review: penbbs 309 - ink between the teeth

Apr 23, 2018

review: penbbs 309

Another pen review! I wanted to get this one up pretty quickly so that you can pick up a relatively new brand of pen.

To my knowledge, PenBBS started as a Chinese fountain pen forum that spawned a line of inks and, eventually, fountain pens. It's community-based, but I think it's all run by one guy. I've always been interested in buying PenBBS inks, and they're currently carried in the United States by Vanness Pens, but as someone who already has too many bottles I've passed on them so far.

They're currently releasing some very interesting pens: they use new materials regularly, and are in the process of getting a vacuum-filler ready. If you can read Chinese, or have a firm grasp of your browser's translate function, you can browse their current line-up of pens.
The PenBBS 309 is a piston-filling fountain pen. It comes in a bunch of really neat acrylic colors, but I went with this bottle-green/turquoise demonstrator1. I wasn't quite sure which color I wanted—I was definitely hung up on that blue-green with a black swirl—but having room in my budget for just one pen, I decided to go for the color that I did, which I really don't see very often. I found out pretty quickly that this color is out of stock from a lot of sellers, and one told me that they were no longer making this color. It seems that PenBBS will make pens out of the acrylic stock they have, and when they're out, they're out.

However, I've found this pen for sale on the PenBBS Etsy, so it must still be available in small quantities or not from warehouse sellers that are on eBay. Which is to say you'll probably be able to find it eventually.

I won't link to any eBay pages here out of concern that listings may go down, but I've noticed that a lot of Chinese companies are starting to dive into interesting acrylics, including some that I've only really seen from small-batch artisans. The Moonman Wancai, for example, has two pens in the "Coke bottle" acrylic (most associated with Franklin Christoph) and the transparent water acrylic (used by a number of pen turners).
The shape and design does remind me vaguely of TWSBI, but I can't tell if it's just because it's a piston-filler. I can totally see arguments for the cap band and shape being similar—and let's be honest, that's like a third of the pen—but I think it stops right about there. Like other people smarter than me have stated, there's only so much you can do with a pen. For me, personally, I don't see the 309 as a copy of a TWSBI pen.

The acrylic—or plastic, if you wanna be less technical—feels quite nice in the hand. It's on the lighter side; I would assume because it's quite lacking in metal parts. If you like the feel of, say, the TWSBI Diamond 580 AL, you'll probably think this pen feels very insubstantial.

When I first got my 309, the piston would screw completely out; I thought I fixed it by greasing the piston. My assumption was that there was simply too much friction between the piston head and the barrel. However, the piston continues to refuse to extend or even retract sometimes; I'm genuinely not sure why this happens. My early hypothesis is that there are two tiny holes in the threads.

It's kind of like when you drive over a pothole: your tire dips into the hole, and it takes effort to roll out of it. The two threads don't quite catch correctly, so you just spin the blind cap fruitlessly until it finally catches, but by then you're a couple rotations over where it should be. I currently don't have a fix for it, and I haven't heard of anyone else having this problem. It can be pretty annoying, but it does eventually work. If you're not someone who enjoys fiddling with their pens, you're not going to enjoy the 309, in my opinion.

Comparing it to the other piston fillers I own, the turning knob doesn't feel particularly secure. There isn't a catch which prevents you from turning the blind cap off entirely, so if you just keep twisting the cap the entire mechanism will disengage. This is definitely going to be a concern for some people, and I don't know if it's just my pen.
It has an impressive ink capacity, just a bit shy of a TWSBI Diamond 580, I would say. Definitely more than both my Pilot Custom Heritage 92 and Pelikan Aquamarine M205.

The cap is partially frosted, partially clear; this allows you to get a good look at the nib you have in there. Considering that the stock nib is quite pretty—and more on that in a second—I can see why this design choice would be made.
The nib is stamped with the PenBBS logo and some scrollwork; it looks similar to a Sailor nib, and I find it quite pretty! I believe you get a choice of an extra-fine or fine nib; I got a fine nib knowing full well that I would switch it out. It writes very smoothly, and is bent slightly at the tip2. You can get very slight line variation by the angle you hold the pen (less than the jump from fine to medium-fine). The nib is a #6, which means its really easy to switch out. So I did!

 If you've been following this blog for a while you probably know that I detest fine nibs; they make my handwriting look sad and unappealing, and I already have to contend with my bizarre letter forms (very tragic). I've heard from folks like Chris, who does reviews on YouTube, that the nib and feed is friction fit into the section and should pop right out.

Folks, let me tell you: if I knew what it felt like to squeeze out a baby, I'm pretty sure yanking the nib and feed out of this pen required of me the same amount of stress, tears, and exertion. I had one square of grippy material in each hand and just got the nib and feed out without my arms popping out of their sockets. I could've had the grace and kindness of a gentle god and I would've barely managed escaping that nib collar with my life. I'm pretty sure it was easier to split an atom than get this dang thing out.
Anyways, now that I'm done being dramatic. The nib and feed are housed in a frosted plastic collar, within the grip section, which screws out. Let me repeat: it screws out. Do not be me, who forgot that, and tried to poke it out. There are two o-rings which should definitely keep any leaks from happening. If you have a difficult pen, here's my tip: wiggle gently, and don't pull. Take, like, snack breaks if you need to. And definitely try to use grippy material (I just used rubbery shelf liner). It should, eventually, come out. I promise. After, you should have no trouble pulling the nib unit out.

I popped in my Nemosine #6 nib in broad, a lovely wet writer. I was worried that the feed wouldn't keep up, but I had nothing to fear. I get great flow and a nice smoothness that I expect from the Nemosine. I always forget that Nemosine nibs are a bit longer than your average #6 nib, but luckily it just fits without hitting the top of the cap with microscopic room to spare.3
I think you can tell that I'm quite smitten with the pen despite its slight flaws when it arrived to me. Genuinely, with the addition of the 309, my pen collection is... complete. I look at the fourteen pens I keep in my regular collection now and my first thought is, yeah, I'd be happy if I never bought a pen again. Of course, new pens will arrive that get the ol' shopping cart rattling, but up to this point, I'd be perfectly happy if these are the fourteen that I go to the grave with. All the other pens that I could possibly want are way out of my budget (Sailor Pro Gear Ocean, Pelikan M805 Ocean Swirl...), so they're pretty much distant dreams for me.

I paid about $25 for this pen including shipping, which is an extraordinarily good deal. I found it on eBay—if you're interested in this pen, I leave it to you to get it in your hands however way you wish!

1 My housemate said that the clear plastic made the pen look very cheap. I, collecting my many demonstrators to my chest and yelling that I don't agree, obviously don't agree. Your mileage may vary!
2 The term "Waverly" is often used to describe this kind of nib,, but it may not be the most accurate. You can read this post at Vintage Pen News for a history of the Waverly nib. Pondering ideas for  the "slightly flared nib" name, I can think of nothing else. Beak nib? Wingtip nib? Your guess is as good as mine!
3 Two very sad things happened with another Nemosine nib I had: it scraped up against the top of a cap and was completely mangled. I probably could have fixed it, especially now that I have a loupe, but I got rid of it instead. And trust me, I feel the pain of that constantly.

Frank over at Frank Underwater is doing some great write ups of the Chinese fountain pen market. I'm sure there's information in this post that's come, in some way or another, from his blog. I highly recommend giving him a follow if you're interested in what else is coming out of China.

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