Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Product Review: (Non-Hairy) Brush Pen Comparison

All of these brush pens have tips made of compressed material that doesn't separate into individual hairs -- thus, I call them non-hairy brush pens.

Back in July I wrote a product review comparing seven brush pens, all with brush tips made of actual hairs (animal or synthetic) – I’ll call them “hairy” brush pens for expediency. In that comparison, I also talked about why I generally prefer hairy brush pens to the ones with tips made of compressed fiber, nylon or other materials that do not separate into individual hairs. (For lack of a better term, I’ll refer to the latter group as “non-hairy” brush pens.) I find hairy brush pens to be more responsive and able to make a wider range of marks than non-hairy ones, and I especially enjoy using them when I want a very organic, wild (as in uncontrollable!) line similar to what I can get with a twig or a sumi brush.

Since that time, I’ve been experimenting more with non-hairy brush pens. My exploration began somewhat unintentionally when I discovered a forgotten Zebra double-sided brush pen (No. 5) in my life-drawing supply bag and gave it a shot. On a whim, I brought it to Japan, where I further explored its range of uses. While not offering the full range of marks that a hairy brush can, the Zebra’s spongy, bouncy compressed fiber tip was easier to control and just as responsive in terms of speed and change in direction. The Zebra re-opened my mind to the non-hairy brushes in my (embarrassingly vast) collection. As long as I was in Japan (the brush pen capital of the world) with this open mind, I found myself adding several more brush pens to my collection (surprise!).

In the photo above are seven non-hairy brush pens I’ve tried, all Japan-made except No. 1, the Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pen (originally German and now U.S.-made). Now that I’ve had time to experiment with them, I can’t say I have a hands-down favorite that I can recommend unconditionally, especially since so many of them are very similar. The tip sizes vary widely, so the size I choose might depend on the size of my sketchbook page, subject matter and other factors. I tend to prefer the larger tips (Nos. 2, 3, 5 and 6), since they encourage a looser, less-detailed line, which is usually the effect I’m after when I reach for a brush pen. In addition, the compressed fiber tips vary in how they feel – some squish down more, some make a strange squeaky sound against the paper, some are firmer. U.S. prices vary widely among even very similar-appearing pens, but since it’s impossible to know how much ink they contain, I hesitate to say which would be a better value.

My biggest beef with all of them is that they are not refillable – none of them. One factor I like most about their hairy counterparts is that several are available in a fountain-pen-like form factor, so they can be used with converters or cartridges containing the waterproof or water-soluble ink of your choice. Ideally one of these pen manufacturers will eventually offer a refillable version with a similar spongy tip like that found on these disposable pens.

Below I’ve listed the key characteristics I’ve found in each, although a few are almost identical. Although I purchased most of them in Japan, the links go to and one Japanese but U.S.-shopper-friendly website where I’ve shopped successfully several times. Most of the Japanese pens have no English text (some have numbers), so that makes them difficult to reference or identify. Although I often sketch the product in my product reviews, in this case, I thought a photo would be more helpful in visually identifying specific pens in stores or online. (The numbering refers to the photo above and the brush stroke samples below.)

The labels for Nos. 2 and 6 say "kabura" (which means turnip)
because that's what it says on the pens. (I was more than
pleased with myself that I could decipher the characters!)

1. Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pen with brush nib: Like all Pitt Artist Pens, the brush nib pen contains waterproof ink – one of only two in this group containing waterproof ink. I’m not sure if it’s apparent in my scan, but the ink color is not so much black as dark gray, which I don’t care for. The tip size is relatively small, yet I have difficulty getting a really fine line when I use the very tip.

2. Kuretake double-sided brush pen 55: Containing water-soluble ink, this brush pen is virtually indistinguishable from the double-sided Zebra (No. 5). It’s one of my favorites for its relatively large tip width and the spongy (though squeaky) pressure factor. Though I tend to use the larger side more, it’s nice having the fine tip on the opposite end as an option.

3. Zebra brush pen (FD-302): The single-tipped version of No. 5 below, it’s half the price of the double-ended one (which I’ve used more, so I’ve written more about its features in No. 5). If you rarely use the smaller end, this one would be a better value.

4. Deleter Neopiko Line 3 (brush tip): JetPens recently brought in a new line of Deleter Neopiko pens, most of which have technical nibs that make a consistent line. This brush tip is the exception. From JetPens’ image, I had guessed that the brush tip would be a bit finer than what I favor, and I was right. What caught my attention, though, was the waterproof, water-based pigment ink it contains. Other than the Pitt pen (No. 1 above), it’s the only non-hairy brush pen I’ve found with a truly waterproof ink that dries instantly. Its range of marks is narrower than the others, and its softer tip is harder to control than the spongy ones I prefer. But it gets bonus points for having waterproof ink.

5. Zebra double-sided brush pen (FD-501): This is the pen that initially got me excited at life drawing and came with me to Japan. (Ironically, I could have bought it in Japan for less than half the price, and I did get a few more there.) I have no idea why it costs twice as much as the Kuretake doubled-sided pen (No. 2 above) at JetPens. Both have a fine point tip on the opposite end.

6. Kuretake brush pen 33: Although the spongy tip feels a bit softer, I’d say it’s still very close to Nos. 2, 3 and 5 in size and mark range.

7. Pentel double-sided brush pen: Purchased at the Iseten department store in Kyoto, this is the only pen I couldn’t find an online source for. When I first spotted it, I tried to decipher the packaging information (I can read Japanese at the first-grade level, so you can imagine how far that got me), and a term I thought I could read seemed to indicate that the ink was waterproof, which got me excited. I took it to the counter and asked (again in my first-grade level spoken Japanese) whether the ink was waterproof. The woman at the counter read the label carefully and confirmed that it was waterproof ink. Bingo! I bought several to give as gifts to sketcher friends back home, as well as a few extras for myself. All I can say is that something must have gotten lost in translation, because the ink takes a long, long time to become waterproof – way longer than I (or any sketcher I know) would have patience with if I wanted to paint over it with watercolors. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not waterproof. Oh, well. It’s still a good brush pen with a slightly firmer tip than the others.

1/2/16 Deleter Neopiko brush pen, other inks
In the sketch at right, I used the Deleter Neopiko (No. 4) to draw the tree, and a minute or two later, I sprayed the top half of the page with water and gave it a whoosh with an ink-filled waterbrush for the sky. There was no sign of smearing at all; the ink dries instantly and is completely waterproof, which is the only reason I would use this particular brush pen. I prefer the slightly firmer tips of water-soluble pens 2, 3 or 5. If I want waterproof ink, I think I’ll stick with my hairy Kuretake brush pen 13, which I can use with my favorite waterproof Platinum Carbon Black ink.

I do enjoy using the water-soluble inks in the other brush pens, like the Kuretake 33 (No. 6) I used on the self-portrait below. It was fun and fast giving the lines a quick swipe of water for shading.

See my follow-up review of waterproof and refillable non-hairy brush pens.
1/5/16 Kuretake brush pen 33


  1. Nice post :)
    Maria V.

  2. Nice review of these pens. I have a bunch of Tombows and they're fun on occasion but I really don't like the mushy feel of fake-tip brush pens, no matter which ones I try. You seem able to use them effectively, though, so I assume that I'm the only one.

    1. I have some Tombows, too, and I love them for all the colors they come in. But the ones I've reviewed here are definitely easier to control -- they are a bit stiffer yet still have enough give for line variation.


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