Why Do Ballpoint Pens Stop Working So Soon?

Ball Point Pen Construction

If you check out the history of these pens on Wikipedia for example, you will learn that a Hungarian named Biro emigrated to Argentina, filed for a patent in 1943 and started a factory. Many other people patented the ball tip, the ink tube, the ink etc. until the  American Bic Pen became  the gold standard for cheap, working, disposable pens. That’s enough history for this discussion.

The discussions in the literature go on endlessly about the design of the ink. Does it fail to coat the ball, is it so non-viscous that it runs right around the ball and makes a splotch, is it so viscous that gravity can’t pull it down to the ball, does it dry before it can be used and etc.  Along the way, many formulations have been tried.

Interestingly enough, early designs did not have skinny plastic tubes full of ink, open at the top. Some were sealed at the top and some had pumps or extra sealed in pressure to push the ink down through the feed tube. The balls have changed in size and surface treatment. Today there are high class pens where the balls are made from very hard tungsten carbide with surfaces all full of channels for holding ink.

Tungsten carbide balls are interesting because they will probably last some kind of forever. They will not wear out from gliding over paper. Will they wear out the steel sockets that hold them in place? Possibly, but that is not the main failure mode. The reason most pens stop working, and are tossed into a garbage can today, is because the ink stops flowing so the pen stops writing.

Considering that the feed tubes are open to the air at the top and because the ink is required to have the property of drying quickly when applied to paper, it goes without saying that the top part of the ink begins to dry out as soon as the pen is filled with ink. Give it a few months and the ink at the top end of the feed tube will dry into a plug that prevents further air from passing. Thus when the ball sucks up some ink, and tries to pull down some more,  this will create a vacuum above the still fluid ink and prevent further feeding.

If the dry ink doesn’t form a plug, but is permeable to air, then air can percolate down through the whole column of ink and cause it all to dry or set up hard, thus preventing it from flowing down to the ball point.  This discussion parallels the problems with paint hardening when it sits unused in a can. What can be done?

The obvious solution is to exclude air and the oxygen it contains. It seems perfectly obvious that the top of the tube should be sealed, not open, and that inert nitrogen should be filling the space above the ink. However, this can cause a vacuum to form, preventing the ink from moving downward.

Another innovation was once tried as these pens developed. Instead of a gas, set a sliding plastic plug over the ink. This will exclude any air from the top surface of the ink. Then a wire can be used to push the plug – or piston – down to keep pressure on the ink column. A spring could maintain a gentle pressure. Not enough to force the ink to blot but just enough to keep the ball tip wet.  A tight cap could not only fit over the end of the pen, but could snap right down on the ball tip itself to prevent drying out. Furthermore, putting on the cap could also remove the force of the spring. None of this sounds very involved or difficult. However it might have the undesirable effect of making pens last forever (and even be refillable with new ink) thus cutting down on sales.

This might have a side effect that some ink might accumulate with time  on the tip of the pen which would have to be wiped away on the first use after a long time of disuse. Is this considered to be unacceptable, and a defect, by users.? Probably. In our world of spoiled consumers, any attention to detail, any responsibility for maintenance, no matter how simple, is a negative marketing feature.


Before you get a chance to buy one of those ultra-modern pens that writes forever, here is something you can do to get a few more months or years from your ball point pen. Immerse the tip in a solvent that will slip through the ball and into the dried ink inside to soften it and start the pen working again. The best solvent is methylethyl ketone, usually known as MEK. Hardware stores may still sell it. The problem is that MEK is a good solvent for plastics too, so if you put a whole pen into a half inch of MEK in the bottom of a test tube, goodbye shell. Remove the ink cartridge first. Even then, some ink cartridges have a plastic tube above the metal tip part. If the plastic is polyethylene, you’re home free. Polyethylene is not affected by MEK. If not, keep the solvent down on the metal part and stuff the end of the glass tube to prevent evaporation. Give it a week to soak.


It is so much better to have a pen that is discarded after a short life, that uses up resources and that fills up a dump. In our wasteful, upside down world, the ubiquitous garbage can must be kept filled, and what better to fill it than a cheap (if exquisitely designed and formed) plastic utensil with a short shelf life. Our philosophy of consumption says that quick, continual discard of any and all products is normal and acceptable.

Not to me. I hope not to you.

PS: As of 2018, there is a worldwide obsession with no longer making or using plastic drinking straws, but only because they end up in the pacific gyre in the ocean.  What about the far larger per-item waste of plastic from discarded ballpoint pens?  Ironically, the lack of attention to ballpoint pens makes a point that I often make about plastic discards.  Make the items heavier and they will no longer blow around and end up in the ocean. However, I am not recommending that the heavier items should be thrown into dumps, the way that ballpoint pens are discarded today. Instead, the reason for making plastic items heavier should be because they are made to last perpetually, incorporating many special features of robust design. Items with owners and users do not get discarded and do not end up in the ocean.