How Pen Inks Work (And Why Monteverde’s Engage Doesn’t)

The Monteverde Engage Rollerball pen doesn’t work.

That’s not for a lack of trying on my part; I’ve spent the last month trying to get the Engage to perform well, but to no avail. After my not-great experience with the Herbin Refillable Rollerball, I was looking forward to trying Monteverde’s more expensive rollerball that, like the Herbin, takes fountain pen ink. The pen is several times the price of the Herbin ($73 vs the Herbin’s $12), boasts a beautiful carbon fiber body, and has detailed directions (something the Herbin desperately needed). On paper, seemed like it’s everything I could want in this category. But it didn’t work.

That should say “The Monteverde Engage often skips” but you can’t easily read that because it’s skipping.

There’s a critical design flaw in the pen, and to understand it we need to talk about how modern pen inks work and the difference between a ballpoint, a gel pen, and a rollerball. When we think of ink, we probably think of a watery colored liquid. And, while this is exactly what is inside most rollerballs and fountain pens, it bears little resemblance to what’s inside a ballpoint or gel pen.

Ballpoint ink is made from dye mixed in alcohol and fatty acids. The resulting ink is viscous, and it generally requires more pressure to write with than either gel or liquid ink. However, ballpoint ink doesn’t evaporate easily, meaning there’s usually no harm in leaving the pen sitting uncapped (other than that you might get ink where you don’t want it). While ballpoint ink is probably the least pleasant to write with, the ink’s high density means that a pen can write for long periods without needing to be refilled.

Gel ink is made from pigment particles suspended in a water-based gel. The gel flows more readily than ballpoint ink because of its lower viscosity, so it provides a smoother writing experience, at the cost that the ink is consumed faster because it’s less dense. 

Fountain pen, or rollerball, ink is most commonly made from small particles of organic dye dissolved in water. This ink flows easily, and gives an incredibly smooth writing experience, but, of the ink types, it is the most quickly consumed. Because rollerballs (and fountain pens) use water-based ink, care needs to be taken so the pen’s tip doesn’t dry out. This is why rollerballs and fountain pens most commonly have caps, and the ones that don’t either use special ink (like the Retro 51 Tornado, which uses a special cartridge for retractable pens) or have mechanical features to seal the tip (like the Pilot Vanishing Point fountain pen). 

Armed with this knowledge, we can easily spot the problem with the Monteverde Engage. It’s a retractable rollerball that uses standard, water-based fountain pen ink. The end result is that, if the pen doesn’t write for a few days, the ink on the tip will dry. When you go to use the pen again, the writing experience will be scratchy and uneven until enough ink is consumed to lubricate the ball mechanism. 

While you could, in theory, avoid this if you constantly use the pen, even when the pen was writing well (or at least, not skipping), and ink was flowing freely, the writing experience still wasn’t ideal. I tested with Monteverde’s included ink cartridge and Pilot’s Kon Peki ink, and in both cases, the pen made a similar scratching sound to the Herbin while writing. Also, while not necessarily a defect, the writing line was incredibly wide (probably close to a 0.9mm), which was considerably larger than I personally would ever want in a pen.

Ultimately, the purpose of a pen is to transfer ink onto a page, and while the Engage will look handsome on a desk or in your hand, it won’t do that pesky writing thing all that well. While I can overlook some of the flaws in the $11 Herbin, a $73 dollar pen should provide a better experience than a cheap Bic ballpoint, and this doesn’t. 

At this point, I was almost willing to abandon all hope that I’d ever find a refillable rollerball that was a solid pen. And then JetPens sent me a refillable Pilot V5, the Pilot Hi-Techpoint… I’ll have the review on that pen up shortly, but, if I may tease it ever so slightly, I think I’m in love. 

JetPens was kind enough to loan me the Monteverde Engage Rollerball used in this review. If you’re interested in learning more about ballpoints, rollerballs, and their appropriate inks, you should check out their guides.

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