Pilot Custom 823 Review

If Pilot’s production line could be said to have a flagship pen, the Pilot Custom 823 would probably be it. Visually, it’s not the most remarkable pen in creation: it’s a standard cigar-shaped pen that, were it not for a few tell-tale differences, would be nearly indistinguishable from any variety of other cigar-shaped pens out there on the market.  Yet, despite its rather ho-hum appearance, it is one of the most highly-praised pens on the market—especially among we pen bloggers.  I have watched over the years as blogger after blogger has fallen over themselves to sing the praises of The Pilot Custom 823.

And yet, over the last several years, I could never talk myself into picking up one for myself, despite it having been the most requested review among Pen Habit viewers. The looks of the pen never excited me all that much, and after so many glowing reviews, I began to wonder if perhaps there had developed an echo chamber around the pen that elevated it above where it should be in the pantheon fountain pens.  Now, after having used the pen for several weeks now, I am really kicking myself for my obstinate contrarianism.

In the US, you can have the Pilot Custom 823 in any color you want, so long as it’s a clear, amber-colored acrylic. (The pen is available in clear and smoke colors as well, but Pilot USA does not import those colors.)  It’s a nice brown color, a bit different than any other pen out there on the market.

The pen’s shape is the very definition of a cigar-shaped or torpedo-shaped pen. It’s a long pen with rounded finials, and is a bit narrower than similar pens (like the Montblanc 146), with more blunted finials. The clip is very traditional, with an enlongated triangular shape and a ball on the clip end. The clip is embossed with “Pilot”, but is otherwise unadorned. The cap is finished off with two cap bands, a thin band above and a thicker larger band underneath onto which is embossed the words “Pilot Custom 823,” “Made in Japan,” and a few stars to separate the phrases. The rest of the barrel is transparent amber as well, with another gold washer between the barrel and the black acrylic filler knob.

The pen’s screw-on cap can be removed with one and a half turns on some of the most smoothly-manufactured threads I’ve ever seen. Underneath, you find a lighly-contoured section of black acrylic and one of Pilot’s #15 nibs in 14k gold. (Pilot uses a different numbering convention for their nibs, so the numbering doesn’t mean the same as with your standard #5/#6 nibs.) The nib has some scrollwork on it, but I don’t find the design of the nib to be particularly inspiring. Like the pen, it feels refined but understated.

In terms of nib performance, Pilot has a history of making really consistent, solidly performing nibs. I find Pilot’s nibs to be something of a compromise between the very narrow and feedback heavy nibs from the other Japanese manufacturers like Sailor and Pilot, and the very smooth nibs from western manufacturers. Their nib gauges are a bit narrower than western nib gauges, but they don’t feel quite so narrow as other Japanese nibs. This large #15 has a slight bit of a cushioned feel to it that could in no way be mistaken for flex, but it’s just enough to keep it from feeling like a nail. The medium line is on the fine side, but the ink slow is remarkably consistent and slightly on the generous side of moderate. This is also one of the smoothest pilot nibs I’ve ever felt, with much less feedback than I generally expect from a Japanese manufacturer…even Pilot.

One of the unusual things about the 823 is its filling system. It’s a plunger-filled or vac-filled pen, much like the TWSBI Vac 700. (In fact, rumor has it that the filling system parts for the TWSBI Vac 700 are interchangeable with the Pilot Custom 823. Certainly the TWSBI wrench can be used to remove the Pilot’s filling mechanism.)

You can see this in the video, but the filling system works by unscrewing the piston knob, drawing back the piston, placing the nib and section into the ink, and then depressing the piston. The act of depressing the piston creates a vacuum behind the plunger’s rubber stopper, and when the plunger passes a specific point in the barrel where the inner walls widen out, breaking the seal, and releasing the vacuum which sucks ink up into the barrel. It’s an effective system, though a real PITA to clean, and results in a ¾ fill of the rather large barrel. (The pen’s ink capacity makes this a pen that really excels as a writer’s pen.)

One other feature of this type of filling system is the pen’s ability to “lock down” its ink reservoir. The plunger has a little conical rubber stopper on it which, when the knob is fully tightened down, blocks the ink in the main reservoir from making into the feed. This can be a real benefit from someone who travels with their pens on planes. It can also be a bit of an annoyance for people who want to do long writing sessions but don’t remember to unscrew the knob to allow the ink flow. I used to really hate this “feature,” often calling it a design mistake. These days, I’m a little less critical of it, and can see the value in it for some users. Personally, I just leave the knob lightly unscrewed all the time on my pen unless I happen to be flying with it. It saves me from constantly having to screw and unscrew the piston knob

If you know me, or my preferences for pens, you’ll know that designs like this rarely “do it” for me. I can appreciate the draw of an understated design, but it’s just not what I look for when I reach for a pen. That being said, everything about the Pilot Cutom 823 is just so damn perfect, it’s hard not to fall head over heels in love with this pen. But the fact of the matter is, I love this pen.

The Custom 823 is a pen that defines what it means to be a “writer’s pen.” It is beautifully manufactured, with an attention to fit and finish upon which is simply would not be possible to improve. It is comfortable in the hand, either posted or unposted. It’s not overly large so as to turn off most writers, yet not too small to be unusable for those of us that prefer more reasonable grips. It’s heavy enough to know that you’re holding a pen, but not so heavy that it feels tiring to haul the pen across the page. It has a giant ink capacity for page after page of non-stop writing. The nib is extremely smooth and rock-solid consistent. It just feels good to write with. And it writes perfectly each and every time I put the nib to the paper.

At $288 here in the US, the Pilot Custom 823 straddles the line for me between workhorse pen and high-end pen. Pilot of Japan manufactures the 823 in additional colors, but here in the US, the amber acrylic is the only varation available. The pen can be had in those other finishes and at lower prices if purchased directly from Japanese grey market sellers rather than from authorized Pilot USA retailers, but the usual caveats about purchasing grey market items apply.  I purchased mine at full price from a US retailer, and personally find the pen to be worth every single dollar I paid. It’s a wonderful pen, and one I wouldn’t be surprised to see as a serious contender for a Season 4 Top 10 position in May.

Material: Amber Resin
Nib: 14k Gold “#15” Medium
Appointments: Gold-plated
Filling System: Vacuum Filler
Length (Capped): 148.0mm
Length (Uncapped): 131.3mm
Length (Posted): 164.0mm
Section Diameter: 10.9mm
Barrel Max Diameter: 12.7mm
Cap Max Diameter: 15.7mm
Weight, Uncapped (with ink and/or converter): 20g
Weight, Capped (with ink and/or converter):29g

This pen was purchased with my own funds at full retail price. No compensation was provided for this review and all opinions expressed herein are my own. 



  • Jerred Kostashuk

    The flagship pen in Pilot’s range is the 845. It’s an Urushi lacquer pen with an 18k #15 sized nib, as opposed to the 14k nibs on the rest of Pilot’s gold-nibbed pens.

    • That’s not distributed by Pilot USA is it? Japan only?

      • Jerred Kostashuk

        It’s the flagship of Pilot’s line, it doesn’t matter if it’s distributed in the US or not. Besides that it’s widely available through places like eBay or Amazon.

        • I have a different take. If it’s not available for purchase in my market, it’s not a flagship pen in my market. But, different strokes, I guess.

          • Jerred Kostashuk

            I greatly respect you as a reviewer Matt, so I’m very confused as to your reply. “The Pilot 823 is the highest model available from Pilot USA” and “The Pilot 823 is the flagship pen in Pilot’s line” are two wildly different statements and my point is that the second statement simply isn’t true. The Pilot 845 is the flagship pen in Pilot’s line, not the 823. This is objective fact, not subject to mine, yours or anyone else’s opinion. Whether or not it’s available from a US retailer is immaterial when it’s easily purchasable by a North American consumer through any number of well-established, simple to use channels.

          • I think I look at it from a frame of reference, rather than exact semantics. I get where you’re coming from, I just have a different take on it.

          • Jerred Kostashuk

            Then I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask, from a viewer, that you make a very clear distinction between objective and subjective observations.

          • Jean Chonot

            For me, “little French”, you are right both.
            Seen from our Europe, the commercial strategy of Pilot is as obscure as for you Americans.
            Could it not be that the Japanese would have an approach diametrically opposed to our view of things?
            So the 845 why not, but in what finish?
            Still, as I said before, the goal of Pilot, when he released the 823 was to counter the flagship of Pelikan, the famous 800, so …
            And as Yamamoto would certainly say: we do not attack an aircraft carrier with a glider.

          • Jason Yu

            you just have to be right, right? get a life

  • Dave

    A few days ago, I was hovering over the “buy” button for this pen but through sheer force of will I closed the tab and didn’t think about it any further. And then you release this video and my resolve immediately crumbled and I bought a 823…
    Damn you, Matt Armstrong, damn you!


    • Mwah hah hah hah hah! Another person’s finances ruined. Now I just need to start my own Inky Fingers credit card and the circle will finally be complete!

  • Janis

    Thanks for the review Matt. I always find your reviews very helpful when I’m considering a purchase.

  • Jon Szanto

    Very nice review, Matt. In a way, I’m glad this pen came into your hands to help you over the hump of “the boring pens”! The 823 is on my shortlist as one of the last major purchases, but with a WA nib on it (from just one source in Japan). Frankly, your review was the nail in the coffin, completing the list of valued opinions on a pen I haven’t actually written with. I don’t think I can go wrong at this point!

    Have a wonderful 2017…

  • Roberto Sans

    As usual your reviews are informative and entertaining. I have had this pen for nearly two years and it is really a wonderful writer and not so boring to look at pen. Happy new year, Matt

  • Jean Chonot

    The 823 was launched in Japan in the 2000s to counter the Pelikan 800 which took too much market share in the Land of the Rising Sun.
    I’m talking about the 800 “old style” and not the current chameleon that just changes appearance to make believe in innovation.
    The #15 nib ; this little jewel tested by Matt ; was originally conceived to counter that of the Pelikan 800 of this time (which was also a small jewel).
    It is doubtless for all this that it is so well born. Moreover, Pilot will have developed a completely specific conduit to ensure this wonderful flow visible in the video.
    The pupil would have liked to surpass the master, and for me he will have fully succeeded.

    This nib, whatever its size, is a real machine to create addiction.
    All the qualities that Matt could recognize her are not pure inventions or just a matter of feeling.
    Rest assured, the man is honest. Besides, any owner of 823 can confirm it.

    Certainly, this pen will not necessarily attract lovers of sumptuous objects three to four times more expensive than him.
    While it exceeds a very large number as regards the quality of manufacture, the ergonomics, the homogeneity of its design.
    But whoever has tried this pen for a few hours, will have learned to discover it and tame it, will not be able to do without it.
    Basically, if you want the tool to write for many hours with a great pleasure then the 823 is made for you. Pleasure is most important, isn’t it ?

    Regards (and sorry for the bad english of a french guy)

  • Steve Ward

    I’m glad you decided to review the 823. Your reviews are always fair and I’m glad you like the pen, because I’ve always wanted one. As soon as Christmas is paid for, there may be another pen in my case. Thanks Matt!

  • TamarainColorado

    I’m curious how people compare the 823 nib to the Custom 74 nib. Are they the same, similar, completely different? I have a Custom 74 with B nib and am just wondering if it’s the same nib as an 823 B nib.

    • The nib on the 823 is quite a bit larger, and a bit more cushioned. The 74 nib is quite nice. The 823 nib is among the best I’ve ever used.

      • TamarainColorado

        Thanks, Matt!

  • Stacy Snyder

    Matt, you fell hard for the 823. I understand! It’s always in my pen case and in my backpack. Thanks for a particularly delightful review .
    Can we get one of these in purple or green someday?

  • Robert Draper

    I like the classic lines on the 823 but the writing sends it over the top for me. That said, the Aurora 88 has very similar lines…how does the writing compare, Matt? Is it worth the additional $200 or so more than the U.S. price of the 823?

    • I slightly prefer the nib on the 823, but I vastly prefer the materials of the 88 (at least the special edition ones) or the Optima. Is it worth it is a question I’m not qualified to answer, because for me, the answer in both cases is yes. 🙂

  • Ed A

    Hey Matt – i think you created a “run” on the custom 823… go ahead check availability at any of the retailers in the US. They are all out (except the B nib). Pilot should be thanking you with your own special edition pen.

    • I’m glad to hear! Such a great pen. (And I also wouldn’t say no to my own special edition pen…especially if it came with a flexy nib!)

  • Hanuman

    Hey Matt,

    Thanks for the nice review.

    It was in my wish list for a long time., just completed the Order!

  • David

    The Pilot Custom Heritage 743 is a far better pen than the 823 for regular use (in my opinion):
    [1] The CH 743 is essentially the same as the CH 823 in size and shape, but the 743 is a trouble-free cartridge/converter (CON70) filler – far easier to clean and fix.
    [2] Unlike the CH 823, the 743 doesn’t have a fiddley filler-knob you have to loosen in order to write for a reasonable length.
    [3] Both pens use the Pilot #15 size 14K gold nibs, but the 823 is normally limited to only F, M, & B nib sizes while the 743 comes in 14 (yes fourteen) different nib types, including the semi-flexible FA nib.
    [4] From what I have seen, the 743 sells for $25-$50 less than the 823 and can easily be had direct from Japan for less than $200 USD.
    [5] The 743 is not a demonstrator. I have seen a number of examples where the 823 demonstrator pens have cracked. That is not the case with the 743.
    [6] I own both model pens. Once the novelty of playing with the demonstrator CH 823 vacuum filler wore off, the issues of cleaning the pen and constantly loosening the filler knob stood out. Now the 823 (F nib) sees little use, while my 743 (FA nib) is in daily use.

  • Stephanie Manley

    I just bought this pen today, OMG, it writes so buttery smooth. It will be hard for me to find a pen that will write better. I have pens I have paid more for, but this one is a pleasure to write with.

  • Kenneth Solomon

    As usual your review is great. And it may cost me! How would you compare this pen with the Sailor 1911 Large?

    • I find this pen to be substantially longer and about the same width, grip wise. I MUCH prefer the nib on the Custom 823, though. It’s one of my favorite nibs of all time.

      • Kenneth Solomon

        That says it all. Thanks.