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Review: Black Gel Pens

The workhorse of your everyday carry, having a good black gel pen can make or break your planning experience. Here I’ll talk about my favorite black gel pens over the years — believe me, there have been many! — and hopefully you’ll be able to find your favorite too.

We’ll go from thickest width (measured in millimeters) to thinnest. As you might guess if you’ve read this blog before, my favorite pens hail from Japan, and this collection is no different.

I’ll rank them by:

  • Smoothness (1 being scratchy, 5 being uber smooth);
  • Opacity (1 being thin ink, 5 being nice and dark);
  • Style (1 being basic utility/nothing special aesthetically, to 5, aesthetically thoughtful and awesome); and
  • Writability (a nonsensical term I’ve made up, for how pleasant it is to write using the pen for a long time, on a scale 1, not particularly pleasant, to 5, very pleasant overall).

Muji Gel Pen, 0.38
Smoothness: 4.5/5 | Opacity: 5/5 | Style: 3/5 | Writability: 3.5/5
I love a good Muji gel pen and these are such solid choices. Although nothing to write home about in my opinion, it’s a nice, thick and quite smooth gel pen that I especially loved using in college when I was writing notes. It rarely skips, is super opaque, and dries quickly. Aesthetically they’re not my favorite, though I know they’re insta-famous and the frosted plastic has a nice touch.

Uni-ball Signo UM-151, 0.38
Smoothness: 4.5/5 | Opacity: 4.5/5 | Style: 3/5 | Writability: 4/5
This is such a solid pen! A nice business option, it’s very smooth, comfortable to write with for a long time, and rarely skips (in the 0.38 option). Having owned many of these over time, I will say the grip definitely gets gummy after a year or two, and that, coupled with a peeling label, definitely takes away from its style.

Pilot Juice, 0.38
Smoothness: 4/5 | Opacity: 4.5/5 | Style: 3.5/5 | Writability: 4/5
You can’t go wrong with the Juice if you want a retractable gel pen rather than a capped pen like the two above. I love the clip for fidgeting during meetings and aesthetically I do think it’s a bit of a step up from the Muji or Uni-ball Signo. It skips on me more than those two pens but never enough that’s bothered me hugely.

Uni-ball Signo bit, 0.38
Smoothness: 3.5/5 | Opacity: 3/5 | Style: 4/5 | Writability: 4/5
Although my ratings above don’t make this pen seem super-positive, I actually really love the Signo bits! The ink isn’t quite as opaque as other black gel pens I’ve used, so it almost looks like a very, very slight fountain pen effect (zoom in on the last photo in this post to see that). I also LOVE the needlepoint tip, which allows you to really see what and where you’re writing in a way that can be more difficult with conical gel nibs like the Muji. This seems to be a discontinued pen, unfortunately.

Zebra Sarasa Push Clip, 0.3
Smoothness: 2.75/5 | Opacity: 3/5 | Style: 3/5 | Writability: 2/5
The Sarasa has the some great affordable color sets, and I love the 0.3 mm size, but it is soo scratchy. It doesn’t bother me much as far as using colors for accents, but it’ll never be an everyday carry for me because of the scratch factor.

Pilot Juice Up, 03
Smoothness: 4/5 | Opacity: 4.5/5 | Style: 5/5 | Writability: 4.5/5
This is my favorite pen ever of all time! It is SO stylish and comfortable, and I love the 0.3 width; large enough to be legible but thin enough to make my minimal heart very happy. Its one fault is that it’s not quite as smooth on all papers as the Signo DX is. I used to use it on Tomoe River Paper in my Hobonichi last year, and it was significantly more scratchy for some reason than my other pens – not enough for me not to use it, but annoying when it skipped. It works just fine in my Leuchtturm journal, though, and is also fine on the regular old Staples blue-lined notebooks I use at work.

Pilot Hi-Tec-C, 0.25
Smoothness: 2/5 | Opacity: 3/5 | Style: 3/5 | Writability: 2.5/5
The Hi-Tec-C is a needlepoint classic. I mean, look at that nib close-up! Because it’s just so teeny, this is really an accents-only pen for me, used in my planner for writing the dates of an at-a-glance calendar in a 5mm grid. I definitely don’t like using it for writing out lists or jotting down notes.

Click this photo to zoom in and get a closer look at samples of these pens in action.

Most recommended pen? Hands down, the Pilot Juice Up. It looks great in a professional environment with its pleasingly minimalist aesthetic (and that font they use! I want it!), and it is wonderfully functional. 

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