Fountain Pen vs Ballpoint: What’s the Difference?

If you are new to the world of fountain pens, you may find yourself wondering about the differences between fountain pens and other types of pens.  Today we are going to take a look at fountain pens and ballpoint pens side by side.

Before we do, let’s set the stage and talk about how both different types of pens work.

Fountain Pen Basics

A fountain pen may be the most simple, yet most complicated pen out there, since it has been around since the origins of time.  We are going to talk about fountain pens with cartridges today.  For a more detailed look at how fountain pens work, don’t miss this guide.

A fountain pen consists of a body, an ink cartridge, and a nib.  The ink flows down the nib, and writes on paper when you touch the nib to the paper.  The nib is a solid piece of metal with a split down the middle to allow the ink to flow.

You can see what it looks like here, on my Lamy Safari Fountain Pen with an extra fine nib.

Lamy Safari fountain pen nib extra fine

The ink inside a fountain pen is generally water based, and very very thin so it does not clog the mechanisms.  It often takes a long time to dry, depending on the exact formulation of the fountain pen ink.  There are however, quick drying variants.

Ballpoint Pen Basics

A ballpoint pen works fundamentally differently than a fountain pen.

The mechanism in a ballpoint pen consists of a tube of ink, a round metal ball, and a casing for the ball.  The tip of the pen consists of this ball and casing.  When you write, the ball rolls, leaving the ink on the page.

You can see what a ballpoint pen looks like.  This is a Pentel RSVP fine point pen.

pentel rsvp fountain pen tip

As you can see, it looks totally different.

The ink inside is also different, it is an oil based ink which is very different than water based fountain pen ink.

Oil based ink is much thicker than fountain pen or gel pen ink.  It can also smear right after writing, though it will smear less than most fountain pen.

Fountain Pen vs Ballpoint Pen

Now, lets take a look at fountain pens and ballpoint pens side by side, and what they look like when you write with them:

fountain pen vs ballpoint pen writing smear

I immediately swiped a finger across my writing as soon as I finished it.  As you can see, the fountain pen water based ink smear much more than the ballpoint pen oil based ink.  Keep in mind that these are not specialized inks, they are pretty much stock regular pen ink.

This was an Extra Fine Lamy nib vs a Fine Pentel RSVP tip, so they are somewhat comparable in line thickness.  I wrote fast with both samples.

Besides the differences in the mechanics themselves, the fountain pen lends itself to darker more dramatic lines than the ballpoint pen, just by nature of the inks we took a look at.

Which is Better?  Fountain Pen vs Ballpoint

There really is no straight answer to this one, because it all comes down to personal presence.  I rotate through all different types of pens all of the time!

If we talk in generalities, fountain pens are more likely to smudge if you are using regular ink, and also do require maintenance like cleaning.

Ballpoint pens do not, did you know the Lamy Safari pen also comes in ballpoint? When you run out of ballpoint pen ink, it is just a matter of putting in a new refill, no cleaning required.

If you like fine lines (like I do), and use delicate paper (like I often do), fountain pens might not be a good choice if you write hard.  If you can manage to write lightly, you do not need to worry about things like nibs ripping paper or ink bleeding through pages.

Thicker nibs like a medium fountain pen nib won’t rip delicate pages, but you still may have issues with bleeding if you write hard or too slowly.

If you are looking to just write, write, write and not worry about anything, consider a ballpoint pen.  While there are disposable fountain pens, they are still more expensive than ballpoint pens.

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