TWSBI MINI AL: the Mini Copper S of Pens

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Minimizing in physical dimension does not always means a low-end price tag. Modern-day MINI epitomizes this idea after getting itself revamped and launched by the BMW in the year 2002, by beefing up all the possibilities related to the driving pleasure, as well as its price, while maintaining everything within a relatively small body.

This is also the same with the TWSBI MINI fountain pen: it is compact in scale, unsettled for performance, while steadfast in pricing. Most importantly, in the case of this article, the newly released AL Blue version of the TWSBI MINI is the counterpart of a John Cooper S version of a MINI.

If you are new to this hobby and want to move up your budget a little bit to try something new, then this AL Blue is just a no-brainer. The full metal piston-filling system, coupled with beautiful sky blue, looks and works great, and the outcome of the engineering behind it is a pen that is ultra-portable while super-practical.

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You may still feel the steel nib from every TWSBI is a deal breaker, but believe me, it is not. I bought many TWSBIs during the past years once I sorted out how good a modern stainless-steel nib could be. I have purchased many ECOs as gifts to people whom I want to introduce them to the realm of fountain pens, also a VAC-700 as my first plunger-filling pen, and some colorful original 530 and 540 for a gift as well as personal collection. I could still recall the moment when a senior collector with a serious number of vintage American pens suddenly grabbed my VAC-700 and began to play with it in detail during a meet-up back to the days when I was in Shanghai. Thanks to its unique mix of features and design, TWSBI apparently holds a particular position in the contemporary pen market despite its mid-lower range of price when compared to the skyrocketing price tags from prestige brands such as Pelikan.

Therefore, when I was stabbing through my paper during the practice of English calligraphy using the Italic-nib Sheaffer’s Balance I got at this year’s Philly Show, I decided I need a stub nib TWSBI to smooth my journey toward the mastering of calligraphy. (A stub nib would be ground in a more rounded way, especially for the two corners at the end of it.)

So why a MINI AL Blue?

AN - 6On the one hand, the particular kind of blue used in this AL (aluminum) pen succeeded in grabbing my eyes the moment I saw a post of it from TWSBI in February. I was aware that there used to be some limited version of 580 AL with exotic color such as electric-orange and crimson which became super popular within the community. However, I still hold the opinion that for the transparent barrel and diamond-shape structure of a TWSBI, the preferable matching colors of the aluminum must be some subtle ones, or the first impression of the pen could be sliding towards being too casual and cheap. This time, the rate of darkness and saturation of the blue TWSBI chose for this pen falls in my sweet point, and it often reminds me quite a lot of the Estoril Blue Metallic paint BMW has been using for its vehicles, which is a low-profile color that is having lasting appeal.

On the other hand, the fact that I have not tried out any TWSBI MINI before made me rather eager to own one instead. Would it be wired to write a shorter version of Diamond 580? I dislike small size pens, i.e., the Lilliput from Kaweco, for they are prone to be used only for memo or signing. Would it be built with mediocre quality control since it is still a MINI, which to me at that time sounds more of like an affordable version, which implies some tradeoff in the quality, of its signature flagship, the 580? However, it still never a bad thing to try something new. So here you go, order placed.

The Upsides

The result of my trial is mind-blowing: besides my sincere salute to the perfect balance it has achieved within the tiny body, I became to realize that the MINI AL is a premium model in TWSBI’s portfolio with the highest price number you can spend on a Diamond variant.

When see it in person, the blue aluminum of this MINI is exactly the way it was presented through TWSBI’s Instagram and Goulet’s product page. Good job. As I have said, with this color, this pen will never want to intrude on any daily writing occasions of mine, either during a business panel or a field trip nor will it get itself entirely unnoticed even during the past Long Island pen show.

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After seeing the satisfying color, the second thing you would probably never forget is the first time you warp your palm around this pen. It nearly disappears! The first time I did this, I burst out smiling. When compared with VAC-700, it looks like a baby. The reserved length of it quickly turns out to be a point of advantage, surprisingly, for now, you can slide it easily into your wallet, pouch, or the tightest pocket on your shirt without making a mess. Despite the primary role I assigned to it, being a desk pen for calligraphy, I have been carrying it for two weeks, and it feels just nature and friendly. I have never thought about increasing the frequency of using a pen by making it not imposing at all but rather humble and cute.

Note that at the same time, TWSBI managed to keep all the key elements from a standard 580 into this little room, and even managed to add some extras at the end of the barrel, which plays a huge role in making this pen works as a normal-size pen. A screw was carved out at the end of the pen, demanding you to use it with the cap seeing in the back. When you do that, this pen no longer would sink into your palm, on the contrary, it fits firmly into your previous position of writing, thanks to the thicker acrylic barrel used on the cap that continually provides a confident fulcrum for your palm.

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In addition to that, since this is also an AL, it got some help from the aluminum. The extra weight given by the full metal piston in the back of the pen happens to counteract the tendency for its center of gravity to move down due to its limited length, making the downforce given by the pen while writing the same as a Meisterstück 146, handy and neat. The second advantage provided by being an AL is the aluminum section instead of an acrylic one. In the beginning, I was a little nervous about the surface texture of this material, fearing it to be a slippery surface or a dinging tube. However, the truth is the section in the MINI AL has got an excellent anodic oxidation treatment from TWSBI; the surface touches as good as the aluminum back of my iPhone 6+. It also doesn’t ding or shake at all, and the cutting work during its transition to the front end of the section was done flawlessly.

In general, this MINI AL looks, carries and handles just right.

The Flipsides

With all that said, it may seem like I am feeling committal to rank the MINI AL Blue the best TWSBI in the world when in reality I am still having one big issue and one smaller one with it.

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The big issue goes to its large and crappy clip which stands out weirdly far away from the cap. I wish TWSBI replicate the spring clip they endowed to the VAC-700 here; however, they just opt for the same swaying design they used in the 580s. More precisely, this kind of clip is consisted by two pieces of metal; one is the main body of the clip that will bite your pocket, the other one is a more flexible one anchored into the cap, providing the deformation needed during the movement of clutching. In the paper this design looks smart, in practice, this does not work well. I am not the first person to complain the clips of 580s and MINIs to wiggle from side to side easily. Also, in my case, I am seriously suspecting the same elastic metal from 580 is directly used here, for the rise-up of the clip is clearly too high for a little pen like this. Therefore, this clip may probably wobble even more vividly than a clip from 580, let alone the ugly impression left by its disproportional size.

Since this pen is destined to be taken around frequently in with people, it is hard for anyone not to notice this wobble and sloppy clip. It does clip, but come on TWSBI, think about it!

The other issue I have with it is the accuracy of assembling. This pen is the first TWSBI I have seen that can get major parts not align with each other. The clip will not sit in the exact back of the nib when the cap is close, nor would it when you recap it in the back of the barrel. Even the feed was drifting away from the central line of the nib dramatically when I got it. I know for a pen-addict, it may never be a huge problem since we love hustling with our pens, but if the same situation happens to a first-time customer who anticipated a lot…

Easter Eggs: analyzing the pricing rationale

When I was placing my order, I was little confused by its hefty price tag, 65 dollars, when compared it with other offers from TWSBI. This pricing means this scale-down version of Diamond 580 costs 15 bucks more than a 580 demonstrator and charges 5 dollars more than an AL 580 with a bigger sub nib. Wired.

Why doesn’t a tiny version lead to the decrease of the price? At that time, I explained this pricing away by telling myself it was due to its scarcity, just like any other colorful AL variants before. However, last night, after studying all the major prices of TWSBI’s offerings, I came to realize I was only partly right, and the AL line of TWSBI MINI might probably be the real flagship product among all its diamond variants.

TWSBI report - Expense report

During my marketing course taken last semester, I heard an argument that although customers may have relatively good knowledge of price ranges, surprisingly few of them can recall exact numbers of prices. Here, after filling out the chart, I found myself committed the same bias: I was aware that buying a TWSBI would not break the bank, while unable to recall the full prices of TWSBI’s other offerings, and ended up buying the most expensive item on its Diamond line. This bias even led me to lower my anticipation of this pen since I was more impressed by the weak word MINI at that time.

As you may have found within the chart, there are two clear patterns in TWSBI’s pricing strategy:

  1. The full acrylic version, whether demonstrator or not, would cost the same and the least amount of money;
    The AL version charges you an extra 10 dollars premium for all the aluminum beauty you will appreciate in your pen.
  2. However, the issue of setting the price for a stub-nib version becomes quite complicated here. The stub versions of all the MINIs, including non-AL ones, all demand a rise of 5 dollars in price, while in the case of 580s, TWSBI opts for not charging for the extra grinding work done for a stub nib. The last rule also applies to the case of ECO, the real affordable TWSBI.

Since customers always draw the price-quality inference that higher is better, especially regarding prestige or niche goods, I guess what TWSBI is doing here is claiming that the MINI AL is the flagship line within their line-up of Diamond series. Cause by charging incrementally for each of the fun parts you want to add, be it a stub nib or the aluminum components,  TWSBI is educating the customers of MINI to be aware that they are consuming a product that has fervor and fun in its blood. While in the case of ECO, the flat rate implies nothing but the affordability, and in the case of 580, they used a hybrid strategy to mark up the prices, applying flat rate for 580 AL and incremental rate for standard 580. The latter issue may probably due to their uncertainty about the existence of stub version of AL in the first place, as you can found through the chart, which in return confirms my theory that they are more confident and ambitious about marketing the MINIs. Good job TWSBI, you know what you are doing.

Here, you may understand why I made the analog that the AL Blue I have is the John Cooper S version of MINI in the pendom: excellent performance within a short body, coupled with a hefty price.

Recapping

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Over the past two weeks, I became addicted to having this pen handy wherever I went, using it to take bullet notes when outdoors, demonstrating to others how small and well-curated a fountain pen could be, randomly writing calligraphy. Despite my complaint about its crappy clip, I am still highly recommending this pen to people new to the pen world.

BTW, if you have something to say about the pricing of this pen or other TWSBIs, feel free to leave your comment.

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