This post will introduce you to the world of machined bolt-action pens, first explaining why I care about them, then describing my desires and biases, and finally giving overviews of a heck of a lot of pens.
If you like, you can skip to the pens.
For a long time, I’ve had an interest in pens as tools. I suppose the interest started when picking pens at back-to-school time, and I found Uni-ball pens, which were noticeably better to write with. (You can’t use fruit-scented stacking-point pencils for everything in school…)
Uni-ball really nailed the rollerball. They had consistent quality and smooth writing. I used these pens a lot over the years, starting with the classics like the Micro and the Vision, later the Vision Elite extra bold 1.0mm, and then for over 15 years, the UM-151 gel, which is still a great choice.
I currently prefer the Pentel EnerGel after trying a lot of pens and finding it to be the smoothest writing and most consistent; I don’t want to scribble to start ink flowing. I find it more consistent than a Pilot G2, and slightly smoother than the Uni UM-151. It comes in plenty of colors and is very affordable.
Honorable mentions include the Pilot Precise V5, which feels like a slightly smoother Uni-ball Vision, and the Zebra Sarasa Dry for lefties.
To the side is an image of some of the pens I’ve tried – generally, the best of the bunch, with the rest donated or tossed.
One other pen was particularly special to me, and relevant to the rest of this post. In high school, I saved up for a rOtring for taking notes, and I loved it. I think it was a rOtring 600 ballpoint, but I no longer have it, and I can’t remember exactly. It felt like someone really cared when making it, which made it stand out from disposable plastic pens. I have a hard time resisting well-made (but obtainable) versions of daily-use items.
Fountain pens are tempting because of their potential for a pleasant and soft writing experience, but there are too many downsides for me. I don’t want ink on anything but paper, I want to carry the pen easily without worry, I want to write with the pen at any rotation, I want to fidget with it… and, honestly, I don’t want the temptations of endless ink and nib choices.
I prefer retractable to capped pens because they’re easier to use quickly, and you can fiddle with the clicker, at least if no one else is nearby to hear it. Bolt-action pens seem to have even better fidgeting potential than retractables because the required movement is slightly more complex, but it can still be completed almost instantly.
But there’s another reason…
(Disclaimer: not an expert.)
Lately I’ve become interested in machining, thanks to YouTube algorithms. I’ve long been interested in electronics repair, which led to electronics repair videos, and then to the general repair videos that seem so popular on YouTube right now. (If you want to check it out, I currently subscribe to Forgotten Shine Restoration, LADB Restoration, Lost & Restored, my mechanics and my mechanics insights, Odd Tinkering, Old Things Never Die, Rescue & Restore, and Stuff Made Here.) Different video creators have different repair setups, and some have full machine shops where they can create replacement parts with a lathe or mill.
One channel in particular that I’ve enjoyed is Inheritance Machining. The creator, Brandon, inherited his grandfather’s machine shop and is documenting the process of restoring it and using it for cool projects. I’ve enjoyed his videos more than others because he gets into the details of the tools and process without leaving behind the total newbies like me who don’t have experience with the tools and terminology. I recommend checking it out if you have any interest in tools or precision processes in general. (I actually discovered his videos before seeing that he has one where he makes a bolt-action pen.)
Then the interests came together. The bolt mechanisms in bolt-action pens are amenable to machining, and the rest of a pen is as well – the cylinders of a barrel, tip, and cap are all perfect for a lathe. If you’re adding the complication of a bolt, it’s going to cost a lot more than a Bic, so why not nicely machine the whole thing? (There are bolt-action pens with wooden barrels, like Elder Pens and Carolina Turning, but they’re not for me.) Many machinists have dabbled in creating pens, and there are communities around them where makers are fairly involved. The bigger names are stocked at JetPens with various metals and mechanisms.
The EDC (every-day carry) community loves machined goods for their durability, so of course this goes beyond pens. For example, I have a machined safety razor that’s very nice to use. (gasp it’s been over 17 years since that post…) It’s quite a rabbit hole.
(Again: not an expert, and there are many ways to judge materials.)
The most commonly used metals for machined pens are titanium, stainless steel, brass, and copper.
Titanium is usually the most expensive, but it’s strong and durable in all the ways that count for products like this, and it’s relatively lightweight. Stainless steel is cheaper, and also strong, but weighs almost twice as much as titanium. Brass and copper are easier to machine, and so may be cheaper, but they’re not quite as strong or scratch-resistant. Brass and copper are good if you want the pen to develop an "antique" patina over time.
Special mentions: a few are made of aluminum but I’d only recommend it if you need the cheapest and lightest pen. A few are made of zirconium, which usually cost $250 or more; it’s similar to titanium in the relevant properties, but heavier – nearly as heavy as stainless steel.
Any of these metals can be stonewashed, brushed, or polished for different appearances, and steel and titanium pens are often available with coatings that can change appearance and improve durability. PVD (Physical Vapor Deposition) coatings can improve wear and corrosion resistance, and can be colored or transparent. DLC (Diamond-like Carbon… you wouldn’t download a coating) coatings are a particular type of PVD coating that greatly improve wear resistance, and (I believe) are always dark grey or black. A final option with a few makers is cerakote, a coating made of a ceramic compound, which is also great for wear and corrosion resistance, and comes in a number of colors.
Finally, for a premium, some makers offer Damascus steel, or other laminated alloys that look like Damascus, like zircuti and Timascus. This is just cosmetic, but if you like the appearance, it can be a great personalization.
With colored coatings and Damascus-like materials, often just a subset of a pen’s parts will be changed, like the clip or bolt, for contrast. And to keep the cost down – full Damascus pens can be well over $500!
Personally, I focused on titanium, because I want a pen that’s heavier than the typical plastic body but not so heavy that it tires out my hand. I don’t care for the look of aged brass or copper for this type of tool. I tend to prefer black pens, so a DLC coating would be great, but brushed or stonewashed finishes are great, too.
I want to write more (this isn’t just an obsession with tools…) so my research focused on products that will fit my favorite refills, will be fun and comfortable for me to use, and will look nice. Obviously, that’s all subjective. There are definitely paths I stopped researching because I knew they wouldn’t meet my needs. For example, the wood-barreled pen I mentioned earlier, and overly gimmicky or tactical pens – I don’t care for their look, and don’t want or need their specific benefits.
I also won’t go over every variant available, limited editions, or one-off creations, nor will I necessarily mention all material options or sizes. Some pens come in different sizes for the major types of refills – common sizes are "large" for euro-style refills, like the Pilot G2, "medium" for Parker-style refills, like the Uni Jetstream, and "small" for D1 refills, common for wallet-size pens. Not all refills fit exactly into one of those categories, so you have to be careful – either the maker should confirm your favorite will fit, or reviews should confirm it.
For example, my favorite EnerGel refill is about the same as a G2, but slightly longer and slimmer, so it might need trimming and might rattle at the tip in some pens. You can trim down some long refills to fit shorter pens, or add shims for short refills to fit longer pens, and sometimes you can wrap tape around slim refills to fit wider openings… if you want to deal with all that. One pen that’s particularly impressive in this area is the BIGiDESIGN, which seamlessly adjusts to fit medium and large refills – no wiggle.
Finally, keep in mind that these makers add new pen models and variants all the time. Seriously, you can expect a new one from someone every week or two. If you want something like these, but can’t find it, just wait a bit – or ask them!
I’m right-handed. The bolts on most pens are to the right of the clip. If you’re left-handed, that might mean your thumb rubs on the clip when you activate the bolt. Some makers offer left-handed versions, with the bolt on the left side of the clip. Some (like BIGiDESIGN) even offer clips you can move to the opposite side with only a screwdriver. (That seems smart to me, because they design it once, and only have to manufacture one model.)
Another minor factor that relates to your handedness is the direction of bolt activation. Assume you have a pen with the bolt to the right of the clip. Some bolts you push down and left to activate, a "J" shape.
Some you push down and right, an "L" shape.
If you’re right-handed, you probably have more mobility moving your thumb to the left than the right when in that position. Activating a bolt requires more movement than deactivating (retracting) it, so you want the direction of activation to be easiest – a "J" shape. And yet it seems that most bolt-action pens, including the most popular, do the reverse – an "L" shape. (Reverse all these directions if you’re left-handed.) I have to assume there’s a reason for this convention, but I don’t know it!
I’ll try to give links directly to the pen makers, and separately to the pens on Amazon (if available) which will be affiliate links.
Here are overviews of most of the pens I found, subject to the limitations above. They’re not reviews – I don’t own these pens, I just did a bunch of research and wanted to share my impressions.
They’re ordered by price. When there are multiple models, I chose the price of a prominent model, or one that particularly appealed to me.
Here are the best of the best, for me.
5. Ti2 BoltLiner ($89 – Home) This pen has a good reputation, and it comes in three lengths for different refill types. I particularly like the grip section – it’s a bit of a crazy design, but it’s in just the right place, surely provides traction, and the rest of the pen is sleek in contrast. I decided against it because the diameter is only 9.5mm, which is pretty slim. My standard EnerGel RT is 11mm, and ideally I’d like something a little thicker than that.
4. Smooth Precision V2.2 / TiScribe ($120 – Home) – This used to be known as the Urban Survival Gear TiScribe, and was quite popular by that name. They said they rebranded because of a bad reputation, even if the pen was popular, which threw me for a bit of a loop during research. I love that the clip is the bolt, and reviews say it’s very pleasant to use. It has Euro-style and Parker size options, and a professional style. The grip rings look pretty shallow, so I’m not sure how it would hold. This was tempting, but it’s more expensive than the competition (and another $110 for a Damascus-style clip!) and requires trimming EnerGel refills.
3. V-Bolt ($97 – Home) – What a gorgeous pen. This is the best-looking non-limited-edition, in my eyes. I love what they did with the shaped grooves on the body, and the Damascus clip and bolt are striking (for an extra $70… sigh). The body is slightly slim for my tastes, at 10.9mm, and it only takes Parker-style refills, so not my favorites. There’s a bigger problem, though: they do "drop" style availability, where you have to sign up for their list, wait for messaging, and then rush to their site at the exact right moment and hope to have the privilege of giving them money. I find it insulting, and I think this is a solved problem anyway – make a waiting list, ship in order.
2. BIGiDESIGN ($100 – Home, Amazon) – This was at the top of my list for most of my research period. Its major benefit is adjustability, which they’ve accomplished in ways no other maker has. First, the grip section of the body is actually a separate piece, so it can slide up and down the main body when you twist to adjust it. (There are two O-rings inside to keep it in place.) This means the length of the cavity inside can change, so it can fit a lot of different lengths of refills. They’ve tested with over 120 refills! This type of adjustment is like the Modern Fuel, but with a simpler mechanism. The impressive addition, though, is an automatically adjusting collet (collar/sleeve) at the tip of the pen that holds the tip of the refill in place. No wiggle! No other pen I’ve seen has this. Furthermore, you can change whether the clip is on the left or right side of the bolt with a simple screw, making this suitable for left-handed writers as well.
I also like that the grip section is a little bigger, for comfort, without the whole pen having to be bigger and heavier. And it comes with a free titanium Damascus bolt if you want a little flair. My only hesitation was the price; I think it’s a fair price for that level of engineering, but it was still hard for me to justify personally. As you may be able to tell, though, I love testing different refills, so if I ever want another bolt-action pen, this could be it.
1. The Right Choice Painting Company ($35 – Home) – This seems like the best bang for the buck. $35 for titanium? Only the clip is stainless steel. You can add $5 for a black cerakote clip, though they were out of stock when I ordered. Reviews made me believe the build quality is very good, in line with $100 pens. It even holds an EnerGel refill without trimming. I think I initially discounted them because of the company name, and later discounted them because of their website, but I came to believe they’re just underrated, and I ordered one!
Update: It does not, in fact, fit EnerGel without trimming. See my full review!
I don’t think it’s terribly useful to rank or rate every pen because the qualifications are so subjective, so as above, these are sorted by price. I’ll include notes and stars (★) in appropriate columns to represent pens that do something particularly well.
"Adjustability" means how well it adapts to different refills – either a single pen taking many sizes, or the maker selling multiple sizes. A name of "BAP" means it’s just called a bolt-action pen without a specific model name or number.
|The Right Choice Painting Company||BAP||$35||Two sizes||Home|
|KeySmart||Tactiv||$57||Clip is bolt||Home, Amazon|
|Refyne||EP1, EP1L||$59||Two sizes||Home, Amazon|
|Karas||Bolt V2||$70||Two sizes||"Fake" bolt||Home|
|Ti2 Design||BoltLiner||$89||Three sizes||Home|
|Tactile Turn||BAP||$99||Three sizes||Home|
|Smooth Precision Pens||V2.2||$120||Two sizes||Clip is bolt||Home|
|BilletSpin||CamPen||$150||$40 G2 adapter||Cam, not bolt||Home|
|Brad Gruss Designs||BAP||$200||Custom only?||Home|
|Modern Fuel||BAP||$200||★||No clip||Home|
I’m a programmer and a gamer, so I spend most of my day using a keyboard and mouse. I haven’t had serious issues with repetitive strain injury, but my hands and forearms do get tired and uncomfortable after a long day on the computer or a number of days without a break. I’ve tried a lot of things to head off the risk.
First and easiest was switching to an ergonomic keyboard. Some people are afraid of split keyboard layouts, but you get used to it very quickly and it allows your arms to remain at your sides where they belong. You could start out with a cheap Microsoft Natural 4000, which also allows for negative tilt – you don’t want your wrists bent upward.
The next step to keyboard bliss is ditching the staggered layout, which requires you to twist your wrists at unnatural and asymmetric angles. Good options here include the Truly Ergonomic Keyboard or an ErgoDox, either in kit form or prebuilt. (Try the kit – I had a blast soldering it together.) One great benefit of the ErgoDox over the TEK is that you can “tent” the keyboard, meaning to raise the center so that your wrists don’t have to twist to lie unnaturally flat.
If you use a laptop keyboard consistently, you’re at greater risk of RSI because you’re contorting your wrist in multiple dimensions whenever you type. I recommend hooking up a keyboard, even for travel – you can get 40% or 60% keyboards or a compact split keyboard to take with you. And, if possible, don’t actually use your laptop on your lap where you’ll have to look down at a sharp angle for long periods.
Mice have a lot of problems. One is that you generally either have to squeeze the mouse or move your whole arm to move the pointer, depending on your grip. Another is that you have to torque your wrist over to lay your hand flat on top of the mouse. Ergonomic mice tend to be right-handed only, and “solve” the problem by having the left side of the mouse be taller so that your hand can lie on it at a bit of an angle.
The logical extension to this is the vertical mouse – a type of mouse that lets your hand sit perpendicular to the desk. One good example of this is the Evoluent VerticalMouse 4, which I used for almost two years. It’s much more comfortable (at first) and doesn’t take much adjustment. The biggest adjustment for me was due to the fact that it’s taller than a regular mouse, so you have to lift your hand a bit more when switching between keyboard and mouse. I got over that and thought I had found mousing nirvana.
I’m still typing, so obviously it wasn’t nirvana.
The problem, which I only found after repetitive strain over the course of a year or so – you no longer have the benefit of the desk pushing up against your finger when you click. You have to squeeze your thumb against the mouse to keep it still when clicking. Essentially, you’re squeezing your whole hand to click, every time. I click a lot. My thumb is sore. I wasn’t expecting that.
The VerticalMouse also started missing a significant portion of my clicks after a year or so, and this happened with two of them, so there may be quality issues in the switch.
I decided it was time to try something different. An underappreciated classic. The trackball.
Sadly, there aren’t a lot of trackballs being made these days. I assume that’s because “gaming mice” have taken over the market and people don’t think trackballs can be used for gaming. (Not true!) In any case, I did a lot of research on what’s available.
My first stop was the cheap, well-reviewed Logitech M570. It’s got four buttons and a clickable wheel to go along with its thumb-controlled trackball. (Many trackballs lack extra buttons or a wheel, features I don’t think I could go without.) It’s wireless; I prefer wired, but Logitech’s solution works well and didn’t have any noticeable lag.
I used the M570 for about a week. It’s well made and comfortable to hold, being sculpted to fit a (small) hand. What a bargain, too! The trouble for me is that the thumb-controlled trackball doesn’t solve my problem from the vertical mouse – my thumb is overworked. I found my thumb getting rather tired after a day with the M570. Plus, thumbs aren’t as nimble as fingers, so you’re necessarily limited in how precise you can be with this style of trackball.
I decided I wanted to try the classic finger-controlled style of trackball. I looked into the top contenders today, models from Kensington, Logitech, Clearly Superior Technologies, and Elecom. (Elecom doesn’t have a great English site for their trackballs, sorry.)
I didn’t buy this one, but I have played with it briefly and read a lot of reviews. You get a lot more precision with its large, finger-controlled trackball, and the buttons are still easy to reach. There’s a ring around the ball that you turn to scroll. Overall, I think it’s a good choice if you like the layout of its four buttons. (I’ll get back to the layout in a minute, since it’s the same for the Slimblade.)
One downside is the construction of the scroll ring, which grates a bit as it spins; they would do well to make it spin more smoothly. Another issue is the positive tilt, which forces you to bend your wrist upward; they do include a wrist rest, but it seems like you could avoid the problem altogether by making the surface level. Enter the Slimblade…
The Kensington Slimblade is similar to the Expert, but looks a bit classier, and trades the scroll ring for the ability to twist the ball to scroll. It’s also got a level base, which I consider a nice plus – you can choose a wrist rest if you want one, but it’s less likely to be required.
I bought the Slimblade and used it for a couple days. The construction is pretty good, and it’s comfortable to hold. It’s got the same basic button layout as the Expert, but the buttons are part of the single piece of plastic that makes up the body; the practical effect is that it takes very little effort to push the buttons near the ball and progressively more effort to push them away from the ball. I don’t like this, because it means you either need to use your pointer finger to push the primary button on the left, near the ball, or you use your thumb to press further away from the ball and have to push pretty hard. This gets tiring quickly.
I had a couple mechanical issues with the Slimblade. One is that twisting the ball made an annoying grating sound, plus a generated clicking sound. Another is that the top right button felt different than the others; you could feel two clicks before it activated. These are common complaints for the product.
My main complaint with the Kensingtons, however, is their button layout. I don’t want to stress my thumb, but the button placement almost demands it. You can’t comfortably press the bottom left button with your index finger unless you twist your hand, so you’re limited in terms of hand placement and button configuration. Hence my final two options…
The Elecom M-DT2URBK looks a lot more like a standard mouse, but has a finger trackball where the primary buttons would be. The primary button and wheel are moved to the thumb, off on the left, along with back/forward buttons. There’s a slim button to the right of the ball for right clicking, and a few programmable buttons on the left.
I haven’t tried the Elecom in person, but I really like the design, and it’s unique in the field today. You’re not giving up any useful controls. (It’s reminiscent of the beloved, discontinued Microsoft Trackball Explorer, which can now sell for over $600.) Even though the primary button is under your thumb, and I’m wary of tiring out my thumb, it’s activated by a squeeze rather than a lateral downward push. If I had to pick one, I’d pick the squeeze, since that’s a more natural movement.
Still, in the end, I was turned off by all the controls on the thumb. Worse, though, is the size of the trackball – it’s the same as the M570, a smaller ball meant for the thumb. You’re intended to use it with just your index finger, with your middle finger on the right button and your ring and pinky fingers in the grooves on the side. I wasn’t willing to trade a tired thumb for a tired index finger, while getting less precision than a typical finger trackball.
Ok, the grand reveal… my new trackball!
The Clearly Superior Technologies CST2545-5W. It’s a beast, made to last, with replaceable parts. It feels solid on the desk. It uses steel rollers, rather than the tiny jewels in the Kensington trackballs, and rolling the trackball around feels smoother to me. I love the precision of rolling around the large, smooth trackball. It’s just fun, and I was quickly able to tell it was more comfortable.
In terms of configuration, it’s trivial – no drivers needed. I set the DPI to medium (just hold the right mouse button and press the left to switch) and added some acceleration on the cursor, and I can hit a single pixel or glide across the screen, all without lifting my hand.
I like the button layout. The left and right buttons are long – they span the full height of the trackball and then some. This means you can press them with your index finger at the top, or your thumb at the bottom, and they’re pretty easy to push in either spot. Having that flexibility reduces the chance of stressing out any one muscle. The middle button is above the wheel, easy to find with a little bump.
The scroll wheel sits above the middle button. It’s very smooth and feels nice to operate. It doesn’t spin freely, but doesn’t resist either. It may be a little hard to reach if you have small hands, but mine are average and I’ve found a comfortable spot where I can move the trackball or operate the wheel without moving my hand.
The “5W” in “CST2545-5W” indicates that this model supports 5 buttons. See those two jacks on the back? You can plug in extra buttons and place them wherever you like. You can buy them if you want, but they’re also trivial to make; I’m building my own out of Lego and keyboard switches with inspiration from this guide by ripster.
(Ripster is also a prominent figure in /r/trackballs and /r/mechanicalkeyboards, two great sources of information. He’s posted a number of other guides to modifying the CST, since it’s well designed for modding and repair.)
One downside to the CST, similar to the Kensington Expert, is the angle of the base. It encourages upward tilt of the wrists. I’d prefer the whole body be shorter, but I use a wrist rest for comfort anyway and it raises up my hand enough to avoid the issue.
There are a number of available models; one without a wheel, one with switch jacks that replace the primary buttons instead of complementing them (the SAW model), one without switch jacks, and a couple with glowing trackballs.
I hope this helps. Even if you’re not interested in a trackball, please consider the strain you’re putting on your hands if you use a computer all day. Make sure to take breaks, and stretch regularly.
One easy stretch you can do is to spread all of your fingers apart, like you were showing someone the number 5. Hold them there for a few seconds, and gradually use your hand muscles to spread your fingers further so you feel a slight tension. I feel my skin stretch a bit when I do this. Afterward, I can feel the tendons relax a bit. I think it counteracts my tendency to curl my fingers onto the keyboard all day long.
Don’t use your other hand or anything else to force your fingers to stretch, or you could hurt yourself. It should feel natural. If anything hurts even remotely, stop. I’m not a doctor, I’m just saying what helps me. Take care of yourself.
In an effort to simplify, I’ve moved the site yet again, this time to the much simpler hosted version of WordPress run by Automattic. I had been maintaining the site on a Linode for years (sorry I never posted about that) and they’re great, but I need more time to focus. So far, WordPress.com has had good performance and stability (and support!) but let me know if you see any issues.
What do you think of the theme? I like simple themes meant for reading. I miss my homemade theme a bit, but this seemed like it had the same mojo.
I don’t want to promise I’ll start posting again, because I know how many bloggers do that after big breaks, but it’s certainly easier now.
Things that have excited me lately:
Things not exciting me:
Clash of the Titans really doesn’t deserve the bad reviews it’s getting. If you like mythology at all, you’ll probably like it. They did take a few liberties with the story, but all movies do. The 3D effects were understated and didn’t detract from the movie like so many are claiming. Overall, good effort, and didn’t disappoint me as a fan of Greek mythology.
Quick tip – Not all Linux-based operating systems wake from suspend mode when you use your keyboard. To enable that feature, do this:
echo USB0 > /proc/acpi/wakeup
You can add that line to /etc/rc.d/rc.local (on Fedora, similar elsewhere) to make sure the setting is enabled on startup.
Important note if you have Intel 4965 wireless (the card used in the Dell XPS m1330, for example) – the Linux drivers for this card do not work well with “Afterburner” mode in Linksys routers. I assume it’s the same for “Super-G” and modes from other brands. Turn off that feature and you may save yourself hours of trouble.
I was growing a bit tired of the development lag in Crunchbang Linux and needed a new distribution. I want a well-built system that doesn’t take too much administration so I can focus on other things. (As you may know, I have a tendency to set up and administer machines for fun, forgetting to do any “real” work on top of it.)
Fedora sounded good. All free software with fairly frequent updates. RPM hell is avoided with Yum. I particularly appreciate the use of the free Nouveau driver for my Nvidia card, and Kernel Mode Setting for a smoother start and fewer hassles.
When it works, Fedora is slick. They’re a bit ahead of Ubuntu in terms of features, with default SELinux, KMS, and better video drivers. Another thing I appreciate is that one of Fedora’s goals is to stay close to upstream. They don’t want to apply 10 patches to every package, preferring to send patches upstream and get down to zero distribution-specific patches if possible.
It’s quick to boot, particularly with KMS. The battery life is about 10-15% longer than with Crunchbang, even with more daemons running.