What are Gel Pens and How Do They Work?

Across your writing adventures, you are bound to come across the eminent “gel" pen. Gels have become increasingly more popular over the course of the past decade, and for good reason. But the question is, what exactly is a gel pen? How is it different from any other type of pen, and why does this matter?

In this article, we’ll cover everything you need (or want) to know about gel pens, help you decide what type of pen is best for you, or simply to feed your curiosity.

What are Gel Pens and How Do They Work?

What is a gel pen?

The gel pen is a writing instrument that often contains a mechanism similar to rollerball pens and the ever popular ballpoint pen. The main difference, however, is in the composition and viscosity of the ink. This may not seem such a significant detail, but when it comes to pens, the type of ink is crucial to way a pen writes.

Specifically, gel pens’ ink is primarily composed of a water-based gel and powdered pigments. The gel is a colloid which often consists of common biopolymers such as xanthan gum.[1] This creates a thick, viscous ink that is simultaneously very smooth flowing. Rollerball pens also use water-based ink, but use dyes instead of pigments to color the ink. As a result, rollerball ink is very thin, which allows for precision but detracts from vibrancy. By extreme contrast, ballpoint pens contain an oil-based ink instead of water-based ink. This makes the ink extremely thick and not as smooth as gel pen ink.[2]

History of the gel pen

In the early 1980s, a Japanese stationery company, Sakura, wanted to create a new variety of water-based pen that was more suited towards the modern writer. Barely a decade prior, another Japanese stationery brand, Ohto, invented the rollerball pen, but its loose-flowing ink was not always suitable for everyday use. Sakura wanted to develop a pen that was as fluid as a rollerball while being adaptable for general writing on all types of paper.[3]

By 1982, Sakura had obtained a patent for their new pen – the gel pen – in Japan, and the following year patented the invention in the United States.[4] Sakura soon revised their popular Ballsign pen to use gel-style ink, effectively becoming the first ever gel pen. The Ballsign was primarily sold in Japan, and found a niche amongst artists because of its color saturation, its longevity, and its water resistance. Sakura’s Pigma Micron gel pen (or “Micron,” for short) was also released in 1982, and still remains one of the most popular gel pens available to this day for its precision.

What are Gel Pens and How Do They Work?

But it was not until 1988 that the crowning achievement of gel pens was born: the Sakura Gelly Roll. Prior to this, gel pens were primary used within the artistic community and had not gained much mainstream traction. However, The Gelly Roll introduced a vibrant, attractive, and approachable version of the gel pen to the world. The wide variety of psychedelic hues combined with the soft, rounded edges of the pen’s body fit perfectly within the trends and aesthetic landscape of 80s, and the popularity of the gel pen skyrocketed.

Since the inception of the gel pen by Sakura in the 80s, this type of pen has been cemented as a household and office staple throughout the world. Gel pens continue to be popular for their whimsical charm and nostalgic value, as the Gelly Roll is still an all-time favorite and has been imitated countless times throughout the past three decades. But gel pens are also increasingly respected as a practical tool for artists and for everyday writers, becoming a staple in school and office workplaces.

What are Gel Pens and How Do They Work?

How does a gel pen work?

The mechanism of the gel pen, much like the size of pen, bears much similarity to that of ballpoint and rollerball pens. After all, the invention of the ballpoint pen in the 1930s was truly a stroke of genius, and is not an idea worth discarding. But how exactly does this work?

In spite of what complicated diagrams and historical patents might try to convince you of, the gel pen mechanism is remarkably simple. The pen largely depends on a miniscule metal ball at the tip of the pen. Inside of the pen, half of this ball is coated with ink. So, as you move your pen across a sheet of paper, the ball rolls, exposing the inked side and creating a mark on the paper. When you write with a gel pen, this ball is constantly rolling, so the cycle of being coated with ink and transferring that ink onto the paper is constantly in motion. This allows you to create consistent, smooth lines of ink. In other words, this is how you write!

Of course, this is a simplified explanation of the internal mechanism of gel, ballpoint, and rollerball pens. However, if you are curious to learn more in-depth how these types of pens work, check out our article on the ballpoint mechanism!

Is a gel pen “write” for you?

Even with all of this information about gel pens, you may still be unsure whether gel pens are the right fit for you.

The simple answer? Yes, everyone should own at least one gel pen. While you may be attached to reliable old ballpoints, including some of the best luxury ballpoint pens 2024 has to offer, which serve you perfectly fine, or to more traditional fountain pens, which give a glamorous flourish to your writing, gel pens always have a place in a writer’s collection.

Gel pens combine the satisfyingly smooth writing experience of the fountain pen with the practicality and convenience of the ballpoint pen, and with even more to offer. The nature of gel-based ink is that it is water-proof, so it will not bleed through pages nor will it rapidly fade over time. The ink colors are pronounced and vibrant, which makes gel ink one of the most beautiful ways to write. The ink is also very quick-drying, which makes it suitable for left-handed writers who are prone to smudging, and to artists who use pens as an artistic medium.

Most importantly, gel pens are unabashedly fun. They are available in a seemingly infinite array of colors, not to mention to metallics, glitters, and other textured inks. Though gel pens certainly know when to be serious and professional (such as the classic black Pilot G2), the continued popularity of colorful, whimsical styles can make gel pens the perfect way to tap into your inner child.

Gel pens are truly one of the most, if not the most versatile writing instrument in existence, often considered the best note-taking pens. They are perfect for in-class note-taking, office sticky notes, sketching, bullet journaling, hasty scribbling – you name it. The gel pen is everything you may want it to be, and anything you may need it to be – it just goes with the flow.

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Read the short history of the ballpoint pen here

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See the differences between ballpoint and rollerball pens here.

What's the difference between fountain and ballpoint pens

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What sizes do ballpoint pens come in?

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See all ballpoint pen tip sizes here.

How artists use ballpoint pens

Pens are used for more than just writing.

Find creative uses for ballpoint pens here.

What are gel pens and how do they work?

Find out how a gel ink pen differs from a ballpoint pen.

See how a gel pen works here.

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Find the ideal grade and lead diameter for your mechanical pencil.

Explore the various types of pencil leads here.

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