollerball has its fair share. The thinner ink has a tendency to ‘bleed’ into the page more, especially on low-grade paper. Rollerballs also use more ink by design, meaning it won’t last as long as the ballpoint equivalent.
Using the rollerball as its template, gel pens have one key difference – they use a higher viscosity of ink to support a greater quantity of pigment as it hits the page, thus creating a bolder, slick-wet ‘gel’ look.
Sharing largely the same advantages and disadvantages as the rollerball, gel pens do have an added trick up their sleeve due to their superior pigment abilities: a wider variety of colour tones, pigments and hues can be found, including metallic and glitter dyes.
Fiber Tip / Fineliner
A porous, fibrous tip saturated with ink, the fiber-tipped pen is most commonly associated with graphic designers, technical engineers and architects, offering the precision, depth and clarity of a rollerball with the smooth, low-leak properties of the ballpoint and the fluid, low-pressure writing edge of a fountain pen.
While the fineliner is a great contemporary choice, if left uncapped for long periods, cheap fiber tip pens can dry out. Fineliners and fiber tips are also notorious for ink contamination, so using multiple colors at once can stain the tip, sometimes permanently.
In part two, we’ll be looking at how to pick out the perfect pen, and answering a few commonly asked questions.