Piston Filler Demonstrators
At it's core this is really just an excuse to show off my, rather modest, collection of demonstrator piston fillers... and my amateur photography skills. In the interest of alternative fact stating, however, I shall call this a mega-review.
So without much further ado:
from top to bottom:
1- Wing Sung 698, fine steel nib, ~$20
2- TWSBI ECO, extra-fine steel nib, ~$32
3- Wing Sung 698, fine 14Kt gold nib, ~$45
4- TWSBI 580AL, extra-fine steel nib, ~$65
5- Pilot Custom Heritage 92, fine-medium 14Kt gold nib, ~$110
The Acrylic & Trim
Trying to establish any sort of hierarchy in quality of acrylic between these five is a crapshoot, honestly. Try as I might, I could not, without deceiving myself, say that the 92 or the 580 are of any finer quality than the others. Maybe they are a hint clearer. Maybe. More likely, it's my brand-name googles. As far as I can tell they all might have been cut from the same block. And don't let the ripple effect of the 580 trick you. I can't even presume that the cheaper ones will not hold up as well as the pricier ones; the steel 698 has been my go-to pen for the last 2 months and it still looks like new.
The 92 and 580 do get extra points for trim. You have to look really close (the clip's underbelly for instance) to notice the difference though.
Here Japanese precision shows. The Pilot has the smoothest piston action of the lot. That is not to say the others are bad. They all have solid, dependable mechanisms, they just aren't as good as the Pilot. Even the TWSBI with its aluminum components; where the TWSBI attains a more solid feel through the use of stronger materials, the Pilot does it with precision and tighter tolerances.
When you fill or empty the pen, and while you write with it there is nothing between the five. No leaks whatsoever, piston action is smooth, no ink streaks, they all work like you'd expect a piston filler to work. It's when you clean the pen using some surfactant that you get the sense the cheaper three are about to buckle under the load. The 580AL gives you the confidence that it can handle the load. With the Pilot, there is no load. That's not only a good thing, for the Pilot, it's a necessity. Unlike the other four, which come with some basic tool-kit or the other, the Pilot is not meant to be disassembled at all. In fact the only thing you'll find in it's case, other than the pen itself, is a piece of paper telling you NOT to disassemble it.
If an illiterate fountain pen enthusiast (chew on that one) were to examine the nib photo, they would have no difficulty guessing which of the five are the two Wing Sung nibs. They look rather crude compared to the Jowos and the Pilot. That, however, is entirely cosmetic. Only the Pilot is smoother than the two 698s, and just barely. And it's not like the Jowo's on the TWSBIs suck. To the contrary, they are rather smooth, but they came off as scratchy when I tried them right after a Wing Sung. I am not exaggerating, the Wing Sung nibs are really that good. I had to use a Pelikan Level as palette cleanser between write tests.
In fairness to the TWSBIs, they do have extra-fine nibs, whereas the Wings have fines and the Pilot is a fine-medium. Though, you'd be hard-pressed to tell by just looking at them. The writing sample does show the ECO to be a bit finer, however, there is hardly any difference between the 580AL and the 698s. In fact, between the five, any variation in line width is more due to applied pressure than nib point. The smoother nibs just let you get away with a bit more pressure. That said, all 5 nibs never hesitated on me, the ink flow through all of them being just right.
I have to note here that I noticed absolutely no advantage from the gold nib on the 698 compared to the steel nib. It just goes to show that any perceived performance advantage a gold nib has goes back to them being more carefully wrought rather than the choice of metal.
Balance & Handling
All of the 5 pens are well balanced and handle quite well. However, there are caveats. Thanks to it's metal components, the 580AL feels top heavy compared to the others, the slippery grip does not help it either. With the exception of the Pilot none of them post well. Posting the 580AL is about as much fun as sanding acrylic with 600-grit; it's cringe-inducing and the cap sits very high. The 698 and ECO post securely, and the 698 is even designed so that the cap contacts the metal ring right behind the piston knob. Still, you cannot help but feel you are damaging the acrylic every time you post any of the four. Also, because they all post high, balance is thrown off, especially with the 580AL which is already a bit top heavy. The Pilot, even though it is slightly smaller than the others, is the best-handling of the five, even posted, as the cap sits quite low.
The Feed & Grip
I have always (ever since I first saw the 698 a few months ago) held the belief that if you are going to make a see-through fountain pen, it better be see-through. While the idea is nothing new, you have to commend Wing Sung on their decision to use a transparent feed in the 698. I can't stop staring at it. Why clear feeds are not more common, especially in demonstrators, beats me. An opaque feed soaked in ink just does not look good. Really, if the feed is not going to be transparent then I'd rather it be hidden from view entirely, as in the 580AL. Unfortunately the polished Aluminum makes for a very slippery grip.
All pens with the exception of the Pilot are meant to be disassembled. However, in the 698 you can simply unscrew the grip section, which makes maintenance a breeze. In the 580AL the grip section can also be removed, but you need to use the included tool and the feed has to be removed first. In the Eco the grip section is part of the body and cannot be removed.
The Useless Table
Print a few copies of the table above, crumple them up, and shoot some recycle bin hoops with them. Over-arm!
Metaphorically. Do it metaphorically. Don't actually print the table. Those numbers mean nothing to me, and they shouldn't mean anything to you. Anyone of the pens above is a good buy. Get the one you desire the most, or better yet, get them all.
The Custom Heritage 92, a Japanese piston filler demonstrator with a gold nib for about $100, sounds too good to be true. But it's not. It's a great pen. The problem with the 92 is that it's bargain siblings, like the Prera and the Metropolitan, are already so good you don't feel like you've upgraded to a much higher level of writing experience.
TWSBIs are very popular for good reason. However, they do not strike me as a better bargain than the 92, even though they are more affordable and are a really good deal. You just get more pen (gold nib, tighter tolerances) for the extra money you pay for the 92.
I've never felt anything but disdain for Chinese fountain pens. Being dirt-cheap should not be enough reason for a product to succeed. Then there is also the infuriating tendency of Chinese brands to knock off other people's work. But then Wing Sung comes along and produces the 698. I just love this pen. You could argue that its cheap, but only the same way the TWSBIs are cheap. You could argue that it is still a knock-off, but then you'd have to concede that the TWSBIs are knock-offs too. And the 92 for that matter. Have you seen the Aurora Optima Demonstrator or the Pelikan M205? I mean, there are only so many ways you can design a piston filler demonstrator. The 968 distinguishes itself enough from others to be its own pen. It looks good, works well, and writes great. It has earned some respect.
Now I know what you are all thinking at this point: But Theroc! Your "review", while ambitious and delightful to read, is still fatally flawed, as it does not include the Pelikan M1005 Demonstrator, nor even the M805.
And I could not agree more.
Therefore, in the interest of scientific research, I happily accept your donation of either one and would gladly rewrite the entire piece.