A good argument could be made for the Custom 823 being Pilot's flagship pen. The company has fancier pens in their Namiki line but the 823 is the only vacuum filler that I know about. I have two of these pens now, a transparent smoke acrylic and the clear acrylic that is featured in this review. While it is not an inexpensive pen, I have considered it a good enough value to purchase a second one.
The Custom 823 is a large pen, similar in size to a TWSBI Diamond 580 or a Montblanc 146. While large, it fits my hand well and is comfortable either posted or not. The black plastic section has nominal diameter of 10.5 mm which starts at a small flair near the nib, necks down slightly and then increases as it approaches the barrel threads. The triple start threads allow the cap to be removed with one and a half turns and are both smooth in operation and feel as you grip the pen. The fact that there is no significant step between the section, threads, and barrel are one of the reasons that I enjoy this pen so much. Other vac fillers, like the TWSBI Vac 700, have a significant step at this location.
From the threads, there is a smooth transition into the barrel which is made from transparent acrylic. This material allows you to see the piston components of the filling system as well as the ink sloshing around inside of the barrel. As you approach the end, the barrel starts to taper down and meets a black plastic finial that unscrews to allow the filling system's piston to be actuated. This finial must be unscrewed approximately 2 mm during use to break an internal seal in the pen and allow the ink to flow from the reservoir in the barrel, into the pen's feed. This internal seal prevents the pen from leaking during air travel or significant changes in temperature, it also ensures that the ink doesn't evaporate from the pen.
The pen's cap features a robust clip that ends in a ball to assist clipping the pen on thicker fabrics. While I was not a fan of this aesthetic initially, it is practical and has grown on me. The base of the cap has a wide cap band that reads "*** CUSTOM 823 ***" on the clip side and "PILOT MADE IN JAPAN" on the back. Like all of the rest of the furniture on this pen, the cap band is yellow gold and the text is filled with black lacquer. The cap insert is black and while I would like to see the nib while capped, I know that these inner caps tend to collect ink droplets and condensation so I understand why an opaque material was chosen.
If you are willing to shop internationally, the pen is available in three finishes; a smoke grey acrylic that could be mistaken for black, a clear demonstrator, and a transparent amber version which is what is available in the North American retail channel. The nib is a Pilot size 15 which is roughly equivalent to a size 6 nib in the more generic nib sizing system. In North America, nibs are available in Fine <F>, Medium <M>, and Broad <B> but if you choose to import from Japan you also have access to Waverly <WA> and Falcon <FA> nibs.
Pilot is know for having well tuned nibs and the two 823's in my collection reflect this. I find that the broad tends to fill the loops in my writing so it is likely more appropriate for users who have larger than average writing or use notebooks with wide rulings. I enjoy the broad but feel that the medium discussed in this review will likely see more day to day use.
As I mentioned above, there is very little difference in diameter between the section and barrel which makes for a very comfortable grip. The metal filing components give the pen a comfortable heft in the hand and every surface exudes quality. Under VERY close inspection, two moulding lines can be seen at the barrel threads but all evidence of these has been polished away once you get into the barrel proper.
I feel that the pen's balance and size are best when unposted but it is still quite usable with the cap stuck on the end. This is a personal preference and I only post the smallest of pens. The cap posts deeply and securely, and the transition from the barrel to the cap falls inboard of the web of my hand which is much appreciated... lots of pens get this wrong and I find it annoying to have this transition rub back an forth against my hand while I write.
The 823 is a vacuum filler which means that it is both quick to fill and it holds a tonne of ink; 2.5 ml according to the Goulet Pens website. Filling is done by unscrewing the finial at the end of the barrel and retracting the plunger. The nib is then placed below the surface of the ink and the plunger is advanced. As the plunger seal moves down the length of the barrel, the air within the barrel is expelled and a vacuum is created behind the piston seal. Near the end of the plunger travel, the inner walls of the barrel flair out so the seal is broken and the vacuum collapses. Since the pen's filling hole is submerged below the surface of the ink, the ink rushes into the pen barrel to equalize the vacuum. Typically a single plunge will result in a 2/3 fill of the pen but it is possible to get a complete fill using the technique shown in the linked video.
As mentioned above, this filling system has seals that shut off the ink flow to the feed when the finial is screwed home. When writing more that a paragraph, the user must unscrew this finial approximately 2 mm to allow ink to pass by the internal seal and into the feed. If you feel that this is a pain, it is possible to use a TWSBI wrench to disassemble the plunger mechanism from the pen barrel, remove the o-ring seal from the end of the plunger rod and then put it all back together. This video by Brian Goulet shows the entire process.
A nice side effect of the pen being quick to fill is that it is also quick to clean. Operating the plunger back and forth while the nib is submerged in water easily flushes out ink but I find that the barrel never really dries, the seals are simply too good.
This pen is great, the price is a hurdle which can be difficult to overcome but I have yet to read a review where the user was unhappy with their purchase. As I mentioned above, this is my second one so you can count me as a happy customer too. The two common complaints that I hear are:
- The Amber version is the only choice in North America.
- All versions feature yellow gold furniture and the purchaser would prefer a Rhodium plated aesthetic.
I sympathise with these complaints but I feel that the pen's performance more than offsets these quibbles. I have no solution to the gold hardware but other colour options are available to people who are willing to order from Japan.
To quote Ferris Buller "It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up."