As a brand, the TWSBI 580 and its predecessors, the 540 and the 530, personify the modern resurgence of fountain pens. The pens themselves appear relatively simple; however, they are anything but, and to me, it’s nothing short of amazing that TWSBI can develop a product this good and sell it at this reasonable of a price point. For this reason, TWSBI pens are prominently featured on my list of Top 5 Fountain Pens under $75 as the first piston-filling pen that I recommend to new enthusiasts.
TWSBI pens are manufactured by a subsidiary of Ta Shin Precision, a Taiwanese company with operations in both the United States and China. Per the TWSBI website, after years of manufacturing products--including fine writing instruments--on a contract basis, the company decided to create its own line of fountain pens. The design of the TWSBI 530—the first TWSBI pen was heavily influenced by consultation with members of the pen community via the Fountain Pen Network: the first “crowdsourced” fountain pen, you could say.
From my perspective, TWSBI has accomplished its goal of creating an affordable piston-filling fountain pen with a large ink capacity and classic looks. Additionally, I would go so far as to say that the reasonable price, the relatively widespread availability of the pens, and the fact that the nibs are interchangeable make them the spiritual successor to Esterbrook, though, as I’ll discuss further below, an argument can be made that TWSBIs won’t weather the test of time as well as Esties have.
For this review, I’ve used a TWSBI Diamond 580AL in orange, currently the only TWSBI in my collection. At one time or another, I have owned a Vac 700, a Mini, and a couple colored 540s, but the 580 with the orange aluminum trim (now discontinued) is the pen that has stuck with me. Orange aside, the 580 sports a classic look. It’s a fairly large fountain pen that fits comfortably in the hand without posting. Many users have knocked TWSBI for designing pens with caps that don’t post (guilty!), but TWSBI’s recent designs (the Classic and the Eco) have offered an option for posting the cap, and in all honesty, the 580’s size would makes it uncomfortable to use posted.
TWSBI loses a few points in any discussion of build and manufacturing, simply because rumors of poor quality control have dogged the company from the beginning. Like any reports that come via the internet, they started as valid criticism but, at least in my opinion, have “gone viral” to some degree, resulting in exaggerated claims of poor quality. To its credit, TWSBI has responded well, and I haven’t heard of an example where TWSBI has failed to replace broken pen parts (or the entire pen) where a customer has reported a defect.
The plastic used to manufacture the 530, 540, and the Mini is prone to cracking, particularly at the section, though caps have cracked as well. TWSBI apparently has addressed the issue with the 580 to a degree—reports of cracking aren’t nearly as widespread. With the Eco, however, TWSBI adopted a new round barrel (as opposed to the faceted barrel of the Diamond series), which may indicate that the early manufacturing issues had more to do with the faceted design of the "Diamond" pens than the materials used to make them. Personally, I think a round barrel 580-style pen would be interesting, though the faceted “Diamond” motif has become something of a TWSBI hallmark. The 580AL that I'm reviewing here has a section and certain other parts made of aluminum as opposed to plastic, presumably making that model more durable.
For all the talk of cracking, however, and for all the TWSBI pens I have owned (and used heavily), I’ve only had the plastic crack on me once. My TWSBI mini developed one small hairline in the section threads (probably caused by me over tightening the cap), which didn’t cause me any functional issues. So from personal experience (with Minis, 540s, and 580s), TWSBI’s quality has been good. You also can't lose perspective on what TWSBI has been trying to do: manufacture a reasonably priced, accessible piston-filling fountain pen. This is no easy task, and at the $55 price point you have to expect some sacrifices in the quality department. Is this a tank-like Pelikan M800? No, but it also doesn't cost $400.
TWSBI’s current pricing structure ranges from $30 to $75. The ECO is TWSBI’s new entry-level model. Next up is the standard model Diamond 580, the Mini, the TWSBI Classic, the 580AL (featured in this review); and the Vac 700 (a vacuum filling pen). TWSBI’s now-discontinued Micarta pen was priced at $100, making it the most expensive pen TWSBI offered.
Note: the 580AL in orange is no longer offered. The 580AL is, however, available in standard aluminum. I wonder what color they will issue next? The long-rumored "Vac Mini" should also arrive this year.
TWSBI nibs are generally of high quality, especially since they switched to custom JoWo nibs a few years back. Apart from a Vac 700 I owned a few years back, none of my pens have required adjustment to the nibs, though I have had some custom-ground to cursive italic and architect's points. Actually, one of my favorite things about TWSBI pens is the ability to swap nibs. You can save a lot of money by purchasing one TWSBI pen with some spare nib units and having those nib units customized--depending on how many spare nibs you carry, it's like four pens in one!
Note that the 580 nibs are interchangeable among all models in the 580 series, and sold separately as spare screw-in “nib units.” You can purchase additional Mini nib units and Vac nib units for those pens as well, though they aren’t interchangeable with other models. While I’ve never done this, I understand that you can swap the nibs on the Classic and the Eco by pulling the friction-fit nib—there’s no “nib unit” that’s sold separately and easily switches out. (Rumor has it you can also "hack" the entire TWSBI line to make them accept all sorts of nibs. Proceed at your own risk here!)
In addition to spare nibs, TWSBI also makes products such as ink bottles and notebooks, both of which I own, but which are beyond the scope of this review because I haven’t used them that much. I will add, however, that the ink bottle has a proprietary nozzle that lets you fill the 580 completely (though you can remove the lid to fill other pens by dipping as you typically would). The notebooks contain fountain-pen friendly paper (probably sugarcane), which appears similar to the paper used in Franklin-Christoph notebooks.
DISCLAIMER: I purchased the items featured in this review with my own funds (except for the FC ink sample). This post contains affiliate links, through which I may be compensated a small amount if you purchase a pen from any of the sites linked to in this article. While I'd greatly appreciate it if you use these links to purchase a pen you are interested in, you are, of course, under no obligation to do so. Many thanks!