There are few writing experiences that are more satisfying than a great gel pen. The right gel pen is buttery smooth, has color that really pops, and is a pleasure to write with on nearly any paper. Gel pens are truly one of the best and most versatile ways to write.
But there are many gel pens sold today. While there aren’t many truly bad gel pens left, a few stand out from the rest. We’ve tested dozens of gel pens, and these are our favorites.
Why Gel Pens?
Gel pens are useful for a number of reasons. As a type of rollerball ink, a gel pen is super smooth and a great writer on most types of paper. Gel ink also has the ability to carry significant amounts of pigment or dye which allows not just for bright colors but special inks, like metallic colors and glitter-infused ink. This means gel pen are great not just for writing, but also for drawing making art. You might not be in the market for a sparkle pen, but gel ink is also quick-drying, great for left-handed people, and comes in most popular pen refill sizes.
Gel pens are not without their downsides though. A popular complaint with gel pens is that they run out quickly. This is because they put a lot of ink down on the page, which means they inevitably won’t last as long as a ballpoint pen. This means today’s gel pens are relatively expensive compared to ballpoint pens. Some gel pens are prone to smearing, especially on coated paper, like a Rhodia, which is why many lefties prefer quick-drying gel inks, like the Zebra Sarasa Dry and Pentel Energel.
Pentel Energel Infree
The Pentel Energel line is consistently a top pick with left-handed writers thanks to the smoothness and quick drying times. The most popular pen in the line with true fans is the excellent Energel-X, which is cheap and easy to find. While it’s a fine pen, it’s been upgraded in the Energel Infree. The Infree is the same pen — complete with the gel ink and oversized button on the top — but it has a clear body, metal clip, and cool silver grip. The Infree also sold in limited edition colors which really showed off what Pentel can do with their gel technology.
But, don’t worry, if you can’t find the Infree the Energel-X is always available! If you want a metal, executive version of this pen then you want the Philography (aka Energel Style in the US).
Zebra Sarasa Dry
The entire Sarasa line of gel pens is excellent, but the Sarasa Dry gel pen is the best of the bunch. It features a super-quick drying ink that is a great option for lefties, just like the Energel (but possibly better). Zebra claims the ink dries 85% faster than a traditional ink, and while that’s hard to verify there is no denying that this ink is top-notch.
The Sarasa Dry also has a great looking body, which styling that is cooler than the typical office pen. It also has the Sarasa’s spring-loaded clip, which is functional and fun to play with. The Sarasa Dry is sold in both a 0.4 mm and 0.5 mm sizes. There isn’t a huge difference between the two, but if you want quick dry times then you definitely want a smaller writing tip, not a full 0.7 mm or 1.0 mm.
The Sarasa Dry is a Japanese pen, but it’s sold as the Sarasa SE in the United States. The two have the same great ink, so you are covered there. The SE has an incredible sneaker grip which is super comfortable, but the overall styling of the pen isn’t quite as cool as the Dry’s.
Uni-ball Signo 207
The Signo 207 and it’s derivatives — the Sign0 307 and the 207 Plus+ — is a popular and popular gel pen. It’s widely available and has ink with all the attributes anyone could hope to see. The ink is of archival quality and fade-resistant, it is also pigmented so it’s water-resistant and fraud-proof. The pen is known also for its handsome design, archival ink, and excellent, sneaker-style rubber grip.
This is the most practical pen on our list because it’s easy to find, can be bought in large packs, and you never have to worry about the ink — it’s great for writing checks to taking tests, and everything in between.
Pilot Juice Up
Pilot used to be the king of the gel pens with its G2, but times have moved on and the G2 has stayed the same. Luckily Pilot has made advances as well, with the Juice, and then the Juice Up pens. The Juice Up is the way to go these days thanks to a super cool modern styling and an excellent gel ink.
This pen has one of the better 0.4 mm refills sold today and it’s a needletip, so it’s great for journalling in smaller notebooks. There is a 0.3 mm as well and it’s a pretty good pen, but the 0.4 mm is the sweet spot for great writing with this exceptionally cool gel pen.
Before the Juice Up, Pilot focused on the Juice gel pen, which is a lower-end model. The Juice is a bit cheaper and has more color options, but we’d still recommend the Juice Up. While the Juice is still a solid option and is available in more colors and sizes, the Juice Up remains the premium version and ultimately the better pen for everyday writing.
Pilot Hi-Tec-C Gel Pen
No list of gel pens would be complete without this classic. The Hi-Tec-C and it’s multi-pen cousin, the Hi-Tec-C Coleto, are absolutely phenomenal pens with classic styling and great writing performance from a super fine point 0.25 mm up to a generous 0.5 mm. These pens have been so popular and so loved for so long that they may not seem special any more, but they remain must-owns for anyone interested in writing. The best of the line is the 0.4 mm Hi-Tec-C or the two-color Coleto in the classic clear body.
Best Broad Gel Pens
One of the appeals of gel pens is that they can get very broad (1.0 mm+) and very wet. If what you are looking for is the biggest, boldest coloring without spending a ton on a fountain pen, then a broad gel pen is about as good as it gets. Of course, these pens can smear and they bleed through lighter paper, so you’ll have to write carefully, but they are fun to use and offer a thicker line that is great for signatures and cards.
Here are the picks for the best broad gel pens:
- Pilot G2 1.0 mm – A traditional ink gel pen with a clear plastic body and a basic grip.
- Pilot Juice 1.0 mm – Like the G2 but sold in many other art-friendly colors.
- Pentel Energel-X 1.0 mm (LR10 refill) – Usually a needle tip pen, this model has a super smooth 1.0 mm tip.
- Zebra Sarasa Push Clip 1.0 mm – Another traditional model, that is a great pen at a fair price.
- Uni-ball Signo 207 Bold – This is the 1.0 mm version of the 207 above. The 307 isn’t sold in this size.
- Uni-ball Signo Broad UM-153 – A wide, super wet gel pen for artists.
Best Erasable Gel Pen
This one is an absolute no-brainer… The best erasable gel pen is the Pilot FriXion Ball Knock. Pilot has engineered an excellent erasable gel ink that looks great, writes smoothly, and is fun to use. The only hesitation with this selection is that this pen might belong in the “Best Gel Pens” list not the “Best Erasable Gel Pens” one, but for the sake of accuracy it’ll remain here.
Best Permanent Gel Pen
There aren’t a whole lot of options here, but the smart money is on the Pentel Energel Permanent Pro liquid gel pen. This pen writes like a Energel, has fast dry times, but also has a permanent, waterproof, fraud-proof, pigment based ink.
Hopefully you have some thoughts now about what a gel pen is, why you might want one, and what some of the best ones are. This list is updated regularly so make sure to check back for updates when you are in the market for more pens.
How We Picked These Pens
If you have been following the Unsharpen Youtube channel then you know we have been posting about affordable pens for over 5 years and have made hundreds of videos in that time. The focus of many of those video is gel pens, so a shortlist of pens naturally emerged over time.
Given this list of about 50 or so gel pens sold in 2020, we tested each extensively, with a focus on real-world use… not just writing “The Quick Brown Fox…” over and over again. Pens were also tested against their claims: the resistance to smearing, the ability to be washed out of paper, and smoothness relative to their peer group. Other qualities were taken into consideration as positive and negative qualities but we weren’t able to test, particularly for archival quality and acid-free formulation, so we had to take the word of the manufacturer or testing groups like the NSF.
The results of our testing was shared with a small number of people who are not pen enthusiasts and could offer a “sanity check” of the results. They didn’t bring the sort of baggage a pen lover might to the testing and were impartial to the brands involved as well as the historic relevance of pens, like Pilot G2.
Do Gel Pens Write The Best?
You might not have guessed it, but this is a common question. Gel pens are great — they are smooth, fun to use, and they allow for excellent color tons (much better than rollerball or ballpoint). Gel pens also dry quickly, with pens like the Energel and Sarasa Dry being top performers in this area. On the downside, gels pens are not known for their longevity and skipping on cheaper paper can be a real problem.
But are gel pens the best writers? While many people opt for fountain pens and some people love their rollerballs, gel pens are the favorite here at Unsharpen. Their combination of smoothness, great colors, and personality make gel pens the most writer-friendly type of ink sold today.
What Makes Gel Pens Gel?
The ink in gel pens is actually gelled, using a gelling agent. The base of the ink is almost always water and then a dye or pigment is added for color, but there has to be something to thicken the solution. This is the gelling agent, and it was traditionally xanthan gum. Other substances like tragacanth gum and various thickeners are used by different companies, but the inventor of the gel ink, Sakura, and many companies use xanthan gum.
What Are Gel Pens Good At?
Gel pens excel in a few areas, but the main applications where their ink is second to none are art and quick-drying. Gel pens are great at art because they have a huge variety of colors and those colors can really pop, more so than any ink type except for fountain pen ink. Just look above at the Pentel Hybrid Dual Metallic gel pen. Not only does it have metallic color, it also has glitter in the ink. Gel is the only ink that can do that. This sort of versatility makes gel ink unmatched.
And then if you are left-handed or value quick-dry times, gel ink is always a great choice. Oil-based inks and fountain pen inks can sit for 15 or more seconds because drying, something that’s a major problem if you are worried about smudges and smears. Gel ink dries in a snap, especially if you have an ink that is purpose-designed for this.
What is behind the ink in a gel pen?
The transparent gel that is behind the ink in the refill of a gel pen is usually known as “stopper” or “follower.” This is usually a type of silicone gel that acts as a barrier between the outside air and the dyed and/or pigmented section of the gel (basically the ink in a gel pen). This gel has numerous jobs, mainly acting to protect the ink from evaporation, push the ink down so the pen writes, and to prevent the ink from leaking out of the back of the pen.