By Mike Stevens
The subject of this article is one of those pens that really, really doesn't jump out at you from across a crowded room. It's the polar opposite of pens such as the Montegrappa Dragon. At first glance, it's a plain, ordinary-looking black pen, gold trim and your basic torpedo shape. Certainly nothing to garner much attention--or so you'd think.
It turns out that the Pilot Custom 823 is a pen that delivers well in excess of its rather simple looks. In many ways, it presents surprises at every turn, and by the time you're finished spending a day or two with one, you wonder how you ever managed to dismiss it as plain.
First of all, the bad news. The Pilot Custom 823 is not going to be something that you can just pop into the corner shop and pick up. Not if you're here in the U.S., at any rate! These pens appear to be for sale in the Japanese market only, which means that getting one here in the States involves a bit of work.
I'd heard about these pens for the last year or so, with those I knew who owned one raving about them. It was enough to leave me interested in getting my hands on one, and when the chance to review one that our estimable Bill Riepl had picked up second hand came along, I grabbed it.
When the pen arrived, it was immediately obvious that this is, indeed, a "form follows function" writing instrument. No extra bells, whistles, or flashy glitter to disguise the fact that this is a tool designed for putting ink down on paper. So far, it was exactly what I'd expected. The first clue that there was more to the 823 than meets the eye came when I got it out of the box and under some bright light.
What looked at first like a plain, basic-black pen turns out to be a dark smoke-gray transparent cap and barrel. It's a demonstrator!
Of sorts. The material is dark enough that it really does look like a black pen under most light. But holding it up against even moderate backlight shows you right away how much ink you have left. The lower portion of the cap is also translucent, with the upper half having a solid black inner cap that cuts off view of the nib.
Holding the pen up to the light soon presented the second indication that the 823 was not your basic modern pen. It turns out to be a plunger-vac-style filler. In other words, that ink level you're checking consists of the entire barrel's worth of ink!
Taking off the cap provides the third revelation: The nib is not the #10 size that you see on the Namiki Custom of the same size that was sold here in the U.S. It's the larger #15 size nib. It's no Mont Blanc 149, but it is large enough to make the 823 stand out a bit.
So, we've got a pen that looks plain, but ends up being quite cool in several regards. Of course, the first thing we wanted to do was to load it up and find out if there were going to be any more surprises. We held off just long enough to weigh and measure it, and then it was off to the ink collection. Given the filler system, I went with a bottle of Visconti Lapis.
Filling the Custom 823 proved to be no different from any other pen using this simple but effective filling mechanism. The plunger-vac filler uses a washer mounted on a thin rod to create a vacuum in the barrel. When the vacuum is released, the barrel then fills with ink. The chief advantage to this filler is contained in that last bit: The barrel fills with ink. You get more ink in the pen with this type of mechanism than anything short of an eyedropper filler, so if you like to go a while between fill-ups, this is the filler for you!
Using this filler is simple enough; you unscrew the barrel end cap and pull out the plunger. Put the nib into the ink and push the plunger back in, give it a slow ten count, pull the nib out of the ink and wipe it off. With many fillers of this type (including this one!) there's an added feature to keep in mind; tightening the barrel end cap down all the way seals off the ink chamber from the nib, cutting off the ink supply and preventing the possibility of leakage. Just back off a turn on the barrel end cap and the pen is ready to write.
The washer on the end of the plunger rod seals against the inside walls of the barrel, so as you push it down, it forces the air inside out through the nib/feed. At the bottom of the plunger's travel, the washer reaches a slightly wider portion of the barrel, and the seal is broken. The ink is pulled up into the barrel by the vacuum. It's a simple, elegant system that allows for quite a large ink capacity, since you're really only limited by the size of the barrel. It's a system used in the past by several major manufacturers, including Sheaffer, Onoto, and Wahl-Eversharp. The only real drawbacks are that the seals eventually wear out, and if you get enough wear in the seal at the barrel end, you can end up with a leak. Not a good thing when you're carrying the pen in a
Once you've got the pen filled, it's on to the good part... getting the ink down on paper. In this regard, the Custom 823 proves to be just about everything you could want in a writer. Ink flow was more than excellent, it was downright amazing. I never found the 823 to end up short of ink when starting, even when I left it a bit with the cap off (not overnight or anything, but the sort of thing that happens when you're writing in real life, ten or fifteen minutes).
The nib on the sample I had was marked as a medium, but I'd call the line more of a wide fine than a true medium--not unusual with Asian nibs. That aside, the 14K nib puts down a very smooth flow of ink. I spent a few minutes working over all of the classic similes for smooth nibs: "smooth as silk," "like glass," "hot knife through butter," "slicker than the House Majority Leader under questioning from a Special Prosecutor" . . . but let's just say it's a smooth nib.
So smooth that it becomes clear that this really is a pen designed for nothing more than making marks on paper. Now, granted, it's an elegant method of making marks on paper, but still... it's meant to be used. So many current modern pens seem to be more about making an impression or "fitting a theme" for a limited edition. It's nice to find a pen that exists for nothing more than writing. Ultrasmooth nib. Huge ink capacity. Reliable feed. And... that's it! A perfect weight of just at one ounce loaded up; enough weight to feel substantial, but not heavy. The size comes out as just about perfect as well: 5 3/4 inches long closed, and 6 1/2 inches long with the cap posted. It's a half-inch across the barrel, but the section tapers down to 3/8 inch, leaving it fitting squarely into the "just right" region for most hands.