I’ve wanted do some kind of “top pens” post for a while, and with Inktober just around the corner, I figure now is a great time to talk about pens for inking.
Top Overall Recommended
These are my top picks in each category of felt tip brush pen, synthetic hair brush pen, and technical pen, then ranked in order of which I personally use the most. A Pentel pocket brush, maybe two of the Tombows, and a set of Microns, easily arms you for every kind of line you might want to make and can definitely carry you through a month of daily ink drawings.
“Real” brushes and dip pen nibs weren’t considered here since I don’t use them nearly as often and have way less expertise as a result. No fountain pens either, since I don’t use them to draw as much as I use them to write… but recent acquisitions may well change this in time for next year… That category also open up the wonderful world of inks, which is a whole ‘nother ballgame entirely and something I’m still slowly exploring.
So for now, just pens! But no fountain pens. It’s mostly brush pens. No one’s surprised.
Felt Tip Brush Pens
- Tombow Fudenosuke hard (review)
- Zebra brush pen super fine (review)
- Kuretake disposable brush pen extra fine
- Tombow dual brush (review)
Felt tip brush pens provide a lot of character in inking because they give you built-in line variation and the flexibility to make both thick and thin strokes without changing tools. Fresh felt tip brush pens right out of the packaging are amazing because the tip hasn’t been worn down yet and you can get teeny, tiny lines in one stroke and change to a thicker, bolder one in the next — or even go from one to the other in a single stroke!
I wrote a big felt tip brush pen comparison showdown a few years ago. The result was: basically all of them are great and the differences between them come down to a lot of personal preference.
Aside from the dual brush, all of the pens on this list have softer/less fine variants, but I always favour the hard brush, the super fine brush, the extra fine brush, because I like the minute control that comes with it. The sacrifice is in line variation, but I tend towards small details and don’t often need there to be a huge variation in a single stroke — instead, I’ll just swap out for a synthetic hair brush pen for the extra thick, brushy marks when I want them.
The Tombow (hard) and Zebra (super fine) are almost interchangeable, and I consider both to be my default inking pen. The Zebra is a little easier to find (thanks to Daiso), but after a lot of use of both, I’ve decided I like how the Tombow feels in my hand better? The Tombow is a tiny, tiny bit smaller in diameter and has a different matte coating on the pen, which is just a little comfier. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ A negligible and unimportant detail, I’m sure.
The Kuretake’s ink takes a little longer to dry than the Zebra and Tombow, and I feel the felt tip tends to be a little stiffer overall, even in the fine, so it’s not as flexible for mid-stroke variation.
The Tombow dual brush is an honorable mention. It can’t compete with the others in terms of line quality — the felt tips are just too big and too porous; they can’t keep a fine point for long — but they’re handy for having a huge brush tip on one end and a fine, fixed point on the other end. They’re available in a great variety of colors, but I usually stick with a few greys as I use them mostly to slap some value on sketches. The ink doesn’t bleed through most sketchbook papers, so that’s a good alternative to using my Copic markers.
Synthetic Hair Brush Pens
Since they have individual bristles, synthetic hair brush pens allow for a more natural brush experience than felt tip brush pens. Often marketed towards Asian calligraphers, they can be great for traditional brush techniques and dry brushing. The trade off is that the soft bristles are harder to control and they’re not a great choice for small precise details.
I’ve played with a lot of synthetic hair brush pens over the years, and the truth is, a vast majority of them are virtually identical. There’s even less variation in the quality of synthetic hair brush tips than with felt tip brush pens.
But even so, the Pentel pocket brush has remained my favourite and is probably my most frequently recommended pen. It’s just superior on a lot of levels.
The Pentel pocket brush (XGFKP-A or GFKP3BPA, not to be confused with the “Pentel Arts Brush Pen”) is the most versatile brush of those listed because it has the longest brush tip. This means it demands a more practiced hand for control of smaller or finer strokes, but it also gives drawings a lot more of the built-in personality and flair that comes with using a brush, which can be a lot of fun for folks new to brush pens.
It’s also the most accessible and easy to find of the lot — thanks to being rebranded specifically for the US market, you can find it at most art supply stores, including big box ones like Michael’s (though they aren’t likely to give you the best price). Meanwhile, outside of specialty online retailers like Jetpens, it’s incredibly difficult to find other Japanese brush pens like Kuretake or Akashiya. The only brick and mortar stores I’ve seen them in are Japanese specialty stores like Kinokuniya, which don’t have many locations. Even huge specialty art retailers like BLICK only have a pitiful selection of Japanese brands.
And while the Pentel pocket brush isn’t compatible with converters for custom inks, its default refill ink is reasonably water resistant. The same can’t be said for the Kuretake’s default ink. The Akashiya is waterproof, but I mostly like it for a very specific use case (dry brushing) and it’s a disposable pen, so not refillable and has no alternate ink options.
Technical pens are fixed-width felt tip pens. Originally for engineers and architects who needed to draft precise drawings and blueprints, they produce even lines without variation.
Once upon a time, these were the only pens I knew of to ink with. But since I started using brush pens in 2010, I’ve really drifted away from using tech pens. I rarely use them to sketch or doodle now, and I even more rarely use them in any finished work. Still, they definitely have their place and are superior for fine detail work, as well as “dead line” styles and contour-focused drawings. You can also manually add line weight and variation by going back over lines.
While brush pens are a bit difficult to measure in terms of hardness and softness, tech pens are generally less ambiguous, even if not always intuitive. For example, Micron 03 pens actually have a nib width of 0.35mm, not 0.3, and the 05 pen is 0.45mm, not 0.5. This is different sizing than Copic’s multiliner series, which do supposedly correspond as you’d think.
But Copic doesn’t make the list here because despite having excellent markers that I absolutely swear by, I’ve had consistently poor experiences with their tech pens. The biggest performance difference I’ve found in tech pens is in nib quality and durability, and Copic’s multiliners have failed me too many times in that regard.
The nibs, no matter the size, are too fragile. Maybe I have a heavier hand than I think I do, but I’ve broken about half of all Copic nibs I’ve used, and I’ve had a lot of problems with ink running dry very quickly as well. Copic’s SP multiliners have replaceable nibs and are refillable, but the SP multiliners have aluminum bodies, which I find weirdly uncomfortable. Besides, replaceable nibs don’t matter if all of the nibs are fragile. I’d rather a fully disposable pen where the nibs are reliable.
Microns have been my tech pen of choice since long before brush pens ever entered the picture, and Marvy and Staedtler have given me pretty consistent results. The latter are available as open stock (as opposed to a packaged set) at my local BLICK, but Sakura Micron remains the easiest-to-find tech pen and is available in a ton of colors to boot. Having a full set of tech pens can be useful if you’d rather not retrace your lines for variation within a drawing.
Pens for Inking
I prefer pens for inking because they’re simple to use, are easy to travel with, don’t require any setup, and don’t require any maintenance.
Brushes and dip pens have to be washed and cleaned, are easy to damage, and are harder to get a comfortable grip on without modifications (why are all brush handles and nib holders so thin??). You need to set up a water cup and your ink bottle and have a towel handy, limiting yourself to locations that have a flat surface or some other accommodation for these additional things. Pens you can just uncap and go, and one of the reasons I love brush pens so much is because they have all the convenience of a pen and all the character and dynamism of a brush.
My top three overall pens are all pens I’ve been using a long time, and I’m sure that will continue to be the case even as I explore new tools.