The frustration of innovation with the VENVSTAS Magna

I’ve never used a pen like the Venvstas Magna before, and you probably haven’t either. (That’s a clue that this may be a long review…)

My first minutes with the pen were a rollercoaster of ups and downs, as again and again I discovered interesting innovations in materials and construction, combined with frustrating execution. In my opinion, the Magna is a fascinating prototype, but it’s not ready to be a daily driver for me or most people.

Let’s start at the beginning. The Magna is made by hand by Venvstas Italy, which took over the brand from Venvstas Paris in early 2020. It’s taking forward the Paris company’s range of carbon pens, refining the designs. This is my first experience of the brand, and I was sent the pen to review by the lovely folks at Stonecott Fine Writing.

Thumbs up for carbon fiber

The Magna is constructed of a tube of linear carbon fiber. Many manufacturers add accents or veneers of CF to capitalise on its ‘cool factor’; here, the body is literally a tube of carbon fiber.

The material is very pretty and tactile, with the same satin, resonant rigidity and subtle sheen as a stick of charcoal. It’s amazingly warm and soft in the hand, and an inspired choice of material for a pen.

Laying all the pieces out

When I say ‘body’, the Magna is constructed like this:

In the middle is a central sleeve section of CF into which the steel ink chamber and nib unit are mounted, using two tiny hex bolts.

From the back, a carbon fiber plunger protrudes. You fill the pen by pulling this out just like a syringe, so it sticks out a long way.

To cover this protrusion, Venvstas provides another sleeve of carbon fiber that you simply slide/scrape/friction-fit on the back.

Each of these sleeves is unfinished, raw CF, lightly hand-finished on the inside surfaces near the edges.

The rear of the pen is still open with the rear barrel installed, and if you don’t position the rear sleeve correctly, the end of the plunger protrudes and can be depressed accidentally, squirting ink.

At the front, you find the nib in its steel section, apparently floating in a carbon fiber halo.

The cap is another tube of CF. It uses a split steel collar to friction fit inside the barrel tube, between the carbon and steel layers. I found this stiff and it scraped as I put it on, and I found the cap edge to be a little sharp and pointy.

The other end of the cap sleeve is plugged with a laser-etched bronze disc, which is a nice aesthetic counterpoint to the modern carbon fiber.

Assembling the jigsaw

Each of the sections of CF — cap, body and barrel sleeve — is cut at an angle in profile, and you have to rotate the sections manually to line up perfectly with each other — there’s no alignment guide or other assistance to help you get a neat fit. Even if you get it straight, the sections have some play and it’s not all smooth.

Still, when everything is in place you have a (more or less) seamless tube of carbon fiber with one open end and a bronze disc at the other.

The long and the short of it

In the hand, in writing position, the Magna is long, but very well balanced, just the right diameter, and warm and tactile. I really enjoy holding it.

Post the cap and it’s stupidly long, like a wizard’s wand. Capped, it’s a bit of a beast that may not fit in your pen case. It’s at least a centimetre longer than the Cleo Natura I reviewed last, and that itself was a long pen.

Naturally, the Magna is a roller. It will disappear in a flash if you don’t place it carefully on your desk. There’s no facet, clip or other rollstop.

The carry case: more of the same

Venvstas makes a carry case for the pen, sold separately, but this too is just two slightly larger tubes of carbon fiber with metal inserts (bronze this time) that friction fit together.

It too is free to roll away, and if you were worried about the pen getting scratched in your bag, now you have a £70 CF case to worry about scratching instead.

I was disappointed to find that the bronze insert in the carry case was not cut or mounted straight, so the already sharp edge now has a protruding point, too.

Have your fill

Back to the pen. The filling mechanism is simple but works well and has a huge capacity. It is smooth to draw, super quick to flush, and could not be more intuitive. But note that unlike a piston or even a vac plunger, it’s really easy to accidentally nudge the plunger and squirt ink everywhere. Be careful. Oh, and there’s no way to check the ink level.

At the nib end, you see more of the angled cuts, which are almost purpose designed to catch ink when you’re filling the pen. To me the different angles of the feed/nib, metal section and carbon barrel, and the mix of curves and straight lines, look messy. It seems like an alien transplant in such a clean design.

Problems at the business end

The nib itself is made of futuristic titanium, but it’s traditionally shaped, with a traditional finned feed that looks identical to the one Nettuno uses. In my view the traditional nib looks really out of place — I would have loved to see a streamlined tubular nib like the Montegrappa NeroUno or Visconti Homo Sapiens Evolution.

And this is where things went really wrong for me. The nib is a broad, it looks OK under the loupe, and it wrote smoothly out of the box — but.

You may not be able to tell from the shot above, which used a wet ink on Tomoe, but this is the absolute driest broad nib I have ever used, and it has resisted all simple efforts with nib in place to make it write the way I like (say, like the Benu broad from my last review). But apply any pressure and it turns into a gushing firehose.

I have fixed and tuned a lot of nibs over the years in situ, including gold, steel and Ti nibs. So I gave it a quick go with a brass shim or two, which is usually a foolproof technique. But everything I did actually made the ink flow even worse. I found the nib on the verge of unusable unflexed or flexed.

Getting things straight

Even more frustratingly, the nib and feed are not installed straight in the pen (it’s maybe 10 degrees out), and the curves of the steel ‘section’ make that unignorably obvious.

It drove me crazy within minutes. Efforts to twist the nib assembly to align it with the section failed, and nor could I pull the nib and feed to reinsert it straight. So it was clear that the nib isn’t mounted using a screw-in unit, or friction fitted in the conventional way.

Hold my beer, I’m going in

As I said, the guts of the pen are held in place by two tiny hex bolts, plus a little blue Loctite. In pursuit of a solution and with a reviewer’s curiosity, I unscrewed those bolts and the mechanism simply slid out.

This is where you discover any inky water left over from when you last exuberantly cleaned the pen: trapped between the carbon sleeve and the pen inner. Poor design.

Two parts make up the internals.

There’s a metal sleeve with the plunger installed, and a nib unit part that mates with this tank, sealed via an o-ring.

When the two tiny screws are installed through the sides of the barrel, all the parts are held together. However, since the two screws are in line with each other, they form a kind of axle around which the nib unit can rotate, causing a wobble between the unit and the CF sleeve. The Loctite dampened that in the original installation, but since the tolerances between the parts aren’t perfect, it’s inevitable that there’s a wiggle. It’s just a shame that it’s on the up-down axis where pressure on the page is exerted.

Taking the rough with the smooth

I took a closer look at the nib end to see if I could pull the nib and feed to see what the problem was. And I was not pleased with what I found.

The nib and feed seem to be permanently installed via a collar that by the looks of it has been fettled with an angle grinder. (I discovered that it’s this rough bevel or chamfer that the cap scrapes over when you cap the pen).

I never like to find rough finishing on interior surfaces — it makes me worry that the maker is happy with sloppy work.

Even with the guts removed from the pen there was nothing I could do to remove or adjust the nib — it wouldn’t budge, even when I used enough force to damage some of the fins on the feed. And because the guts are aligned to the body by two fixed screwholes, I can’t even attempt to realign the whole assembly. It looks like the nib and feed are permanently misaligned on this pen, and since I can’t get the nib out to work on it properly, I can’t make it write, either. What a disappointment.

So I put it back together and left it at that.

At what point does ‘pure’ become ‘unfinished’?

At first I thought of the Magna as being like an Ariel Atom sports car. It breaks with tradition, embracing unusual materials and construction. The makers take such a pride in their performance and engineering purpose that the construction is left proudly on show, uncovered by unnecessary trim, unencumbered by any features not needed to achieve its core mission.

For the Magna, that means no clip, for example. No end caps to cover the edges of the carbon fiber. No linings or coatings or decoration. No ink window. Just a tube, with a nib and the simplest possible filling mechanism, and a friction-fit cap to stop it drying out.

But the more I spent time with the Venvstas the less satisfied I was with that comparison. The purity of carbon fiber doesn’t excuse leaving the ink plunger exposed to accidental pressing. No engineer would be happy relying on rough metal-on-metal friction-fit as a capping mechanism, which has to be used hundreds of times, right under the sensitive fingertips. If you’re willing to mar the surface of the carbon fiber with screw holes, why not add a roll stop or a facet to help align the parts?

Digging under the hood, it gets worse. A car without bodywork, like the Atom or Caterham 7, invites easy and frequent maintenance; it should be the same for a pen held together with visible screws like the Magna. If I can swap in under five minutes the nib or feed of a pen as engineered and seamless as the Lamy 2000, as mechanically advanced as a Pilot Capless, or as baroque as a Visconti Homo Sapiens, why does Venvstas engineer the hidden parts of the pen to thwart simple servicing like a nib swap?

Don’t get hung up on the nib

If the Magna had written beautifully and had an aligned nib out of the box I might never have undone the screws and explored the insides of the pen (although then I would be finding inky water after every flush), but alas it didn’t — the nib was visibly off centre and wrote drier than any Ti nib I’ve ever used.

But even if the nib had been good, that doesn’t mean I would think the Magna is a great pen. I really like the idea of the Magna — plunger filler, carbon body, streamlined styling, handmade in Italy — and to get a self-filling, CF and Ti pen for £229 should be good value. But from the scratchy cap and out-of-style nib to the ink-catching layers, in execution it has too many compromises to make it more than an interesting toy for me. It simply feels like a prototype or concept rather than a finished product.

If you’re interested in trying the Venvstas Magna for yourself, you can pick one up from Stonecott. While I’ve not given the Magna a glowing review, I have only good things to say about Stonecott, and whether you pick up a Benu or a Venvstas, I can vouch that you’ll be well looked after.

12 thoughts on “The frustration of innovation with the VENVSTAS Magna

  1. Thanks for such a detailed explanation of this interesting concept. Coming up with a new design is commendable but in this instance it seems badly flawed for all the reasons you mention. It is shameful that it writes so poorly and QC seems to be sadly lacking.

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    • Thanks Rupert! I will always give small brands the benefit of the doubt, and from what I read on the forums, Venvstas really stands behind its products. So I’m sure if I’d bought this pen and contacted them they would make it right. But I have to review the pen in front of me. And as you know I have had some frustrations recently sending Italian pens back for nib work!!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks so much for the great review. I got to try one of these once at a pen gathering and really liked the look and feel of it. It’s been on my list of pens to consider for a while now, but your more detailed and thorough review (compared to my 2 minutes of playing with the pen) are definitely making me think twice. Oh well, there are plenty of pens out there! Thanks for telling it like it is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s what it’s all about, right John? :). I hate criticising the work of a small company, but my mission is to help us enthusiasts make informed decisions, with the kinds of insights you don’t get from a quick play or ogle through a shop window. It’s only my opinion, of course, but I try to include plenty of photos so people can make up their own minds too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Anthony. I’m sorry to hear about your experience with the magna. Allow me to share mine. After receiving mine and finding out they do their nib units differently, I contacted Alan from venvstas and asked him how to go about removing the nib unit. He explained it to me quite clearly that it was indeed friction fit albeit without a conventional collar perse and it is possible to pull them out as long as you do it in a certain way. I tried it out and although a bit tighter than the normal jowo/bock nib unuts, they came out fine.

    The reason I did so is because I had a particular vintage nib and feed in mind for this pen and by some pure luck they fit in snugly and is performing like a dream! Its still very early days but there has been no ink leakage or burping yet.

    While I do understand that the ink does stain pretty easily on the silver colored section as a well as retains cleaning water, it wasn’t a big deal to me given the price of the pen…..its a while lot of carbon fibre for 200 usd and although I don’t mind the possible ink discoloration on my EDC pen, I understand that many would want to know/be warned beforehand.

    The other two problems of the plunder end being left naked and the lack of a facet/roll stopper are, at the very least, minor annoyances and something I would very much want addressed esp ifits meant to be used as an EDC pen.

    Regards
    Dr krishna

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Krishna, thank you so much for leaving your experiences here for me and others to share! Would you mind sharing more details on the procedure for removing the nib and feed from the unit? Thank you!

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  4. it happens that I have several of these Venustas pens in my collection, specially from the Parisian period, and I agree on some of what you say, but, I think that as having some of the earliest, these pens are getting better and better as batches go by. I put myself on supporting them, contacting the brand when I had feedback and understand they are small. If I wouldn’t know you from some other posts I’ll say that Lamy paid you yo trash them. What a shame.
    Its a pity, the pen is fantastic, seems you just don’t get the good and potential of a brand that is starting, I agree with Krishna, 100% I had a great experience so far, pens are made by hand….and overall, are fantastic.

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    • Wow, where to start here… My approach as a reviewer is never to trash anybody, let alone under the pay of Lamy… That’s ridiculous even as a joke!

      I have bought and been sent dozens of handmade pens by small companies. Leonard Slattery, Desiderata, Clavijo, Ian Schon, etc. Many of them are doing interesting and innovative design with unusual materials. None of them have used being small as an excuse for poor finish or design flaws. Where I have been asked to provide feedback, it has been taken with grace and positivity by these makers.

      My goal as a reviewer is to judge the pen in front of me, and if you actually read what I wrote, I had plenty of good things to say about the Magna and its potential. But the truth is there are plenty of flaws too, and some design choices that simply don’t fit my preferences — which I have always been transparent about.

      If there are any factual inaccuracies in my review you’re very welcome to call them out here.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Dear Anthony, I have been following with the biggest amusement this subject and as a pen collector and a lawyer, my real job, as I guess doing this is not your real job, you wrote “So I’m sure if I’d bought this pen and contacted them they would make it right.”
    That’s malafede from your side….not honest. I tell you what, I’ll buy the pen, after all, as Krishna wrote, seems to be great value for the money, this review is extensive, but not fair at all.

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    • Hi Neals! Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure what you’re referring to as me acting in bad faith. I would happily have sold the pen to you, but alas it’s on its way back to Stonecott who provided it to me for review. As I’m sure you can imagine, I’m not going to go through the process of a warranty claim on a loaner pen; instead I reviewed the pen as it was sent to me and speculated about how Venvstas would have likely resolved the matter based on my observation of their behaviour online.

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  6. Pingback: What’s different now I’m back? | UK fountain pens

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