How Pen Inks Work (And Why Monteverde’s Engage Doesn’t)

4 min readJul 7, 2019

That’s not for a lack of trying on my part; I’ve spent the last month trying to get the Engage to perform well, but to no avail. After my not-great experience with the Herbin Refillable Rollerball , I was looking forward to trying Monteverde’s more expensive rollerball that, like the Herbin, takes fountain pen ink. The pen is several times the price of the Herbin ($73 vs the Herbin’s $12), boasts a beautiful carbon fiber body, and has detailed directions (something the Herbin desperately needed). On paper, seemed like it’s everything I could want in this category. But it didn’t work.

There’s a critical design flaw in the pen, and to understand it we need to talk about how modern pen inks work and the difference between a ballpoint, a gel pen, and a rollerball. When we think of ink, we probably think of a watery colored liquid. And, while this is exactly what is inside most rollerballs and fountain pens, it bears little resemblance to what’s inside a ballpoint or gel pen.

Ballpoint ink is made from dye mixed in alcohol and fatty acids. The resulting ink is viscous, and it generally requires more pressure to write with than either gel or liquid ink. However, ballpoint ink doesn’t evaporate easily, meaning there’s usually no harm in leaving the pen sitting uncapped (other than that you might get ink where you don’t want it). While ballpoint ink is probably the least pleasant to write with, the ink’s high density means that a pen can write for long periods without needing to be refilled.

Gel ink is made from pigment particles suspended in a water-based gel. The gel flows more readily than ballpoint ink because of its lower viscosity, so it provides a smoother writing experience, at the cost that the ink is consumed faster because it’s less dense.

Fountain pen, or rollerball, ink is most commonly made from small particles of organic dye dissolved in water. This ink flows easily, and gives an incredibly smooth writing experience, but, of the ink types, it is the most quickly consumed. Because rollerballs (and fountain pens) use water-based ink, care needs to be taken so the pen’s tip doesn’t…


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