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

Products Reviews

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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6 thoughts on “How Pen Inks Work (And Why Monteverde’s Engage Doesn’t)

  1. Thanks for this, Sean! You have taught me a thing I never knew I needed to know– now I understand my pens so much better.

  2. Sean,
    Did you ever solve the Engage ink flow problem? I have the same issue, as i expect every other owner does.

    I did find a modicum of success by storing the pen nib down (not in my pocket) so ink was always touching the ball. So while it seems to start writing again almost right away, it no longer writes like it used to; a very thin line with no density…and like you say it is very scratchy to write with now. Its a damn shame as its a very nice looking pen.

    Cheers
    Mal

    1. Hi Mal,

      Unfortunately no. While the pen did seem to write *slightly* better immediately after cleaning and flushing the pen with a bulb syringe, I never got the pen to work well with any consistency.

      If you are in the market for a replacement refillable rollerball, though, the Pilot’s V5 refillable is excellent (https://geekdad.com/2019/07/the-pilot-hi-tecpoint-v5-my-ideal-rollerball-pen/) and incredibly inexpensive – though admittedly it doesn’t look nearly as good.

      If you want to stick with the Engage, you can buy replacement roller ball mechanisms from JetPens (https://www.jetpens.com/Monteverde-Engage-One-Touch-Retractable-Rollerball-Pen-Replacement-Tip/pd/9555), though that will only give you a temporary reprieve.

      Agreed, though – it’s a darn shame. I really wanted to like the Engage.

  3. Sean,
    Yeah, ditto, cleaned and flushed the daylights out of it too, tried different inks. Still no good. So i think i need to reluctantly retire this one.

    Incidentally, my wife has had issues with a couple of Monteverde fountain pens too, so now with this one it kinda puts me off dealing with them again. As you said, its a shame as the pens actually look very good.

    Cheers
    Mal.

  4. I purchased a Monteverde One Touch Engage for myself and another for my wife around two years ago. Both pens worked great! Then about five or six months ago I happened to be writing with it on a “post-it note” – not the gummed side, but there is the area at the top that may have traces of adhesive(?). My pen then started to skip and it basically became unusable (which may or may not be related to the post-it note). I eventually went online and found a replacement ball unit (that screws on the front of the filler). It worked for a month or two, and then started to skip.

    The only time my wife’s pen has skipped has been when it ran out of ink. She refills it and it continues to work. I just checked and her pen is working fine. We use different inks.

    So I guess I need to do some internet research and start playing with our various inks.

    They are really nice pens – when they work.

    1. I flushed out my pen and asked my spouse what ink she uses in her pen. I filled the pen with Waterman Mysterious Blue and gave it a test run. It works!!! It isn’t my kind of ink, I like something a bit different, but it works! My wife did mention that her pen occasionally skips. However the ink change definitely helped my pen, which had been skipping so badly that it was unusable.

      Now I have to figure out what ink I was using before I started having problems!

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