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Last week I posted about a number of pens which to me felt just right.  Amongst them was the Pilot Custom 823.  To some it is an over priced generically shaped pen with a less common filling system and seemingly mismatched materials, yet few owners regret the purchase and put them up for sale.  A number I’ve seen on the second hand market have actually been spares where some one has got carried away and bought each of the different finishes to find they just use the one pen.  Rarity partly helps as well as Pilot, for some reason, are only interested in selling the pen in Japan and the USA.

Normally the pen comes in three finishes, Amber, Smoke, and Clear, and three nib sizes, fine, medium, and broad.  The barrel and cap (up to the finial) are transparent, while the finial, the grip and the valve knob are solid and also feel like they are made from a different acrylic.  The furniture on all three finishes is gold, something that works on the amber, but some would argue silver/rhodium works better with the smoke and the clear.

The cap has a thick band near the bottom with “Pilot Made in Japan” and “Custom 823” on it.  Above is a plain thin band, giving the appearance (by design ?) of a pilot’s cuff decorations on a jacket sleeve.  The clip is fixed by a ring between the finial and cap, with a ball at the end.  It has a nice level of stiffness which gives confidence that the pen will not accidentally fall out of a pocket.  It is also easy to secure over a seam.  There is a securing band above the clip, before the finial. An inner cap can clearly be seen on the clear and amber pens (and can still be seen when you look more closely on the smoke).  It does look a little out of place, but does seal the nib away nicely and stops ink evaporation and the nib drying out.  I do know of some people who have removed it to clean up the looks.

The grip section is quite short and merges nicely with the barrel.  It angles down very gently towards the nib before tapering outwards to provide a finger block/rest, there’s then another sudden angle inwards, which seems to be for appearance reasons only.  The barrel end of the section has a ring, which is at the point where the barrel attaches.  The barrel has some very soft threads at the nib end, you really do not notice them when holding the pen.  It curves very gently outwards and then back in.  There are literally just a few mm difference between each end and the middle of the barrel.  At the rear there is a band before the turning knob.  At both ends of the barrel you can see the threads where the grip and knob attach.  Even with the smoke finish the ink can be seen sloshing around within the pen, along with the rod between the knob and the valve.

The nib is 14k gold and size #15 (by Pilot’s classifications).  I have both the Medium and the FA, the latter of which is only available from very select Japanese stores and appears to be a factory options.  I got mine from Tokyo Quill, where there is a waiting list of 3-6 months, however PenSachi also now occasionally sell them.  In true Pilot fashion the nibs are smooth with a little bounce, the complete opposite to the pencil like nails that Sailor and Platinum produce.  The medium nib is wet and actually closer to European sizing than Japanese.  The FA is only available as a narrow fine, almost an EF.  As a result it does have a little tooth and can feel scratchy to someone not used to a flexible nib.  I’m happy to use both, but do prefer the regular one for daily use.  Note the FA nib is also size 15, meaning it is different from the ones on the Falcon and 912 FA pens.  The feed, as can be expected at this price point, is plastic.

The pen is a vacuum filler.  The cartridge converter version is the Custom 743, which costs around a third less, one of the criticisms of this pen.  The transparent barrel means the working parts can be clearly seen, so when the knob at the end of the barrel is turned anti-clockwise, the valve at the other end can be seen to slowly pull away from the section.  A few mm is normally enough to allow ink to flow through and re-saturate the feed.  With the valve closed it is still possible to write for about a quarter to half a page with no problems.  With the valve open the nib is wetter, but it’s not a gradual effect.  Unwind the valve far enough and you can pull it back up to the end of the barrel.  Dip the nib in your chosen bottle of ink and push the valve inwards.  Once it reaches a slight widening of the inner wall, the vacuum which has been created behind the valve is released and ink is drawn in.  Normally filling the pen to about two thirds.  Repeating the action with the nib still in the ink will normally complete the fill.  This is just over 2.5ml, so a lot of ink.

As mentioned, you can write quite happily for a while with the valve closed.  Opening, in theory should allow more ink to flow through, but I did find more viscous ink, Robert Oster Fire and Ice in my case, will actually ‘stick’ above the valve and the barrel needs to be tapped to break the surface tension (light shaking would not work) to allow the ink to flow beyond and in to the feed.

One of the advantages to the filling mechanism, aside from capacity, is when flying (or going through any sudden change in pressure) the pen will not burp if the valve is closed, and the only ink which may be deposited in the barrel is the contents of the feed.  The real downside to a vacuum filler is cleaning.  While TWSBI may provide a spanner and instructions, removing the grip or barrel end, which incidentally can be done using a TWSBI ECO spanner …, invalidates the warranty.  Many people do so as it does make the act of cleaning a lot easier, however it appears the ends of the barrel are not that strong and it is easy to over tighten when putting the pen back together, resulting in cracking, especially at the grip end.

So why do I like this pen so much.  I got lucky with my first one as I spotted someone in the UK selling a barely used amber with a medium nib, and at a good price.  I was quick, which you need to be when trying to buy a second hand 823.  I liked it so much, that having tried one, I then put myself on the waiting list at Tokyo Quill for a FA version of the pen.  Certainly the nib counts for a lot, but that can’t be all, after all I both own and have tried much of the Pilot range and I don’t feel the same need for other models.  The size is nothing to write home about, sure it’s a ‘normal’ width for a standard size modern pen, as is the length.  Put it next to a Montblanc 146 or a Sailor 1911, look at the silhouettes,  and you’ll struggle to identify which it is.  Weight wise, again, it’s nothing special, neither light nor with heft.  As far as I can tell it seems to just have a near perfect combination of the key emotive components of a pen, truly the whole exceeds the parts.

I’ve included a Platinum 3776 in the comparison shots as this also is quite common (maybe not the Kumpō) and has a similar shape.

So do I suggest everyone should go out and grab one?  Well no.  For most this appears to be a really good pen, but it is not for everybody, hence spotting my first one for sale.  My gain was someone else’s financial loss.  Additionally if you are considering one I would not look at the FA version unless you are used to using modern semi-flex nibs.  It’s strong, so there’s little risk of springing the nibs, but it does result in a different writing experience.  As with everything, at this price point, see if you can find someone with an 823 you can try before buying.


  • Just a great pen to use (for me).
  • Great balance.
  • Great nib.
  • For the paranoid, can be safely carried when flying.
  • Quite probably the most reliable vacuum filler type pen out there.
  • Ink capacity.


  • Cost, especially compared to the Custom 743 and also the TWSBI Vac.
  • Availability.
  • PITA to clean.

One thing to note about packaging.  In the USA the pen comes in a large box along with a bottle of Pilot ink.  In Japan it comes in a small plastic clamshell box without the ink.

Oh and for those who think it might be or have been available in Europe.  It was for a short while, at … €599 !!! – check out this video from Stephen Bre Brown where he mentioned this.  Why so expensive I don’t think anyone bar the marketing department at Pilot can say, needless to say it sold badly over here and was not available for long as a result.

Writing sample time.