Thread Tools Display Modes
Old 07-14-2001, 12:43 AM
munrobob munrobob is offline
Join Date: Jul 2001
Location: San Francisco
Posts: 1
We've all seen ballpoint pens that still have plenty of ink showing through the plastic barrel, but nontheless stop working. Who hasn't almost thrown a non-working pen through a closed window out of frustration? Sometimes, after scribbling on something for a few minutes, the pen starts writing again. Other times, you can scribble until the paper tears, but the damned thing just will not write.

Question: why do these pens stop writing? How can I get a pen to start writing again when it obviously still has plenty of ink in it?
Old 07-14-2001, 12:54 AM
tomndebb tomndebb is offline
Mod Rocker
Join Date: Mar 1999
Location: N E Ohio
Posts: 40,485
A ball point has a literal ball for a point. As it moves across the writing surface, the friction rolls the ball* which constantly runs a surface through the ink above it and onto the surface below. If the pen is left unused for a long enough time, the ink that is exposed to the air in the minute space between the ball and the shaft dries and hardens. If it has been a short while since the pen was used, vigorous rubbing of the ball against a paper may break out that dried ink and allow the ink behaind it to run freely, again. If it has been too long, the ball will be lock in place. If has been a really long time, the visible ink in the cartridge may, itself, be dried out and not capable of being drawn onto the page.

*The friction aspect of the device also explains why ball points do not write across grease stains: there is no friction to roll the ball to draw the ink.
Old 07-14-2001, 01:19 AM
Ned Ned is offline
Join Date: Jan 2001
Posts: 590
Heat often works with a normal ballpoint pen that has stopped working. I just use a lighter though it is easy to overdue it and melt the tip which can result in too much ink coming out or ruining the pen altogether. In my experience it works better then just scribbling.
Old 07-14-2001, 02:03 AM
Kalt Kalt is offline
Join Date: May 1999
Posts: 822
somewhat of a different question, but how come simply retracting the ball-point tip into the pen (clicking the button on the end) prevents the ink from drying out? It is still exposed to air. Same thing with putting a cap on the pen. How does that prevent the ink on the tip of the ball from drying out?
Old 07-14-2001, 02:54 AM
Homer Homer is offline
Join Date: Sep 1999
Location: Kansas City, MO
Posts: 3,291
While they are still free to air, the cap or recession stagnates the air to a degree. The stagnant air cannot remove as much moisture as moving air.

Old 07-14-2001, 07:41 AM
robby robby is offline
Charter Member
Join Date: Dec 2000
Location: Connecticut, USA
Posts: 5,121
Originally posted by Homer
While they are still free to air, the cap or recession stagnates the air to a degree. The stagnant air cannot remove as much moisture as moving air.

If you look at the relatively large opening and short retract distance in a retractable pen, I doubt that the air stagnates very much. Also, compare this to non-retractable pens with caps that often have holes in them (so as not to produce a choking hazard).

I suspect the real reason for the retraction feature (or hole-y cap) is simply to keep ink off your shirt pocket.
Old 07-14-2001, 09:24 AM
yabob yabob is offline
Charter Member
Join Date: Mar 2000
Posts: 7,825
Caps on pens - we've been here before:


Thread Tools
Display Modes

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is Off
HTML code is Off

Forum Jump

All times are GMT -5. The time now is 03:24 AM.

Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.8.7
Copyright ©2000 - 2018, vBulletin Solutions, Inc.

Send questions for Cecil Adams to:

Send comments about this website to:

Terms of Use / Privacy Policy

Advertise on the Straight Dope!
(Your direct line to thousands of the smartest, hippest people on the planet, plus a few total dipsticks.)

Publishers - interested in subscribing to the Straight Dope?
Write to:

Copyright 2018 STM Reader, LLC.

Copyright © 2017