By Michael W. Harris
I have been “deep” into the stationery game for a bit over a year now, and I feel like I am starting to hone in on my tastes and figure out what I really like and dislike. However, some things still do surprise—such as just how much I liked writing with a Sailor King of Pen that a fellow Memphis Pen Club member recently bought. I had always assumed it would be way too beg for me, but instead I am now entertaining expensive thoughts. But of all my recent realizations a year in, the most surprising was saying to myself, “You know, I think I could get rid of most of my pens and be happy with just my modded TWSBIs.” Sure, there would be a few others I would keep, such as my so-called “Tier 1” pens, but this was a shocking thought, especially because TWSBI was one of the first brands I tried and quickly decided was not for me.
Early on, not long after I had fallen back into the fountain pen hobby, I picked up a TWSBI ECO-T in Yellow-Green. I had read enough good reviews and seen the pen recommended enough times to try it out, but it was quickly among the first pens that I sold off. It just was not for me.
I found that that, at least then, I did not care for clear barreled pens, and the grip section was just not to my liking. I found demonstrators, overall, boring. Curiously, though, at the same time I also bought a VacMini which somehow managed to stick around long enough to be modified within a inch of its life (seriously, the only original and unaltered parts are the grip section and the end cap with vacuum plunger). However, the only reason the VacMini stuck around was because it was the best EF nib that I had used and I was loathed to part with it.
So, I avoided TWSBIs for a while after that, not because of some of their early problems with plastic cracking (but I have a lot of respect for them as a company for listening to feedback and addressing the issues expressed by customers, and also their excellent replacement policy). No, I avoided TWSBI because nothing about their pens and designs excited me. I wanted cool designs and beautiful colors. TWSBI was just more clear barrels with sometimes a color accent on the cap, section, or end of the pen. It did nothing for me, but that is okay. My tastes are not the tastes of all, and there is room enough for all in this hobby.
I did pick up the Classic in Turquoise because that was a fun design and color, along with the GO because I was curious about the filling system and it was “cheap as chips,” as the Brits say. Unfortunately, I picked both of those in a Broad nib and absolutely hated the way they wrote. Scratchy and unpleasant to use. However, I did hold on to both of them for various reasons and would keep trying to smooth out the nibs to no avail.
But the ECO perplexed me. It was so universally loved and recommended, much like two other pens that I don’t really care for: the Lamy Safari and Al-Star. None of these pens really appealed to me on an aesthetic level. They just…were either boring or unappealing, and I really hate the clip on the Lamys.
And yet, here I am just a few months later, thinking of how I could sell almost everything else and keep only my TWSBIs and be happy. What gives? What actually happened to change my tune?
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I have a lot of respect for TWSBI as a brand. They provide a great value for what you get, and do so at amazing price points. For the cost-conscious buyer, there are the GO and ECO models. For those looking to move up a tier, they have the higher end 580, 700, Classic, and Precision. They cover most price points in the sub $100 range, and offer filling systems only seen on pens starting at the $150 and up range (namely piston and vacuum fillers). For someone wanting to get a feel for the breadth of experiences offered by using a fountain pen, the only thing TWSBI does not offer are the standard cartridge/converter (no loss unless you want the easy clean-up), gold nibs (again, no huge loss, and it is a the main trade-off with the price point TWSBI operates in), and (of course) something other than clear barrels with a single color accent. The only exceptions are the Classic and Precision as far as standard production models go. They have also offered a few one-offs like the Micarta and Aurora (the latter of which is being used to write the post, with an after-market Franklin-Christoph 14k Fine nib).
So, there is a lot to like about a brand that has so completely disrupted a segment of the market largely abandoned or ignored by most manufacturers. Honestly, only Faber-Castell really springs to mind when I think about brands operating here, especially in the $35-$100 bracket. Lamy has some with the Studio and Aion, but they are also rather bland. And neither of these offer the unique filling system options of TWSBI.
But that is the point. To most of the major fountain pen brands, that segment of the market is a No-Man’s Land where they might have one or two models and they might do some fun stuff with a color or material once in a while, but these are mostly afterthoughts and always cartridge/converter pens. TWSBI has truly come in, disrupted, and quickly cornered this segment of the market. Most shockingly, though, is that no one has come along to try and challenge them, at least not on their playing field. Pilot, Platinum, Lamy, and others have all brought out new pens and models in the sub $100 range…but always cartridge/converter pens. Nary a piston nor vac to be found.
Really, only Opus 88 (another Taiwanese and former OEM brand like TWSBI) is doing anything similar at those price points, and they sit mainly in the higher end with most offerings in the $70-$120 range. TWSBI’s singular focus on sub-$100 pens combined with their quality (getting better all the time), customer service, and filling systems makes them a brand to consider in your collection.
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So, despite what you might have concluded from my previous post on Frankenpens, I am not all that DIY inclined. I don’t really do a lot of building or repair work around the house. I do not have a great aptitude for making stuff with my hands, and the most I ever use power tools is an electric drill/screwdriver, usually after I move and have to set-up a new apartment. The most DIY I have ever been is with computers when I used to build desktops and never met an error I could not troubleshoot (well, at least used to…most of the systems have gotten beyond my skills these days). It is not that I lack the maker spirit. It is more that I lack the requisite skills and patience to learn them. But something clicked for me with modding TWSBIs. Between seeing the inksharks post on dyeing them, combined with realizing the possibilities for some truly creative nib swapping…a damn broke. Plus, TWSBI seemingly encouraged you to really get in there and tinker. They give you the tools to fully disassemble the pen along with spare o-rings and silicon grease for simple maintenance.
Like a (MUCH) cheaper version of Conid, TWSBI sparks the tinkerer spirit in some folks who want to personalize and maintain their pens. The manufacturer wants you to learn about how these things work in a way that many companies do not. Where some make it damn near impossible to take apart a pen without breaking something, TWSBI (and Conid) gives you the instructions and tools to do it.
But let me say for the record here: I am not a maker. I only make for myself and out of necessity. What I am is a designer. That is my vehicle for sating my creative impulses. TWSBI modding has a low barrier to entry, unlike 3D printing pens, mixing inks from scratch, or casting acrylics and pen turning. Those all take tools and equipment (and certain hand skills) that are currently out of reach for me because of cost, time, and/or space (I still rent an apartment). But dyeing and frosting and other simple modifications? That I can do, plus it presents some curious design challenges. And that is what it comes back to, I appreciate the design challenge rather than being a “maker” in the traditional sense.
So, while probably not fully intentional on the part of TWSBI, the ability to tinker, fully disassemble, maintain, and (most importantly) modify TWSBI pens is what has given me a new found appreciate for the brand. This, combined with their relative affordability makes them not only a great value for new uses, but also a low stakes entry point for people wanting to mess around with pen modification. It is easy to not feel bad about messing up a $30 ECO, not so much a $200 Pelikan demonstrator or a $700 Conid…though a dyed Conid would be totally awesome and a truly boss move.
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There is a lingering question, though: if I so extensively modify these pens…are they still TWSBIs? Not much of the original pen remains in an unaltered state, especially in my VacMini. It is the question not unlike the “Ship of Theseus” thought experiment: does the pen remain a TWSBI when every part of it has been altered in some fundamental way? Obviously, with my Classic and Aurora, which have only had the nib replaced, they are much more easily still called a TWSBI, but my 580AL, Vac700, VacMini, ECO, and GO pose a slightly more difficult case.
I am greatly intrigued by this question, but this post is already long enough and I would need to read more about the proposed answers to the thought experiment to postulate a response. However, regardless, my opinion on TWSBI has moved greatly. And while I may not love a “pure” TWSBI pen, off the rack as it were, making a “bespoke” TWSBI that suits my taste is something else entirely. And the pens TWSBI makes offers a great platform upon which to build and tweak.
All of which begs the question: what is next? I currently have ten TWSBI pens, all of which have been modded, with plans for three more underway. In order purchase (though not in order of being modded) they are:
- VacMini “Fire & Ice” with Black TWSBI EF
- Classic Turquoise “Mid-Century Diner” with Visconti Medium
- GO “Ice-nine” with Faber-Castell Fine
- 580AL “Purple Rain” with Visconti Fine
- Vac700 “Twilight” currently with Broad Franklin-Christoph SIG
- Aurora “Polar Midnight” with Franklin-Christoph 14K Fine
- ECO “Gin and Tonic” with Faber-Castell Medium
- Diamond Mini “Lisa Frank Nebulae” TWSBI 1.1 Stub
- Classic Sapphire “True Blue Blood” – will soon get custom grind on TWSBI Broad
- Precision “Gun Machine” – will soon get custom grind on TWSBI Fine
In this family I have kept my two favorite TWSBI nibs (EF and 1.1 Stub) in the mini pens, and I am getting fun custom grinds on a blue Classic and the Precision (I was originally going to install vintage nibs in them, but it was proving too much of a hassle).
Once I have these ten pens sorted, the only TWSBIs not represented in some form are one-offs like the Micarta or older models that were retired—and, of course, all the color and subtle design variants of the above base models. I would like to eventually get a Micarta, but I feel no need to go down the road of getting limited edition or color variants, especially since the entire point of my getting TWSBIs is to modify them in some way. If anything, the way I approach precludes me going down the Pokémon route of “gotta catch ‘em all.” Something for which my bank account thanks me.
However, besides the Micarta, for which I already have a nib set aside for, I also need to figure out two more TWSBIs that I want to mount two Diplomat nibs in, and for the life of me I cannot figure out which pens to get! I could wait and see if TWSBI comes out with a new model, but where is the fun in that? Oh well.
So, that’s it. I have fallen into a fun rabbit hole of exploration, but have sort of reached a natural end for now, at least until TWSBI comes out with a brand new model/design for a pen. I could try mixing and matching parts from a variety of pens (my Vac700 already has the section from a VacMini so it can work with some tinkering), but the thing I want to do is perfect my dyeing techniques, push the envelope, and maybe even start taking commissions to mod other people’s pens or selling some custom ones I design. I would probably need to set up an off-site studio space to do so, but it could be fun. I could also step up to more expensive pens and try modifying them, but that seems even scarier. Anyone want to lend me their Conid or clear Pilot 823? Though I recently discovered that the plastic that Pilot uses in both their Kakuno and Custom 74 does not take well to dyeing. Sigh.