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Overwhelmed by which pens to buy for back-to-school season? That’s understandable, considering that there are many types of pens, not to mention hundreds of different brands and designs within these types. Consider the gel pen, which offers a pleasurable and user-friendly writing experience—perfect for students of all ages. Like ballpoint and rollerball pens, they feature a small revolving ball at the tip that deposits ink from the pen’s reservoir to the paper. The difference is while ballpoint pens use thick, oil-based inks, and rollerballs use a free-flowing, water- and dye-based ink, gel pens use ink made of pigment in a water-based gel made from xanthan gum and polyacrylate thickeners. What you get are particularly vibrant lines that flow smoothly so you can apply less pressure as you write. They are also generally the best pick for signing documents because of their pigment load. The ink does tend to take a bit longer to dry, however, which can be a problem for lefties. Dive into some of our favorites in this family, below.
How we pick each product:
Our mission is to recommend the most appropriate artists’ tool or supply for your needs. Whether you are looking for top-of-the line equipment or beginners’ basics, we’ll make sure that you get good value for your money by doing the research for you. We scour the Internet for information on how art supplies are used and read customer reviews by real users; we ask experts for their advice; and of course, we rely on our own accumulated expertise as artists, teachers, and craftspeople.
1. Uni-Ball Signo UM-151
Some might say the Uni-ball Signo is the mullet of pens. Okay, maybe we’re the only ones saying that. But consider this: The Uni-ball Signo is equal parts business and party. The smooth-flowing gel ink is waterproof, fade-proof, and archival, making it perfect for assignments, drawings, and so many other projects. On the party side, it comes in a rainbow of colors, including subdued “near black” hues, bold primaries, and sweet pastels, plus a huge range of tip sizes. This practical set of 12 comes with six medium-point pens (0.7 millimeters) in black and six in blue.
2. Zebra Sarasa Dry x1
Miraculously, this is a gel pen with ink that dries almost instantly. This makes it a smart pick for young students who may be a little impatient, but also for left-handers who have to take extra care when moving across the page from left to right. The high-tech ink lays down smoothly and consistently. You can hold it comfortably for an extended period, thanks to its rubberized grip and wide barrel. These pens come in just 0.7-millimeter tips, although you can choose from 14 colors. We like this basic pack of 12 black pens.
3. PILOT FriXion Clicker Pens
These special implements combine the sophistication and vibrancy of pens with the utility of pencils. They lay down marks that are erasable, thanks to their special thermo-sensitive ink, which turns clear when exposed to increased temperature—in other words, the friction created by erasing. Truly, no trace is left behind. Each features a 0.7-millimeter nib and a rounded rubber end that you have to use to create the right pressure; a regular eraser, unfortunately, won’t be compatible. But one pro is that “erasing” doesn’t leave any residue, unlike pencils. We have to note one fun thing kids can do with these pens: If you write and then erase a message on paper, freezing that sheet will make the ink reappear. Go wild with secret messages with this set of 10 pens in assorted colors.
4. Uni-Ball Signo Gel Ink Rollerball Pen
If you’re looking for a pen to write on dark paper or to add highlights to your artwork, perhaps you need one that’s loaded with white ink. We’re fans of this white gel pen, which comes from our favored brand, Uni-Ball. The nib delivers ink consistently and smoothly with negligible scratchiness, and the white is dependably opaque to produce uniform lines that stand out very well on the page. These pens also offer comfort, with a low-profile rubber grip.
5. Sakura Gelly Roll Classic
A favorite of students in the ’90s, these adorable pens will never go out of style. In fact, they were the very first gel ink pen to hit the market. They do skip from time to time, but they outshine the competition in the sheer number of colors you can buy. This classic set of 10, for instance, comes in practical colors like blues, reds, and black, but you can purchase Gelly Rolls in metallic sets, pastel sets (marketed as “Souffle”) and even as a glittery assortment (“Stardust Galaxy”). We’re also huge fans of the minimal design—these are, after all, from Japan—consisting of a round matte cap and translucent chamber.
6. Pilot B2P Bottle 2 Pen
Pilot’s beloved G2 pens stand out for the life span of their ink cartridge, which is quite lengthy compared with the competition, and for ink that lays down smoothly without skipping or smearing. The company’s B2P pen, in addition to using the same ink, has a sturdy barrel made of 89% post-consumer recycled plastic bottles. The pen’s point advances and retracts with a solid click of the end cap button, and its ribbed grip provides comfortable handling (though it is not as comfortable as the G2’s rubberized version). The pen comes with a G2 0.7-millimeter cartridge in black, blue, or red and is refillable with G2 ink cartridges, making it a doubly environmentally friendly choice. We recommend this pack of four pens loaded with black ink.
7. Pentel EnerGel Pro Permanent Gel Ink Pen
Like our top pick, the Pentel EnerGel Pro is archival, featuring ink that is fade- and waterproof. In fact, consider it a slight upgrade to the Uni-Ball Signo UM-151, because its ink is a touch more smooth-flowing and faster drying. These are intensely pigmented pens; however, they come in just two nib sizes, 0.5 or 0.7 millimeters, and just three colors—blue, black and red. This listing is for two black 0.7-millimeter pens.