TWSBI - Inexpensive Piston and Vacuum Filled Fountain Pens

Modesty is the name of the game when it comes to TWSBI…but you only have to take a cursory dive into the internet and online reviews of TWSBI pens to see that these little gems pack a punch. Being known predominantly for their fountain pens and all-metal drafting pencils, simple but effective design thrives across these understated writing instruments. TWSBI is gaining in popularity, even more so because the fountain pens come in at under £80. TWSBI has over 50 years of experience in the business, having manufactured products for other companies for years, but for the last decade the Taiwanese company has been making a name for itself in its own right!

TWSBI, headed by Phillip Wang immediately aimed at the enthusiast market with their innovative designs and quirks. TWSBI dominates with piston and vacuum filled fountain pens utilising distinctive demonstrator barrels predominantly created in acrylic or polycarbonate with rubber elements, steel nibs, and chrome appointments. Quite different from the commonplace cartridge-filled pens which would normally be found in the lower end of the price scale. Although reasonably priced, these Taiwanese delights remain stylish and charming without even a hint of ‘cheap’ about them and they certainly fill a gap in the market that enthusiasts had found wanting.

According to stationery Wikipedia (which I have only recently discovered and already lost many hours to!) The name TWSBI name stands for the phrase "Hall of Three Cultures" or "San Wen Tang" (三文堂) in Chinese.  This phrase was reversed to create the first part of the name. The phrase "San Wen Tang" represents the Hall of the Three Rare Treasures, memorialising three masterpieces of calligraphy. The remaining letters ‘BI’ or  笔 were added for the literal meaning of "writing instruments". Thus combining the two segments, creating TWSBI (most commonly pronounced TWIZ- BE). All very apt.

The release of the first TWSBI models in 2009 was certainly a time many in the pen community had awaited with bated breath - would TWSBI be able to deliver a quality, low cost, desirable fountain pen? The answer to this was initially yes and no, however after a couple of years of refinement, it can be said to be a resounding YES!

It would be doing a disservice to skirt around some of the early responses to TWSBI models having some teething problems - most notably with durability. However, not having a lifespan of more than a couple years was not necessarily seen as a negative of the TWSBI pens as they remained firmly (and significantly) in the sub-£100 mark, with the TWSBI Diamond 580 retailing around £59 and the Eco series coming in at under £30. Furthermore, incidences pertaining to durability were seemingly not a universal experience but were contained more with those using the pens regularly and over-rigorously. Over tightening of the elements was also part of the issue relating to cracking. It seems bizarre now , looking back on some of the early comments about TWSBI having an issue with cracking as the brand is now more commonly known for innovation, customer interaction, hardy and reasonably priced pens. The propensity to favour polycarbonate and injection moulded acrylic in their manufacture early on seems to have solved issues of cracking which had previously been present. In recent years the concerns with TWSBI have very much been debunked and overwritten with a fondness for the brand. Much has been said in the past about the issues, Matt at reflects that:

“While there have absolutely been valid cracking issues, I believe the frequency and severity of those issues are not as extensive as the echo chamber of the online pen community have made them out to be: especially on the more recent TWSBI pens...I just don’t think that cracking on a TWSBI is as much of a foregone conclusion as some seem to.”

Matt himself references the great write up by Dave Rea, talking about how the changes in the casting of the plastics on the ECO may eliminate the problem entirely, you can read the post in full here, but in short, he found that by using polarising camera filters he was able to view and compare decreasing stresses in the moulding of the plastic on some TWSBI Models, he has this to say…. 

“The most important thing to take away from this analysis, I believe, is confidence...New fountain pen users considering a TWSBI can choose an Eco with far fewer reservations about cracking or breaking. Enthusiasts and Addicts can recommend it without the caveats they might have previously applied to the TWSBI brand…To be sure, some Ecos will crack – some already have. Just as, I’m sure, some demonstrators from Pilot, Sailor, Monteverde, Lamy, Kaweco or any number of other brands have: in small-enough numbers to avoid garnering a reputation.”

There is a sense from what Dan is saying, that TWSBI had somehow amassed a reputation for problematic pens unfairly, perhaps because they were not as established as some other brands or perhaps because the issues were seen as being proportionally higher than in other brands though this was never supported. This in part related to the misconception that because all of the pens were being made as demonstrator barrel pens they were considered more likely to experience cracking issues, though the extent to which this is true is contested across the industry. Reductionists may argue that cracking in a demonstrator would be more noticeable as it would be cause for ink spillage whereas hairline cracks in other pen types would not be noticed in the same way. It will never be fully actualised what the reason for the level of concern initially was but what is very clear is the reputation TWSBI is currently demonstrating.

The Everyday commentary, a blog site dedicated to reviewing ‘gear and stuff’ writes: 

“This is a pen that is surprisingly durable.  In fact, I would go out on a limb and say that the Eco is actually more durable than the average fountain pen.”

This a testament to the fact that TWSBI is well known in the industry as being extremely responsive to the ‘voice of the customer’ and evolves to ensure that a high level of satisfaction is reached. That being known, it was only a matter of time before the issues identified early on were rectified.  

The Fountain Pen Network forum topic specifically on the TWSBI ECO is spattered with commenters who attest to the excellent customer service and enjoyment of these pens. 

Interestingly, the design of the TWSBI 530 was heavily influenced by consultation with members of the Fountain Pen Network and it could be argued that it was the first ‘crowdsourced’ fountain pen, in some sense. The following posts are by no means an exhaustive example of the experiences of TWSBI users, but in the interests of providing some commentary that isn't directly from a blogger...

“The TWSBI Eco is a workhorse of a pen with a beautiful medium nib and a perfect ink flow”

“...It's worth noting that TWSBI will send you replacement parts very quickly, whether in or out of warranty. And when out of warranty, the parts prices are hard to believe. I dropped my 580 and cracked the cap. $3 via paypal and 3 days later, I had a new cap. That's something that's unique to TWSBI, in my experience.”

It is well documented that issues that may have been dominating discussion of TWSBI half a decade ago have well and truly been replaced - and hindsight would suggest exaggerated to an extent. The discourse has changed, now discussions centre around a renewed confidence in TWSBI pens, outstanding customer service, an economical price which does not compromise on style, and first and foremost - the fact that TWSBI pens are renowned for having an exceptional writing experience (and not just ‘exceptional for a reasonably priced pen’ but purely a great writing experience!)

Brad Dowdy of The Pen Addict, reviewing the TWSBI Eco in 2016, writes:

“This is a flat-out cool pen, and one I have been recommending constantly since its launch last summer. For someone like myself who has some experience with fountain pens, the ECO is a daily workhorse that can be taken out, used and abused, refilled, cleaned, nib swapped, and any other worry-free fun you want to have with a low cost fountain pen.”

As it happens, the pen addict blog places the TWSBI ECO as their number 1 recommended fountain pen under $50 and the TWSBI 580AL as their number 1 Fountain pen in the $50-$100 bracket. Considering how young this company is and how many options there are to choose from in these categories, the fact that TWSBI comes in top on both counts is rather impressive! 

TWSBI ECO Fountain Pen Black £28

Part of the joy of owning a TWSBI pen is the fact that the Diamond 580, Vac 700R, Classic and Eco series pens are designed to be user-serviceable and all parts can be easily disassembled and reassembled. This hands on approach encourages an interactive and participatory aspect to pen maintenance. Furthermore, it advocates for familiarity with the workings of the pen, all of which are visible through the clear or tinted pens in a nod to the craftsmanship and engineering which is part of the draw of these instruments amongst enthusiasts and novices alike. These small aspect of TWSBI ethos takes this instrument beyond just a pen, it allows for the user to experience these pens further than purely writing but into the technical joy of taking apart and caring for the tool - much like the satisfaction of taking apart household electricals and getting them to work again! Only TWSBI ensures the process of filling, servicing and cleaning each product is incredibly straightforward (supplying instructions alongside a myriad of videos online) so the user isn't ever in danger of putting something back wrong (unlike a recent experience of mine trying to put together a chair from a popular Swedish company only to find one sides’ legs were upside down and the wrong way around - much like something out of a Dali painting!).

Their use of pistons over cartridges really sets TWSBI apart from other comparable brands. The piston mechanism itself is of incredibly high quality and very simple to use. TWSBI piston filler pens work with a plunger and the companion Ink Bottle by TWSBI means the pen fits directly into the top reducing any chance of mess or spillage. There is something quite pleasing about ink from a bottle and the lack of cartridges means that a wider choice of inks are available to be used with these pens, making TWSBI an attractive option for those who enjoy the features often found in higher end pens but on a more modest budget.

What keeps people coming back to TWSBI is the unparalleled writing experience of the modestly priced fountain pens which it could even be said would go head-to-head with some of the pricier fountain pens on the market.  Across the board you will find reports of excellent ink flow, wonderful page feel and the sensation of writing being a pleasure using TWSBI fountain pens. There are some who prefer unposted over posted writing but irrespective of personal preference, TWBSI pens are sizable and lightweight enough to work in both modes, and with mini options available and different barrel shapes, you're sure to find the perfect fit across one of the ranges.

“I’m a big fan of all of TWSBI’s nibs...the extra fine nib in mine is firm and smooth, with little to no feedback, no hard starts, and no skipping. It is spot on, and a pleasure to write with.” -  Brad Dowdy

“I don’t know exactly what TWSBI does, but having had more than a few fountain pens pass through my hands, only the Pilot Vanishing Point’s gold nib was even close in terms of page feel. If you want to see what all the fuss is regarding fountain pens, the Eco is a great place to start. If you are not seduced by writing with the Eco, especially with a stub nib, your soul is made of stone.The Eco is a snappy pen to write with because it is so light.  Balance is really not much of an issue here because entire pen is a featherweight.  If it were made of metal or other material, it may require some fine tuning, but as an almost fully plastic pen, the Eco feels great in the hand.” -Everyday Commentary 

“The Eco was a perfect writer out of the box: Smooth, moderate wetness, and with very little feedback. It was a pleasure to write with. I experienced no skipping, hard starts, or ink starvation. The Eco’s nib was easily the best of the five or six TWSBI nibs I’ve used during my time with the brand. I was expecting the ECO to be a good writer. What I got was a pen that writes better than pens several times more expensive.” - Matt : The Pen Habit

Having scoured many reviews of TWSBI pens this was the theme I saw most often, that people were thrilled and often surprised at the quality of the writing experience of these pens, predominantly in the ECO but across other ranges too! From the feel of the nib to the ergonomics of the barrels across the range of models offered by TWSBI this really is a little firecracker of a pen range.  Perfect as an entry into the world of fountain pens and a staple in the rotation for collectors too. TWSBI is a customer facing company producing wonderful writing instruments which are full of character and heart. At the Hamilton Pen Company, we really rate these pens highly and recommend them as a fantastic all-rounder! But why take our word for it? We are delighted to carry a variety of models across the GO, ECO, Diamond, Precision and Vac Ranges - perfect as a treat to yourself, as a gift for others, or as your go-to daily instrument of choice!



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