Progress: Cheap pens that write right (and don't smear)

WASHINGTON — Disposable pens used to be things you wanted to dispose of by throwing them across the room.

They skipped. They had to be muscled across the page. They leaked sticky ink that smeared good words — and shirt cuffs if the writer was left-handed.

Sometimes America progresses, however, and it has, thanks to generations of Japanese engineers driven by dreams of better pens.

"It's getting so that all of the pens that I get leave a very nice, deep, black line with instant starting and no globs or drips left behind," reports Dave Bengston, the founder of the Web site "Cheap Pen Review."

Among retractable pens, he lauds Pilot's G2 and the uni-ball 207 for writing ease; among capped pens, the uni-ball Vision Needle. In multi-packs, all cost less than $2 each.

The Vision even gets grudgingly good reviews from Chuck Edwards, the pen doctor at Fahrney's Pens in Washington, an emporium that is to high-end fountain pens what Tiffany is to diamonds.

"They write well, they hold a lot of ink, and they don't cost a lot," Edwards conceded.

The snugly capped Vision will even survive a washer-dryer ordeal without leaking and, when the cap's off, lay down ink smoothly enough to make a shy man glib.

The ink was a big challenge, explained Leighton Davies-Smith, the vice president of research and development for writing implements at Newell Rubbermaid, whose Sanford division markets uni-ball pens.

To prevent leaks, old-time ballpoint pen ink was nearly as thick as mayonnaise, said Davies-Smith. So the pen moved grudgingly. Ink tended to build up on the housing around the ball and then smear as the writer wrote.

Ink in many of today's roller ball pens is more than a thousand times thinner, and nearly as fluid as water, according to Davies-Smith. Words on paper flow accordingly. "The downside is, the ink is just a leak waiting to happen."

That's where the engineering comes in. To inhibit leakage, some pens hold the ink in their barrels with a fibrous absorber somewhat like a cigarette filter. Others, like the Vision, let the ink slosh around in the barrel and control leaks in other ways.

The Vision's spring-loaded cap, which form-fits the pen's tip, for example, is why the pen survives when it mistakenly ends up in the laundry. The cap and a seepage control system in the pen's nib also enable it to withstand cabin pressure fluctuations in airplanes.

The roller-ball at the tip, whose job Davies-Smith describes as "dragging a puddle of ink around on the paper," is made of very smooth tungsten carbide. It rolls as fast as a jotter can jot, which turns out to be about 2,500 ball rotations a minute, he said.

The more fluid the ball's movement, the less likely the ink is to pool — and the less a writer needs to squeeze the pen or press down on it. The same fluidity characterizes pens whose ink is a gel. Unlike fountain pens, which must be filled frequently, roller ball pens can write for a mile or longer, according to Robert Silberman, Pilot's vice president for marketing.

He insists that Pilot's disposable pens "write as well as anybody else's, right up to five-hundred and thousand-dollar pens."

In any event, people who wouldn't be seen dead with an ungainly uni-ball gel pen called a Sharpie, which costs $1.89, can now hide its working parts in a fancy $30 designer pen housing called a Sherpa.

"It proves you CAN put lipstick on a pig," says Barry Robinson, the author of a recent piece on the Sherpa in Pen World magazine.

The Sharpie and other uni-ball pens are especially popular with sports stars and autograph collectors because the pens' ink is permanent.

When it comes to grips, pen critic Bengston prefers the Pilot's contoured grip to uni-ball's old-fashioned straight stalk.

Pilots win for eye appeal, too. The Vision, especially the nerd gray model, looks like an old-fashioned east European fountain pen. A slightly less retro update, the Elite, comes in jukebox colors.

Uni-ball's Davies-Smith rationalizes that people will buy a pen once for its design, but will come back only if it writes well.


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