How Ballpoint Pens Work: The Ultimate Step-By-Step Guide

When you think of a pen, what comes to mind? For many of us, we would think of none other than the traditional ballpoint pen. These incredible pens have become commonplace in our homes, schools, and work. But how do ballpoint pens work?

Ballpoint pens have three main parts. The barrel, the ink cartridge, and the barrel of the pen. Retractable ballpoint pens also make use of a thrust mechanism. Ballpoint pens work by way of gravity and the ball-bearing mechanism at the tip of the pen.

We want to help you better understand this incredible writing utensil so that you can better appreciate the ingenuity and engineering that went into this seemingly simple pen’s design. Our guide will give you everything you need to know.

How Do Ballpoint Pens Work?

Before you can fully understand how a ballpoint pen works, you’ll need to understand the different parts of your pen. Each part has a unique purpose, which we will discuss below.

Once you understand the anatomy of a ballpoint pen, you can fully comprehend the process of writing with a ballpoint pen.

The Anatomy Of A Ballpoint Pen

A ballpoint pen is made up of a few different parts, including the barrel, retraction mechanism, ink cartridge, and the ball bearing. Each part plays a vital role in making the pen work, but only some ballpoint pens have a retraction mechanism.

The ball bearing is what makes a ballpoint pen work. This mechanism consists of a small, rotating ball that is held in place by a socket. The socket gives the ball enough space to rotate and move around but holds it in place so that it doesn’t fall out of your pen. This is the driving mechanism of your ballpoint pen.

The ball is usually made of a metal compound like tungsten, steel, or brass. This ensures the longevity of the pen’s tip. This is why ballpoint pens usually last longer than fountain pens, whose tips can become dulled and need to be replaced before they become ineffective.

The ball also has a second purpose, though. If you want a traditional ballpoint pen that isn’t retractable, the ball works as a stopper to prevent air from getting into the cartridge and drying out the ink.

The ink cartridge consists of a long, cylindrical ink reservoir and a tip that ends in the ball-bearing mechanism. These cartridges are generally disposable and can be replaced by opening up the back of the pen, removing the empty ink cartridge, and placing a full cartridge into the pen’s body.

The body or the barrel of the pen is the outer shell or casing that holds all of the smaller parts of the pen, like the ink cartridge and the thrust mechanism if it is a retractable ballpoint pen.

If you have a retractable ballpoint pen – also known as a ‘clicker’ pen – your pen will also work by way of a retraction mechanism. The thrust device is composed of a number of interlocking pieces that revolve and transition between two configurations – an extended state and a compact, compressed state.

The mechanism also contains springs that help the ink cartridge extend and retract so that the nib of the pen peeps out of the bottom of the barrel when in use and sits inside of the barrel when you are not using the pen.

Of course, ballpoint pens cannot work without ink. Ballpoint ink is completely unique to the type of pen and differs from other pens like fountain and gel pens. The ball bearing mechanism of the ballpoint pen was created expressly for oil-based inks.

This is why most ballpoint pens use a dense, viscous ink compound in their cartridges. Ballpoint pens are ideally suited to this oil-based ink because it flows out of the end considerably slower than other inks, which works much better with their ball-bearing mechanism.

It’s also more convenient and simpler to use than other ink types because each disposable cartridge lasts longer than other ink cartridges. The ink also dries much quicker than water or gel-based inks, which helps to prevent smudging.

How Ballpoint Pens Work

As we’ve mentioned, ballpoint pens work using a small, rotating metal ball to transfer ink from your pen’s tip to your writing medium as you write. The ball sits at the end of the ink reservoir and is the connection point between the cartridge and the paper.

While you write, the ball will move and rotate against the paper. Because the ball is rotating, half of the tip is continuously coated with the ink. When the tip rotates, the side of the ball that has already been coated with ink will move around to transfer the ink from the ball to the paper.

While the ink is transferred to the paper, the other side of the ball is once again lubricated with more ink, and so on. This cycle ensures that your lines are smooth and consistent. The cycle is also relatively quick because of the size of the ball, which is very small.

The ink is drawn down the disposable cartridge inside of the pen by way of gravity. As the ink is pulled down the inside of the pen, it is forced onto the tip and coats it in a thin layer of ink.

This constant flow of ink from the reservoir to the tip of the pen is what allows you to write for hours on end without having to refill your ink. Your cartridge can also last a lot longer than traditional fountain pen inks because of its dense feel. Water-based inks are typically used up much faster than oil-based ink.

How A Retractable Ballpoint Pen Works

The way that a ballpoint pen works, whether it is retractable or not, is extremely similar. The only difference between the two is a thrust mechanism, which can either push or retract the ink cartridge our or back into the pen, respectively.

A retractable ballpoint pen is made up of the ink cartridge, a ballpoint tip, and the barrel of the pen – just like a traditional ballpoint pen. But a retractable pen also comprises a thruster mechanism, a guide pin, and two cams.

The spring is required to provide the required amount of tension to push or retract the ink cartridge, and the guiding pin is often built into the barrel of the pen. The two cams give the pen a bi-stable structure to help the ink cartridge change from the two different positions, namely extended and retracted.  

The system changes between the two positions when the trigger on the pen’s end is pushed. Then, the ballpoint tip of the pen is pushed to its extended position so that it is primed and ready for use.

How Do You Get A Dry Ballpoint Pen To Work?

Ballpoint pens have viscous, oil-based ink that is largely resistant to drying out. The ball-bearing mechanism at the tip of the pen often works as a stopper to keep airflow away from the ink inside of the reservoir. You can further prevent the ink by drying out by putting a cap on your pen or retracting the pen’s tip back into the barrel.

Ballpoint pens also do extremely well when exposed to a change in pressure. So, if you were flying with your pen, it should still work perfectly when you land.

Although ballpoint pens are less prone to drying out than other types of pens with gel or water-based inks, it’s not completely avoidable.

If your pen has suddenly stopped working, don’t throw it away just yet. There are a few tricks that you can use to get your ink working again.

Get Your Ballpoint Pen To Work With Solvents

If your pen has dried out, it may just need a little nudge to get the ink flowing again. To do this, you will need to lubricate the pen’s nib.

By dabbing acetone – more commonly known as nail polish remover – or any other household solvent you have onto the pen’s nib, it can break down any dried ink that may have clogged up the tip. You can also rest the nib of the pen in a small amount of solvent to dislodge the ink.

When the ink dries against the ball bearing, it can clog the mechanism. If the ball becomes too clogged, it won’t be able to rotate or be lubricated with any of the ink in the reservoir. So, by dabbing some solvent onto the pen’s nib, you can start to break any dried ink up.

Once the ink has dissolved, you can dry the tip of your pen off with a napkin or paper towel and test your pen on a scrap piece of paper. If your pen doesn’t start writing straight away, don’t worry!

The ink may have gathered at the back end of the pen. By moving the pen over the paper for a few seconds, you can allow gravity enough time to pull the ink down the reservoir and back onto the tip of the pen.

If you don’t have any solvents on hand, you can always use your saliva. By licking the pen’s nib or dabbing some saliva on the tip with your finger, you can also dissolve any ink that has become lodged in the tip of the pen with the enzymes in your spit.

Get Your Ballpoint Pen To Work With Heat

To avoid using a direct flame on your pen, two other heating methods can help get your dry ballpoint pen to work again.

In a kettle or on the stove, bring some water to a boil, then pour it into a cup. Soak the pen’s nib in the water for around 5 minutes before drying the nib and testing it on a piece of scrap paper.

If your ballpoint pen has any metal parts, make sure they’re completely dry to prevent rusting. Similarly, if you’re unsure about getting the pen’s barrel wet, you can take it apart and soak the cartridge on its own.

Use a hairdryer or a hobby heat gun to warm the pen with milder heat. Warm the nib and cartridge with a blow dryer on a high temperature setting if you’re worried about the pen being damaged by boiling water.

You can use a heat gun if your pen requires more severe heat. Warm the pen’s nib for a few seconds at a time before trying to write with it. Heat guns can potentially melt a plastic ballpoint pen’s barrel if you are not careful. If your pen has any metal parts, you should also be careful when handling it after it has been heated.

Get Your Ballpoint Pen Working With Friction

Rub the tip against a rubber surface to get the ball bearing moving. When scratching on scrap paper doesn’t help, pressing the pen against a rubber surface can help move a frozen ball. You can use an eraser or even the sole of your shoe to scratch on.

Get Your Ballpoint Pen Working With Gravity

This is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Often when we think our pens are dried out, they may have an air bubble stuck inside of the ink reservoir. This bubble makes it difficult for the pen to write and can have the properties of a dried-out pen.

By holding your pen with the nib facing downwards, you can shake your pen to help gravity bring the bubble to the tip of the pen. It will do this by forcing ink down the reservoir of the cartridge.

Once you have shaken your pen a few times, you can use a scrap piece of paper to test it out.


The ballpoint pen has a remarkably simple makeup. Still, its simplistic design has been the staple of the writing instrument community for years. Its engineering is unmatched, and it continues to be the primary tool for many writers today. Now that you know how it works, it isn’t hard to see why!

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