Gel pens and rollerball pens can seem like the same thing and they are, in fact, often confused. What’s the difference between the two?
If you have read our explainer on the difference between ballpoint and rollerball pens, you’ll remember that different types of pens generally manifest in differences in the ink, pen body, and the refills. This is difference is more pronounced when comparing ballpoints and rollerballs than when comparing gel and rollerballs, but it still exists.
Gel Ink vs. Rollerball Ink
The most important thing to know about each pen is that both gel ink pens and rollerball ink pens use a water-based ink. This means they have a loose ink, a wet flow, and lots of spread on the paper. This is more true with a rollerball and less so with a gel, where the ink is thickened with an emulsifier, as opposed to being a “liquid” ink (which you’d see in a liquid ink rollerball).
Historically speaking, rollerball pens were invented first, by Japanese pen company Ohto, in 1964. Gel pens were invented by Sakura in the early 1980s, also in Japan.
From a taxonomy standpoint, gel pens are actually considered to be a type of rollerball, as the inks are similarly designed and formulated, though at this point gel pens are more popular than rollerball pens, so it’s not really useful consider gel pens to be part of a larger rollerball category.
Rollerball ink is very loose and watery, in fact it’s very close to a fountain pen ink. Some rollerball pens can use fountain pen ink, but a typical rollerball uses a formula that is a little thicker than standard fountain pen ink. Rollerballs that use fountain pen ink are known as “cartridge rollerball pens” and they demonstrate the number one strength of a rollerball: it’s basically a fountain pen experience in a more accessible, more portable design.
Gel pens has a thicker ink that doesn’t spill or leak. It’s also water based but a thickening agent stops it from being a liquid. This design means that the gel can carry pigments, dyes, or even glitter (powdered aluminum) in its suspension, which is why gel pens have the most color options of any pen, the most vibrant colors, and can writing in sparkle colors.
Gel vs. Rollerball Pen Bodies
The name of a pen type is based on the ink but the ink, in turn, has an affect on the body design. Both gel and rollerball ink pens can be capped or retractable, with both types having ink formulas that can work capped or uncapped.
Some retractable rollerball pens are…
Capped rollerball, capped gel, and retractable gel pens are all very common and need no special callouts. You can review our best gel pens and best rollerball pen guides to find them.
Rollerballs and Pen Lines
One interesting thing to note is that high-end pen brands use lines or families to sell pens, the Lamy Safari for example. These will almost always include a usually sold in a fountain pen, rollerball, ballpoint, and mechanical pencil. A gel pen is never one of these types, as you’d just add a gel refill (if compatible) to the rollerball style.
And in this case, the rollerball is almost always a capped pen, nearly identical to the fountain pen, where the ballpoint will be a click or twist retractable pen.
Gel vs. Rollerball Refills
The refills in gel and rollerball pens can look quite similar and are often interchangeable — this is why you can get a Pilot G2 gel refill in a Lamy Safari rollerball.
Rollerball pens use an ISO standard refill design, which means there is the expectation (at least from European rollerballs) that the refill will be a set length and width, with a standard spring-stop at the front. Non-European rollerballs can adhere to this or not, and many are unconcerned with the spec, like the Uni-ball Vision Elite’s UBR-90 refill which is specific to that pen.
Gel pens typically use a variant on the rollerball refill, which is what you’d see in a Pilot G2, Pentel Energel, or Zebra Sarasa pen. These are long, plastic refills with a dark gel towards the writing tip and a clear gel at the back. At the end of the refill is what’s known as the “stopper,” basically a thicker gel that prevents evaporation from the writing gel and also prevents leaks.
Rollerball refills don’t have an open body because the ink is a liquid. Rather, rollerball pens use a fully sealed refill or have a internal wick system in which there is a piece of felt-like material (or a porous plastic) which holds the ink while a wick leads to the writing tip.
Writing With Gel vs. Rollerball
The writing experience with gel and rollerball pens isn’t drastically different but some generalization can be made…
- Gel ink is quicker trying than rollerball ink
- Gel ink will have brighter colors and more color options than rollerball
- Both ink types are water-based so they will feel like they are sinking into the paper, not sitting top of it. This is more true with rollerballs.
- Rollerball pens tend to put down more ink than gel pens, leading to an increased likelihood of bleeding through paper.
- Both ink types spread on the paper, which means there will be feathering on cheaper and copy type paper
- Both ink types will write larger than the size indicates. A 0.7 mm rollerball will leave the line equivalent of a 1.0 mm pen (unless if the manufacturer adjusts for this, as Schneider does)
Examples of Gel Pens
Examples of Rollerball Pens
Some fine example of rollerball pens include:
- Tombow Zoom Egg rollerball
- Stabilo Bionic Rollerball
- Lamy 2000 rollerball
- J. Herbin Refillable rollerball
- Pilot Precise V5 rollerball
Is rollerball ink sold in a Parker-style G2 refill?
No rollerballs are sold in a Parker-style G2 refill shape. This refill standard is typically used for ballpoint ink, and is sometimes used for gel ink, but never a rollerball.
Is gel ink sold in a Parker-style G2 refill?
Yes, some Parker-style G2 refills use gel ink. Examples of these are Parker’s Quink Gel, the Itoya AquaRoller, and Monteverde’s Ceramic Gel refill.