Narwhal appeared on the fountain pen scene around a year and a half back producing cheap and cheerful piston filler pens with in-house made nibs. Based in California, this small start up has quickly developed a fan base and after a year released a new model, the Schuylkill, with a prominent ink window which is still visible when the pen is capped. Two limited editions were included with this launch, with 365 ebonite pens appropriately called the 365, and 800 of this the Porpita Navy finish in a unique acrylic.
Starting at US pen shows the early Narwhal’s were received favourably by the local penablers and reviewers with the result that I listed the brand on my ‘to check out’ list for the 2020 Spring London Fountain Pen Show. While just a couple of months after launch, several stores in the UK were selling the original range of the pen and were present at the show. My initial views though were mixed. I liked the idea, I liked the price, but the water type acrylics used reminded me of cheap Chinese made clone pens and so I decided to skip.
Roll on a year and friend and fellow blogger Rupert Arzeian reviewed his recent purchase, the limited edition Schuylkill 365 in red ebonite. His post certainly peaked my interest and with COVID related restriction meaning the chances of meeting up and trying it were limited so I started to window shop. The real difference between the Schuylkill and Original models, aside from the acrylics used, is the barrel ring has been removed and now a decent sized ink window is in place and still visible when capped (note not all of the ‘Original’ pens were demonstrators). Four colour options were available but none quite worked for me, however there was another limited edition from the 365, this time with larger numbers, gold plated trim, and a different coloured acrylic. The Porpita Navy worked for me and so I quickly grabbed one, though in the UK this proved to be harder than expected and I possibly got one of the last available, from The Hamilton Pen Company in Warwick.
For anyone who’s seen or read a review of the 365, the box and pen sleeve are unique to that pen. Still considering the low cost of the Schuylkill it comes in a nice white cardboard box with a metallic coloured emblem on the lid and a fitted foam insert. Included are filling instructions and a disassembly/assembly wrench tool (though no information on how to take the pen apart or clean it).
The pen arrived quickly and I eagerly unpacked and rinse it out so I could see what the in-house nib wrote like, however the initial experience was not so good. First the acrylic looks little like the promotional photos. In those the blue is a deep and saturated in colour, in the flesh the primary colour could best be described as murky, it’s not even the same shade. The advertised patterning looks likes clouds and whirl pools, with a deep bronze, again in the flesh I’d assume this was from a different material. Patterning is similar but the colours are not. To put it another way, the presumably over photo processed picture showed a pen I wanted, the reality is a pen I would have ignored if I’d seen it on a table.
My issues do not end with the differences in colour. The clip is not straight. It’s only out by about by about 10 degrees, but it is noticeable and just hits my personal OCD limits. I then went to rinse the pen before inking it, except the piston would not draw in water. If I’d not had TWSBIs before and taken them apart then this pen would have been straight back to Hampton Pens for a refund. Fortunately a wrench is included and while there are no instructions, it does come apart like a TWSBI except … at first the piston unit was not interested in being removed and if I did not known better I’d say that thread lock had been applied to prevent disassembly. Still with a little care the unit was removed, except the piston was not – it was never attached to the knob, hence why I could not draw in any water. So not a good start at all and I’ve since found out that while uncommon, other’s have had the same problem with Narwhal pens, in that the piston rod has fallen out of the mechanism on construction.
So piston attached, pen rinsed and filled, what were my next impressions. The in-house nib is an interesting experience. This is not a bad thing, it just has a different feel from the more common JoWo and Bock nibs you get at this price point. It it very rigid and in some respects reminds me of lower end Parkers. Again neither good nor bad, how you like it just depends on your personal preferences. One thing I did quickly discover is there is a sweet spot to the tipping. In the zone and the ink flows well, however rotate the nib just slightly too much and the pen will hard start though once you are able to write all is fine, it’s just a frustrating initial one to two seconds.
Before I start covering the looks, it needs to be remembered this is just a £50 pen, with the Original starting at just over £40. If TWSBI did not exist we’d wonder just how a pen manufacturer managed to get a piston filler down to this price point, added to which Narwhal make their own nibs and feeds. As a result I’m not particularly bothered with the generic shape of the pen. Sure there’s a ring between the barrel and the knob and a small disk in the cap finial, but these are plain and add to the generic feel. The clip does appear to be unique in looks, but I had to compare it with other pens to confirm this. At first it looks like the classical tie shape with art deco side lines, but look at it again and you’ll notice the ‘knot’ is at the end of the clip, not by the securing bar. If anything the one thing that does give the Schuylkill character is the ink window.
The cap removes in just under two turns and will post, however while secure it does allow movement to either side (I did try to knock it off but could not) and it sits on the piston knob not the barrel, with all the risk that brings. Considering the cap is wider than where it screws on to the pen and the barrel does taper down slightly towards the end, it is a shame the difference in size could not be more, allowing the cap to fix on the piston knob ring instead. Having said that the TWSBI 580 has the same issue (but not the arguably better designed Eco).
The clip is simple but works well. On testing it the shape of the nub allows for sliding the pen easily over a pocket seem and also provides resistance back in the other direction, but not too much to make the pen difficult to out.
The section gently tapers down from the capping threads to just before the end where it angles out by about 30 degrees to provide a finger rest. The threads are soft and I actually struggle to notice them when I moved my finger across, which I do find impressive as many an expensive fountain pen maker gets this wrong. There is a very slight step up from the threads to the ink window, not that you would notice. It is an extremely easy pen to hold comfortably unless you really just like fat chonkers. The pen is actually heavier than you might expect, due to the piston system and the part metal mechanism it uses. The downside to this is the balance point is towards the rear of the pen and this is noticeable while you write, so while I may find this pen comfortable to hold, it is not that comfortable to use.
And so the nib. Arguably the USP of this pen as Narwhal make their own plus their own feed. Outside of a few major manufacturers (such as Pelikan and Lamy) and a few high end/artisan makers (ScriBo, Santini, etc) most pen makers go with nibs from Bock, Schmidt or JoWo (even if the design and alloy blend is to their own specification) and for good reasons. Economy of scale and quality control. I’m happy to say that Narwhal have got it right. The nib has a very stiff feeling to it suggesting it could take some abuse (I’m not about to try), the tipping is smooth with the ink flowing well. My medium nib lays down the line width I would expect for a European or US pen. There is a sweet spot and rotate the pen slightly too far then you’ll encounter hard starting, but then the same occurs with the Lamy 2000 and if you believe what you read on the forums, that is one of the greatest pens of all time, so no issues here for me. The ink flow is consistent and while dry (I am using a drier ink as well it should be noted) there is no skipping, even when scrawling at speed.
The filling mechanism, as with all their pens (so far) is the piston. I’m not sure on the capacity but it seems to be comparatively large. Certainly the piston rod looks to be a similar size to the one used by TWSBI but here when fully wound in it does not reach the feed. Instead it stops just short of the ink window. I’m in two minds about this as I like to see when the piston has been wound fully in plus it makes cleaning slightly easier, but conversely it does allow for more ink in the reservoir.
So what do I think. I’ve mixed views on this one. I may have been unlucky with the piston not being attached and would have possibly over looked that if I’d not heard of others having similar problems. It’s an easy fix and Narwhal supply the tool to do this, but not the instructions. All I can think is the piston unit is fitted fully extended and on rare occasions this means the rod is just sat on the edge of the winding mechanism, not within it, with the result that slight movement on the knob in the wrong direction results in the rod falling out of it’s slot. Additionally the promotional material was over photo processed resulting in the pen to appear to have richer, stronger colours than the murky ones it really has. This practice does annoy me and there are some big players out there who are repeatedly guilty of doing the same (Pelikan I’m looking at you). Now this may be down to the naivety of the company, after all Narwhal did primarily sell through pen shows where you could see what you were buying and used Instagram for marketing (where the application itself offers to adjust your photos), but I’m really just making excuses for them and it is a practice they need to stop.
The writing experience is a mixed bag. The nib is really good, even with its sweet spot, however the pen design means it is back weighted enough to lift the nib up if you do not apply pressure. Perhaps a metal ‘inner collar’ could be used to house the nib unit, looking at my 580 I note this is the way TWSBI appear to help balance their pen out. In addition, the pen is nice to write with, but not for too long due to the poor balance. It is more of a note taker than a letter writer, which is a shame considering the ink capacity. One key thing to remember though is that this is a sub £100 pen, in fact it comes in at £50 making it a decent rival to the TWSBI 580 range.
Would I recommend this pen to others? As a note taker it is a decent pen and the nib is good, however I’d possibly suggest saving £8 and going for an Original model instead, which also makes it cheaper than it’s obvious rival the TWSBI 580. Certainly for the cost I think few of us would regret the purchase though if £40/50 is towards the top end of what you can afford then I’d suggest considering a TWSBI ECO instead.
- In house nib and feed.
- Smooth writing experience.
- Cheap piston filler.
- Decent ink window.
- Capping threads on the barrel can hardly be felt.
- Generic looks.
- Piston does not fully wind closed
- Comes with wrench for taking apart and cleaning the pen, but no instructions on how to do this.
- Balance point is far too far back.
- Over heavy photo processing meaning what arrived did not match what was in the marketing pictures.
- Possible QC issues over the piston.
TWSBI Diamond 580 on the left and the ubiquitous Lamy on the right.