Rollerball vs Gel (Plus Ballpoint!) Madness: Pen Types, Ink Types & Naming Gone Wild

What’s in a name? A lot of confusion! Rollerball pen and rollerball ink versus gel pen and gel ink. Oh yeah, and ballpoint. When it comes to ink types and pen types, are you as confused as we are?

Just kidding. We’re not confused. At all. I mean we were. Very. But then it dawned on us: The thing that’s messing us up is the weird, wacky, nonsensical names attached to pen and ink. Gentle reader, don’t blame yourself. Let’s start here:

  • Rollerball ink = water-based ink containing dyes (chemical compounds)
  • Gel ink = water-based gel containing pigments (powder)
  • Ballpoint ink = oil-based ink containing dyes (chemical compounds)

So far so good, right?

Herein Lies the Confusion

The confusing part is this: The name of the tip of a pen using ANY of the ink types above is the same: It’s called a ballpoint tip—NOT to be confused with the ink inside, which may or may not be ballpoint. Phew!

The ballpoint tip is a ball-and-socket mechanism at the tip of the pen that dispenses the ink. The ball fits perfectly into a socket at the tip of the pen. This allows the ball to roll along paper when the pen’s in use. The ball is connected to the ink reservoir which delivers ink at just the right flow for a clean, smooth line.

So, as we dig into the rollerball vs gel quandary, a question to be asked and answered is this: If rollerball, gel ink, and ballpoint pens have the same (ballpoint) tip, why is only one called a ballpoint pen? To confuse everyone, perhaps. Or, because when rollerball ink came along in the 1960’s, the folks making pens with oil-based ink had already taken the name “ballpoint”.

So even though both ink types are delivered via the same ball and socket mechanism, only the oil-based ink gets to call itself “ballpoint”.  The water-based ink folks decided to use the name “rollerball” to describe pens loaded with water-based ink, even though ballpoint and rollerball (and gel) describe the exact same ball and socket mechanism.

What’s different is the ink itself. Water-based ink is thinner and flows more freely than ballpoint ink. Rollerball ink is water-based whereas ballpoint ink is oil-based. Gel ink is water-based too, but it’s thicker than rollerball ink. Here are the details:

Ballpoint vs Rollerball vs Gel: Types of Ink

Here’s a quick summary of the three main ink types and how they differ:

  • Oil-based ink (ballpoint): This ink dries almost instantly. It’s thick and a little scratchy. It’s the type of ink we all know and many of us love. With oil-based ink you feel the pen on the paper.
  • Water-based ink (rollerball): This ink dries more slowly and produces a rich, smooth line. Mostly, lines made with rollerball ink are richer in color than ballpoint ink. Rollerball ink runs out faster because it’s thinner. For the same reason, it produces a more vivid line because water-based ink saturates the paper more deeply.
  • Gel-based ink (gel): Gel-based ink is vivid like rollerball ink and water-resistant (once it dries) like ballpoint ink. Gel ink comes in rich, vivid colors and delivers a smooth line.

All these ink types are delivered via the same ballpoint (ball and socket) tip—meaning a tiny ball at the writing point that transfers ink from the pen’s cartridge to the paper as the pen is pushed or pulled across the paper. Aside from ink type, another variable that’s important to the line delivered by the pen you choose is the ballpoint (ball and socket) tip size.

A Few Tips on Tip Size

Tip size refers to the width of the line produced by the ball at the tip of the pen as the writer drags it across the paper. Because water-based inks are thinner, ink flows more freely and a smaller tip size is usually in order.

  • The standard tip size for a ballpoint ink pen is 1.0mm.
  • The standard tip size for a rollerball ink or gel ink pen is .7mm. Some are .5mm.
  • In countries where written characters can require a very fine line, like Japan and China, standard tip sizes can go as low as .25mm.

Rollerball vs Gel and Don’t Forget Good Ol’ Ballpoint: Who Wins?

So now you know. Any pen using a ball and socket mechanism is a ballpoint pen. It’s the ink that varies. And when you’re looking beyond the tried and true ballpoint ink, the choice between a gel ink pen vs rollerball is about color and thickness.

Because gel ink uses pigments, color options are virtually limitless. And because gel ink uses gel as well as water, it’s thicker and more prone to skipping than rollerball ink. For the utmost in smoothness, opt for rollerball ink. For vivid color, go for gel. And for instant dry and a tactile feel of ink on paper, good ol’ ballpoint is a good idea.

Here are our favorites in each category. Each is customizable with your special message or logo:

Rollerball Ink Pen:

Deluxe Madison Pen with Gift Box: Smooth as silk, professional, and polished.

Uni-Ball Micro Rollerball Pens .05mm: For precise, skip-free writing every day.

Gel Ink Pen:

Soft Touch Cozy Gel Pen: Smooth, bold, and vivid.

Soft Touch Hughes Gel Pen: Handsome and business-friendly.

Ballpoint Ink Pen:

Soft Touch Madison Pen: Classic, quick drying, and reliable.

Contour Pen: This ballpoint pen has a completely customizable barrel.

Getting Past the Lingo, Great Ink Awaits!

Whether filled with rollerball ink, gel ink, or basic ballpoint, the pen you pick promises to tell a smooth story about your brand. Customize your favorite pens today!

P.S. If this pen ink rabbit hole has got you wondering and wandering, you can compare and contrast rollerball vs ballpoint pens!


Karleen A.

I’m a copywriter who likes custom giveaways of all kinds, from pens to travel mugs, tumblers to totes. Fun for me is helping promote YOUR awesome brand!

Published by
Karleen A.

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