Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Review of a TWSBI VAC 700 with a VAC 20 Travel Inkwell

Over time, I observed that the 580 did not find much use, primarily because my writing preferences have graduated towards softer and larger nibs along with time. So here comes the saviour from TWSBI - The Vac 700, with a bigger nib of #6 size, and a vacuum plunger mechanism. Personally, I prefer the concept of an ink shut off valve. 
If you are looking for a review of the 580, here it is.

TWSBI


TWSBI (pronounced Twiz-Bee) refers to San Wen Tong, i.e TWS spelled backwards and it means ‘Hall of Three Cultures’ and if you wish to know, more information is available on their website. BI at the end, refers to writing instruments. Ta Shin Precision has manufactured a range of things starting from toy lego parts to high-end writing instruments, for several luxury brands (both American & Japanese) for well over 40 years. So that’s plastic, metal & precision, precisely what’s required to make and sell a good looking writing instrument, under a brand name. Which luxury brands? They don’t reveal those due to privacy agreements. I have reasonable doubt from various reviews that one of them is Levenger. Also, the shaft mechanism inside Pilot Custom 823 seems similar to the one in the Vac 700. TWSBI sources its nibs from JoWo (earlier it was Bock & Schimdt), Germany (same as for Faber-Castell Stock Steel nibs).

PRESENTATION


Clean, clear and minimal packaging! A transparent pen lying inside a clear plastic case, encased within a brown cardboard box with adequate cushions of foam. There is an instruction sheet on filling & disassembly of the pen, highlighting the pen parts. Below the white pen-holding shelf, you will find the 7mm TWSBI wrench, couple of O-rings for the filler collar and a vial of silicone grease in two push slots. Neat!


DESIGN - TAPERED TRANSPARENCY (4/6)


The VAC 700 used to come in four transparent colours - Sapphire, Amber, Smoke & Clear. Now TWSBI has retained the production of the clear model only. I was looking for a clear model, since I already have a few other coloured demos. The build of VAC700 is sturdy and it seems that a substantial amount of acrylic has been used. Honestly, it never felt cheap nor does it feel luxurious. I think this pen endorses practical utility rather than art, with which you will probably associate a Visconti. More of an industrial look, for which I like this pen. Plastic & Acrylics economise both cost and weight of fittings. 

                  Most of it is visible engineering & the use of a steel plunger rod along with rubber piston and valve seals can be seen from the outside. The barrel and cap are made of thick polycarbonate, with a protective heat treated layer to increase resistance to scratches & abrasions, thus preserving the crystal transparence. The blind cap and the section exhibit translucence with smoky hue and I strongly fill that its takes out some beauty element out of the equation. But then, I wanted the clear one to enjoy the ink colour itself.

The cap feels substantial and unscrews with one and a half turn, revealing a nicely sized steel nib. There is a metallic collar for the nib unit, supplying necessary chrome accents for the aesthetics part of it. The smoky translucent blind cap has a rather broad ring making the mark for usage and disassembly. The barrel is smooth and rounded with a decagonally cut blind cap, which fails to prevent the open pen from rolling away. The pen rolls on the broad steel ring below the blind cap. The acrylic orchestrates light well and dazzles the ink inside the barrel.

The cap has a widish chrome band carrying a laser engraved TWSBI on one side of it and VAC 700 TAIWAN on the other. The finial carries a vibrant red & silver TWSBI logo of three pillars within a dome of transparent acrylic. The clip has a frosted aluminium feel and finish and is spring-loaded within a visible system with a chrome tassie. The cap has a geometrical decagonal cut, though the clip prevents any rolling away. The frosted look & feel of aluminium and somewhat stands out unevenly compared to the overall dazzling steel chrome trims. The cap is moderately heavy (@13g not 19g). You can also see a transparent inner cap, which prevents the nib from drying out.


FILLING SYSTEM (4/6)


As a plunger filler, it does have a good ink capacity around 1.8~2.3 mL (a full fill which is easy to do from an inverted Vac 20 bottle or repeated air removal filling). The smoky translucent blind cap unscrews with three complete turns. The rod is made of stainless steel and is resistant to most of the commonly used inks. For IG (Iron Gall) and Pigment Inks, care must be taken to clean the pen several times, to prevent clogging or deposit accumulation inside the ink passages. 

With the usual ink bottle, the pen fills to around two-thirds of its capacity, once the nib is completely dipped in ink and the plunger is pushed back in. This can give a good amount of ink inside with a comfortable volume of 1.5 - 1.8 mL. Sometimes, I have to repeat it several times to create a good vacuum, an issue I never had with the Custom 823 or the Homo Sapiens. The Custom 823 takes only a second vacuum to fill well. But YMMV.


Cleaning the pen could be a similar ritual accompanied with some shake and I suggest you do it on a regular basis, for the ink stains if left may look ugly with time, and might require a light ammonia solution to go-off. Else you could just disassemble the shaft mechanism from the barrel and clean the transparent barrel with some a light dishwashing liquid water solution.

               And as mentioned in the manual, while writing with the pen, you would need to keep the piston-knob slightly unscrewed & pulled to the first stop (at a 4 mm distance) relative to the chrome ring. This will displace the conical valve rubber seal below the piston seal, to allow passage of ink to the feed. Given the high ink capacity of these pens with plunger filling mechanism, it has been introduced to prevent ink-leakage. And this is a nice thing to have, if you intend to carry the pen by air. The feeder hole looks like a channel to enable efficient ink suction. 

                         A problem I have landed up with this piece is that while filling it from a VAC 20 bottle, there are some ink drops coming out of the rear end of the filler collar. I emailed TWSBI Customer Service and Philip asked me to replace the filler O-ring with the spare one, which is actually thinner. Steps/link in disassembly section.

However, this did not solve the issue completely and Philip was kind enough to have his factory send an immediate replacement of shaft mechanism. We both think that the inner O-ring of the shaft mechanism is the culprit.

Update One week later, the replacement mechanism arrived, and there is no leakage of ink from the opening of the filler collar now. Awesome customer service, TWSBI team! The VAC gets the new mechanism. (The defective one stays beside the pen)


FILLING WITH THE VAC 20 INKWELL (INDEPENDENT RATING - 5/6)


The VAC 20 inkwell comes within a small cardboard box. Unlike the well packaged Diamond 50 bottle, the packaging is pretty plain. It’s made of plastic and weighs around 20 grams without ink. 

Ink Capacity is 20 mL, of course (Thus VAC 20, but wait, what about VAC 700! :D). The below bottle is around two-thirds filled.

The bottle used to come in five simple variants - black, orange, red, green & blue top-caps and occupies a fraction of space taken by the Diamond 50 inkwell.

The new one however is called VAC 20A and it has an additional insert for the VAC Mini.

       You have to remove the top cap for filling the VAC 700. The base cap has the threads of the VAC 700 pen inside, so as to fit the pen precisely. 

And with an inverted configuration you can pull/push the plunger to suck the ink to full capacity of the pen. 

And there is no need of cleaning the VAC700 after filling ink, as only the feed area is exposed. Cool ! 

The outer cap has a good sealing tube and I never found any ink leakage from the bottle itself, even after keeping it inverted in my backpack for 2 days of travel.

                        Personally, I find it comfortable as a travelling inkwell since the dimensions are minimal and the base bottle offers the height of ink to completely immerse nibs of most pens with standard nib sizes. The only quibble I have is: when you fill ink in any other pen, the base cap (black) has to be unscrewed and it exposes the broader opening of the bottle. The secure bottle acting as a pen stand is now gone. The inner taper of the base cap block sections of most of the similar sized pens (except VAC 700 & a few slimmer ones). Besides it’s priced pretty decent (in US), and you do travel with 20 mL of your favourite ink. 

DISASSEMBLY (6/6)


In cases where the piston has become stiff or there is any leakage of ink from the rear, it would require you to disassemble and self-service the pen. You can find two spare O-rings with the wrench and silicone grease. You can have a look at a 700 disassembly video. I like this one. Make sure you thoroughly flush the pen with water before disassembling it.

  1. Rotate the blind cap counter-clockwise, till it rotates freely. 
  2. Pull out the blind cap till it comes to an end stop. The same thing you do while longer writing sessions. 
  3. Fit the wrench below the blind cap on the area of the filler collar which has two parallel cuts on the otherwise circular section. 
  4. Rotate counter-clockwise till the collar comes out of the inner threads. There is an O-ring on the collar (at the end of those threads ideally) that goes inside the barrel, to prevent leakage of ink. (the same ring for which spares are provided) 
  5. Then you can pull off the shaft mechanism along with the blind cap from the barrel. 
  6. The nib unit can be easily removed by first unscrewing the grip section from the barrel 
  7. Since, nib is friction fit, you may remove the nib and feed from the unit, in case there is some heavy cleaning required (in case of a bad flow, sometimes the feed is coated with grease which restricts ink-flow). 
  8. Make sure you carefully apply adequate amount of silicone grease with a earbud/toothpick to the sides of the conical frustum like rubber piston seal/lip before reassembly. Don't use any grease on the conical valve seal, else the grease may block the section slit, thereby the flow of ink


NIB - ALL THAT MATTERS (6/6)


This is a silver accented stainless steel nib from Jowo of size#6. It carries off the TWSBI traditional dagger-like design well. Across four stock widths - EF, F, M, B and two special widths of Stub 1.1 & Stub 1.5, this looks pretty industrial and minimalistic. The nib/feed unit can also be taken out of the sleeve after unscrewing the section.

The tail end specifies carries the nib width, while the name TWSBI along with the logo rest above the tail. There is some simple scroll within the symmetry of its tines, reflecting the rather industrial look of the pen. 

A black plastic feed with a adequate feed channel for ink suction provides the inflow of ink. The thin fins ensure an acceptable buffer capacity, although I have always found better feeds in Pilot & of course the Pelikans. The feeds are said to be a bit brittle. So suggest you take care if you are replacing the nib.

These are sourced from JoWo. Earlier, TWSBI used to source its nibs from Schmidt and then Bock, which is incidentally the nib-supplier for Faber-Castell smoothy nibs too. The nib being a medium is a juicy wet delight to write with. And it lays a line which runs a tad thicker than Japanese Medium/European Fine nibs. More of this in the last section with writing sample.


PHYSICS OF IT (6/6) – RELATIVELY SPEAKING


The pen even without ink, does have a good balance in terms of both weight and length. The pen is not meant to be posted for the likes of me. The grip is quite comfortable for me, with a girth of 1 cm for me. The weight of the pen is mainly due to the steel/aluminium metal parts along with the steel rod used in the shaft mechanism. 
  • Uncapped Length ~ 13.2 cm 
  • Capped Length ~ 14.4 cm 
  • Nib Leverage ~ 2.4 cm #6 
  • Overall Weight ~ 32 g (Cap Weight ~ 13 g) 
  • Max Ink Capacity ~ 2.3 mL 

Capped and uncapped comparisons with a Pelikan m805 and a Pilot Custom 823, run below for your reference.

An uncapped vac 700 along with other.


ECONOMIC VALUE (5/6)


The VAC700 retails at around Rs 9,500 ($ 141 @ 67 INR/USD) here and I got it from Manoj (of Manoj Pen Mart) at around Rs 4500, in exchange for another sparsely used TWSBI. The pen retails at USD 65, in the US and cheaper in other countries. A major problem with ordering it from TWSBI’s website is the heavy FedEx shipping charges, and also un-calculated duties to be paid for. 


OVERALL (5.2/6)


This nib is wet and smooth with most of the inks. Since, I am used to a few large pens, I did not find a problem with either the heft or the balance of Vac 700. Many people don't find the heft/weight comfortable. There is no noticeable line variation but the #6 nib does render some spring, which can cushion your writing. The medium nib lays a line which runs a tad thicker than Japanese Medium/European Fine nibs. The pen feels balanced for my hands both with or without pressure and given the tapered profile of the section, it has a good grip. I have used single fills of Waterman Florida Blue & Sailor Yama Dori inks in rotation, and the pen nicely in the case of Sailor ink. 

Being a wet writer out of the box, the Medium nib puts up a nice juicy line, which takes around 22-25 seconds to dry a Sailor Yama Dori ink on MD Paper.

The spring and length of this steel nib reminds me of the fact that a good steel nib can always be of joy. However, if you ask me to compare the Custom 823#15 nib with this steel nib, I would say it's great but the 823-14k nib fairly wins in terms of cushion, softness and additional spring.

REFERENCES


Disassembly - Removing ink shut off valve (Warranty may be voided)
TWSBI Nib Adjustment

Thank you for going through the review.
You can find some more pen and paraphernalia reviews here.

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