There’s more to picking a pen than tip size and looks. The ink inside a pen is what makes it write better on certain papers than others, gives it waterproofness or a quick drying time, or infuses your writing with vivid color. Although the design of the pen tip has a lot to do with how smoothly a pen writes, the ink that flows from the tip is equally as important.
In this guide, we will help you choose the right type of pen—that is, a pen with the right type of ink—by exploring the basics of what pen ink is made of and the impact different formulations have on the ink’s behavior. As non-chemists discussing a technical and complex topic, we will only touch on the broad generalities of ink composition. Still, even a surface-level understanding of ink types should make it easier to pick a pen that’s right for you. Keep reading or watch the video below to learn how to pick a pen that's right for you.
If all you're looking for is a reliable pen that works on any type of paper, we suggest a ballpoint. The Uni Jetstream is our favorite! It uses low-viscosity ink that allows for effortless flow when writing. It also comes in several body colors and tip sizes ranging from 0.38 mm to 1.0 mm. If you want to learn more about specific ink compositions and their advantages, keep reading.
If you don’t want to read the whole guide, this table is a good place to start. The first column lists characteristics you may want in an ink. The second column lists ink types that often have those characteristics.
Bear in mind that this table only lists correlations. Not all representatives of the suggested ink types will have the characteristics you’re looking for, but they are more likely to have them.
|If you want a pen with ink that is:||Try these ink compositions:|
|Waterproof or water resistant||Oil-based ink, alcohol-based ink, pigment-based ink|
|Smooth||Liquid water-based ink (rollerball and fountain pen ink), gel ink|
|Able to write on almost any paper||Oil-based ink, alcohol-based ink|
|Deeply and intensely colored||Pigment-based ink|
|Available in many colors||Dye-based ink|
|Water soluble||Dye-based ink, water-based ink (rollerball and fountain pen ink)|
|Lightfast, fade resistant||Pigment-based ink|
|Permanent*||Oil-based ink, alcohol-based ink, pigment-based ink|
|Quick drying||Oil-based ink, alcohol-based ink, some specialized gel inks|
*There is no standard definition of what “permanent” or “archival” means for an ink. See our Glossary for more information.
These ingredients are then combined in a specific way to ensure that the ink has the correct characteristics. Just like bread and pizza dough contain similar ingredients but turn out differently when baked, inks made with similar components can have different characteristics depending on how they are treated during the mixing process. Ink manufacturers are extremely protective of their proprietary formulas, so we aren’t able to use the specifics of their ingredients or mixing processes to inform our ink choices. We do, however, usually know the two basic components of the ink: the vehicle and the colorant. Despite all the complexity and variability that the other elements of the ink introduce, this information gives us valuable clues about how the ink is likely to behave.
Water-based inks include:
- Almost all gel pen inks.
- Rollerball pen inks.
- Fountain pen inks.
- Dip pen Inks.
- Many marker inks.
In general, oil- and alcohol-based pens contain both alcohols and oils. They may be colored with dyes or pigments and are typically water resistant or waterproof. They are also able to write on slick surfaces better and with a more reasonable drying time than water-based inks.
The counterpoint to this benefit is that the oil- and alcohol-based inks used in markers spread out on regular paper, making wide lines that are hard to control. They may also have a strong smell that makes them unpleasant to use for long periods.
Given these similarities, what a particular pen is called has more to do with what the manufacturer wants to emphasize about its characteristics than an actual distinction in its composition. Markers labeled as alcohol based are often intended for art. They blend easily, produce consistent color, and dry quickly. Markers labeled as oil based are typically marketed as multi-surface or permanent markers, with the emphasis placed on the durability and versatility of their marks.
Ballpoint pens, although they fall into the same general category, behave differently from their marker cousins. They do not have the strong smell that is typically associated with oil-based and alcohol-based markers, and their thick ink prevents their writing from spreading out on paper the way that thinner marker ink does.
Oil- and alcohol-based inks include:
- Ballpoint pen inks.
- Many art markers, such as Copics.
- Many permanent markers, such as Sharpies.
Dye-based inks are often also less opaque than pigment-based inks. This can make the color appear less intense, but this is not usually a problem for writing. If you use dye-based inks for art, their relative transparency may allow for watercolor-esque effects. Dye-based fountain pen inks are unlikely to clog pens but particularly strong dyes can cause staining.
Dye-based inks include:
- Most fountain pen inks.
- Most rollerball pen inks.
- Ballpoint pen inks.
- Many alcohol-based inks.
- Many marker and brush pen inks.
Just like mud mixed in water, pigments can build up and clog small spaces they pass through, or settle out of their carrying medium over time. Pigments used in pen inks are extremely fine to allow them to pass smoothly through pen tips and feeds. Fountain pen users should clean out pigment-based inks more frequently, but other types of pens don’t need extra maintenance. There isn’t usually much risk of pigments settling out of pen inks due to how they are formulated, but storing pigment-based pens sideways or tip up minimizes the chance of the pigments becoming concentrated near the tip and potentially causing clogs.
Pigment-based inks are not available in as many colors as dye-based inks, but they are more likely to be lightfast and waterproof. Because the pigment particles block the light, pigment-based inks are usually more opaque than dye-based inks. Pigment-based inks may also appear to be “deeper” or more intensely colored even though dye-based inks are usually available in brighter hues.
Pigment-based inks include:
- Many gel pen inks.
- Some low-viscosity ballpoint pen inks.
- Some rollerball pen inks.
- Some marker and brush pen inks, especially waterproof formulations.
- Some fountain pen inks.
Ballpoint pens, rollerball pens, and gel pens all share the same ink delivery mechanism. A small, revolving ball in the tip of the pen picks up the ink and deposits it onto the paper as it rotates. All pens of this type are sometimes called “ball pens” or even “ballpoint pens” or “rollerball pens,” but these last two terms usually indicate ball pens that use oil-based ink and liquid ink, respectively.
Although it’s generally referred to as oil-based, the carrier in ballpoint ink is usually an alcohol such as benzyl alcohol or phenoxyethanol. This is why alcohol helps remove ballpoint ink stains. Most ballpoint pens are water resistant and write well on glossy paper, such as receipts and the backs of credit cards.
The alcohols in ballpoint ink also help it dry quickly, which makes it a good fit for left-handed writers. It can still smear, however. Many ballpoint inks are prone to building up on the pen’s rotating ball and depositing occasional “blobs” of ink that take longer to dry.
The color in ballpoint ink usually comes from dyes. If you’re wondering where the “oil-based” categorization comes from, it may be a reference to the fatty acids used in ballpoint ink. Fatty acids are the building blocks of fats and oils and allow the ball to rotate smoothly in the tip of the pen without getting gummed up by the ink.
Low-viscosity ballpoint pens contain ink that has been formulated to be thinner, or less viscous, than standard ballpoint ink. They feel smoother to write with and are less prone to generating blobs. You could think of this as a modern update to ballpoint ink, as the basic ink components remain the same. Manufacturers guard these formulas closely, so we can’t be precise about what elements are changed to achieve this smoother ink. Some low-viscosity ballpoint inks are “fortified” with pigments to give them a deeper hue than dyes would provide on their own. The popular Uni Jetstream is an example of this.
Since they dispense liquid, water-based ink, writing with rollerball pens requires very little pressure. This makes them a good fit for people who suffer from hand strain. However, rollerball pens have more feedback than ballpoints or gel pens because the thin ink provides less lubrication between the pen tip, ball, and paper. Larger tip sizes feel smoother. Rollerball pens also make wider lines than ballpoint or gel pens because their wet ink spreads out more on the paper. Rollerballs are most often dye based and not permanent, but some, like Uni-ball rollerballs, are colored with pigments for greater staying power.
Although rollerball ink and fountain pen ink are superficially similar, most rollerballs are not designed to use fountain pen ink. The Monteverde Engage One Touch and J. Herbin Refillable Rollerball Pens are two exceptions.
Gel pen ink is almost always water based and colored with pigments. Many gel pens inks are water resistant or waterproof, and they are known for their rich colors. There are some dye-based gel inks, but these are less likely to be waterproof.
Gel pens are often quite smooth, although some pens come in very small tip sizes that can produce significant feedback. They are good for everyday writing but may smear on receipts and other glossy papers. Left-handed writers may prefer smaller tip sizes or specially formulated quick-drying gel pens to prevent smudges. In addition, many gel pens are available in a wide range of colors and finishes that makes them ideal for crafting and color-coding.
Unlike the ball pens we discussed above, knowing whether a marker is a fineliner or brush pen does not tell you what kind of ink it uses. Instead, markers are often categorized by the kinds of tips they have or by how they are intended to be used. Oil- and alcohol-based markers are more likely to be categorized based on their ink’s specific formulation or use, with names like multi-surface marker, permanent marker, art marker, and paint marker. These names are descriptive, and it’s common for a marker to fit in more than one category.
Most markers have fiber or plastic tips, but they can look and perform very differently depending on the shape of the tip, its size, how it is made, and the type of ink it is paired with. In this guide, we will count all marker-like pens as markers, including fineliners, bullet-tip markers, brush pens, paint pens, and similar writing instruments.
It is difficult to make pigments small enough to pass through porous marker tips without clogging, but some water-based markers are colored with pigments. The Sakura Pigma and Faber-Castell PITT pen series are excellent examples of this. They are fully waterproof and ideal for use with water-based media for art.
Paint pens may be water based or formulated with oil and alcohol. Both versions can usually be used on paper or other surfaces, but oil-based paint pens may work better on a greater variety of surfaces. Water-based paint pens can typically be wiped from non-porous surfaces with water, which makes them a good choice for temporary applications like writing cafe menus or signs on windows. Oil-based paint pens require more effort to remove, so they’re a better choice for projects that need to last for a longer period of time.
The types of surfaces that these markers can write on range from cloth and plastic leftover containers for “name markers” intended for labeling all the way through ceramic, leather, and rubber for markers intended for crafting and making art on non-paper surfaces. Some multi-surface markers have specialized finishes, such as the Molotow Liquid Chrome Marker, which is mirror-shiny when dry.
The most famous examples of alcohol-based art markers are Copics, which get their brilliant colors from dyes. Alcohol- and dye-based art markers are great for making colorful, short-lived sketches and art intended for reproduction. The colors will degrade over time because the dyes are not lightfast.
Some markers that are intended for art are described as oil-based rather than alcohol-based. These are usually fineliners and bullet-tipped markers that come in a limited range of colors. Because they make wide lines on regular paper, they are more often used on less-absorbent surfaces like vellum.
We’ve written extensively about different types of fountain pen inks, so we won’t get into too much detail here. See our Beginner's Guide to Fountain Pen Inks for more details, and visit the extensive Fountain Pen Ink section of our blog to learn more about specific ink-related topics.
Just about any ink could be used as a dip pen ink, but inks that are specifically sold as dip pen inks are often made with pigments and contain binders that can damage fountain pens. These inks are usually thicker than fountain pen inks and may contain larger pigment or glitter particles that will clog the inner workings of fountain pens.
India ink usually contains a resin called shellac. This helps the pigment stick to the paper, resist water, and gives the dried ink a shiny look. India ink is particularly well-suited for art due to its ability to stay crisp and dark when used with water-based media. Although traditional India ink was only black, some India inks are now available in other colors.
Our writers draw on their personal expertise, consult our in-house subject matter experts, and do extensive research to make our guides as accurate and comprehensive as possible. We then test every finding that makes it through the research stage. Only the techniques and tools whose performance we personally confirm make it into our guides as recommendations.
Picking the perfect pen can be tricky, but if you start with the ink—what characteristics you need from it, how it needs to behave on the page, and what writing feel you prefer—it’s much easier to narrow down other factors like design and tip size. If you’d like to learn more about specific pens, inks, and recommendations for specific use cases, you can find much more information in our Guides. If you’ve already found your perfect pen body but it comes with lackluster ink, or if you just need a refill, our Ultimate Guide to Pen Refills will help you find a great ink that works in your pen.