review: twsbi diamond 540, and the pendleton brown custom flex nib - ink between the teeth

Jan 8, 2018

review: twsbi diamond 540, and the pendleton brown custom flex nib

Stephen Brown—author of the SBREBrown blog—was selling off some pens in September. I've checked his for sale page a couple of times as he's culled the herd, but most were either out of my budget or not particularly interesting. This time around, however, something particular caught my eye: the TWSBI Diamond 540 in amber.

Perhaps it was my bitter mind thinking back on how I missed out on the Kaweco Sport in cognac, or that I'd been foiled by the price of the 2017 Pelikan special edition, smoky quartz (you would think I'd have learned my lesson by now after I checked the price for the aquamarine and visibly flinched). This sort of brown-amber-orange pen coloration is fairly rare, especially in a demonstrator (although I think you can find something similar in a number of Chinese-made clones). I sent an e-mail almost immediately, logical thought be damned. Luckily, I seemed to be the only one daft enough to pick up a pen discontinued in, like, 2012; I paid for it within the hour.

Stephen was throwing in a Pendleton Brown flex nib as well, which was what sealed the deal for me, really. A brand new TWSBI Diamond sells for $50; getting a nib custom-ground by Pendleton Brown is, itself, $50. In my mind, I was getting a free extra nib with custom work, and free shipping! A great deal, in my book: worth the splurge on my birthday.

Once upon a time (2013), I had a review of the Diamond 540. I have absolutely no desire to read anything I wrote a solid four years ago, or forcing you to do such a thing. I figure it's still worthwhile to have a review of the thing available, even if it's more for the archive than anything else.

So, here we go!
The Diamond 540 arrived to me outfitted with the stock medium nib; the flex nib came in the standard TWSBI outfit for extra nibs. TWSBI has these little vial-like storage tubes, as purchasing one by itself comes with its own feed. It's a really cool thing, great for if you switch out nibs regularly. You can basically store a still-saturated feed and nib together in an airtight space and not worry about dry ink or hard starts when you stick the unit back into a pen.

As a used pen, it didn't come with its original packaging, nor did I expect it to (Stephen makes it clear on his for sale page that this is the case for most pens, unless noted otherwise). If you don't know already, new TWSBIs arrive in an acrylic case (except for the Eco, which has a frosted, clamshell case), with a wrench, silicone grease, and instructions for disassembly. I still have extra silicon grease and wrenches from my TWSBI Diamond 540 and Eco, so I didn't feel the loss there.

As for the color, it's more orange than brown: not quite as orange as the Pilot Custom Heritage 92, not as amber as the cognac Kaweco Sport, not as brown as the Cognac Pelikan, definitely not the deeper brown of the Smoky Quartz Pelikan. It's certainly an interesting color! It catches the light in a really pretty way; the faceted barrels of TWSBI Diamonds is already one of my favorites; this amber coloration makes it even better.

Funnily enough, I've never tried the medium nib; my very first TWSBI nib was an extra fine, and when it had to be retired (thanks to a run-in with moldy ink) I took a dive into the broad end of the pool. TWSBI doesn't produce its nibs in-house; rather, they've been made by well-established manufacturers ever since its inception. My assumption is that the nib for this particular pen was made by Bock; current TWSBI pens use JoWo nibs.

In my previous experiences with these nibs, I've found them nothing to write home about. They're not exceptionally smooth or wet. They're reliable workhorses that write as soon as you put pen to paper. The nice thing about these stock nibs is that you can purchase one of every size for a relatively inexpensive price. Or, if you'd like, you can splurge and buy a gold nib. The size of the nib is as much an industry standard as the wacky world of nibs can possibly get.

This nib definitely wasn't any different. It was a tad sharp in different directions, but I felt this made sense: if this pen was used regularly since its release, it could've been slightly altered to fit the hand of whoever used it. Me, with my frankly disgusting writing angle and left-handed confusion, feeling a little bit of sharpness or scratchiness seemed pretty normal.

Okay, you probably don't care about the stock nib. You want to get all up in the flex nib, right? Understandable. I've never had custom work done on a pen, so this was a really exciting first experience for me. I really wasn't expecting much: modern flex nibs tend to be a bit... underwhelming.

As an aside, I think everyone expects vintage gold nib performance, with huge swooshing lines and feeds practically dribbling ink to keep up. You have to remember that these are steel nibs and plastic feeds; one is not capable of the same kinds of softness that gold is inherently partial to, and the other is built to keep up with just normal writing to appeal to a wide range of consumers. Regardless, it's my belief that vintage gold pens were not made for the extreme flex that we see on Instagram today; while it's certainly beautiful, that amount of flex does carry a measure of danger. You don't want to spring a vintage gold nib, as the cost in emotional and financial heartbreak could be quite high. If you want inexpensive flex, consider reading guides on manga and calligraphy nibs, like the Tachikawa G, or the Brause Rose, Blue Pumpkin, and 66EF.
That massive digression aside, the flex nib I have in my hands today has arcs cut out of the sides; furthermore, the nib has been shaved slightly thinner. Both of these changes help the steel nib flex when pressure is applied. I tried the nib dry, first: pressing down lightly, then a little harder, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of flex I could get out of the nib.

I was also surprised to see that it had Pendleton's signature grind on it: the Butter Line Stub Italic (BLS). I like italic nibs, though my only experience with one has been with the broad nib on the Pilot 78G (which is, in fact, an italic) and I found it smooth and very forgiving. However, I've heard that italics need a little more experience, since their sharp cut can be a little difficult for beginners.
I filled the pen with an ink that I thought would match perfectly: Diamine Sepia. With the italic nib, it's pretty difficult to see a difference in line variation; you do get a few millimeters more width. However, I'm much happier with the softness of the nib, as it feels really nice in my hand. Together, the writing experience is smooth (crisp—not sharp!) and wet.

The feed does keep up with the ink flow fairly well; with sustained writing, it lays down a nice wet line. However, it does hard start once in a while. It isn't a dealbreaker for me, but it is something that I want to take note of. Writing slowly at first definitely helps, especially as the feed seems to catch on as you write more.

The Diamond 540 holds less ink than the 580, but it's definitely still a lot: you can drain most of a 2ml ink sample in a single fill. The piston works smoothly without any catching. It usually takes me two "dips" to get the barrel mostly full, as the first fill saturates the feed and draws a bit of air into the barrel. By pushing out the extra air and refilling, you can fill the entire barrel.

I almost wrote the pen dry in about three weeks, using it fairly regularly for writing letters and journal entries. An italic and flex combination is a great way to use up tons of ink, and to be fair I do have a lot of ink to get through.

I have had issues with the piston disengaging in the barrel of the pen due to a lack of silicone grease, not in this pen, but my other; a little bit of gentle stabbing on the edges with a blunt needle tip to push it out of the barrel and a quick re-grease later, it's back to operating well.

I do have some slight words of warning that I've picked up in my wanderings through the fountain pen community, and also from my own experience. The first is that certain inks, like the popular KWZ Honey, may permanently "cloud" the inside of your pen. People are fairly certain that this is an issue of the ink chemically interacting with the plastic used. As far as I know, the yellow-brown colors in the KWZ line are the only ones that have issues with TWSBI plastic.

The second is that, while TWSBI pens are inexpensive and great "try something new" pens, you should still be wary of, um, destructive inks. Noodler's Kiowa Pecan, while a gorgeous color that I desperately love, actually managed to melt the feed of my clear Diamond 540. I thought the pen was just having some flow issues (inks in the red or reddish category tend to have slightly more issues than other inks), which is technically true, in that the feed kind of disintegrated.

Luckily, Philip over at TWSBI is very understanding. If you run into any issues with your pen, just send an e-mail to him through their contact page. All TWSBI pens actually have a basically-unlimited warranty, and he'll send you feeds, nib collars, or entire piston mechanisms for the price of shipping if you run into any issues (yes, I've had to ask for all of these).

Thanks to Stephen Brown. You can't buy the Diamond 540 anymore, but you can purchase the 580 at most fountain pen retailers and at the TWSBI website. Pendleton Brown still does custom nib grinding. Please contact him if you think this is an interesting nib grind to use!

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