The Blackwing Slate: The pencil-optimized notebook

It’s a really exciting day today, folks. It marks the ninth anniversary of my friend Johnny Gamber’s first pencil review on Pencil Revolution! He wrote about Pencils.com’s ForestChoice pencils.

It’s speculated by Pencils.com’s Fearless Leader (and CalCedar president and CEO) Charles Berolzheimer, this is the first pencil review, ever, on the internet. (And to celebrate that, Pencils.com is having a one-day-only sale on ForestChoice products — 25% off!)

Congratulations, Johnny! Long live the Revolution!

Blackwing Slate

Yesterday marked the first day the Blackwing Slate was available for purchase. If you get emails from Pencils.com, or have been reading the blogs at Pencils.com and Blackwing602.com (there’s a lot of websites nowadays in this franchise), you may have seen teasers for this product. It’s a Moleskine-like notebook, but improved for co-branding with the Palomino Blackwing. And, in my opinion, way nicer than a Moleskine.

It seems that the devil is in the details with notebooks nowadays. The Baron Fig, reviewed here back in April, excelled in the little design choices that set it apart from its rivals. The same thing applies to the Slate — there are numerous little improvements that really make it stand out.

The Exterior

It’s size is quite similar to the Palomino-branded journal line at 5” by 8.25”. The cover is a bit thicker and softer,though, and very matte — more of a shark skin feel to the harder, shinier Palomino hardcover. I’m not sure about this softness — I hope that it means it won’t scratch easily. Only time will tell. Besides that, it’s quite nice to touch.

Blackwing Slate Cover Closeup

It has a really nice thick elastic loop on the spine for a pencil, which is a great feature. This isn’t a dinky little piece of elastic either — this thing looks like it’ll hold its stretch for years.

Blackwing Slate Spine

Speaking of spines, the really innovative thing (in my opinion) about the Slate is the spine. because there’s a pencil strapped close to the spine, the two thick covers stop at the edge, and then are bound together with a substrate (I think I’m using that word correctly here). Essentially, the spine is reinforced, not with an extension of the cover board, but with the cloth that binds the cover to the signatures of pages inside.

It results in a very flexible cover — the first time I opened it, it wasn’t stiff at all. And I can even open it with the pencil still in the loop, which is great. It seems like it might make the notebook less durable — if the cover’s not protecting the spine, will it tear easier? Again, time will tell.

The Paper

Writing in the Blackwing Slate

Man. I love, love this paper. It boasts a 100gsm paper, compared to the Palomino luxury notebook’s 90gsm and Rhodia’s 80gsm paper. It’s so thick and plush, you guys.

It’s available in both lined and plain. Since the guys at Pencils.com know I am not an artist, they sent me a lined one to try out. The grey lines are set apart 0.25” on an off-white paper. The paper is smooth, but not as smooth as Rhodia paper. It has a little tooth on it, specifically engineered — I hope — for pencil. It’s the perfect amount to grab your graphite but still feel smooth.

Closeup of Palomino Blackwing 602 writing in Blackwing Slate

I tried it out with a medium-nib fountain pen, just to see how the paper held up to ink (though it would be sacrilege to use anything but pencil in this notebook!), and it worked great! No bleeding of note at all on the opposite page.

Closeup of a medium-nib fountain pen ink in Blackwing Slate

The opposite page from the fountain pen wriiting. As you can see, there is virtually no bleed-through! This is some thick paper.

The opposite page from the fountain pen writing. As you can see, there is virtually no bleed-through! This is some thick paper.

The Details

Besides the spine, this is what really gives the Blackwing Slate its distinction, and contributes greatly to those details I mentioned earlier. It has all the Moleskiney amenities, but all a bit nicer than the Moleskine’s — a satin bookmark, an elastic strap to keep the cover closed, a paper pocket in the back to hold stuff.

There are two different pockets in the flap in the back!

(That pocket is interesting — it’s actually a double pocket, with a small flat on the front for small things like, say, a driver’s license or credit card, and a wider one behind to hold things slightly smaller than the cover)

It even comes with a shiny new Palomino Blackwing 602 pencil tucked in the pencil loop on the spine!

It’s the details.

The Price

The Slate sells for $22.95, a full $9 more than a Moleskine Classic notebook sells at Barnes & Noble. The included pencil is worth about $2 of that price, so at $20.95, is the notebook worth it?

Depending on a lot of factors, of course, in general, I’d say that yes, it’s worth it. I’m not trying to bash Moleskine here (we actually had a discussion on the most recent episode of Erasable about how it’s become fashionable to look down on Moleskine), but the Slate is much better constructed, the paper is so much heavier and nicer, and for a pencil user like me, that elastic loop on the spine is wonderful.

Go check it out!

The Blackwing Slate | $22.95 at Pencils.com

Disclaimer: This product was sent to me, free of charge, for review purposes. No monetary compensation or additional direction was provided to me.

 

Pocket Department Notebooks, reviewed

I’ve been spending a LOT of time thinking about paper, folks. But sadly very little time actually writing about it. It seems like no matter how many different brands I try out, Field Notes always takes the lead. Whether that’s because of their gigantic fanbase or because of their creative limited edition notebooks, I don’t know, but my papery rabbit holes always seem to lead back there.

That’s why it’s a breath of fresh air to talk about a couple other pocket notebooks I’ve been using lately, by the Princeton Architectural Press. Through a collaboration with the Brooklyn Art Library, this collection, “Pocket Department,” has a unique format. From their website:

Pocket Department is a line of sturdy notebooks inspired by vintage stationery and designed to fit every pocket: back pocket, shirt pocket, backpack, and messenger bag. These custom-tailored notebooks are ideal for capturing ideas, composing thoughts, making lists, or sketching on the go.

JetPens, a fantastic online shop with pens, pencils and paper galore, was kind enough to send me a couple varieties of the Pocket Department notebooks they stock: The Shirt Pocket notebook, in green, and The Back Pocket in yellow.

Pocket Department Notebooks

The Shirt Pocket

Pocket Department Shirt Pocket notebook

At a pretty standard 3.5” x 5.5”, The Shirt Pocket notebook is not sized significantly different than an aforementioned Field Notes cahier. It does indeed fit easily into a shirt pocket:

Pocket Department Shirt Pocket notebook in shirt pocket

I really like the design: the color, the simple font choice on the front and the plainness of the inside. I love that the lines on the paper match the green cover, and the paper itself is smooth. It takes anything from a pencil to a felt-tip fine liner perfectly (I didn’t try it with a fountain pen, I’m afraid).

Pocket Department Shirt Pocket notebook writing test

I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of the binding. Instead of a saddle stitch like so many pocket notebooks do, they opted instead to make it perfect-bound. That results in a much cleaner spine and keeps it closed flat, but when you’re trying to write it in, it’s very tight and hard to hold open.

It seems like it’d be a great format to offer something Field Notes, Word., and other pocket notebook stationers don’t: perforated pages. I’d love to use this thing to scribble a note, and then tear out for later. Alas, it’s definitely not a perforated book.

The Shirt Pocket notebook is available in a pack of three for $12.50 at JetPens.

The Back Pocket

Pocket Department Back Pocket notebook cover

This was a fun one to review! At 4” x 4”, this perfectly square notebook is unlined, perfect for quick visual notes, a sketch, or just for writing words that can’t be contstrained to lines.

Pocket Department Back Pocket Notebook paper test

Oh, just so you know, I am the WORST at drawing. I should have given this to a more artistic friend to try out.

It has the same binding as the green notebook, but the size made all the difference — because there was more width to each page, it was much easier to hold open. I also appreciate the size in that I can flip the page up, like a reporter’s notepad, if I wanted to.

The Back Pocket notebook is available in a pack of three, also for $12.50 at JetPens.

Other Sizes

The Pocket Department has a couple other sizes that I’d love to try that isn’t unfortunately available at JetPens — There’s The Messenger Bag, sized at 8.5” x 5.5”, and The Backpack, at 6” x 6”. They’re not so much formatted for a pocket on a piece of clothing than a pocket for a bag, so they’re much bigger.

I found a website at PocketDept.com that seems to tease out different colors being available, like grey, white and a natural brown paper sack color, but the site is either broken or not entirely built yet.

All things considered, this is a fun little notebook series. I haven’t used it enough to tell how durable they are, but once I figure that out, I’ll definitely report back.

Find out more information about Pocket Department notebooks at JetPens.com.

The Gallery Leather Oporto Journal, reviewed

Prologue: Apparently Johnny Gamber and I are on a similar review circuit — he just posted a review yesterday! Be sure to check it out at Pencil Revolution for much better pictures.

Disclaimer: I received this product free of charge from Gallery Leather for review purposes.

There was a period of four or five years back in my pre-iPhone, post-collegiate days where I religiously used a weekly planner. In fact, I had a yearly ritual to usher in the new calendar year: After the first week of January, I’d go into Barnes & Noble or Borders, walk straight over the journal aisle, and page through the weekly planners.

It was an intensive process, and I had a whole list of requirements. In fact, back in 2007, I wrote it all out on 43 Folders:

  • Needs to be in the 5.5” x 8.5” range – slightly bigger or smaller is all right.
  • The week has to fit onto one page or one spread.
  • There cannot be markers on the day for hours. My day doesn’t start at 8 and end at 5, so don’t fence me in!
  • It has to have simple styling – one simple color or design. None of this “180 Great Views of Ireland’s Splendor” kinda stuff.
  • I need a bookmark or tabs to indicate where I am in the book, so I can easily turn to the right page.
  • No spiral-binding. Yes, I know that makes it lay flat easier, but I’m left handed. That binding hurts. Plus, I like to feel like what I’m writing in is a book.

And, almost every year, the winner of my exhaustive search was Gallery Leather.

That’s why I was so excited when I got an email from a representative from Gallery Leather asking me if I’d be interested in reviewing one of their products. I almost asked for a planner for old times sake, but I realized I couldn’t utilize it properly — I work at a job where we must use our electronic calendars, so I’ve sadly given up on my analog workflow.

The Gallery Leather Oporto Journal in orange

After poring through their product lineup, I set my eye on the gorgeous Oporto Journal line. The design is a bit more modern than the classic (though not stodgy) Gallery Leather styling, as you’d see in their desk journal or travel journal range. The edges are a bit more flush, the leather is bonded to the substrate, and the pages aren’t gold-edged.

In the grand tradition of Brad Dowdy when presented with a color conundrum, I chose an orange one.

Aesthetics

Closeup of the beautiful, supple leather cover on the Gallery Leather Oporto Journal. This close up, it looks like an orange, doesn't it?

Closeup of the beautiful, supple leather cover. This close up, it looks like an orange, doesn’t it?

Ah, it feel like I remember my planners to feel: Solid yet flexible in a way only leather can replicate, smooth and cool. I really like the A5 format for journals (imagine an 8.5” x 11” sheet of paper, folded lengthwise, and turned on its side). It fits really well in my hand and leaves plenty of room for writing without getting bulky. It’s perfect for writing in your lap or on a desk.

All of the ways I listed above where it differs from the traditional Gallery Leather I think work, really, really well to give it a refreshed, modern, more minimalist feel.

A closeup of where the leather cover meets the substrate. It looks a bit raw and unfinished.

A closeup of where the leather cover meets the substrate. It looks a bit raw and unfinished.

Except in one area: where the leather meets the substrate.

In the classic Gallery journals (and planners), the leather is folded neatly around the corners and sort of tucked around the back of the substrate, and under the paper liner. It gives the feeling of a neatly folded bed. With the Oporto, the leather is sheared off on the rounded corners, and the substrate/paper liner is glued to the back of it, about a quarter of an inch in. It’s a little hard to explain, so here’s a picture:

It feels a little bit weaker, and with time, I imagine the leather bending inward, wrinkling a little bit. I know that is essential to the modern styling, but it feels a little… unfinished.

The paper is, with my other books from Gallery Leather, top notch. It’s much whiter than the creamy manilla pages of their classic journals, but not a jarring bright white. It’s definitely duller than, say, a Rhodia notepad white.

Performance

It performed just as I expected, which is to say superbly. I tested a page out with a pencil, my trusty Peebs 602. It took the graphite really well, with nary a smear after laying down the mark. For as smooth as it seemed, there must have been some kind of tooth to the fiber.

Gallery Leather Oporto Journal page spread

To be fair to my inky friends, I also used a green gel pen that I found on my desk, and a gorgeous Kaweco AL Sport with a medium nib, laying down green ink from a cartridge I loaded into it.

The page was plenty thirsty, and barely smudged when I passed my finger over marks that have been created just a second or two before. Looking over on the other side of the page, I could see that there was just barely a bleed-through with the fountain pen, and absolutely nothing showing for the pencil or the gel pen:

Gallery Leather Oporto Journal opposite page spread — barely any bleedthrough

Finally, holistically, the journal fared really well. I carried it around in my messenger bag for three weeks or so. While there aren’t really any loose sharp objects jostling around with it, my laptop charing cable, other books and notebooks, and some paper was in there with it. To this day, the journal looks brand new.

Wrapping Up

This journal is a treat to use. Gallery Leather flies under the radar a lot of times, with their understated marketing (the opposite, perhaps, of Moleskine) and their lack of gimmicky features (cough cough Baron Fig cough cough) You’ll see them for sale at Barnes & Noble, or right at their very own website.

The Oporto journal is very reasonably priced, in my opinion, at $20. As of June 26, it looks like they have a full stock of all colors except for black, which will be available again on July 25.

Gallery Leather Oporto Journal

Check out some more pictures I took of this book.

Review: The Monteverde One Touch Stylus Tool Mechanical Pencil

Folks, I’m a sell-out.

This blog is about wooden pencils; in fact, “wood” is right there in the name. I’ve always eschewed mechanical pencils, an in fact, have often linked to my favorite chapter, in full, of David Rees’s book, How to Sharpen Pencils.

So what I’m about to tell you may come as a shock:

You’re about to read a review of a mechanical pencil.

After you recover from that blow, I’ll give you a bit of a background. Ron from Pen Chalet contacted me a few months ago asking if I’d like to review anything from his shop. I’ve always admired his selection of high-end pens (Where else could I buy a $30,000 fountain pen?) but I knew that I couldn’t justify acquiring a fancy fountain pen for review on a pencil blog. I don’t have the vocabulary or the breadth of knowledge about pens to give it a fair review — I leave that to the likes of Brad or Ed or any of the other great pen bloggers out there.

But in the mechanical pencil section — there was one that I had my eye on:

monteverde-profile

Have you ever seen such a thing? I haven’t. I was familiar with Monteverde previously, but I don’t think I’ve ever used one of their products. This looks super cool — from the bright yellow hexagonal shape (almost like a wooden pencil!) to the ruled hashes on the side, to the capacitive stylus on the end. This looks like something Alton Brown would carry, or maybe Tommy Silva from This Old House.

Features

I was disappointed to note that the mechanical pencil doesn’t have the bubble level function in the side — that comes only with the fountain pen and the ballpoint. I think the mechanism that pushes the graphite up and down took up too much room.

But some of the other functions more than made up for it. The barrel features three different units of measurement — inches, 1:100 meters, 1:200 meters, and 1:300 meters.

The top opposite end of the barrel (where the eraser would be on a wooden pencil) has a really nice capacitive touch stylus that’s pretty sensitive. I could do some detailed sketching on my iPhone with it. I admit I don’t use a stylus very often, but when I do, this is a perfect one to use.

monteverde-mechanical-pencil-stylus-closeup

I knew there was an eraser somewhere on this device, but I didn’t know where! Ah! I realized. This stylus unscrews! I turned it counter-clockwise unit it popped off, and there I found…

monteverde-mechanical-pencil-screwdriver-closeup

…a tiny screwdriver? That’s awesome. The bit pops out and is reversible, so you can work with Phillips and with flat head screws. It’s a bit too tiny to work with screws on, say, a piece of furniture, but just right for precision work — perfect for tightening screws on my eyeglasses or a hand-held electronic device.

monteverde-mechanical-pencil-screwdriver-with-glasses

I knew that somewhere — somewhere! — there was an eraser. A coworker and I played around with it, trying to find it. Finally, we pulled on the end where the graphite comes out, and there it was!

monteverde-mechanical-pencil-broken-down

Like most high-end mechanical pencils, it’s almost useless. I don’t know if they think those who use fancy mechanical pencils don’t need to erase with any frequency, or what, but I knew that between its stature and its accessibility, I’d continue to use a handheld eraser when using this pencil.

Aesthetics

As soon as it arrived at my door, I was excited. The package has a nice heft to it — something I’ll admit wooden pencils can’t replicate. I knew I was holding a solidly machined piece of metal, heavy but compact — like a MacBook or an iPhone.

The one drawback to the feel of it is intrinsic with any mechanical pencil with loose leads floating around inside: it rattles. Unlike a pen or a wooden pencil, if you move it around a bit, you can hear and feel that lead inside. But this is something I realize can’t be helped.

monteverde-mechanical-pencil-detailing

As I mentioned before, the yellow, hex barrel reminds me of a wooden pencil. Otherwise, that’s where it stops. There is handsome brushed aluminum on either end of the barrel; acting as the “ferrule” for the stylus, and providing a grip on the tip. The pocket clip is a shiny stainless.

Performance

Here’s the to-do list I wrote in order to measure the performance of this pencil:

monteverde-mechanical-pencil-writing

This has been the hardest part of the review, just because I’m unsure of myself. I lack the breadth of experience to even compare this to other mechanicals — when I do use one, it’s a cheap disposable pencil like my favorite, the Zebra #2, which doesn’t compare at all to this. I even lack the vocabulary — what do you call the mechanism that draws the graphite core down? How do you grade the graphite refills? I have no idea.

Finally, I just decided to grin and bear it, and just honestly speak of my experience.

First of all, it took some getting used to when extending the graphite. If I drew it down too far, it got loose and when I pressed down, it would recede slightly back up into the pencil.

For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to explain that without making a GIF. And I do love me some GIFs. I found a fantastic little app to do just that:

monteverde_mechanical_pencil_tip

Besides that detail, the parts that makes this mechanical pencil “mechanical” are excellent. The bits that turn and screw/unscrew turn smoothly. The parts that are held in by tension hold fast, and pop out with a pretty easy yank.

The other drawback, for me and my way of writing, is that the graphite core is so thick! It uses a 0.9mm refill, which is roughly the thickness of a moderately dull wooden pencil. I generally prefer a 0.7mm core, which is what, say, the aforementioned Zebra #2 uses. I’ve been known to use a 0.5mm lead, but that is generally too thin and I break it if I press down with my normal amount of pressure.

The tip of the Monteverde mechanical pencil, top, compared to the tip of a Palomino Blackwing Classic, freshly sharpened in a Classroom-Friendly pencil sharpener.

The tip of the Monteverde mechanical pencil, top, compared to the tip of a Palomino Blackwing Classic, freshly sharpened in a Classroom-Friendly pencil sharpener.

Here’s where I get confused when writing about mechanical pencils: reviewing the quality of the graphite. With wooden pencils and the baked-in core, I know that the graphite is (or should be) of a consistent quality. With mechanical pencils, where the core is divorced from the production of the barrel, how do I review it?

In any case, despite the thickness of the core, it writes silky smooth. It feels much softer and darker than a standard HB lead — I’d put this at a 3B or even a 4B. It’s not great for how hard I press; I turn the tip to advance more lead before I even reach the end of a line, sometimes.

The graphite erases like a champ, though, very cleanly considering how dark it is.

I’d venture a guess and say that this graphite is optimized for those making notations in a shop, on wood or ceramic or something. Like a Palomino Classic, it’d be great for sketching and drawing, but maybe not for writing.

In brief

This is a unique, interesting concept that’s well-executed for what it needs to do. It’s well-manufactured and much attention has been paid to the details.

On the other hand, the concept is odd; I’m not sure when I’ll need a mechanical pencil with a ruler (usually, I’d want to use the pencil alongside the ruler to make marks at the rule) along with a screwdriver along with a stylus, but if I do, this is the tool.

This pencil is not flavored for my particular pencil work-flow, which involved a lot of writing and note-taking. But for someone taking short, sketchy notes and annotations, especially against a different surface than notebook paper, it’d be fantastic.

The price, $40 (on sale lately for $32), is reasonable, especially considering how long this thing will last. This is definitely a multi-generational keeper.

As I said before, reviewing this thing has been a challenge but an interesting and enjoyable one. I don’t think I’ve become a fine mechanical pencil convert, but I have learned to notice and appreciate details that I’ve never really thought of before. When I use a mechanical pencil, I’m still planning on reaching for my Zebra #2, if only because of its utility, size and price. But this Monteverde will be a prized member of my collection of pencilnalia.

Where to buy

Check it out at Pen Chalet for $32. It’s available in silver and black as well, which are beautiful in their own right, but for me, bright yellow is the way to go.

UPDATE: Great minds must think alike! My friend and podcast co-host Johnny Gamber from Pencil Revolution posted a review of the same product, in the same color, on the same day! I won’t spoil his review, so go over and check it out.

Erasable Episode 6: The Brotherhood of the Traveling Sharpener

Reviewing materials for a podcast about pencils has never been so yellow!

Reviewing materials for a podcast about pencils has never been so yellow!

Tim, Johnny and I have been having a blast with the Erasable podcast so far. An absolute blast. Perhaps my favorite episode so far is the one that just came out today, Episode 6: The Brotherhood of the Traveling Sharpener.

Whenever we’ve asked Twitter for ideas on what our followers would like us to talk about, almost everyone wants to know about sharpeners. Trouble is, we’re just an hour(-ish) long podcast, and there are so many sharpeners out there!

We decided to just go through some questions people have asked, and then list our favorites and explain them, like the Classroom Friendly Sharpener and the much-debated KUM Long Point Sharpener. Invariably, the conversation came around to David Rees and his artisanal pencil sharpening, and, of course, his book.

Rees talks a lot about one of my sharpener obsessions; the El Casco, which I’ve blogged about before. It’s quite expensive, and Johnny proposed we all three pitch in to buy one and then share custody (like the pants from the movie The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Hence the episode title).

Go take a listen — if you have any interest in pencils sharpeners at all (and why would you be here if you didn’t?), you’ll love it.