Review: Tombow Fudenosuke

The Tombow Fudenosuke is my favourite disposable brush pen.

There are two versions — the hard tip and the soft tip. The former has been my primary inking pen for years now, alongside the refillable Pentel pocket brush. Where the Pentel provides character and energy, especially in broad strokes, the Tombow offers easy precision and control while still allowing for enough variation that you don’t have to switch pens constantly.

I’ve inked hundreds of drawings with the Fudenosuke over the years, including many major pieces.

Tombow Fudenosuke
Tombow Fudenosuke hard brush demonstration. Didn’t have a fresh soft brush to demonstrate, whoops!

To be honest, there are a lot of really similar pens to the Tombow Fudenosuke, including the Zebra brush pen and Kuretake’s disposable pocket brushes. I used the extra fine Zebra brush pen interchangeably with the Fudenosuke for a long time, and Jetpens has an excellent video comparing those two pens specifically. Many other fine tip fude (brush) pens perform similarly.

However, almost all of these pens are difficult to find outside of specialty Japanese retailers like Kinokuniya, Daiso, or Jetpens. The main reason I used to use Zebra brush pens a lot was because my local Daiso stocked them, but I haven’t seen them at Daiso in years.

Tombow Fudenosuke
US 10-color pack of Tombow Fudenosuke, Japanese packaging for a single (hard tip) pen, and an out-of-package pen. I didn’t buy any of the regular black Fudenosukes in the North American packaging because I always have like 20 of these pens at home anyway…

Then, in 2019, I saw the Tombow Fudenosuke at Barnes and Noble, of all places. Its two tip types were packaged together and marketed for brush lettering, and there was also a set of Fudenosukes in a new rainbow of colors! I was so stoked. Accessibility is a game changer!

Finally, Tombow USA has seen the light and made this pen more available to the overseas market. It might seem trivial, but this makes the pen much easier to recommend, and as someone who goes through dozens of these a year, I’m hopeful it also means it will become easier for me to buy these in bulk someday…

Tombow Fudenosuke
I only recently learned what “Fudenosuke” (筆の助) meant — it’s a “helpful brush.”

The Origin Story

So what’s so great about this pen anyway?

Like other felt tip brush pens, the Fudenosuke was created originally to make writing kana easier in everyday-ish scenarios. Stroke order and direction matters a lot in the way Japanese (and Chinese) characters look, and using a brush to write accentuates those characteristics, making words clearer and easier to read, especially compared to fixed-width writing implements like typical ballpoint and gel-ink pens.

The fine point of the Fudenosuke allows for clarity in even the most complicated kanji and hanzi characters by ensuring you can distinguish all the individual strokes. The flexibility of the tip, meanwhile, lets you transition from fine to broad within a single stroke — this is what makes it easy to identify stroke direction, which is critical for lots of otherwise similar-looking characters (what’s up, シ, ツ, ソ, and ン).

In Japan, the Tombow Fudenosuke is packaged with a stencil guide so you can write neatly centered, vertical kanji on the envelopes of things like celebratory notes , cards, or letters. The stencil also has a reference for the extra formal “spelling” of numeric characters. The back of the packaging, as far as I can tell, suggests the hard brush for difficult, more complex characters, and the soft brush for easier, better known characters.

Tombow Fudenosuke Chinese writing sample on stationary
Chinese writing sample. The intended use of the Tombow Fudenosuke. The blue plastic guide comes with the Japanese packaging for singles.

Tombow Fudenosuke for Inking

Luckily for artists, all the characteristics that make the pen great for its intended use also make it great for inking drawings. (And western brush calligraphy, I guess, but I can’t speak to that.)

The extra fine point makes inking tiny details as easy as using a technical pen, while the flexibility gives drawings motion and character by varying line weight. Aside from giving drawings a certain look of energy, in cartooning, line weight is often used to distinguish foreground from background, with figures and objects in the front being bolder than those in the background. With technical pens and other bullet tip pens, varying line weight requires switching between a whole set of individual pens.

I did that for a long time, and it’s both annoying having to go back over drawings to re-ink lines to be bolder and killer on your hand, because you’re repeating the work so many times. Being able to get both thin and bold lines out of a single pen is a huge win for both time and effort. You never realise how much time you waste swapping pens and re-doing work until you don’t have to anymore!

Werewolf drawing with Tombow Fudenosuke.
Werewolf drawing with Tombow Fudenosuke. All of this was inked with the same pen. Fur detail above the eyes uses the same pen as the thicker fur around the shoulders and flanks!

Brush pens do require a steadier hand than tech pens. The pressure you apply to the pen matters a lot since it is so easy to transition between line weights. It might be difficult to control thinner lines if you tend to be heavy-handed. But as with all things, practice makes better.

The difference between Tombow Fudenosuke’s hard and soft tips is mostly in this aspect — the softer brush is more flexible, so it takes less pressure to make a bolder line, so it requires more control to get the delicate lines and to have the pen transition in the way you want. The hard tip brush is more firm, so you can press down a little harder and still get a thin line. This makes detail work that much easier, and I prefer it.

Given that all of the new colored Fudenosukes use the hard tip, I’m guessing that most people share my preference for that tip. The soft tip brush can still be great for sketching, but for finished ink work, I like having more control over the brush.

Open sketchbook with a drawing of an egret
Tombow Fudenosuke drawing of an egret with Pentel pocket brush for black fill and Sakura Gelly Roll for white on black details.

The biggest downside of the Tombow Fudenosuke (and all similar pens) is that over time, the felt tips will wear down and become blunt, or if you’re less lucky, they will pinch and become deformed or misshapened.

Blunting is inevitable, but I can usually get a lot of use out of the pen before the tip becomes noticeably worn. After that, the pen behaves more or less like a bullet-tip felt pen, rather than a brush pen. I have a whole drawer full of blunt tip Fudenosukes that haven’t quite run out of ink yet, and I’ll use them for general sketching, studies, and silly comics.

Tip blunting and deformation in the Tombow Fudenosuke
Tip blunting and deformation in the Tombow Fudenosuke. Left is the soft brush; right is the hard brush. You can see an example of a “pinched” tip in the middle brush on the left. Top right is a fresh brush tip; bottom right is a very blunted tip.

Sometimes though, I’ll ruin tips very quickly by being too heavy-handed. When making broader strokes with the Fudenosuke, I’ll end up pressing down way too hard and “pinching” the tip against the page, and then it will stick like that.

A pinched tip sticks out from the rest of the brush, making it super difficult to get any sort of precision in your fine lines. There’s no way to fix a tip once it’s been pinched. Usually, I’ll end up just cutting off these ruined tips with scissors, which leaves the brush with a flattened tip that will round out pretty quickly. So then you just have a blunted brush pen with better ink flow than the naturally blunted ones. :V

Part of a comic drawn with blunted Tombow Fudenosuke pens
Part of a comic inked with blunted Tombow Fudenosuke pens with greys in Tombow dual brush. Lack of line variation is preferable for this style.

Colored Pens

I’m guessing that the colored Tombow Fudenosuke pens were added to the lineup when it was introduced to the North American market. While colored calligraphy (compared to casual writing for yourself) isn’t unheard of in Asia, it’s not very common. Meanwhile, the target demographic here is brush calligraphers, hobbyists, and crafters, who make use of color far more often.

The original Fudenosuke came primarily in black, though there is also a dual brush version with grey on one end and black on the other (both soft tips). The Tombow Fudenosuke color 10-pack comes with 8 colors in addition to black and grey. There’s also a set of 6 neon Fudenosukes, if that’s your thing, but since the inks aren’t opaque, I think neon colors have extremely limited uses. They might be nice for coloring fine details though? All the colored pens are hard tips.

Tombow Fudenosuke pens in 10 colors
Tombow Fudenosuke pens in 10 colors. Ink remains waterproof and alcohol-proof for all non-neon colors. I’m not sure how the yellow would be useful for anything other than coloring.

The ink in the original Fudenosuke is waterproof and alcohol-proof. I was worried it might be otherwise, but thankfully, the colored inks have the same attributes. (However, the neon inks are reportedly not waterproof.) This clears the primary condition for me using the colored pens for inking.

It’s worth noting though, that pencil lines cannot be erased once inked over with pen — this is the case with black ink, too, but it’s much harder to notice. With colored inks, you can see pencil lines pretty clearly from under all colors except maybe brown, grey, and purple. They become a lot less noticeable once you color in the lines, though a little show-through may be helpful in some areas.

The red pen is quite light and the pencil show-through on the beak below helps define the shape there better, I think.

Pencils showing under colored lines with Tombow Fudenosuke
Left to right: Inked red lines over a pencil sketch, pencil lines still show under inks (especially in the beak) even after the rest of the sketch has been erased, but once the drawing is colored, this is less noticeable or maybe even desirable.

Colored lines can soften a drawing and make it look a little more organic and “painting-like,” since the lines are less stark and obvious. This is something a lot of digital artists take advantage of since it’s trivial to change lineart into a different color in most programs.

It’s much harder to replicate the effect in real media since you have to know what color you want all your lines to be ahead of time and can’t change your mind later, but excellent inking pens available in different colors at least make the actual execution easier.

Colored lines with the Tombow Fudenosuke, colored with Copic marker
Blue lines with the Tombow Fudenosuke, colored with Copic marker.

The original Tombow Fudensuke, especially the hard tip, sometimes has flow issues if you draw too fast. For broad strokes in particular, it can leave gaps in the middle of the line, which can be annoying. This problem seems worse in some of the color pens, though I’m not sure if it’s just the pens I have or a pervasive issue in the product.

Brown, grey, orange, and green seemed most susceptible to me, but your mileage may vary. Inking more slowly and carefully helps, so the issue doesn’t really affect “serious” inking, writing, or lettering as much as it does quick sketching. You can see it in the brown and orange in the background below — many of the long, quick strokes for grass are dry in the middle, but it isn’t really an issue in the actual lines of the main flower.

Tombow Fudenosuke
Buttercup drawing with Tombow Fudenosuke (brown, with some orange in the background); colored with Copic markers.

Many of the colors the Fudenosuke is available in are too light to be practical for inking, though they might be a helpful way to set down guidelines to color over when creating lineless drawings with markers.

Light colored markers work well for this too, but that’s basically what the colored pens are anyway — they’re just way more precise. (Blue pencils tend to be waxy and don’t mix well with markers.)

Wolf drawing with Tombow Fudenosuke and Copic markers
Wolf drawing inked primarily with the brown Tombow Fudensuke, with some areas in black, then colored with Copic markers.

For my own work, I don’t know that I really like the softening effect of colored lines. I often have a lot of detail in my inks and it makes more sense to show that off than to hide it.

But still, colored lines are a nice option to have, and I’ve had fun playing around with the effect. There are very few other fine tip brush pens available in color — and of those, I don’t think any of them are waterproof. Hell, many of the black ones aren’t waterproof either.

Waterproofness may not seem like a huge deal in most use cases, but even if you aren’t using these pens anywhere near water or watercolor (I rarely do), it’s a really nice attribute since it also means the ink is less prone to smearing or smudging under your sweaty, meaty human hands.

Cardinal drawing inked with a red Fudenosuke and colored with Copics
Cardinal drawing inked with a red Fudenosuke and colored with Copic markers.

Availability

I’ve never seen open stock of the Tombow Fudenosuke in stores, but you can buy singles (in black, and sometimes the dual brush with grey) online at most art retailers for $3.49/ea MSRP, or as low as $2.60/ea. Singles of the colored pens are only available at a few places, but they’re usually the same price as the regular black singles.

The colored 10-pack, neon 6-pack, and US-specific bundles of the original brushes (hard+soft 2-pack, hard+soft+dual 3-pack; I’ve also seen hard 2-packs?) are widely available and usually offer a decent discount over the singles.

This is the main benefit of the Fudenosuke over other similar brush pens — being able to pick them up at basically any art store (or even the stationary section of Barnes and Noble) means you can easily ask parents, relatives, and co-workers for them. :P

Bird drawing with Tombow Fudenosuke
Drawing of a ruff (Calidris pugnax) with Tombow Fudenosuke.

So yeah. This is my favourite disposable brush pen!

I’m glad it’s finally officially available in the US market, and I definitely wrote this ridiculous review of love letter to the Tombow Fudenosuke so I can now just link a post to people instead of blathering individually to everyone about how much I love this pen. :P

Tombow Fudenosuke
I’m not a hoarder! I’m just, uhhhh. Yeah, okay, I’m a hoarder. I’m gonna use all of these though.

About the author

Kiri is an artist, writer, and (brush) pen enthusiast in Seattle with over 12 years of convention vending experience and an inclination towards verbosity.