Rollerball vs Ballpoint Pens: What’s the Difference?

It can be tricky to know what type of pen is best for you when rollerball and ballpoint sound so similar. What is the difference between these two pens?

While both ballpoint and rollerball pens distribute ink using a small rotating ball, the main difference is in the writing quality. Rollerball pens move more smoothly and create more defined lines than ballpoint. Further differences exist but are generally secondary.

In the sections to follow, I will go into detail on each major difference between rollerball and ballpoint pens. This will be followed by a comprehensive pros and cons analysis of the two types. By the end, you will know exactly which type is best for you!

Table of Contents

What is the difference between rollerball and ballpoint pens?

In the grand scheme of things, these pens are more similar than they are different. However, the differences can make one of the types more enjoyable for you.

Here are the major differences:

  • Ink type
  • Writing appearance
  • Price
  • Design

The bottom three differences are a result of the different ink types. The ink in a rollerball allows it to flow smoothly in addition to being more expensive than ballpoint ink. The biggest difference in design is the requirement for a cap to prevent rollerball ink from drying out. 

Waterman Expert Close Up
Waterman Expert Rollerball Pen

The difference in ink types

The ink used in ballpoint pens is oil-based while rollerball pens use water-based ink. Like paint, an oil base is very different from a water base. In pen ink, the difference manifests in a few ways.

Firstly, water-based inks will take longer to dry. In small amounts, this isn’t noticeable, but water-based ink flows more easily which results in more ink used. Conversely, oil-based inks used in ballpoint pens will dry very quickly. This is due in part to the comparatively smaller quantity of ink used. However, it is also the nature of oil-based ink.

Next, oil-based ink is more viscous than water-based. This means that the latter will flow more freely as mentioned above. It also means that water-based ink will have a greater chance of bleeding through to the other side of your paper.

Lastly, oil-based ink is less likely to dry out over time. Despite it drying quickly when applied to the page, the ink in the cartridge will not dry out as fast as water-based ink.

The difference in writing appearance

These two ink types will affect the way the different pens write. Overall, ballpoint pens are great for writing quickly while rollerball pens are great for visually appealing lines. 

A standard ballpoint pen will be hard to smudge because of its quick-drying ink. It will also not bleed through even if the paper you’re writing on is fairly thin. Neither will the ink spread out from where you mark.

On the other hand, a standard rollerball pen is easier to smudge if you disturb the ink immediately after writing. However, some higher-end pens such as the Waterman Expert Rollerball Pen (read our review here), dry almost immediately and don’t smear. The lines made with this type of pen will be fuller which tends to look better. Additionally, they will be more colorful or darker depending on the ink color. 

The difference in price

There are cheap options for both rollerball and ballpoint pens. That said, rollerball pens tend to be slightly more expensive. This is not just because the initial price is typically higher. Rollerball pens can dry out quicker than ballpoint. Additionally, they use more ink at a time. This means you will go through rollerball pens faster.

It is easy to find large quantities of ballpoint pens for cheap such as this box of 144. You can find large packs of rollerball pens for cheap, but they usually don’t contain as many. Packs usually don’t go higher than 50 counts though they are available.

The difference in design

In most cases, the difference in design is due to the manufacturer. However, there are a few conventions that set the two pen types apart. 

Waterman Expert Rollerball Pen Uncapped
Waterman Expert Rollerball Pen Uncapped

Rollerball pens will most often have a cap instead of a retractable nib. They can have retractable nibs operated by a click or twist mechanism, however. The cap style is more common because it better protects the ink from drying out in the nib.

Ballpoint pens do not have the same vulnerability to drying out. This means that you will commonly see ballpoints with cap, click, or twist styles.

The pros and cons of rollerball pens

With the differences in mind, rollerball pens have their own pros and cons. This type of pen is best for those who want nice-looking writing. Additionally, they require less pressure which means they are easier on those who have a hard time maintaining constant pressure.

The drawbacks are readily apparent to left-handed writers. Since the ink used in these pens takes a second or two to dry fully it can make a mess on your hand. 

ProsCons
Glides smoothly across the paperSmudges easily
Fuller linesInk canister prone to drying
More inks availableCan be more expensive
Comfortable to use 

The pros and cons of ballpoint pens

Ballpoint pens are more widely available for good reason. They are great pens for quick notes. They are also very reliable and don’t need any extra maintenance. Those points combined with their cheap nature make them perfect for most average uses.

Drawbacks are small for this style. These pens are often made to be disposable which generates a lot of waste. Additionally, they aren’t as vibrant as rollerball pens. Lastly, they aren’t as good for long writing periods.

ProsCons
CheapRequires more constant pressure
Quick to dryCan be wasteful
Does not bleed throughLess vibrant
Hard to smudge 

Final thoughts

Now you know exactly what is the difference between rollerball and ballpoint pen. Anytime you need to write something fancy you know to pick up a rollerball. When you need to hastily scribble something down you’ve got a ballpoint. Who would have thought that almost all of these differences would be because of the ink type used?

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