Zebra, Kuretake, Tombow brush pen showdown

Because it was obviously meant to be, I recently won a Jetpens x Illustration Friday giveaway for six disposable brush pens: two sizes each of Zebra, Kuretake, and Tombow brush pens. I have actually bought and used every single one of these pens before, but I have never had fresh new pens of each type all at the same time, so I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to properly compare them all!

Brush pen showdown time.
Brush pen showdown time.

Zebra actually has a third size of disposable brush pen (super fine), and while the giveaway loot didn’t include it, I just happened to have several brand new pens of this type, so I included it in this comparative review as well.

Initial test page. Brand new pens, all of these!
Initial test page on cardstock. Brand new pens, all of these!

It makes sense that the ink flow in each pen is a little rough fresh out of the packaging, but there’s still a performance difference here. In particular, I was really displeased with the Kuretake extra fine. It was easily the finest tipped pen of the batch, but the tip was hard and scratchy. Even when I wrote slowly, the ink didn’t flow very well, and throughout the duration of the test, I never got rid of the rough, drybrushy feel. I really love drybrushing with my nylon tip brush pens, but on a felt tip, and especially on a felt tip this fine, it seemed kind of wasted.

Other than that, I think the rest of the initial test demonstrates each pen’s range and capabilities pretty well. I put the Zebra super fine at the bottom, apart from the other Zebras, because aside from being a bonus pen for this review, I really wanted to compare it directly with the Tombow Fudenosuke hard. The Tombow hard has been my inking pen of choice for several years now, and when I first played with the three Zebras, I was struck by how similar the super fine was to the Tombow.

And now I can say with confidence that the Zebra super fine is basically the perfect blend of the Tombow Fudenosuke soft and hard brush pens. The Zebra is more flexible and can get a slightly thicker line than the Tombow hard, but it isn’t as bendy or thick as the Tombow soft. I inked almost exclusively with the Zebra super fine at both IKKiCON and Chibi Chibi Con and felt that the performance difference between it and the Tombow hard was pretty negligible… I don’t usually go super thick with lines when I’m inking with felt tip, but it’s nice to know that the Zebra can get a slightly thicker line without compromising control over its thin lines at all!

Brush pen showdown continued!
Brush pen showdown continued!

I tried to get an even better demonstration of each pen’s full line weight capabilities above. I also wrote all the words with the side of the pen instead of the tip (I kinda alternated in that initial page). I didn’t bother running a Copic marker or a watercolor brush over these test pages this time — I already know that all of these pens are both waterproof and alcohol-proof.

Interestingly, the Zebra fine can get a thicker line than the Zebra medium…while still being able to get the thinner line as well. The Kuretake fine is pretty similar to the Tombow soft. Boy, wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow consolidate all these pretty meaningless pen descriptors?

Pen tip comparison.
Pen tip comparison. The pens are in the same order as they are in the test sheets, so Zebra medium at top and Zebra super fine at bottom.

As you can see, all these pens are felt tips and most of them are really pretty similar looking. Jetpens actually took some better photos themselves, haha. You see more black on the tips of the Zebra medium and the Kuretake fine, but it’s just that the material at the base of the felt tip is also black instead of clear — that whole black part isn’t inked, which is why the Zebra fine can still manage a thicker line than the Zebra medium.

Honestly, all of these pens perform well (since I didn’t seem to have the scratchy drybrush problem with the last Kuretake extra fine I had, I’m gonna chalk it up to a bad individual pen), and they all cost $2.50 each on Jetpens, so choosing between them is just a matter of personal preference as far as line width and tip flexibility.

Wanted to demonstrate casual hanzi/kanji writing with these pens, even if my handwriting is awful! (Sure hope I didn't mess up stroke order anywhere 'cause brush pens sure make it obvious!)
Wanted to demonstrate casual hanzi/kanji writing with these pens, even if my handwriting is awful! (Sure hope I didn’t mess up stroke order anywhere ’cause brush pens sure make it obvious!)

The negligible difference between the Tombow hard and the Zebra super fine tie them for me. While the Zebra super fine technically has a wider line weight range, I get sentimental about dumb things and I’ve been using the Tombow hard for a really long time, so they’re even, dammit! The other pens are all swell, but aside from the Kuretake extra fine, they’re all larger, looser, and wider, and I, personally, just don’t want or need my lines to be that big most of the time.

The Kuretake extra fine, meanwhile, draws such a fine line, that unless you draw with the side of the tip, you’re always gonna get that same line…and I don’t like inking with the side of the tip. It’s okay for sketching, maybe, but not for inking. Because of that, the Kuretake extra fine is almost like a tech pen to me, and that totally defeats the purpose!

Brush pensssss.
Brush pensssss.

Kuretake actually makes two other disposable brush pens. They’re called Kuretake Fudegokochi pens, which I find really maddening because they’re still disposable brush pens, but Kuretake having both those and named disposable brush pens kind of implies they aren’t. At $3.50, they’re also a dollar more than “normal” Kuretake disposable brush pens — even though they don’t perform all that differently, I guess the pen bodies are kind of nicer? I had good initial impressions of them, but later found that the ink in the Fudegokochis were wetter than the normal disposables. Because I tend to ink pretty quickly, that meant I ended up smearing the ink a lot, so I never got them again!

There are a few other disposable felt tip brush pens of short-ish length, like the Pilot pocket brush, which comes in both soft and hard. I got the hard a while back, but never got around to reviewing it. It’s fun to write with, but the ink is, again, too wet for me to ink with, so it’s a sketching only pen. Maybe this wetter ink is what causes the price increase? The Pilot pocket brushes are $5/each.

There’s also the Pilot Petit3 mini fude, which is cute and refillable, but I found the brush tips to be really unimpressive for fine lines. I wasn’t really fond of the fatter and shorter pen either, even if it’s kind of normal length with the cap posted. Also, Pilot standard inks are not waterproof.


Other felt tip brush pens of longer length include the Kuretake #33 and the brush tip side of the Tombow dual brush series. I like those pens for sketching, but while you can get pretty fine lines with them, they’re really hard to control, so I don’t think they’re great for precise ink work. That said, Mad Rupert (who draws the excellent webcomic Sakana) famously inks exclusively with Kuretake #33s.

And there are still a lot of brush pens I haven’t tried yet, too, but all of them are more expensive than the ones included in this review, and I kind of doubt they add much new to the mix.

This is the Zebra super fine with a Tombow dual brush for greys.

Somehow I think this turned into less of a comparative review and more of a I LOVE BRUSH PENS EVERYONE GO BUY BRUSH PENS THEY ARE GREAT post.

Oh well!

About the author

Kiri is a Seattle-based artist, writer, and (brush) pen enthusiast with over 12 years of convention vending experience and a lot of opinions.