Pens fit for use in scientific notebooks must stand up to the dangers of coming into contact with different types of liquids including water, rain, coffee, juice, soda (soft drinks), and chemical solvents such as ethanol (alcohol). Spills happen unexpectedly and often in labs, but especially in labs filled with middle school students! Out in the field, rain and other forms of moisture (e.g., dew, humidity) is always a threat.
On his excellent Maintaining a Laboratory Notebook page, scientist and photographer Colin Purrington offers some tested advice regarding what type of instrument to use when writing in your notebook. His advice can be summarized as follows:
- Do not use pencils. Although graphite is resistant to many solvents, it turns out to be really easy to erase. And, if you read Dr. Merritt’s General Rules, you’ll already know that when recording data mistakes should never be erased.
- Do not use Sharpie (or equivalent) permanent markers. Permanent markers are very good at resisting water spills, but they are easily removed by many common solvents. Permanent markers also tend to bleed through to the underlying page, making them more difficult to read. Sharpie markers also fade over time.
- Do not use fountain pens. Fountain pens usually have water-soluble inks that bled from even minor beverage spills or rain.
- Do not use highlighter pens/markers. Highlighters may be used to highlight words, phrases, and sentences, but they should not be used to write words, phrases, and sentences. Most highlighter ink colors do not contrast enough against white paper [think: yellow], thus making it annoyingly difficult to read. Plus, highlighter ink fades over time.
- Do not use ball point pens. Ball point pens are often terrible at resisting solvents. They also frequently smear, especially when used by left-handed writers.
So, what type of pen should be used when writing in your notebook? Here’s Purrington’s advice:
“The following pens seemed to perform well under the conditions I used:
Pentel Hybrid Gel Roller
Sakura Gelly Roll (this company also makes Pigma Micron pens, which are great)
Sanford Uni-Ball Gel RT
Sanford Uni-Ball Vision
Sanford Uni-Gel RT
I have a fondness for the Gelly Roll in part just because of the name, but they are becoming one of my favorites (I own probably 30 of these pens in various colors and ink types).”
Many of my middle school science students often ask if they can use the Pilot FriXon Erasable Ink pens, but mostly because they are the most commonly sold pens in the most frequently visited school supply stores near our school (Lugano, Switzerland). To this request, I usually point out the fact that these pens are, by design, erasable, and that this trait enables them to violate one of our General Rules.
Last updated: April 2017