I’ve done a complete 180 on Chinese pens* over the past year. My attitude towards these pens has been a bit stuck in the past, back when “Chinese pen” evoked the so-called “$1.99 eBay pens” from brands like Jinhao and Baoer that everyone in the fountain pen hobby tried at least once. Personally, I had several bad experiences, and ultimately concluded that these pens weren’t worth the trouble even at the low price point, given persistently finicky nibs, chipping finishes, and overall inconsistent quality. Therefore, I’ve been later to the party than some in terms of trying out brands such as PenBBS, Moonman, KACO, and LiveInYou.
*Just to clarify, when I use the term “Chinese pen,” I’m not referring to pens manufactured in China, which would include pens sold by many American and European brands. I’m referring to pens branded and sold under the name of a Chinese company, both in China and abroad.
Over the past two years, the topic of Chinese pens has become the subject of renewed attention, mainly because many new brands have emerged, nearly all of which have abandoned the “$1 pen” price point and introduced products that directly compete with entry and mid-level offerings from long-established brands such as TWSBI, Pilot, Lamy, and Monteverde. One such brand is PenBBS, which is based in Shanghai and grew out of an internet fountain pen forum akin to Fountain Pen Network or FPGeeks. As the brand has grown, PenBBS has released dozens of inks and pens, with increasingly complex filling systems and some stunning materials.
As I mentioned, since I’ve been burned in the past ordering pens via eBay from unfamiliar sellers and brands, I’ve hesitated on trying out these more expensive pens. Investing $20 in a Moonman M2 or a KACO Edge is one thing; investing $55 in a PenBBS 456 Vacuum Filler or 355 Bulkfiller, much less a $80 pen from LiveInYou, is another thing entirely. But after doing my homework, and specifically after reading some online reviews from Frank (whose blog FrankUnderwater is your best source for all things Chinese-pen-related, particularly new releases) and watching Chris’s Pen Talk videos on YouTube, I decided the risk was relatively low and picked up a handful of higher-end pens from PenBBS and LiveInYou. The first ones I received were the PenBBS 456 Vacuum Fillers, and I must say, these are exceptional pens for the money. Any concern or hesitation I had was completely unwarranted.
What do I like about the PenBBS 456? Pretty much everything:
Aesthetics and Build Quality. Let me start with the clear demonstrator, because it’s by far my favorite. The fit and finish on this pen is nearly perfect - it’s well-polished to the point where the transparent barrel is as clear as glass. There are no visible tool marks and scratches, the clip is solid as opposed to cheap folded metal, and the overall assembly is very tight with no loose or rattling parts. While the transparent demonstrator is my favorite, the translucent green/red acrylic is also stunning, though I struggled a bit with what ink to fill it with, finally settling on 3 Oysters Black Moss, which isn’t the best match for this pen color-wise but I still love the ink.
Filling System. The PenBBS 456 is a vacuum-filler, like the more expensive TWSBI Vac 700 and the much more expensive Pilot Custom 823. To fill the pen, you unscrew the blind cap at the end, extend the plunger, place the nib into an inkwell or ink bottle, and press down. The negative pressure will suck ink into the barrel, and you can repeat once or twice more to increase capacity. Even with one fill, however, this pen will write for quite a while.
Writing Comfort. The PenBBS 456 feels exceptionally well-balanced, posted or unposted. Unlike the TWSBI Vac 700, the end of the 456 is tapered, allowing the cap to post deeply. I love vacuum-fill mechanisms, but the lack of postability doomed the Vac 700 for me, before I even had to deal with the finicky nib issues. Though the 456 has metal threads, the longer section provides plenty of room for a comfortable grip, and you would have to grip your pen pretty high on the barrel before the threads gave you any trouble.
Smooth, Slightly Upturned Nib. I’ve heard the standard PenBBS nib described as a “mini-fude”, but what jumped to mind for me was Sheaffer’s nibs on certain pens from the 1960s. The slight upturn at the end of the nib makes for a very smooth writer. Most PenBBS pens are sold with only one nib option, which lays down a relatively wet fine-medium line, and while I’ve heard reports of PenBBS nibs being on the drier side, both of my 456 pens have no such issues.
The only downside to these pens, so far, is availability. Though some retailers, such as Vanness Pens, carry a limited stock of PenBBS products, the complete lineup is only available overseas. Shipping can take as long as six weeks from the time you place your order.
Takeaways and Where to Buy
It’s extremely likely that the PenBBS 456 is going to work its way onto my “Best Pens” list in the future, probably in the $50-$100 price bracket. I would easily recommend this pen over the TWSBI Vac 700, and while I love the TWSBI Diamond 580 at around the same price point, I think I prefer the nib on the PenBBS 456. I’ve enjoyed the transparent pen so much that it’s now on its second fill of Iroshizuku Kon Peki - a stunning ink in any clear demonstrator, and especially in one that’s as well-polished as this pen.
I purchased the two pens featured in this review from different sellers, and both took about three weeks to arrive, with most of that shipment time eaten up by customs. The Clear Acrylic is my favorite, but the Translucent Green/Red pen is also quite nice looking. As another purchasing option, PenBBS runs an Etsy storefront, which is relatively well-stocked but doesn’t always have the same variety as other sellers. I think PenBBS focuses on pushing product to their retailers before stocking their own shop.
I paid around $55 per pen, plus a few dollars for shipping. One thing to note is that the price of PenBBS pens can vary by retailer and by material, depending on the popularity of the specific pen or material. Ordering direct from China, as opposed to ordering from sellers based in the U.S. or the U.K, will also get you a better price in most instance. Note that the PenBBS Etsy store is currently selling some variations of the 456 for as little as $32, though not either of the two pens featured in this review.
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