The Pilot Custom 823 is one of those pens that sat on my “to purchase” list for a very long time before I actually pulled the trigger at the 2016 Atlanta Pen Show. Once I inked this pen up, I silently kicked myself for waiting so long. I could have saved myself a lot of wasted time and money by paying a little extra for the pen I knew I would like, rather than embarking on a futile quest to find a lower-priced substitute. (Yes, I’m talking to YOU, TWSBI Vac-700.)
Design and Build
While I’m not sure Pilot has a “flagship” pen, the Custom 823 sits atop the mainstream Pilot lineup, both in terms of size and price point. At $288 from almost all retailers, it’s definitely one of the most expensive pens sold under the Pilot mark that is readily available in the US. Only the Pilot Justus, which sports a nib that adjusts from firm to semi-flex, costs more.
First impressions: I’m typically not a gold-trim guy, but I find the gold trim very nice-looking here, as it complements the amber acrylic. You don’t see transparent demonstrators in this color very often at all (I struggle to even think of another example). In keeping with the light brown color scheme, the section, blind cap, and cap finial are solid brown.
The Pilot Custom 823 is a big pen. Given the length, I’d imagine that most people would want to use this pen unposted, and certainly those with smaller hands. That said, the pen is lightweight (the amber material is acrylic, after all) and the cap posts deeply, so I often post this pen when I’m on the go and don’t have a safe place to rest the cap. I’ve never had an issue with the weight.
Pilot ships this pen in a standard presentation box with a large bottle of Pilot/Namiki standard blue ink. I’ve not used the ink yet, but it gets excellent reviews, and I’m already a fan of Pilot Blue Black.
And now we get to the filling system, which probably serves as both an incentive and disincentive for people to purchase this pen. The Pilot Custom 823 is a vacuum-fill pen, not a cartridge/converter or piston filler. The pen fills when you retract and depress a metal plunger, creating in a vacuum that sucks ink into the pen on the downstroke. The pen holds an absolutely massive volume of ink, making it the perfect pen for someone who writes a lot for long stretches without an opportunity to refill. I haven’t measured, but my understanding is that completely full, the pen holds 2.2ml of ink. Writers or compulsive notetakers need to seriously consider this pen. Along with the Conid Bulkfiller, it’s my weapon of choice when I’m headed out on the road and only want to take 1-2 pens with me. Between the two of them, they hold at least a week’s worth of ink. Note: A vacuum-filler is different from the vintage “vacumatic” filling system, which is a pump filler. (See my previous review/explanation of the vacumatic filling system here.)
The filling system also makes the Pilot Custom 823 an excellent traveling companion because it's essentially leak-proof. When the blind cap is closed, it seals the ink in the reservoir, preventing leaks caused by pressure changes on an airplane, in a hot car, etc. If you are going to use the pen for longer writing sessions, however, you will need to loosen the blind cap slightly to open the seal and allow ink to flow freely. With the blind cap closed, the feed holds enough ink to get 1-3 pages of writing, depending on the size of the nib and your handwriting.
The Nib and Overall Writing Experience
I rarely have a bad experience with Pilot nibs. On the high end pens that I’ve tried such as the Custom 74, the Custom Heritage 92, and now the Custom 823, the nibs need little-to-no-tuning. Unless you order directly from Japan, the Custom 823 is available only in Pilot's stock fine, medium, and broad 14k nib. It’s a large, stiff nib, labeled “No. 15” size, which is roughly the equivalent of a German No. 6.
Pilot’s stock nibs run slightly wider than Japanese nibs made by Sailor and Platinum. Had I purchased a stock nib with the intention of writing with it unmodified, I probably would have gone with a fine. However, since I acquired this pen at a pen show, I purchased the medium so that I could have Mark Bacas add an architect’s grind.
For those of you unfamiliar with specialty nib grinds, an architect’s grind is best described as a “reverse stub” or “reverse cursive italic.” These two grinds have wide downstrokes and narrow cross-strokes, whereas the architect’s nib features a wide cross-stroke and a narrow downstroke. (See the writing sample below, and I’ve written more on this here.)
So what do I think? Every time I write with this pen, it fills me with joy. It’s a true “writer’s pen”, and has made my list of pens that I always have inked and at the ready. I can’t stomach the thought of this pen wasting away time sitting in storage, and when you’re as big of a pen-hoarding crazy person as I am, that says a lot.
This Pen is NOT a Good Fit For…
Serial ink changers or neat freaks. 2.2ml of ink will last you a loooong time. You’re not going to be “writing through a fill” in an afternoon, unless a sudden attack of hypergraphia sets in. Furthermore, vacuum filling systems are somewhat difficult to clean. Sure, you can flush most of the ink out fairly easily, but you’ll always have just a touch of residue around the seal and caught in the silicone grease that seals the threads. Unless you’re extremely sophisticated with pen repair and assembly, I’d recommend learning to live with this and NOT taking the pen apart, which voids your Pilot warranty.
Where to Buy
I purchased this pen from Brian and Lisa Anderson at Anderson Pens. The Custom 823 retails for $288, making it a not-inexpensive pen. The price point is actually what kept me on the sidelines, since you can find a Pilot pen with a gold nib at almost half that price. Other pens, however, don’t have the high-capacity vacuum filling system, and certainly don’t come in the unique amber color. This combination of features makes the pen worth the money for me.
One of the drawbacks to living in the United States (or, really, “outside of Japan”) is that we don’t have ready access to the Custom 823 in any color other than Amber. Pilot makes this pen in two other models, a transparent black demonstrator and a clear demonstrator, but U.S.-based retailers don’t carry them, leaving you at the mercy of overseas resellers. If you choose to go this route, you may have limited recourse if any problems arise. Similarly, pen store Tokyo Quill offers the Custom 823 in specialty nib sizes such as the semi-flex FA nib and the WA (Waverly) nib, which writes a different line depending on the angle at which you hold the pen. Tokyo Quill is a reputable pen store, and people have reported good experiences ordering from them (though they are not cheap).
Disclaimer: I purchased this pen with my own funds for my own personal collection, and I am not being paid by a manufacturer or retailer in exchange for this review. This post does, however, contain affiliate links and links to blog sponsors.