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Pens and Their Uses

Updated on February 15, 2012

Since you actually clicked on a hub called Pens and Their Uses I’m just going to go ahead and assume that you REALLY like pens. If you don’t really like pens all that much, be forewarned, this hub really is all about pens.

Today pens are generally thought of as instruments for getting thoughts onto paper. We use them to write notes, lists, journals and prose. We rarely think about the properties of the pen in our hand.

Pens can be as varied and specialised as any other tool. Certain pens are better suited to your writing style or to the specific project at hand than others. Read on to nerd out over different styles of pen, their uses and their advantages and disadvantages.

A beautiful dip pen I got for my birthday along with turquoise ink.
A beautiful dip pen I got for my birthday along with turquoise ink.
My quill and dip pen set with assorted nibs.
My quill and dip pen set with assorted nibs.

Quill and Dip Pens

The image of a feathered quill is a famous one. It brings Shakespeare to mind; a furiously talented artist with ink-stained fingers bent low over his desk, creating the best known English literature of all time. Today quills are most often used by calligraphers to create written art, as well as by amateur enthusiasts whose written art looks more like a child learning cursive (that’s me).

Writing quills were originally made with flight feathers that had good strong rachises (spines). This, along with a knife, was the complete scribe’s toolkit in the middle ages. Before writing with the quill the scribe would shave back most of the feathers with his knife, for a more practical, if less exotic writing instrument. The quill was then set in hot sand to strengthen the rachis and make it more flexible. Then, score and shape the end with a knife and voila: you have a pen! Luckily for scribes and (as literacy became more common) everyone else companies began to manufacture metal nibs.

How to make your own quill pen

A dip pen is a writing instrument much like a quill but with a handle that can be made of any material and does not have a reservoir of ink inside. I, personally, find these much easier to use, especially at first. The same rules apply, they’re just a little a easier to grip.

New to quills and dip pens?

  • Don’t expect your writing to look anywhere near as neat as it normally does, in fact don’t even expect it to be legible.
  • Writing with a quill requires very, very light pressure.
  • Don’t rush.
  • Take time to learn how to load your nib with the perfect amount of ink to minimize splotching
  • While you are new to quills don’t attempt to write anything, just write. Take time to learn how the ink flows from the reservoir, get to know the flexibility of your pen, practise different letters and get to know the thickness of the ink lines from different nubs.

Fountain Pens

As technology progressed and life became more convenient a quill or dip pen simply wasn’t going to cut in anymore. The earliest historical record of fountain pens was a 10th century story of the Caliph of Maghreb demanding a pen that wouldn’t cause a mess of stains and blotches while he was writing. He apparently did receive such a pen but there is no information about it’s construction. In the 17th century a German inventor first began selling a pen made of two quills, one to write with, and another inside the first to act as a cartridge.

A fountain pen uses water-based ink that is stored in a refillable cartridge inside. The majority of people who use fountain pains do so either as collectors, artists, or connoisseurs. Though they are easier to write with than quills or dip pens they still require practise. You’ll have to get familiar with the idiosyncrasies of your nibs and learn to write with little to no pressure or the ink will spill out onto the page. It’s also a good idea not to keep these pens in your pocket, by 10th century standards they were very clean, but compared to ballpoint and rollerball pens, they leak everywhere.

My autograph pen, one of the first I recieved as a gift.
My autograph pen, one of the first I recieved as a gift.

Autograph Pens

Now we get into the modern pens. Autograph pens are, simply put, pens used for autographing things. Debates are always raging about which pens are better for autographing baseballs, catcher’s mitts, paper and any other surface. There are people who buy, sell, trade and counterfeit autographs as a career who have very strong feelings about what instruments are used. For me personally, as I don’t deal in autographs, I like my simple and beautiful German-made autograph pen for signing. I use it for cheques and personal letters. I love the idea of writing to someone with a beautiful pen in my hand. It gives letter writing back some of the romanticism it has lost. Read my hub on letter writing here.

A super-sized novelty pen.
A super-sized novelty pen.
Need to write in five different colours at one time? Who doesn't?
Need to write in five different colours at one time? Who doesn't?

Novelty Pens

You can pick up novelty pens in just about any dollar store in North America. Most of them are difficult to use and only marginally fun to look at. You can get pens that clip onto your keys, come with tiny matching books you can’t actually write anything in, that light up (not actually useful for writing in the dark as they causes eye-strain and the constant movement of the light can cause motion sickness), pens that look like food, flowers, animals, people or guitars. Who can forget the fish-shaped pen that helped Kyle MacDonald go from a red paperclip to a house back in 2006?

Good pens!
Good pens!
Bad pens!
Bad pens!

Dollar store pens

Writing is my only job and I use pens a lot, and I use a lot of pens. The funny thing is my favourite pen to write with is a Bic plastic pen with blue ink. They deliver quite a bit of ink so your words come out dark and clear, the plastic is durable and unlikely to break, the caps are well-fitted and don’t fall off and they come filled with plenty of ink. Oh, and they’re super cheap.

Of course not all cheap pens are so easy to use. I have, shoved in a box of office supplies, about twenty cheap pens that I bought all at once in a pack. The pens are too light, thin and flexible, have broken on multiple occasions, staining bags and clothing with ink that comes out far too lightly on the page. You have to press hard to see what you’re writing, which marks your pages all the way through, and you are constantly loosing the caps. So, be forewarned, a pen is not a pen is not a pen. But a Bic blue ink pen (with a clear shaft) is a pen!

Ball point pens-

A ball point pen works kind of like a rodent’s water bottle. If you have a pet hamster or guinea pig you’ll be familiar with the metal tube with the ball on the end. When the hamster’s tongue presses up on the ball, the water comes out. Similarly, when the tiny sphere at the point of your ballpoint pen is pressed up by your page, the ball goes up and the ink comes out. Ballpoint pens became popular because of how quickly they dry and how easy they are to use. For people used to the intricacies of fountain pens a pen with a simple inflexible tip and controlled ink flow was the height of simplicity. The ink in ballpoint pens tends to be thicker, and oil based.

Rollerball pens

Rollerball pens work similarly to ballpoint in that they to have a tiny sphere at the point which regulates how much ink flows out at one time. The main difference is that the ink is thinner and smoother as it is water-based. It absorbs into the paper so that it needs no time to dry. These are my favourite pens to write with. They create less of a barrier between you and you’re writing. You don’t have to think about how the ink is going onto the page or whether or not your hand is smudging it (especially helpful for left-handed people).

Gel Pens

Gel pens are similar to ball point pens in mechanism but the ink inside is much thicker and generally comes in an array of colours. Gel pens are most often used by artists as the viscosity of the ink offers a great visual impact.

Fisher Space Pen

The Fisher Space Pen has been the product of much speculation since the early days of the space race. It was rumoured that NASA spent millions of dollars developing a ‘space pen’ that would overcome the difficulties of writing in zero gravity environments and on almost any surface, while the Russians used pencils. As much money as government organisations do seem to spend on frivolity this rumour just isn’t true. Both Russian and American astronauts used grease pens in the early days of space exploration.

The Fisher Pen co. did invent a pen with a pressurized cartridge that could be used in zero gravity, underwater and at any temperature. After the pen had been developed Fisher approached NASA. Today both American and Russian astronauts use the Fisher Space Pen.

Home Defence Pen

The Cold Steel Pocket Shark is technically a felt-tip pen, or marker. You can take the cap off and write with it, if you really needed to. And if you happened to be writing with your pocket shark and someone tries to attack you you may find that shoving it between their ribs does the trick. Half marker, half yawara stick.

A few more pens

In a time when pens are just a means to and end having so many different kinds, and caring what they do, may seem like an eccentricity. But if you take the time to learn about them you may find that the world of pens offers an unexpected level of beauty and variance.


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    • profile image

      Sarah 5 years ago

      You forgot one type of pen. The glass dip pen!!!!! It is such a gorgeous artistic pen!!!! I own one simple one that I got from the medieval festival in Germany and now ordered one on lovely things

    • ar.colton profile image

      Mikal Smith 5 years ago from Vancouver, B.C.

      Glad I Couuld help and that you enjoyed the hub. Thanks for stopping by!

    • Byron Wolf profile image

      Byron Wolf 5 years ago

      Enjoyed reading about the different kinds of pens. I used to love pens. I haven't used them in a long time, since I write everything on the computer now.

      Funnily enough, I just bought some to use in my artwork.

      Voted up. Was helpful to read how a ballpoint actually works!

    • ar.colton profile image

      Mikal Smith 5 years ago from Vancouver, B.C.

      Yay for fellow pen collectors! Thanks for stopping by :)

    • B. A. Williams profile image

      B. A. Williams 5 years ago from USA

      Everyone has something they are fond of or collect. I collect pens and loved this article.

    • ar.colton profile image

      Mikal Smith 5 years ago from Vancouver, B.C.

      dahoglund- Why weren't you allowed to use them? Was it becuase they made your writing less neat? I could see that, using a pen with more personality would be a great way to teach discipline. Thanks for sharing!

      Basdianda- And clearly the pens were worth it. I'm so glad you enjoyed my hub!

      Becky- Just looked up your pen. It definitely looks like a fine writing utensil. I was kinda hoping it had some zebra stripes on it, wishful thinking. I prefer pens with bigger nibs myself, so my writing comes out bold. Glad you stopped by!

    • Becky Katz profile image

      Becky Katz 5 years ago from Hereford, AZ

      My favorite is a Zebra F-402 with fine point. I write small and if I use a medium point, it blurs in together. It is all metal with a grip at the writing end. I have giraffe pens because I collect giraffes. Plush, wood, and plastic ones.

    • Basdianda profile image

      Basdianda 5 years ago

      I have read it with great pleasure. A well-argued hub together with my passion for pens have made an enjoyable mix. My fascination for pens comes from the Jurassic: I stole my father pens before being able to write and usually running a significant risk of facing his fury.


    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I am old enough that we used dip pens in school with little inkwells built into the desk. When ball points came out we were not allowed to use them. Usually they leaked.Sharing this with followers.

    • ar.colton profile image

      Mikal Smith 5 years ago from Vancouver, B.C.

      Yeah! I'm so glad I'm not the only pen lover!

      I'm just so thrilled I'm going to use way too many exclamation points!

      Golfcart - You never can have enough of them can you!

      Paralegalpro- I couldn't agree more! Thanks for stopping by.

      Seeker- Fussy pen users unite! There's nothing silly about loving something that means a lot to you. I have this cheezy fake rose my husband got me for our first valentines when we were 15. I don't care how tacky it is, it's my diningroom table centrepiece.

      Kschimmel- No problem. I hope it helps you better enjoy the act of writing words. It can really become a great way to express your creativity!

    • kschimmel profile image

      Kimberly Schimmel 5 years ago from North Carolina, USA

      Most of us just pick up the nearest pen without thinking about whether we could do better. Thanks for a good summary of what to use when.

    • Seeker7 profile image

      Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

      This is a really fascinating hub and a very refreshing topic! I have to say that I am fussy about the pens I use. I have one kind for jotting down notes. But when I'm marking off embroidery/cross-stitch patterns and so on, I must have my 'special' pens - good grip and very fine nib.

      I also still have some novelty pens I got as presents years ago with minature dolls heads on the top - they are a silly but very prized treasure that I wouldn't dream of getting rid of.

      Great hub + voted up!

    • profile image

      paralegalpro 5 years ago

      Okay, I admit it. I have a strange fascination for pens. There is nothing quite like writing a letter or taking notes with a pen that feels good in the hand and glides across the page. So this hub was fascinating to me. Thanks for the great overview.

    • golfcart34 profile image

      Amanda Tallman 5 years ago from Vermont

      I love pens! I have a whole drawer full of them and I just bought more today! Keep nerding on! :-)

    • ar.colton profile image

      Mikal Smith 5 years ago from Vancouver, B.C.

      I'm so glad. I honestly wasn't sure that anyone would read this hub, being about pens and all. I get very attatched to pens as well. My husband is always nervous to pick up a pen to take to work in case I've laid claim to it.

    • Jean-ette profile image

      Jean-ette 5 years ago

      Thanks for all the information. A very interesting hub. I always love a good pen! I think it makes you write better. When I find a pen I like, I get very attached to it. What would we do with out our pens?