TWSBI jumped on the special and limited editions band wagon quite a while back, particularly with the ECO and the 580 AL models, with the latter being hit by a slight price increase. 2020 had seen successful versions of those, with the Prussian Blue 580 AL being particularly well received, but in all cases it was still safe playing of a known formula so more than a few people may have been surprised when rumours of a limited edition 700R crept out. After all, while being the most expensive pen in their range (though still sub £80), it never quite generated the excitement of the others being more for those who wanted a vacuum filler but without the costs of a Pilot Heritage 823 (if available in your country) or the even higher cost of a Visconti. Certainly the initial artistic Instagram leaks garnered interest, however I doubt anyone realised just how quickly this pen would sell out when launched. A second batch was made and release within just a few weeks and I’ve still not seen or heard any confirmation this had been planned in advance. It appears that comparatively minor cosmetic alterations potentially changed the ugly duckling of the TWSBI range to a glorious white swan.
Is the Vac 700R really a boring pen, the odd one out, or has it really just been over looked by many of us and has it taken the Iris limited edition to make us see the truth? Certainly I had never considered buying one before, having previously tried both a 700 and a Vac Mini, but both tests were only for short sessions at pen club meets. As a result I will try to review this pen both as a writing implement and as a limited edition.
Before I start let us get two elephants out of the room, whether the Vac 700/700R is a copy and the perceived build quality of TWSBI acrylic pens (i.e. do they still suffer from cracking). I believe the rumours of this model being a copy stem from the fact that before starting the TWSBI brand Ta Shin Precision made OEM parts for other companies including Pilot. This resulted in accusations that the Vac 700 was a clone of the Pilot 823 Heritage. Thing is, aside from filling mechanism and length when capped they are very different pens, and arguably Onoto invented the vacuum/plunger system before the Japanese company was even formed. On the reputation for cracking, this was certainly an issue for the 530 and 540, and while still reported on the 580 and ECO models those are a lot rarer and suspiciously seem to be from people with a track record for breaking pens (looking for my flame proof pants right now). Certainly my 580 has received a lot of abuse and while it did break, it was entirely my fault, poor pen hygiene resulting in me snapping the back peg on the feed when I finally went to clean it after 3-4 years of being inked.
It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and when I look at the pen as a whole, ignoring the Iris components, I realise that said eye is not mine. The shape is very much functional in nature and visually hampered by being a clear demonstrator. The need for thicker walls where the vacuum is created and a large enough area for ink to be brought in has led to a visible industrial shape that dominates the pen’s appearance. Thing is, if you concentrate on the outer line, it follows a more classical cigar shape with the barrel merging with the cap through the band. If the pen were to be made in a dark colour (I seem to remember there may have been an amber edition of the 700) then this could improve the visual experience, however as things stand the inner cavity dominates.
The barrel is not the only thing that hurts the eyes. The grip section in front of the capping threads is long and straight angling out every so slightly in the direction of the barrel. It does line up with the vacuum part of the inner cavity, but rather than allowing the shape to flow you more feel like it was just casually tacked on to the end. There is a metal ring before the nib which angles out to act as a finger rest/protector. Having said that, the section is certainly function over form.
The capping threads and the barrel edge are hard, yet you are unlikely to notice as the long grip means there is plenty of space to rest your fingers with the thumb hanging further back on the barrel. As a result it can be a comfortable pen to hold – note I only said ‘can’ as any pressure on the barrel edge does become rather noticeable and will dig in to your flesh and I did have to adjust my grip to allow me to use this pen. I can see this being an issue for quite a few people, especially those with fatter fingers.
The cap is removed with one and a half turns and appears to have two threads, meaning you can have the nib either facing or opposing the clip. I like this, especially with the Iris finish. It is faceted, like the piston knob, which makes it tactile, however it also goes against the design of the section and barrel and feels like an after thought to add character, one which does not work for me. Oddly enough the 580 has a faceted body and smooth cap and knob, but there it works. These are my views however. and this is all subjective. The clip is also faceted and matches the cap well. It is also effective. The cap will post but adds considerable back weight.
The nib is a TSWBI branded size #6 from JoWo though the feed may well be in-house, as it looks neither like the stock JoWo one nor those from the smaller nibs on the 580 and ECO. It is a smooth and relatively wet writer, especially once the reservoir has been freshly filled or the shut off valve having been left open. The latter should be considered if this pen is to be used for a lengthy session as the feed and forwards reservoir do not hold much ink. Having said that, this is something you would consider doing with other vacuum filler pens as well, such as those from Visconti or the Pilot 823. Note the pen does share one common problem with other vacuum fillers, in that the ink may stick at the opening rather than flow in to the empty space.
So having covered the base pen I find myself questioning why some one would buy a Vac 700R. While it does have a larger nib than the 580 the latter actually will take more ink (1.9 ml for the 580 compared to 1.7 ml for the Vac 700R), is easier to use, more comfortable to hold, looks better and is also cheaper.
We now come to the reason why I bought this pen having seen it post launch. The Iris finish. The non-standard metal work with the rainbow on brass patterning normally associated with heat finishing/burnishing. I make it sound like there are just one or two differences from the standard model yet there are seven separate pieces with this finish. The clip; clip band; cap band; nib collar; nib housing collar; piston knob collar; and the nib itself. Each may be just a small part, but when combined together they stand out, drawing the eye away from all of the visual imperfections and awkwardness of the Vac 700R.
There is a warm, summery, ‘preciousness’ about the look. I find myself turning the pen in my hand, watching the changing colours on the different parts. There is one area where this really stands out and one where, arguably, it doesn’t quite work as well.
The nib has been very cleverly done. I’m not normally one for coloured nibs, unless they are matching the trim work on the pen, but here the decision to paint the effect only at the end, starting from the top of the pattern, I think was a masterful decision. It stands out without being in your face. It also fits in with the rest of the pen, and if anything it helps bring out the colours and contrasts of the nib collar, housing collar and nib itself. I think if the whole nib had been coloured the visual benefits would actually have been lost.
Another area I feel works well is the cap band. As normal ‘TWSBI’ and ‘Vac 700R Taiwan’ have been laser engraved in to the band, however the Iris finish has been applied over the top of this and it does look good.
The one area where things do not quite work is the clip. This has a rough/matt textured finish which is standard on the 700R and does not fit in with the rest of the metal work of the pen, making me wonder what the designer was thinking at the time. Here the Iris effect is muted as a result, though the ‘oil on water’ effect is still pleasing on the eye.
So am I glad I bought this pen. As a whole yes, but more for the visuals rather than the writing experience. Both were required though for me to come to this decision for if I had not found a comfortable way to hold the pen then the answer would have been no. I just do not get the design. The Vac 700R is no ugly duckling, to me it is a dog’s dinner. Pilot have shown the vacuum filler can work well with its 823, most Visconti also use this system and are solid implementations (Pilot make the best version IMHO), but with TWSBI I’m just left with the question of why.
Would I recommend this pen to others? Unless you really want the Iris effect then no. I would go as far as to say the Vac 700R really is one of those pens you need to try writing with for a short while before considering buying as I suspect many people will find it uncomfortable to wield.
- The Iris finish provides beautiful and enticing looks.
- TWSBI provide the tools and instructions to safely disassemble and clean the pen.
- Nice writer IF you can find a comfortable way to hold the pen.
- Large ink capacity (though less than a TWSBI 580).
- Size #6 nib on a TWSBI pen.
- Cheap for a vacuum/plunger filler pen from a reputable manufacturer.
- Can be carried in planes without the fear of burping due to pressure changes (aside from the ink in the feed and reservoir) (does anyone suffer from this problem these days ? – not me).
- Long section can make finding a comfortable way to hold the pen possible.
- Awkward looks with the Vac 700R model as a whole (for me).
- Small ink capacity compared to other vacuum fillers when the shut off valve is closed (reservoir and feed).
- Hard threads and barrel step.
- Can be hard to find a comfortable way to hold the pen.
Here I’m comparing the pen with the ubiquitous Lamy Al-Star, the Pilot Heritage 823 upon which it is supposedly based (I personally do not think so), and its in-house rival, the Diamond 580 (not the AL version, which I do not possess).