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Trying Pilot Demonstrator Pens - Custom 74 and Custom 823

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When Pen Boutique owner Leena asked me to write about the Pilot Custom 74 and Custom 823, I was thrilled. I love Pilot pens, and the majority of the pens I own are Pilots. I was already intimately familiar with the black double broad Custom 74 that I bought three years ago, which has always behaved perfectly. However, all the Custom 74s that we carry at Pen Boutique are the translucent demonstrator models, so they look very different from my solid black pen, and I had never tried a demonstrator pen! (I know, kind of close-minded of me!) The Custom 823 is also a demonstrator, so I started thinking a lot about the whole demonstrator experience. What would it be like to see the insides of my pen while I was using it? How do I feel about other translucent things? And, how would the higher end Custom 823 compare with the Custom 74 model? Brain already buzzing, I went to the warehouse shelf and picked out three pens to bring home and spend a little time with:  a broad nib Custom 74 in Merlot, a medium nib Custom 74 in Blue Stone, and a medium nib Custom 823 in Amber. I wanted to compare two nib sizes (M and B) of the same model pen and compare the same nib size (M) between the two different pen models.

 

For the rest of the week while I was in the store, I took note of the Custom 74s on display. We have them in Teal, Blue, Grenadine, Merlot, Smoke, Clear, Blue Stone, and Forest Green (not pictured). The nib is available in extra fine, fine, medium or broad point sizes, and is 14-karat gold with silver colored rhodium plating to match the rhodium trim and clip. All the colors pair marvelously with the shiny silver, but my favorite is definitely the Merlot, a sophisticated wine-burgundy shade. The pens were especially beautiful when the sun shined in the front door and lit them brilliantly. They really sparkle!

I didn't have time to play with the pens I brought home until this weekend. First of all, I decided to get into a translucent mood by drinking tea from a translucent cup. I choose a flowering jasmine tea so I could watch the beautiful tea steeping inside the cup just like how you can admire the ink and filling mechanism or cartridge inside a demonstrator pen. Because I don't own these pens, I can't actually fill them with ink, so I had to use cartridges to try the Custom 74s, and dip the Custom 823, which is a vacuum filler. But, I have a pretty good imagination.

First I loaded the Blue Stone colored Custom 74 with a Pilot Black cartridge and tried writing and drawing with it. Right away, I loved the feel. 

It immediately felt comfortable in my hand, and the flow of ink was perfect. The medium #5 gold nib is extremely smooth but offers a tiny bit of feedback to stay in touch with the paper. This nib made me feel in control, but was soft enough to also feel spontaneous, and I wrote in my natural handwriting, not being careful with neatness or consistency. The size of the pen fit my hand just right, and the weight and balance felt good both posted and with the cap off. 

I was curious what my father, with his larger hand, would think, so I asked him if he'd try the pen. He liked it right away, too, and said it also felt perfect in his hand. My sister-in-law with a smaller hand than mine agreed. I still wasn't sure what I thought about translucent pens, though. I know they are pretty common and some people love them, but I've never been tempted by them and they actually seem a little creepy to me for some reason. Am I just weird? Maybe! I asked my dad and sister-in-law what they thought. They both said seeing the inside of the pen was cool and kind of fascinating. My sister-in-law really liked the look and thought it was beautiful. Hm! I decided I'd better play with them more.

I wanted to try the Custom 823 next, to compare the two medium nibs, but I suddenly realized that, for a true comparison, I needed to use the same ink. I couldn't use a cartridge with the Custom 823 because it's a vacuum filler, which was a problem because I don't own a bottle of Pilot Black ink.... I have always used Pilot Iroshizuku Take-sumi instead! So, I got creative and used a blunt syringe to siphon ink out of a few Pilot Black cartridges and put it into a sample vial. I had never used Pilot Black ink until trying it in the Blue Stone Custom 73 (I always just threw the cartridges that came with my pens in a drawer!), and was very impressed by the wetness and smooth flow, so I was super curious to see how it compared to Take-sumi in color. I realized that, while I was at it, I really should swatch the Pilot Black ink. Yes, it was a little bit of a tangent, but still very interesting! I mean, what if they were secretly the same ink?!

Verdict:  Pilot Black and Iroshizuku Take-sumi are very similar, with a comparable level of darkness and nice wet smooth flow, but they have different color sheen! Iroshizuku Take-sumi's sheen is red/purple and Pilot Black's is gold! Iroshizuku Take-sumi also has a little more sheen than Pilot Black does.

Here's a photo taken at an angle in bright sunlight so you can see the sheen color better. 

That question answered, back to the pens! The Custom 74 comes in the typical utilitarian hinged Pilot box with a clear plastic window, but the Custom 823, which costs over $150 more, comes in a much larger fancy presentation box, lying on a luxurious silver satin bed alongside a special sized 70 ml bottle of Pilot Blue ink. (The pen and ink are also accompanied by several instruction materials which can be a little intimidating, but more about that later!) The one I tried is Amber, but the pen also comes in Smoke, a mysterious dark grey that is slightly less translucent.

I dipped the Custom 823 in my little vial of Pilot Black and tried it alongside the Custom 74.

The Custom 823 felt amazing right away, too! It was also extremely smooth, with the perfect amount of slight feedback. This slightly larger pen's filling mechanism has a metal rod that runs throughout the body of the pen, which gives it extra weight, but it is very evenly balanced, so, although it felt a little heavier when I picked it up, I didn't notice the weight difference when I was writing. I am used to smaller pens, but it didn't feel too large or too heavy to me. Both pens have resin bodies, so they are fairly lightweight, which, to me, is a plus. They don't tire my hand, and when I'm writing with them they feel almost invisible to me, like they are an extension of my own hand.

The two medium nibs seemed to write exactly the same, despite the Custom 823 having a larger size No. 15 nib rather than the No. 5 nibs I am used to.  Here's how the nib looks in appearance compared to my Custom Heritage 91 (fine medium), the broad Custom 74, and my double broad Custom 74. (They are all beautiful!) The Custom 823 nib comes in fine, medium, and broad. 

It's a little hard to tell just by looking at it, but the Custom 823's grip section has a special ergonomic soft touch coating rather than the hard resin the other pens' grips are made from. It's a subtle feature that I didn't notice right away,  but the material feels less slippery in the hand and has a little bit of "give," which is great for longer writing sessions! I think if I owned this pen it would be something I would really appreciate about it.

When my dad and sister-in-law tried the Custom 823, they both commented about the "huge" nib and heavier weight, but said it also felt very comfortable to write with. Both pens were a hit!

Sunday evening, I tried drawing with the Custom 823 alongside the Merlot colored broad nib Custom 74. I loved both!  I dipped the Custom 74 in Pilot Iroshizuku Murasaki-shikibu ink and messily drew some of my favorite translucent creatures:  jellies and elvers (also known as glass eels). I was kind of out of practice, since I haven't had time to do art in a while, but it was fun! The translucent pens were starting to grow on me...

I definitely loved how all three pens felt and wrote, but what about the translucency and what about the filling mechanisms?  The Custom 74 can use either a Pilot cartridge or Pilot CON-70 converter, which holds an ample ink supply while uniquely combining the characteristics of a vacuum-filling and push-button converter. 

To be honest, I've never used one of these converters because I always re-fill my cartridges from ink bottles with a blunt syringe, so I can't tell you whether I like them or not! Sorry! Maybe I can test converters at a later date, but the ones that came with the pens needed to be kept clean, so I took them out before trying the pens.

As I mentioned before, the Custom 823 has a sophisticated vacuum-filling mechanism, which is part of the reason why this pen costs more than the Custom 74. It seems a little intimidating at first, but it's actually very easy to use once you understand how it works. 

To fill the pen, you unscrew the back cap (the knob on the end of the tail) and pull the rod all the way back. Immerse the nib in your bottle of ink, and slowly push the knob back in. There's a rubber seal at the end of the rod, which creates a vacuum when you push the rod back down. When you push it all the way in, the pressure drops off and equalizes, sucking ink into the pen. The body of the pen is able to hold a very large ink capacity (2.55 ml)--about five times the amount a typical short cartridge converter holds.

When storing or carrying the pen, point the nib upwards and screw the back cap all the way down, which will seal off the ink chamber from the rest of the pen. The pen can't leak, even with the pressure changes of air travel. However, when are you going to be using the pen for longer writing, you need to point the nib upwards and unscrew the back cap until it is free of its threads to release the o-ring seal and allow the ink to flow into the nib, otherwise it will only write for a few pages before being starved of its ink supply. A lot of people don't understand this, and we get quite a few calls to customer service from Custom 823 owners thinking their pen has flow issues. But actually the pen is functioning exactly as it's designed to do, and all you have to do is crack the back cap, let the o-ring un-seal, and the ink will flow perfectly again! That's it! 

(By the way, the pen is thoughtfully designed to allow extra space in the cap so that it still fits very securely when posted even with the back cap unscrewed! Very cool.)  

The pen comes with detailed instructions explaining the filling mechanism, plus a warning about not attempting to unscrew the nibneck or plunger from the barrel. This is one pen where you actually do need to read the manual, but, once you do, it's a brilliant pen to own and use!

So, would I get a Custom 823? Absolutely, although it's out of my price range right now. I can definitely see the advantage to having a translucent body with this pen, as you can easily see how much ink you have left, and also enjoy the look of the cool internal mechanism. Would I get a translucent Custom 74? No, but only because I already only a black one and, to be honest... I still like solid colored pens better, even "boring" black ones. Black pens just feel classy and elegant, like black tie, black cars, and black & white film. I like simplicity and timelessness. I like black. But if you prefer the luminosity of a see-through barrel, go for it!  You really can't go wrong with either of these pens. They were a total pleasure to use and review.

-Laura P.


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5 comments


  • Very nice review and helpful. I have a Pilot Falcon metal body SEF and I love that pen but I have also considered getting the 823 and maybe even a 74.

    John on

  • This is a detailed and thoughtful comparison of the user experience of these two pens. It’s especially surprising that the feel of writing is similar between the two pens, despite the difference in nib size and overall size. Helpful photographs also. Thank you so much for this perspective, and I look forward to your next article.

    Bob Page on

  • The 823 is on my list of greatest pens of all time. I have three, with different nibs, and they are worth the stretch even on a budget. The size and balance when the cap is posted are perfect; combined with the outstanding #15 nibs and large ink reservoir, you can write all day without fatigue. By the way, Pilot does make more kinds of #15 nibs for their 823 (and 743) pens, which I hope to see more readily available in America some day.

    Paul G on

  • Great review. I own several Custom 74 pens and just love them. You’ve convinced me to get them back out again. Funny how tastes differ; I absolutely LOVE my colorful translucent demonstrators. I don’t think I even own a solid black pen! I agree; black is classy. But to me, color and translucence are the draw, and the reason I own more than one Custom 74. I had to have more colors!

    Debi on

  • That vacuum ink filling mechanism sounds interesting! Seems like a good pen for people who want to use a fountain pen all the time, even on the go, and know what kind of ink they want to use!

    Susie M on

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