Mike's Rollerball and Fountain Pen Review

by Mike Shea on 12 March 2005

Note: This article was originally written in 2005 and has been updated twice since then in 2007 and 2010.

Over the past year my pen obsession grew from the Pilot G2s at the grocery store to the finer fountain pens found only in snobby boutiques. In the following review, I attempt to capture my experiences with a wide range of rollerball and fountain pens under the $100 price range. I will also offer some recommendations to those unlucky few who find their pen obsession weighing heavy on their minds and on their wallet.

Roller Balls

Uniball Signo 207

This is the best most archival quality pen available for under $2. The 207 has all of the advantages of the Pilot G2 described below but with an ink that is able to withstand nearly every attempt to wash away the ink. Like the G2, the 207 is available in .5 mm and .7 mm. It is also readily available in grocery stores, drug stores, and large stationary stores. Like the G2, the 207 refill fits many high-end roller ball pens such as the Waterman Expert rollerball.

The Uniball Signo 207 is my most highly recommended pen for everyday writing.

Pilot G2

This $1 pen can be purchased just about anywhere in the US. It comes in both .5mm and .7mm tips. The ink is an archival quality permanent gel-based ink that is water resistant, fade resistant, and acid free. Only when submitted to the harshest chemical assaults did the ink fade. The ink cartridge inside the G2 fits inside many other high-end pens such as Waterman and Rotring rollerballs, but who really cares what it looks like.

I have had some problems with the G2's ball gumming up after some use. I tend to write very small letters in a Moleskine journal (mentioned below under Paper) and sometimes the ball sticks. If it gets bad enough, I'll throw it away and grab another but this ends up wasting a 3/4 full refill. Others don't seem to have this problem and its possible the .5mm would do me better service. For $1, however, this problem is hardly worth mentioning.

One larger problem with G2 pens, especially the .7mm size, is a long drying time. The .7mm draws a thick line that takes up to twenty seconds to fully dry. Left handed writers have a very difficult time writing with a G2 and not smearing the ink. In a Moleskine, a written page will bleed over to the adjacent page when closed leaving blots of ink over on the opposite page. A sheet of blotter paper tucked in between the two recently written pages solves this problem. For left handed writers, the G2 may not be the right pen, although a .5mm tip size reduces the smearing problem.

When submitted to harsh ink testing, it became clear that the G2 ink cannot withstand bleach or hairspray. Noodler's ink and Sakura Gelly Roll ink held up much better. View the results at this ink test photo set. The G2, however, is more water resistant than typical pens.

Sakura Gelly Roll

According to Sakura's History, Sakura invented gel-based ink. The Sakura Gelly Roll is another $1 gel-based ink pen that is fade proof, water proof, and acid free. It is an archival quality pen. Unfortunately it is not as easily found, one of the reasons I do not rate it as highly as the Uniball 207 or G2. Many writers prefer the Sakura to the G2, however, and for the low price tag, it is worth trying out if one finds it in an art supply store.

The Sakura has a soft plastic barrel and a small rounded cap. The ink is not meant to be refilled but at $1 each, it wouldn't be worth selling separate ink refills anyway. The ink inside the Sakura cannot be used inside other rollerball pens.

In a series of tests applied to various inks, the ink of a black Sakura Gelly Roll fine point withstood both bleach and hairspray moreso than other inks including G2.

For the price, the Sakura Gelly Roll is the most durable, affordable, and archival quality pen available.

When submitted to harsh water and chemical treatments, the Sakura Gelly Roll ink survived as well as the Uniball 207 and survived more than the Pilot G2 ink.

Sakura Pigma Micron Sketching Pen

New entry, April 2010: For the past three to four months I've started using the Sakura Pigma Micron pen as my daily writer. They're cheap, at about $2 in bulk, and they have all of the criteria I require for a pen. Unlike most rollerballs, the Pigma Micron doesn't ever seem to skip except when it runs out of ink and it dries nearly instantly so you never have to worry about bleed through. I've written a detailed review of the Sakura Pigma Micron pen. As of April 2010, it is my favorite daily-use pen.

Note on Cheaper Pens

The above pens represent only a tiny fraction of the excellent pens available in most grocery, drug, or office supply stores. When looking for a pen that will last the ages, look for a gel-based rollerball pen that states that it is waterproof, fade proof, and acid-free. Water, light, and ink acidity are the three elements most damaging to writing over time. Seek out pens that avoid all three.

Higher End Rollerball Pens

Waterman Phileas Rollerball

Waterman pens have been around a long time and the Waterman Phileas black rollerball was the first Waterman pen I owned. The $30 Phileas has a plastic barrel and cap, something that I don't particularly care for but common on pens below $50. The grip is tapered at the end so our fingers don't slide too far down the tip. Small grooves also hold your fingers in place. The cap snaps on when closed and posts well on the back when in use. Like all Rotring and Waterman rollerball pens, the Phileas holds Uniball Signo 207 or Pilot G2 refills without any problem. Sometimes, however, a small bit of paper has to be stuck in the back of the barrel to hold the G2 refill to prevent it from wiggling inside.

For a bit of a snobbier pen, the Waterman Phileas is a fine rollerball pen. However, it offers little value when compared to the Pilot Dr. Grip that costs $25 less. I recommend this pen if you must have a snobbier pen, but you are better off with a Dr. Grip or a Phileas fountain pen reviewed below.

Waterman Expert Rollerball

The $115 Expert rollerball pen is the best rollerball pen I own. I personally like the dune-red look, the look of the pen I purchased myself, however the flat black version also looks very nice. Like other Waterman pens, the Expert holds a Uniball Signo 207 or Pilot G2 rollerball refill perfectly. The barrel is an enameled brass barrel that has a good weight and a tapered grip. The cap snaps on both when closed and on the back when in use.

While the Waterman Expert rollerball is the finest rollerball pen I own, I cannot recommend this pen based on its heavy price tag when compared to the excellent value of a Pilot Dr. Grip. If you are going to spend $80 on a pen, make it a fountain pen. However, if you want a very nice pen that uses Pilot G2 refills, look no further.

Fountain Pens

Fountain pen history goes back over one hundred years. Many pen collectors and experts consider only fountain pens to fall in the category of fine writing instruments. Many collectors won't bother looking at any other type of pen for collecting and many writers write only with fountain pens.

Of course, this is elitist crap. The rollerball pens mentioned above draw just as nice a line and use ink that will last centuries. There are few better pens than a Uniball Signo 207 in all practical purposes.

However, there are a few advantages to a fountain pen. It has no moving parts except the ink converter. The pen engineering itself has gone on for over a century. When writing, fountain pens leave ink at the barest touch to paper. There is no ball to move within the tip. Fountain pens also let you pick the exact color and type of ink you wish to use. All of the pens mentioned below include ink converters that take ink straight from a bottle instead of a cartridge.

If you become a fan of pens, fountain pens are the place to look. With their vast history, elegant look, and highly entertaining use, fountain pens are just plain fun. Many writers including Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Neil Stephenson, and Joe Haldeman write exclusively with fountain pens.

There are a few problems with fountain pens. They're expensive, starting at around $20 and going up into incredible reaches. Consider the $730,000 Mont Blanc Mystery Masterpiece if you want to see how high the price can get. I don't recommend purchasing a fountain pen for more than $100 and even that price seems incredibly high when comparing the final writing of a fountain pen and a $1 Uniball 207.

Fountain Pen Ink

I only recommend one brand of fountain pen ink: Noodler's. Nathan Tardaff, a New England pen dealer, designed a fountain pen ink that remains water soluble on fountain pens but becomes permanent on paper. It is waterproof, acid free, light proof, and permanent even when subjected to horrible torture test. Short of destroying the paper, Noodler's Ink is permanent. There are a few different colors of Noodler's that offer this permanency including black, Eternal Brown, and Legal Lapis. Most of the Noodler's Inks can be purchased at Amazon.com.

Noodler's Ink is the best ink I've ever used. Were it not for the durability of this ink, I would not recommend writing with fountain pens at all. Most other fountain pen ink is not water resistant. Take Waterman's ink, for example. Write something on a piece of paper and run some water over it. It disappears in seconds. Noodler's ink looks no different after soaking in water or many other horrible substances for days.

Like the G2 ink mentioned above, fountain pen ink takes longer to dry than ballpoint or fast drying rollerball ink. In a Moleskine journal, the ink will leave an imprint on the opposite page when closed if it is not yet dry. A sheet of blotter paper tucked in between recently written pages helps solve this problem.

Lamy Safari

The $25 Lamy Safari medium point was the first fountain pen I ever bought. It leaves an amazing thick line of ink. The pen construction itself is hard graphite with a rough texture. There is a small window on the side of the pen to show you when it begins to run low. The tip has a contoured grip that fits your fingers perfectly. The nib is steel and inflexible. Many consider the Safari to be an excellent workhorse pen.

The Safari does not include an ink converter to take ink from a bottle so one needs to purchase that separately.

Though a bit industrial, the Lamy Safari is the best fountain pen for under $25.

Waterman Phileas

My second fountain pen was a Waterman Phileas fine point in the green marble style. The fine point on the Phileas is wider than that of the fine point on the Expert reviewed below. Like the Phileas rollerball, this $50 fountain pen has a plastic barrel and cap. Unlike the Lamy, the Phileas includes an ink converter putting this pen and the Lamy in roughly the same price range.

For thicker or rougher paper, like Arches Text Wove found in the Renaissance Art journals described under Paper, the Phileas fine tip fountain pen works very well. It may have a line a bit too thick for a Moleskine journal. For Moleskine use, an extra-fine point found on the Safari, a Waterman Expert fine point, or a Pilot Vanishing Point fine point pen works better. The style is excellent, it is a fine looking pen.

I highly recommend the Waterman Phileas fountain pen.

Waterman Expert fine point fountain pen

My third fountain pen I picked up on sale from Fountain Pen Hospital, a fine point Waterman Expert for about $60. The normal price of this pen is around $100. Like the construction of the Expert Rollerball, the Waterman Expert fountain pen has an enameled brass barrel with a cap that snaps on both the top and the back when in use. It includes an ink converter for the use of bottled ink.

For a traditional fountain pen by the manufacturer with the most history in fountain pen construction, there are few finer pens for the price than the Expert 2. It is a very sold and well writing pen with a tip a bit finer than a Waterman Phileas fine point.

At around the same price as a Pilot Vanishing Point, I would recommend the Vanishing Point instead of the Expert. For one, the Vanishing Point has a real gold nib instead of a steel one. The Vanishing Point also has many other advantages to the Expert.

Pilot Vanishing Point

I have now owned three Pilot Vanishing Points in the past three years. I still have my original pen, though I now use a gold and black. I gave these away to my groomsmen at my wedding. In November 2007 I wrote a novel mostly with my Pilot Vanishing Point in a large Moleskine. In short, after using pens priced four to five times as much, the Pilot Vanishing Point is my favorite fountain pen and the one I most recommend. If you find yourself desiring a fountain pen, this is the one to get.

Pilot has produced these pens for over forty years. The engineering of this pen is quite interesting. It operates like a traditional ball point, with a large button on the bottom of the pen. When pressed, the 18k gold nib extends out of the top of the pen. This keeps the pen's nib upright when clipped to a shirt. When not in use, fountain pens should always sit with their nib upright. A small cap covers the nib's tip when it is retracted back into the barrel.

Because of its construction, the entire nib unit of a Vanishing Point can be replaced with another for about $25. I purchased both a medium and a fine nib for my Vanishing Point. The fine point is more like the extra-fine nibs of other pens. It is very thin and writes very well in a Moleskine plain pocket journal. The fine nib is too fine for the Arches Text Wove paper of a Renaissance Art journal. I expect the medium nib to write well in the Renaissance Art journal.

The only disadvantage of the Vanishing Point is the lack of a true bottle-only nib unit. It only uses a standard plunger style converter. A Lamy 2000 or Pelikan M-1000, for example, only use ink from a bottle. This is a small criticism for an otherwise wonderful pen.

The Pilot Vanishing Point is my most used and most recommended fountain pen.

Paper

I use three types of paper for my writing. For daily notes and stories I write in a Moleskine plain pocket journal. The thinner paper of this journal works very well with a Pilot Vanishing Point fine or medium point fountain pen, Waterman Expert fine point fountain pen, Lamy Safari extra fine point fountain pen all with Noodler's ink, or any rollerball using Pilot G2 .5mm or .7mm ink refills. Because of the wet lines of Noodler's ink and Uniball Signo 207s, one must use a sheet of blotter paper to prevent an imprint on the opposite page when closing the notebook.

I have also written stories in a Renaissance Art Leather Journal. The Arches Text Wove cotton-based paper of the Renaissance Art journal is very thick and rough requiring a fountain pen with a wider nib such as the Waterman Phileas fine point. The extra fine points of the Waterman Expert fine point or the Pilot Vanishing Point fine point are too thin to sink well into the Arches Text Wove paper of the Renaissance Art journals.

Final Recommendations

This article encompasses all of the experiences I have had with a wide array of pens, inks, and papers. Use it to make your own choices and make those choices smartly. If you can stay away from the alluring call of the fine writing instrument, stick with the Uniball Signo 207. If you are looking for a higher end writing instrument, go no further or back than a Pilot Vanishing Point. It is the finest writing instrument I have used.

And now we come to the Mike Shea Personal Writing Kit:

Above all, remember the single rule to all pens, papers, and journals. None of them matter next to the words you write.

Send comments to mike@mikeshea.net or follow @mshea on Twitter. If you enjoyed this article, please bookmark and use this link to Amazon.com for your next online purchase.