PenBBS 355

PenBBS is, apparently, a Chinese fountain pen community that also manufactures or contracts with someone to manufacture fountain pens. The brand is ubiquitous and has grown in popularity over the past couple of years, and for good reason.

The 355 is a very interesting pen. It is quite long but has a fairly standard diameter, so it feels substantial. The section itself is also long and tapered; the pen is very comfortable to hold and use. The section is easily removed, making cleaning the pen a trivial task.

The cap is a simple, threaded design that takes 1.75 turns to remove. It does post, but the pen becomes long and unwieldy, so I don’t think most users will routinely post this pen.

I like the shape of the clip. It is functional and secure.
The cap features a simple band with the brand engraved in it.
Reverse of the cap band.
The finial is the same material as the rest of the pen.

The 355 is the brand’s example of a syringe filler, not unlike Conid’s patented Bulkfiller system. It features an ink shutoff valve that, when completely closed, prevents ink from reaching the nib and feed. I have a Pilot Custom 823 that has a similar feature, and I find it very useful for traveling because it is easy insurance against leaks caused by pressure or temperature changes. The pen holds a bucket of ink–2.4mL for a typical fill or a maximum of 3mL if the pen is inverted, the residual air is expelled, and the pen is filled again. I don’t really bother with getting a full ink fill because I invariably flush pens before they’re empty, but a lot of writers love huge ink capacities and only use one ink. This pen would be a good choice for those users, or someone who flies a lot and doesn’t want to carry refills.

There’s been some discussion online about weather PenBBS ripped-off, copied, cloned, or etc. Conid’s system, but the reality is that the original concept of a telescoping/reciprocating syringe-filling system was originally patented by G.H. Means in 1898 and both Conid and PenBBS have made their own unique improvements to the filling system, so it’s not really relevant at this point.

The idea has been around for awhile. Curiously, Mr. Means’s design also included a button to make his pen write wetter or drier.

The pen features a very attractive two-toned nib, and it writes fairly well. It’s not my favorite nib ever, but it is adequate for the price of this pen. It is folded steel–the writing point is made by folding the nib onto itself and polishing that rather than attaching a separate pellet of tipping material and shaping that into a point. This is an old technique for making cheaper nibs, but the nibs’ profiles end up being squarish with smaller “sweet spots” than conventional nibs. Technicalities aside, the pen wrote just fine out of the box with no drama.

In its defense, the nib is very pretty and writes well enough, for what it is.
Closeup of the nib’s profile. The square edges are well polished on this pen, but it has a small sweet spot, so the pen is not forgiving as far as rotation is concerned.
The plastic feed is simple and effective.

What really attracted me to this pen was the finish–mine is the galaxy acrylic. The pen is available in a number of finishes, but potential buyers might have to search around a bit to find the one they want.

Closeup of the material.
Same section of the pen as above, except rotated.
Same section of the pen, but rotated again. There is a lot of depth and character in this material, and the pen is very attractive for it.

PenBBS pens, including the 355, are often used as platforms for JoWo, Aurora, Platinum, Sailor, or other nibs by enterprising tinkerers, likely because of their low cost, attractive finishes, enhanced cool factor, and bland nibs. I could see this pen being really cool with a Platinum 3776 nib on it, quite frankly.

Another shot of the cap.

For the price, this is a sweet deal. It’s a pen by fountain pen people, for fountain pen people. The fit and finish are fantastic, the pen is attractive and feels good in the hand, and it writes correctly, even if the nib isn’t really inspiring. Other companies would happily charge $150 or $200 more for the same thing. I strongly recommend checking out this pen.

Pros:

  • Very attractive material.
  • No nib drama. It just wrote, and continues to write.
  • Fit and finish are spot-on.
  • Incredible value. I paid $46 shipped!
  • A+ fountain pen. This is how you build a sub-$50 pen.

Cons:

  • The nib is functional and practical, but uninspiring–stiff, small sweet spot, and too fat to really be a fine. It’s not a bad nib per se, it’s just not my favorite.
  • This is more of a personal note than a true con: while I think the idea of this pen’s filling system is great, in practice unscrewing the piston rod, engaging the plunger, and otherwise actually using the pen is incredibly fiddly compared to a piston or vacuum filler or even an eyedropper pen with an ink shutoff valve, like an Opus 88. This is compounded slightly by my pen not being a demonstrator, so it’s impossible to see what’s going on in the pen. Again, not really a true con, and once the pen has ink in it it’s basically irrelevant.

Alternatives:

Roughly cheapest to most expensive:

  • The most obvious are PenBBS’s other pen models.
  • TWSBI Vac models.
  • Opus 88
  • Pilot Custom 823

While they are not presently in production, Conid Bulkfillers are, apparently, really cool. I never personally bothered because I hold Bock nibs in total contempt and Conids are exorbitant, but that’s just me.

Specs:

  • Cap:
    • Threaded.
    • 1.75 turns to remove.
  • Nib:
    • Folded steel nib.
    • Only available in Fine, it seems, and it’s not especially fine.
  • Body:
    • Acrylic, shown in the galaxy finish.
    • There are seemingly dozens of finishes available.
  • Filling system:
    • PenBBS doesn’t appear to have a name for it and I’m pretty sure Bulkfiller is trademarked by Conid, so I’m calling it a “reciprocating syringe filler.”
    • Ink capacity is around 2.5mL.
    • Includes an ink shutoff valve feature.
  • Length:
    • Capped: 146.5mm
    • Uncapped: 131mm
    • Posted: a hilariously long 173.5mm
  • Weight:
    • Total: 29g
    • Pen: 17g
    • Cap: 12g
  • Section diameter:
    • 10-11mm
Shown with a Lamy Safari.
The pen is not comfortable when posted.
Ink is the lovely Diamine Asa Blue.

Kaco Retro

It’s been awhile, but I’m back with a really cool, inexpensive pen!

Kaco seems to be a new-ish Chinese stationary company, founded in 2011 and headquartered in Shanghai. At least according to their website.

Kaco seems to be making unique designs, including a bunch of interesting looking fountain pens that I’ll check out in the future.

I like pens with hooded nibs and I have a sub-collection of them going on, so as soon as the Retro appeared on my radar I bought one. It only set me back $16, so I figured I wouldn’t be out much if the pen was crap. To my surprise, this pen is nothing but crap–it is a solid, well-made, and inexpensive workhorse of a pen.

This pen is an original design. It’s not trying to copy a Parker 51–rounded ends and a hooded nib are not enough for me to classify it thusly. There are no fake clutch cap rings, no arrow clips, nothing like that. I have reviewed several pens that are clearly trying to copy Parker’s design. This isn’t one of them. But with a name like Retro, obviously they’re at least acknowledging that it is a homage.

The pen came in a simple box with two black standard international short cartridges and one genuine German-made Schmidt K1 converter. I was already pretty impressed at this point–here we have a sub-$20 pen with honest-to-goodness standard international cartridges and a decent converter!

The pen came in a simple plastic box with a converter and two black cartridges.
The pen also came with some filling instructions below the tray written in Chinese, not shown.

All too often with Chinese pens in this price range, I see semi-proprietary standard international-ish cartridges (if any) and flimsy mystery converters that work some of the time. Many pens above this price range from other common brands don’t even come with converters–Like Lamy. Well done, Kaco.

The pen came with a Schmidt K1 converter. Not fancy, but reliable and functional.
The pen can be filled with a full-size standard international converter, short standard cartridge, or long standard cartridge. The barrel has enough room to accommodate a second short cartridge if so desired.

The pen is simple and very lightweight. It’s not exactly the pinnacle of pens–it still feels like a cheap, brittle plastic pen–but the fit and finish are surprisingly on point. The plastic is very nicely polished. The section threads are smooth and satisfying to use. It wrote without hassle or adjustment. Other than the injection molding marks on the cap finial and the end of the pen, I’d go so far as to say the fit and finish was flawless out of the box. There are very few brands that can make that claim, and fewer yet in the sub-$20 category.

The threads are clear and form a sort of ink window by the section, but it is not really useful for determining the ink level of the converter. Too small and too low on the converter. I do get the sense that one could convert this pen into an eye dropper with some silicone grease on the threads, which would make the ink viewing window more useful.
The only feature on the end of the pen is this injection molding mark.

The cap uses a slider/pseudo-clutch type cap not unlike the system used by the Pilot E95s. The mechanism is smooth and satisfying and keeps the cap in place during capping or posting. The cap also seals well. No dry-outs or other weirdness with this one.

Likewise, the cap finial is rounded with an injection molding mark.

One of my favorite elements of this pen is the clip–a simple, bent wire with a plastic sphere on the end. It holds the pen tightly in a pocket and is whimsical and practical.

I really like the clip. It’s a simple bent wire with a plastic ball at the end. It’s functional and quirky.

As stated, the pen wrote without drama out of the box. It’s not the greatest writing experience ever–it’s a standard P51-style steel nib that writes with a bit of feedback and is fairly position-sensitive but otherwise gets the job done. The pen can suffer from a bit of ink starvation with long writing sessions, but it is fully tolerable.

The nib appears to be a simple, folded steel P51 style nib. It wrote just fine out of the box. I tried to remove the hood from the pen to see what the internals were like but I was not able to do so (non-destructively.)

There is not much more I can say about this pen. I was genuinely impressed–and that takes some doing nowadays.

Pros:

  • Comes with everything you need.
  • Fit and finish are impressive for the cost.
  • Really, this is a high-value pen.

Cons:

  • The ink window doesn’t work.
  • It feels plasticky.
  • The whimsical design may not be for everyone.

Alternatives:

If you’re looking for a cheap Parker 51-esque pen or pen with a hooded nib for under $20, this is your ticket. There’s not another one out there that even comes close to competing with the Kaco Retro in build quality. That said, the Wing Sung 601 or 618 pens are worth considering if you prefer their aesthetics or want a pen with a filling system other than a cartridge/converter set up.

If you are a newbie just looking for a fountain pen to get started on, the Kaco Retro should be high-up on your list, along with the often mentioned Pilot MR series or Lamy Safari/Vista. Also consider the Pilot Kakuno.

Specs:

  • Cap:
    • Plastic with wire clip.
    • Clutch-type closure mechanism.
    • Posts very deeply and securely.
  • Nib:
    • P51-style folded steel nib.
    • Sold to me as an extra-fine, but I’d say it’s closer to a fine or medium.
  • Body:
    • Injection molded plastic.
    • Shown in orange.
    • Available in red, blue, white, black, and turquoise.
  • Filling system:
    • Standard international cartridge or converter.
    • Compatible with long international cartridges.
    • Can store a second short international cartridge in the barrel if so inclined.
    • I haven’t tried it, but I’m willing to bet that one could eyedropper this pen with some silicone grease.
  • Length:
    • Capped: 146mm
    • Uncapped: 127mm
    • Posted: 147mm
  • Weight:
    • Total: 15g
    • Pen: 9g
    • Cap: 6g
  • Section diameter:
    • 9-11.5mm
Top to bottom: Pilot MR Retro Pop (Metropolitan), Kaco Retro, Lamy Safari.
Top to bottom: Pilot MR Retro Pop (Metropolitan), Kaco Retro, Lamy Safari.
Top to bottom: Pilot MR Retro Pop (Metropolitan), Kaco Retro, Lamy Safari.
Written with Iroshizuku Fuyu-Gaki. Writing appears broader than normal for this pen because the ink is so wet and it appears way, way more pink in these scans than it does in person. See photos above for the ink color–it is almost a perfect match to the pen itself when viewed live.

Jinahao 51A

After my last huge post and a rather rough semester, it’s probably time for something a bit less esoteric. A simpler pen, a simpler review.

Jinhao pens tend to be fairly well made and they tend to more-or-less work out of the box–all for a decent price.

At first blush, the 51A looks like another Parker 51 clone. It’s even named the 51A.

The internals of the 51A are actually completely unique, at least compared to a Hero 616 or similar–pens that are literal copies of Parker’s design. So the 51A, in passing, looks very much like a Parker but it is superficial only. Jinhao didn’t just buy a bucket of nondescript 51 clone parts and cobble a “new” pen together.

The only reason I’m sticking-up for a $12 pen is because its reputation as just another cheap P51 ripoff isn’t fully deserved. This pen wrote out of the box. The same cannot be said about a lot of modern pens, both below and well above this price range. Yeah, it is clearly inspired by the Parker 51, but so was the Lamy 2000, Aurora 88, Waterman Taperite, Montblanc 14, Esterbrook Phaeton 300, OMAS 361, and . . . so. . .on. That’s not a measure of a bad or good pen–whether it writes or not is. And the Jinhao writes.

That’s not to say Jinhao hasn’t outright copied old pen designs–they absolutely have, and continue to do so. This just isn’t a great example of that practice.

And I am definitely not saying this pen is better than, or even equal to, a Parker 51. It’s not. But I don’t think its trying to be, either.

Simple, brushed-metal cap. Good on Jinhao for using their own clip design instead of just another arrow clip.

The 51A is very light. The metal cap shifts the balance rearward when posted, but it isn’t that heavy and it posts deeply and securely, which mitigates the balance shift. The cap operates on a clutch mechanism like a Parker 51 and it works fairly well. The clip does what it is supposed to do with little drama.

The clutch ring works as it should, for the most part.

The pen’s body is wood–I think this one is peach wood, or it was sold to me as such. Apparently peach wood wands, amulets, and so on are believed to keep evil spirits at bay in Chinese culture. At least according to Wikipedia. I thought that was a neat tidbit and it would make sense to use peach wood to make things one would be carrying on their person. In any case, the wood wasn’t exactly smooth out of the box, but I polished it a bit with some micromesh. Now it is smooth and organic feeling and aging rather well. Of course, there are a bunch of different materials available besides wood.

The wood is light, thin, and feels sort of cheap but at the same time it adds some depth and life to a functional but unexciting design.

It fills with a cartridge/converter system. Jinhao uses a system that is vaguely patterned after the standard international system and people have had success making standard cartridges and converters fit. The pen did come with a Jinhao-branded converter so I haven’t had to mess around with trying to make other converters work.

It works. It’s loosely patterned after the Lamy z27 converter.

Interestingly enough, this model can optionally be purchased with an open nib, if one likes the pen but prefers a larger nib instead of the hooded design.

For the price, this is a decent pen. The fit and finish is good enough, the pen writes, and the 51A line has some interesting options. I think this is a nice beginner pen or a good choice for someone who likes the aesthetic but who does not want or cannot get a Parker 51. I think there are a few better choices out there for this type of pen, but there are many that are far, far worse.

Pros:

  • Inexpensive.
  • It works.
  • For the price, the fit and finish is acceptable.

Cons:

  • The pen will always live in the shadow of the Parker 51. The brand as a whole isn’t exactly known for its innovative design and this pen is no different.
  • It’s a pretty dry writer.
  • It feels really cheap. The wood is super thin and feels fragile. The capping mechanism works how it is supposed to but it feels like you’re dragging a brick through a gravel parking lot the whole time. Little details like that. On the other hand I think I paid $12 (shipped!) for this pen and the price has dropped since then–so like I said, probably acceptable for the price but don’t think for one minute you’ll get a pen on par with a Parker.

Alternatives:

There really are a million alternatives. Just find one that suits you at the price you like. I do not recommend Hero pens, but the following are closely related and great alternatives. In general:

  • Parker 51. Yep, I’m still that guy–save those pennies and find a user-grade aerometric Parker 51. You’ll never need a different pen in your life, you can give it to your grandkids when you die. The P51 will live happily ever after that. I’m not even a Parker guy and I believe it–these are good pens with an entire industry built around ensuring that they are in use for another 80+ years.
  • Lamy 2000 or Pilot Vanishing Point
  • Aurora 98, International, or modern Duo Cart

Closer to the 51A price range:

  • Kaco Retro. A relative newcomer, and a pen that cannot truly be called a knock-off P51. These are cool little pens and easily my favorite non-premium option in this list. Such a whimsical, cool design with performance to back it up. Only $5 or so more than the Jinhao and worth every penny. Highly recommended.
  • Wing Sung 601. This is still the best outright P51 clone, in my opinion. Wing Sung, like Jinhao, likes to copy designs but they built a better pen than Jinhao in this case. Around $10 more than the 51A.
  • Wing Sung 618. Still a weird design, but still an interesting pen. $10-$13 more than the Jinhao.

Specs:

  • Cap:
    • Clutch-type, metal cap.
  • Nib:
    • Parker 51-style folded steel nib in fine.
    • The pen can be purchased with an open #5 nib instead.
  • Body:
    • Peach wood.
    • Various plastics and other materials are also available.
  • Filling system:
    • Cartridge/converter system (technically proprietary but close enough to standard international.)
  • Length:
    • Capped: 139mm
    • Uncapped: 128mm
    • Posted: 148mm
  • Weight:
    • Total: 20g
    • Pen: 11g
    • Cap: 9g
  • Section diameter:
    • 8-11mm
Top to bottom: Parker 51, Jinhao 51A, Lamy Safari.
Top to bottom: Parker 51, Jinhao 51A, Lamy Safari.
Top to bottom: Parker 51, Jinhao 51A, Lamy Safari.

Conklin Duragraph

My wife bought this pen for me for Valentine’s day several years ago, so the Duragraph has sentimental value to me. I am behind the game with this pen and there isn’t a lot for me to add that hasn’t already been said about it. It’s quite popular.

First, the nib. My pen doesn’t have the original Conklin nib on it–I did consider putting it back on for the review, but ultimately decided against it. Conklin used to use Chinese nibs on their old pens, apparently switched to Bock at one time, and have since switched to JoWo. My pen was produced during the Chinese to Bock transition time, so I have no idea who made the original nib, but it wasn’t that great. I switched a spare 14k JoWo extra fine nib into the pen, and new Duragraphs should have JoWo nibs on them anyways, so it’s still a fair comparison.

duragraph_nib_new
I had this stock JoWo ruthenium/rhodium plated 14k gold nib in extra fine laying around. It works well on this pen.
duragraph_nib2
The original nib was quite attractive, it just didn’t write that well. It did write, though, so it has that going for it.
duragraph_nib1
Note the weird tipping geometry that lead me to switch-out the nibs. It wasn’t horrible per se, I just had a better nib handy. I like the pen more for it.

The pen has a classy, vintage-inspired feel to it. For the price, it feels well-built. The hourglass shaped section is very comfortable in use and the pen is light and balanced towards the nib, so it’s nice for longer writing sessions.

duragraph_shot

My main complaint about the pen, other than the so-so nib, is the cap band is crooked or not installed correctly. It bugs me, but is only a minor aesthetic issue.

duragraph_capband
I always like the crescent moon engravings, but note how the cap band is not aligned with the acrylic cap correctly.

The cap technically posts, but it does not do so deeply and the cap weighs as much as the pen, so posting it makes it very long, cumbersome, and back-heavy. Thankfully the Duragraph is long enough to be used comfortably while unposted.

This model is kind of cool, sentimental value aside. It’s available in a bunch of different finishes with a nice nib lineup and is attractively priced. It is a good choice for those new to fountain pens, intermediate users, or anyone who likes the way it looks.

Pros:

  • Nice size.
  • Comfortable to hold.
  • Classy.

Cons:

  • The nib was not so hot out of the box–functional, just not great.
  • The cap band is off on mine.
  • Why the hell can’t this pen accept long standard international cartridges? Huge fumble on Conklin’s part. (I mean, they fit, but they get stuck in the barrel and the user has to dig them out.)

Specs:

  • Cap:
    • Screw cap.
    • About 1 turn to remove.
    • Not exactly postable.
  • Nib:
    • Originally a stainless steel medium Conklin #6 nib of unknown origin.
    • This one is a #6 JoWo 14k gold nib, in extra fine.
    • Modern pens should have #6 Conklin branded JoWo nibs.
    • Currently available in extra fine, fine, medium, broad, 1.1 italic, and the proprietary Omniflex nib.
  • Body:
    • Cracked ice acrylic.
    • Available in a bunch of finishes.
  • Filling system:
    • Standard international cartridge/converter.
    • No long cartridges and don’t try to carry a short cartridge in tandem in the barrel. They feel like they’ll fit and then get stuck. It makes a hell of a mess trying to dig them out. I try these things so you don’t have to.
    • The pen does come with a threaded converter. Mine broke, but threaded converters are always nice.
    • Ink capacity for standard international converters and short cartridges is around 0.7-0.8ml.
  • Length:
    • Capped: 142mm
    • Uncapped: 125mm
    • Posted: 178mm
  • Weight:
    • Total: 24g
    • Pen: 12g
    • Cap: 12g
  • Section diameter:
    • 10-11mm

Alternatives:

There are a million decent sub-$100 pens that could be considered instead, including other Conklins, but most of them don’t share the Duragraph’s vintage feel. Because of this, I tried to pick alternatives that are flat tops, similar in price, or have that “retro feel” about them. In no particular order consider:

  • Lamy Safari
  • Pilot Prera.
  • Some of Penbbs’s options.
  • Aurora Talentum, Tu, or Style.
  • Esterbrook Estie–it’s not a flattop, but the concept is similar.
  • Parker Duofold.
  • Jinhao Centennial. I’ve seen this one referred to (lovingly, perhaps?) as the JinhaoFold because it obviously takes some. . .inspiration. . .from the Parker Duofold.
  • Pelikan Souveran series. The m600 or m800 are probably closest in size and shape.
  • Kaweco Dia2.
  • Edison Beaumont.
duragraph_compare1
duragraph_compare2
duragraph_compare3
duragraph_sample1
duragraph_sample2

Wing Sung 601

I’ve been putting this review off for a long time.

It’s not that the Wing Sung 601 is a bad pen–it’s not. I quite like it, for what it is. There just isn’t that much I can add that hasn’t been said already, and there wasn’t that much to say about it from the start.

I’ve had a lot of Parker 51 clones pass through my hands. The Wing Sung is the best of those, and is a pretty good price to boot. Actually I’d go ahead and say that if one is looking for a cheap P51-esque pen that works and doesn’t break the bank, look no further.

Is it “better” than a vintage Parker? Nope. Not even close. Is it “better” than a Hero 616? Yes, by a long shot. The question of “good, better, best” is subjective, of course, but unlike the numerous Hero pens, one can be reasonably assured that their Wing Sung 601 will probably work out of the box.

DSC_0670
Left to right: Hero 616, Wing Sung 601, Parker 51

The 601 is available in six or seven different colors for around $20 shipped. For 20 bucks, the user is getting a pen that is fairly well built, writes pretty well, and fills via a vacumatic system with a monstrous 1.8mL ink capacity. The only self-filling pen I have that exceeds this capacity is the Pilot Custom 823, and that only does so by 0.4mL. The very fine nib makes that capacity last for quite some time between refills. Mine is a true vacumatic filler, but newer 601’s have a different mechanism that is somewhat of a cross between the Parker vacumatic system and an Edison draw filler–functionally they’re the same, but in theory the newer system should be less likely to fail in the future, either from age or the use of inks that aren’t latex safe.

DSC_0676
Some differences between the Parker and Wing Sung’s filler and blind cap, but fairly similar overall. The Wing Sung does have an ink window, though.

The cap’s clutch mechanism works well and is functional. It posts deeply and securely. The nib is functional. All in all, a nice little pen.

DSC_0666

The reason I didn’t want to write the review isn’t because I don’t like the Wing Sung 601–I do like it, as I said already. The pen is just uninspiring. It doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It’s a copy of an 80 year old design. It’s probably the best of the copies, but the quality of the materials and the fit and finish of the pen cannot stand up to a Parker 51–as I’ve said before, this isn’t a fair comparison because the 51 retailed for over $250, adjusted for inflation, and this is a $20 pen.

And unlike its cheaper competitors, I can’t even tell a cool story about how I had to buy 15 of them just to get an authentic one that didn’t even write–I bought it off Amazon, it came in a rip-off Lamy box, and it worked fine. I’m not complaining–it’s definitely worth the extra money over most P51 clones–it just makes for a boring review.

Pros:

  • Good, inexpensive pen.
  • Works the way it’s supposed to.
  • Holds a ton of ink, but. . .

Cons:

  • . . .is a pain to clean out because of the vacumatic system.
  • There aren’t a lot of cons, actually. For the cost, it’s a great pen.

Specs:

  • Cap:
    • Clutch-type metal cap.
    • Posts very well.
  • Nib:
    • Steel P51-style nib
    • Fine only.
  • Body:
    • Injection molded plastic.
    • Available in several different colors.
  • Filling system:
    • Parker-style vacumatic.
    • The newer ones have a draw-filler mechanism that works in the same manner.
  • Length:
    • Capped: 140mm
    • Uncapped: 130mm
    • Posted: 153mm
  • Weight:
    • Total: 20 grams
    • Pen: 13 grams
    • Cap: 7 grams
  • Section diameter:
    • 8-11mm

DSC_0682
Top to bottom: Parker 51, Wing Sung 601, Lamy Safari.

DSC_0677
Top to bottom: Parker 51, Wing Sung 601, Lamy Safari.

DSC_0685
Top to bottom: Parker 51, Wing Sung 601, Lamy Safari.

wingsung601_pg1

wingsung601_pg2

 

Wing Sung 618

I’m usually behind the times when it comes to pens from China. There’s a lot of cool stuff coming out of China, but I’ve shifted away from buying a lot of fountain pens to buying a few pens that I really want every once in awhile so these offerings tend to get neglected. That’s no fault of these pens, though.

In fact, I quite like my 618. It’s not the best pen ever. It’s actually far from it–the clip is cheap, I had to fiddle with the pen to get it in order, and it tends to have sporadic–although acceptable–ink flow. But it’s just kind of quirky and I like it.

DSC_0438

It’s sort of a TWSBI/Parker 51 hybrid with a subtle nod to Sailor in the cap band design, all packaged in a Lamy box. I’m not the first reviewer to point this out, of course, but it just sort of works for the Wing Sung in a weird way. Frankly, had they omitted the fake clutch ring on the section and used a different clip design, one would be hard pressed to call this pen a true Parker 51 clone because it’s just different enough. The 618 is a demonstrator, has a screw cap, and is a piston filler–Parker never did that. I think Wing Sung missed an opportunity to create something wholly unique, but that’s just me.

My 618 has been modified. It wrote fine after some adjustment/tinkering when I received it, but I eventually replaced the nib with a fake Hero nib and shellaced the section in place. It didn’t need shellaced per se, but it came untwisted on me once and I fixed it.

DSC_0434

The story behind this nib is perhaps more interesting than the pen itself: I was sold a “Hero 100” with a “10k gold nib” but the pen I received was by the far the most ungodly abomination of a pen I’ve ever held in my hands complete with razor sharp edges and rough spots. It didn’t fill well and broke almost immediately, but the nib was pretty good. I was convinced that I had a gold nib, so I removed it from the destroyed fake Hero and transplanted it on the 618.

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The process of removing the nib from the original pen also removed the cheap plating on the nib, revealing its true nature–a steel P51 style nib. But it’s still the nicest example of one of these nibs that I’ve come across yet and I swear that it is properly tipped and not just folded, polished steel. Whoever made this nib did a pretty decent job, even if they skimped on the plating and put it on a trash counterfeit pen in an attempt to swindle people.

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Note the incomplete plating, Hero logo, and CHINA in block letters. Is that actual tipping? Where did this come from?

A big selling point for this pen is the low price–they’re still going for less than $20, as of this writing. It isn’t the most plush fountain pen in existence and it may need some fiddling to get working, but one can be reasonably assured that they’re getting a pen that will work, even if it takes a little tweaking to get there. Some of Wing Sung’s cheaper competitors barely produce approximations of pens, let alone functional pieces. If the user wants a pen that has been QC tested and is ready to write, the 618 may not be it, but it’s a fair bit cheaper, too. It’s a nice compromise that way.

Of course there are pens that are both cheaper and basically write between good and perfect out of the box nearly every time, like the Platinum Preppy or Pilot MR, but those aren’t piston fillers, either. It comes down to user tastes at the end of the day.

The Wing Sung 618 is extremely popular, so there isn’t much else that I can say about it that hasn’t been said before. It’s quirky. I like it.

Pros:

  • Overall, a great package for the price.
  • Basically does what it’s supposed to do. It doesn’t dry out and it fills and writes well.
  • The fit and finish are more or less acceptable, for the price point.
  • The balance and writing comfort are all on point. It’s nice to use.

Cons:

  • Quality control isn’t perfect. The pen may need some minor tweaking.
  • I’ve always had aberrant ink flow with this pen. It starts as a very wet writer but then cycles between fairly wet and fairly dry. It’s not really noticeable on the page, but it is noticeable to me. Odd.
  • The real tragedy: this pen was so close to being truly interesting, but Wing Sung chose to make an oddball P51 clone instead of a unique piece, forcing the community to label the 618 a Parker-knockoff forevermore. You did 96% of the work, Wing Sung! Why not just make it your own?

Specs:

  • Cap:
    • Screw cap.
    • One turn to remove.
  • Nib:
    • This one is unknown fine nib.
    • Usually a EF/F P51 style nib.
  • Body:
    • A variety of different colors are available.
    • This one is the clear demonstrator with chrome trim.
  • Filling system:
    • Piston.
    • There’s a locking feature to prevent the piston from unintentionally actuating.
    • 1.5mL ink capacity.
  • Length:
    • Capped: 142mm
    • Uncapped: 134mm
    • Posted: 157mm
  • Weight:
    • Total: 20g
    • Pen: 12g
    • Cap: 8g
  • Section diameter: 8-11mm
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Top to bottom: Parker 51, Wing Sung 618, Lamy Safari.
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Aurora Ipsilon

Bias alert: I love and collect Auroras, but I try to be as objective as possible with them.

The Ipsilon is one of Aurora’s entry-level offerings and seemingly their most popular, given the options available with this model and the fancier Deluxe version.

Like all Auroras, it is entirely made in in Italy. The Ipsilon is much simpler than its more expensive siblings; it’s light but well balanced, has a snap cap, and has a steel nib.

But the Ipsilon writes like an Aurora. The nib is smooth with some feedback and lays down a fairly fine, moderately wet line. The fit and finish, like all Auroras in my experience, is great with no rough spots, seams, or any other obvious flaws.

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The small, steel nib is simply embellished, but it writes like a dream

The cap snaps on and off and posts with a satisfying *click*. Once capped, it’s very secure–my Ipsilon went through the laundry without coming uncapped.

Does the Ipsilon evoke the same metaphysical feel-goodery in my soul as an 88 or Optima? No, not even close. But for $120 retail, this pen is fantastic step into the brand and a way to get a feel for Aurora nibs without dropping serious cash. There are cheaper options in the Aurora line-up like the Kappa and Style, but the Ipsilon has the largest selection of nibs and finishes, from a simple resin pen with a steel nib like mine clear up to sterling silver bodies and 14k gold nibs.

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On my particular pen, the fine nib is more comparable to Aurora’s 14k extra fine, and it seems that Aurora’s steel nibs are a bit finer in general. Those who love finer nibs will do just fine with the Aurora Ipsilon.

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Ipsilon is line 2.

Even though this pen has a steel nib, it writes as well as my other Auroras. Its performance is why I feel the Ipsilon is a worthy contender in the crowded $100-$200 category. That Aurora feel is why this cartridge/converter, steel nib pen competes with the likes of the Platinum 3776 and the Lamy 2000. That’s not to say that the Ipsilon is better than those other pens, just different, and ultimately it comes down to the user’s tastes.

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My Ipsilon is an older model with a discontinued color and different style of cap band but is otherwise functionally the same as a production Ipsilon. I actually purchased it used in set with a matching ballpoint because I’m a sucker for matching fountain pen/ballpoint combos. The knock style ballpoint accepts common Parker pattern refills and works as expected with a tiny bit more tip wiggle than I’d like.

Pros:

  • Lightweight and well balanced.
  • Solid performance.
  • A good introduction to the Aurora brand.
  • Caps and posts very securely.

Cons:

  • For what it is, it’s hard to find fault with the Ipsilon.
  • It’s a standard size pen, so it may be too small for some users.
  • While it’s basically competitively priced, I’d like to see the base model price come down a bit.

Specs:

  • Cap:
    • Snap cap.
    • Snaps to post.
  • Nib:
    • Steel Fine.
    • Also available in:
      • Steel: extra fine, fine, medium, broad, italic.
      • 14k gold: extra fine, fine, medium, broad, double broad, italic.
    • Gold, BB, and Italic nibs come at a premium.
  • Body:
    • Polished resin.
    • Numerous other finishes are available, including matte resin, lacquered metal, and sterling silver.
    • The fancier the body, the more it costs.
  • Filling system:
    • Aurora proprietary cartridge/converter.
    • Converter included with pen.
    • Converter capacity: 0.8mL.
    • Cartridge capacity is around 1.2mL.
    • Parker cartridges/converters and Aurora’s own Trik Trak converter also fit.
  • Length:
    • Capped: 138mm
    • Uncapped: 120mm
    • Posted: 150mm
  • Weight:
    • Total: 22g
    • Pen: 15g
    • Cap: 7g
  • Section diameter:
    • 9-11mm
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Pilot E95S

Edit: Public Service Announcement: Always check your pockets before doing laundry. In loving memory of Mat’s Pilot E95s, 2017-2021. RIP, my sweet prince.

Update: It’s back from the dead but it was a huge PITA; basically a complete restoration. The nib was bent up and not attached to the pen. Ink and scuffs everywhere. It was a nightmare, but now IT LIVES. Don’t put your pens through the laundry.

Pilot is among my favorite pen makers. They’re by the far the largest of the Japanese pen companies and have a massive selection of writing instruments for any taste or budget, ranging from a few dollars to tens of thousands of dollars in their Namiki line.

The E95s, or Elite 95, is an underrated gem.

It’s modeled after the Japanese pocket pens of the 1960’s, which were designed to be short when capped and full sized when posted. They usually had semi-hooded or inset nibs, appealing to the streamlined, futuristic tastes of the time. Pilot, Sailor, and Platinum all made pens in this style, as did other now-defunct or obscure companies like Morison. I’m sure that other companies made pens in this style as well.

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The E95 feels like a standard-sized pen that was designed to be smaller when stowed, unlike other pocket pens that are either intentionally small and designed to be larger when in use or are merely scaled-down variants of bigger pens. It’s not nearly as compact because of this but it’s more comfortable in use, at least to me.

My E95 is the black version and it is made from plastic with some metal components inside that do not affect the pen’s balance. The cap is a soft metal, lacquered black on my model. The burgundy model has a brushed appearance, but I do not have that one to compare. The clip is spring-loaded and works well. The cap is somewhat hard to describe: it is a pseudo-clutch-type mechanism that stays tight whether the pen is capped or posted. In any case, it’s unique, effective, and satisfying to use.

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The 14 carat gold nib is inset, which I personally like but not everyone does. It comes in extra fine, fine, and medium; mine is a fine. The nib is stiff enough to be a practical and a smooth writer but isn’t so stiff as to feel lifeless. It was a flawless performer out of the box with a lovely balance of wetness, smoothness, and feedback. The line produced by this fine nib is about what one would expect out of a Pilot–a bit finer than an equivalent German nib, but not a needle point.

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E95 writing is line 5.

The soft metal cap is easily dented, so I don’t consider this a hard-use pocket pen like a Kaweco Sport or similar. This pen uses Pilot’s proprietary cartridge/converter system and the only converter that officially fits is the Pilot Con-40. The converter rattles, has a low capacity, and the pen’s design makes it impossible to check your ink level while it’s installed. I hope Pilot re-visits their small pen converter, but for the time being it will allow the pen to fill from a bottle. The now discontinued Con-20 also fits. Pilot’s cartridges work perfectly in this pen and would be my choice if this were going to be my one and only everyday pen due to their better capacity and Pilot’s high quality ink. Pilot cartridges are becoming increasingly available at office supply stores and they allow one to monitor the ink level in this pen while holding up well to refill and reuse. Edit: Pilot is now selling the Con-B, which is the old “cleaning converter” that comes with the Parallel, MR line, and probably a few others. It is perfectly adequate for this pen and would be my preference in lieu of the Con-40, although both do what they’re supposed to. Anyone with a latex allergy would need to avoid the Con-B, though.

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Cannot check ink level when filled with the Con-40. All that’s visible here is the operating knob and threads of the piston.

The E95s retails in the United States for $136–which is a very attractive price in the competitive sub-$200 category. Anyone looking for a “step-up” pen should strongly consider this pen.

Pros:

  • Clever design.
  • Light and well balanced.
  • Fits in a shirt pocket but isn’t too small in use.
  • Flawless performance.
  • Great value.

Cons:

  • The Con-40 is trash, so a user would have to live with it or use cartridges.
  • Edit: Or get a Con-B. Or source an old Con-20, but those are going for 10x more than the Con-B right now.
  • Not as robust as some pocket pens. This should be considered a “shirt pocket” pen, not a “jeans pocket” pen.

Specs:

  • Cap:
    • Postable aluminum sliding cap with spring-loaded clip.
  • Nib:
    • 14k inset fine.
    • Also available in extra fine and medium.
  • Body:
    • Polished black resin.
    • Also available in burgundy.
  • Filling system:
    • Pilot Con-40 or cartridge.
    • Con-40 capacity is 0.4mL by my calculations.
    • Cartridge capacity is around 1.1mL.
    • The discontinued Con-20 works in the pen, as does the “cleaning converter” that comes with some Pilot pens. edit: AKA the Con-B, now available for sale.
  • Length:
    • Capped: 121mm
    • Uncapped: 114mm
    • Posted: 149mm
  • Weight:
    • Total: 15g
    • Pen: 10g
    • Cap: 5g
  • Section diameter: 9-12mm.
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Camlin 47

Every once in awhile, I stumble upon a pen that is just kind of cool. The Camlin 47 is not fancy or expensive–far from it, actually–but it has a lot of things going for it.

The Camlin 47 is an inexpensive Indian school pen, made by the Kokuyo Camlin company. The easiest way to get one in North America is to buy it from Fountain Pen Revolution (no affiliation) where it retails for $14, but occasionally  they’ll show up on eBay or similar for a couple of bucks directly from India. FPR charges more because of the convenience of  ordering from a US retailer, plus they inspect their pens before selling them. However, this pen is sold in India for around ₹20–give or take 30¢–or at least that’s the going price on amazon.in. Now, one isn’t going to be able to pay 30¢ for a Camlin 47 because of the cost of international shipping–short of flying to Mumbai and buying one in person, of course–but hopefully that puts this little pen into perspective.

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For the price, the user is getting a pen that writes well with a fine, rigid hooded nib. The ink keeps up nicely due to the pen’s ebonite feed. It fills with a piston and has an ink window to monitor ink levels. A piston filler or an ebonite feed usually means a higher price on other pens, but this pen has them as standard equipment.

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The pen is thin, so it doesn’t have a huge ink capacity. The balance is on point and it’s nice to write with, posted or not. I don’t like to write unposted because it’s pretty short and the cap is (probably) aluminum so posting it does not disrupt the pen’s balance. It’s a fantastic poster, actually.

The fit and finish are not that great. The fit is practical and uninspiring–for instance, the joints between the piston knob and the barrel and the section and the barrel are basically close enough, but still obvious to the eye and to the touch. The finish is especially rough. The pen body is barely polished. The cap is fairly well finished, but its opening is pretty rough and the clip’s “ball” is just folded steel. It’s pretty sharp and I’ve damaged a shirt with the clip, so care must be taken when clipping it to something. My Camlin will dry out if left unused for a few days, which tells me that the cap isn’t very airtight.

Cheaper Indian pens–including this one–are usually made from inexpensive vegetal resin, which off-gasses and has a lingering odor. People tend to not care about the smell, sentimentally associate it with their grandfather’s screwdrivers (which had handles made from the same material) or find it very offensive and akin to vomit or cheese. The smell fades over time but never really goes away. I’m not crazy about the smell, but I deal with it.

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For the price, I think this is a solid, reliable workhorse and this is what the pen is intended to be. It has its issues, but I try to evaluate them with the right mindset–it’s a 30¢ pen. It certainly won’t be the same quality as a $50 or $100 pen. The sub $20 category features a lot of cool fountain pens, but this is one of my favorites of the bunch.

Ultimately, the Camlin 47 is one of India’s fancier domestic school pens, but it’s still a cheap, utilitarian pen. There is a thriving fountain pen community in India and many interesting and beautiful pens are made there. I recommend checking them out.

Pros:

  • Inexpensive.
  • Practical.
  • I like hooded nibs.

Cons:

  • Smells weird.
  • Fit and finish is okay. It’s a little rough around the edges, but acceptable for the price.
  • Mine will dry out if left unused for a couple of days.

Specs:

  • Cap:
    • Push-on cap.
    • Postable.
  • Nib:
    • Hooded fine nib. No other options.
    • Uses an ebonite feed, which keeps up and performs well.
  • Body:
    • Injection molded vegetal resin.
    • Navy, Maroon, Black, Blue, and Green options are available.
  • Filling system:
    • Piston filler.
    • Small 0.7mL capacity.
  • Length:
    • Capped: 131mm
    • Uncapped: 123mm
    • Posted: 153mm
  • Weight:
    • Total: 13g
    • Pen: 9g
    • Cap: 4g
  • Section diameter:
    • 8-10.5mm
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Pelikan m205 Duo

This pen is sold as a highlighter. I used it as a highlighter for a long time but it’s a very wet writer, which leads to smudging and bleed-through on text book paper or similar. If the user keeps that in mind, it’s quite functional as such. It works particularly well on articles printed on high quality paper where the text is already pretty small.

The double broad nib on this pen is way too sweet to be used in a purely functional way, though; it makes a bold, wet line that works very well with shading inks.

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Except for the BB nib, this pen is functionally identical to other Pelikan m205s, which are m200s with chrome trim instead of gold trim. These, along with their higher-end sibling the m400, have not changed much since their introduction in the 1980s, themselves being inspired by the 400nn of the 1950s. Because of this, they are sized like the pens of that time–pretty small by modern standards.

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Small isn’t always a bad thing, though–the m205 fits quite nicely in a shirt pocket, and Pelikan’s 3/4 twist to remove cap is every bit as quick to deploy as a snap cap pen. This, combined with Pelikan’s no-nonsense piston filling system, makes for a pen that is meant for writing.

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Typically, m200s and m205s are not offered with BB nibs; on the other hand, the m205 Duo series is only offered in BB. If the user wants a BB nib on their m205, this is their option. Don’t believe Pelikan’s nonsense about using only Duo highlighter ink in this pen–it’s just a regular m205 with a fat nib.

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One of the advantages of Pelikans is their interchangeable nib units–so m200 nibs can be swapped with m200 nibs, m400 and m600 nibs, and even similarly sized vintage nib units. This makes the platform versatile and at least partly customizable.

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It’s hard to go wrong with Pelikan, really. The m200 series is around $125 to $150 or so, which is a pretty reasonable price for what the pen is. Cartridge/converter pens with stock JoWo or Bock nibs routinely sell for more than the m200/205 and the 200/205 is a superior pen in both fit, finish, and durabilty compared to other steel-nib piston fillers, so I don’t see price as an issue with this pen. Pelikan’s pricing model sky-rockets once gold nibs are involved, though, but the user is paying for a durable, classy pen with a time-proven design that works. A m200/205 series pen is a great choice for a beginner or as a step-up pen.

Pelikan also routinely releases special edition m200/205 pens to satisfy those with a desire to collect different colors.

I’ve used my Pelikan m205 Duo for three and a half years for both highlighting and writing and it’s held up quite well. I can recommend this family of pens.

Pros:

  • Good size.
  • Fool-proof piston filler.
  • Fun, juicy BB nib.

Cons:

  • May be too small for some users.

Specs:

  • Cap:
    • Screw cap.
    • 3/4 turn to remove.
    • Postable.
  • Nib:
    • Pelikan m205 series steel nib unit, double broad.
    • Other nibs are available and compatible with this pen in numerous nib sizes.
  • Filling System:
    • Piston fill.
    • 1.4mL ink capacity.
  • Body:
    • Demonstrator yellow.
    • Also available:
      • m205 Duo in demonstrator green.
      • m205 in countless finishes.
      • m200 in black, marble green, marble brown, and special edition colors.
  • Length:
    • Capped: 126mm
    • Uncapped: 123mm
    • Posted: 151mm
  • Weight:
    • Total: 15g
    • Pen: 10g
    • Cap: 5g
  • Section Diameter:
    • 9.3-10mm
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