When you are buying a pen you might noticed that there are a number of different ink types that manufacturers use. Ballpoint, rollerball, gel, hybrid, and so on… but what’s the difference from one to the next?
In this article we’ll explain the difference between ballpoint and rollerball pens.
Don’t miss our Ink Type Guide to learn about all types of pen ink.
Ballpoint Ink vs. Rollerball Ink
The number one things to know about the pens’ ink is that ballpoints use thick, oil-based ink and rollerballs use loose, water-based ink. As a result, a typical ballpoint pen will have a dragging feel and a thinner line, with no bleeding on the paper. A typical rollerball pen will be super smooth, with liquid ink and lots of bleeding on cheaper paper.
Ballpoint ink will feel like it sits on top of the paper. Rollerball ink will feel like it’s sinking into the paper with the line spreading as the ink expands into the paper fibers around the line. For this reason ballpoint pens are better on cheap paper, like copy paper and newspaper, because a rollerball’s watery ink will bleed through this paper and have lots of feathering (when the ink saturated the paper fibers around the line).
A typical ballpoint ink will have no spread on the paper so extra large writing tips are used. This is to say that a 0.7 mm ballpoint will writer smaller than 0.7 mm where a 0.7 mm rollerball will write larger than 0.7 mm. This is why many ballpoint pens go up to 1.6 mm while most rollerballs won’t get larger than 1.0 mm.
Ballpoint pens are also much more versatile than rollerball inks. Ballpoints can write on glossy surfaces, like magazines, as well as rough surfaces, like wood and leather. Rollerballs are great on paper, but won’t work on much else.
Ballpoint ink can also be pressurized so that it can write when upside down or underwater. It can be made to work in a huge temperature range — from sub-zero to well above 100 degrees F. The best example of this is the refill from the Fisher Space Pen. Rollerballs don’t have near this level of versatility.
Ballpoint Pen Body vs. Rollerball Pen Body
When you are dealing with fine pens, a rollerball will almost always be similar in build to the line’s fountain pen. The rollerball will be capped and similar in size and shape to the fountain pen, but cheaper. Within fine writing, ballpoints tend to the the most affordable item in the line-up. They will not be capped and will have a push button or twist action to extend the writing point.
Within standard pens, rollerballs are usually capped, though capless rollerballs, like the Lamy Swift and Pilot Precise V7 do exist.
Ballpoint pen bodies come in a huge variety of sizes, shapes, and styles, so there is no typical ballpoint in 2020. Most people think of a clicky, top-button pen when they think of a ballpoint, but historically most of the iconic ballpoint pens have been capped, “stick” style pens.
Ballpoint Refills vs. Rollerball Refills
Both ballpoint and rollerball refills come in a range of refill shapes. Ballpoint pens will typically use a Parker-style refill, known officially as a G2 refill. Rollerballs tend to use a longer refill known as a Standard Rollerball or “RB” refill. Two two are not interchangeable.
Ballpoint Writing vs. Rollerball Writing
Foremost among all the features, the difference that matters to most people is how the two types of pens write. Ballpoints classically have slow, dragging feel to them, like you are pushing through the thick, oil-based ink. Rollerballs are known for smoothly gliding over the paper as they are the closest pen type to a super-smooth fountain pen.
Over the years ballpoints pens have become more advanced and much smoother. Some of these modern ballpoints, like the Zebra Tapli Clip, have lubricated ink while other have actually moved over to be hybrid inks (thus not true ballpoints). The larger points is that ballpoints have gotten much better over the years — with darker colors, less smearing, and smoother writing. Rollerballs have improved as well but most of the advances that have gone towards rollerball pens have actually been aimed at gel pens, which are a type of rollerball but are generally considered to be a different pen type entirely.
Examples of Ballpoint Pens
Some great examples of ballpoint pens include:
- Lamy 2000 ballpoint
- Bic Cristal
- Zebra F-701
- Pilot Dr. Grip ballpoint
- Rotring Tikky
- Rotring 600 ballpoint
For more check out our best ballpoint pens article.
Examples of Rollerball Pens
Some fine example of rollerball pens include:
- Tombow Zoom Egg rollerball
- Lamy 2000 rollerball
- J. Herbin Refillable rollerball
- Pilot Precise V5 rollerball
- Retro 51 Tornado
Which writes longer, a ballpoint or rollerball?
A ballpoint refill uses a thick, oil-based ink that will last for an extremely long time. Some last for up to 8000 meters! Ballpoint pens will almost always have more writing distance than a rollerball or gel pen.