The Baron Fig Confidant notebook: Unique, well-constructed, and well-hyped

Baron Fig Notebook with Faber Castell Grip 2001 pencilI’ve had my Baron Fig Confidant for a little over a month now, and it’s definitely taken me this long to really figure out how I feel about it. In that time, I’ve gone from glee, to disappointment, and back to a medium-to-high-grade satisfaction. I think I’m ready to discuss it now. Meanwhile, there are a bunch of bloggers out there who have posted reviews much earlier than I have. Here’s just a partial list:

The look

Man, is this thing good looking. I’ve been posting some pictures of it, and even my non-scribomechanically oriented friends have mentioned something along the lines of, “wow, what is that?” It arrived in a vibrant, winey mauve box which fit it perfectly. Unboxing it was like opening a really nice piece of electronics, like an iPhone or a Kindle. The neutral, simple grey cloth cover is perfect. It reminds me of an aluminum MacBook — sleek, attention-getting, but subtle.

The Baron Fig Notebook comes in a beautiful, well-fitting box.

The Baron Fig Confidant notebook comes in a beautiful, well-fitting box.

The Baron Fig Notebook's gray cloth cover is tucked neatly behind the board that makes up the inside cover.

The gray cloth is tucked neatly behind the board that makes up the inside cover.

It’s stretched across the cover with no wrinkle whatsoever, and tucked neatly around the rounded corner behind the inside cover. There’s a gorgeous grey rolled linen paper behind each cover, and the one in the front has a simple box for your title.

(Baron Fig is currently running a social media campaign called “What’s in your box?”, where they’re asking users to share creative things they’ve drawn or written in their page-one box. Check out the Twitter hashtag #FigBox to see some fun examples.)

One of the great little flourishes on the Confidant is the canary yellow bookmark that comes with the notebook.

One of the great little flourishes on the Confidant is the canary yellow bookmark that comes with the notebook.

One of the great little flourishes on the Confidant is the canary yellow bookmark that comes with the notebook. It seems like almost every review expressed disappointment in the execution of the bookmark, though — it starts fraying immediately. Mine is no different.

Baron Fig Confidant notebook bookmark frays almost from the start, however.

The bookmark frays almost from the start, however.

Something I really like about the notebook is its size. At 5.4” x 7.7”, it’s a bit shorter and wider than, say, a Moleskine, it’s tweaked just a little bit, and while it’s not necessarily immediately noticed, with time, I really appreciated it.

The performance

As I mentioned in a previous post about this notebook, there’s a lot of hype to live up to. In the Kickstarter, the creators of the notebook made all sorts of claims — apart from the high-minded ideals of idea creation, inspiration, etc. — about it’s performance! It lays perfectly flat! No bleed on the paper! Does it actually do those things? Mostly.

Does it lay flat?

I’m definitely not an expert in bookmaking, but it seems like the notebook is made of more folios and signatures than a typical notebook. That means there are more opportunities for the notebook to be open toward the middle of one of those signatures, and therefore allowing it to stretch out. (Book binders: please correct me if I’m wrong!).

The Baron Fig Confidant notebook doesn't lay perfectly flat, but reasonably flat

The Baron Fig Confidant notebook doesn’t lay perfectly flat, but reasonably flat.

I’m still toward the beginning of the notebook — I only have maybe 10 pages or so filled up. These pages, though they don’t lay perfectly flat, lay way flatter than other notebooks. One of my Moleskines wouldn’t lay flat like this even with a pencil weighing down the page. Once I get a few more spreads in, though, it looks like it will start laying much flatter.

One issue: it’s hard to keep the notebook closed! It would really benefit from a band to go around the cover like a Rhodia Webnotebook or a Moleskine. Typically it’s not too much a problem, because it mostly lives inside my messenger bag where it’s held closed, but for those who keep it on their desktop, it might be a bit unwieldy.

Finally: as one reviewer mentioned (I’m sorry; I can’t remember who), this notebook is creaky! The spine feels very solidly constructed; even with the full weight of my hand resting on it, it doesn’t tear or crack. But sometimes it sounds like it’s going to.

Does it bleed?

A close-up of the Baron Fig Confidant paper, with the dot grid. The paper is thick, not too toothy, but not too slick, either.

A close-up of the Baron Fig Confidant paper, with the dot grid. The paper is thick, not too toothy, but not too slick, either.

This paper is nice. It’s definitely heavier stock than a Moleskine, though maybe not as heavy as the 70# stock in the Field Notes Shelterwood. Maybe a 60# or 50#?

Paper test for the Baron Fig Confidant notebook

I gave the page a good test with a few kinds of pencil, a fountain pen, a roller ball, a felt-tip and a Sharpie. The fountain pen, with a medium nib, had a tiiiny bit of visibility on the opposing page, and the thick, chisel-tipped Sharpie definitely bled through, but everything else held strong.

The felt-tip and the fountain pen are barely visible on the opposite side of the page.

The felt-tip and the fountain pen are barely visible on the opposite side of the page.

But the chisel-tipped, thick Sharpie bled through badly.

But the chisel-tipped, thick Sharpie bled through badly.

I think this is a solid mark in their favor. Since I’ll primarily use pencil, I should have no problems at all.

And speaking of paper…

Dot-grids, though

I ordered the dot grid configuration (it’s available in blank and narrow-ruled format, too), thinking it’d be really similar to a traditional grid, which is my preferred paper format. Man, did it take some getting used to!

At first, I could have sworn it was a smaller grid than a standard grid layout. When I would write, I would bump up agains the line above, and the ascenders and descenders would crowd out those on the adjacent lines. It didn’t seem like I was writing too big. I measured the space between the dots — five millimeters.

Surely it was too small; five millimeters was definitely not enough for a line of my handwriting. I was ready to abandon the Confidant.

But then I measured the space in a Rhodia notepad grid — the grid of perfection, in my opinion — and that of a Field Notes Drink Local edition. Both of those measured the same five millimeters!

What, then? Why does it feel so drastically different in this notebook?

Baron Fig Confidant notebook handwriting closeupI came to the conclusion that it’s the dot grid. I can’t use a blank page for writing without some sort of guide, because my hand wanders all over the page. Both the lined and the gridded paper keeps my writing in check by giving my hand a literal baseline to follow. The dot grid only kinda sorta did that.

Though my hand encounters the dot every couple of letters or so, I think it’s not substantial enough to really guide my writing in straight path.

Bottom line: I love the look and feel of the dot grid. I’m definitely not going to give up on it; I think I just need a little bit more experience to train my writing.

Recommendation

For $15.95, this notebook is well-priced for the quality and unique look and feel you get. And if you love writing in an A5-sized notebook, like a Moleskine or a Rhodia Webnotebook, you’ll love this.

It’s not perfect, but as they claim on their website, the product is ever-evolving: they will tweak their next run based on user experience and feedback. The notebooks they sell two years from now might be completely different!

Pick it up at BaronFig.com.

 

My father-in-law’s old notebooks

My wife and I recently stayed at her parents’ house for a few days while the first floor of our place was being re-ceilinged. While a disruption in one’s life like that is never particularly fun, I did enjoy a change of scenery—there’s something that can be reinvigorating in changing the stuff that surrounds you. I was amongst a collection of belongings accumulated over decades, but weren’t our belongings.

This fact was never as apparent as when I closed myself in my father-in-law’s office to record Episode 3 of Erasable (have you heard it yet?).

My father-in-law reminds me a lot of Ron Swanson from Parks & Rec. He’s very libertarian, fairly private and extremely independent. He’s a civil mechanical engineer by trade with lots of interesting hobbies—he builds boats, he makes wine in his basement and he collects antique guns.

And while not an official collection, he has lot of interesting notebooks—old notebooks—laying around.

Keuffel & Esser Field Book

My favorite is this one, which caught my eye right away:

K&E Field Book by Keuffel &  Essel

K&E Field Book by Keuffel & Esser

Look how cool this is! Made by Keuffel & Esser, a US-based drafting instrument and supply company. It was founded in 1867, the first of its kind in the US, and lived on until 1987 when it was bought by the AZON Corp in 1987.

So this notebook is at least 27 years old, right?

Let’s look at the inside cover: orange-open

This A5-ish notebook is filled with data tables, formulas, conversions, and other useful data for engineers. I can’t imagine how handy this kind of thing would have been to someone like my father-in-law in a day before this information was available through a smart phone. Some more reference goodness from the back of the notebook:

orange-formulas

The back pages of the Keuffel & Esser Field Book are filled with data tables, conversions, formulas, and other information an engineer would find useful. Forgive my fingers in the shot — this book has difficulty staying open.

My favorite thing about it? The grid paper:

Keuffel & Esser Field Book grid

I’m not entirely sure of the particular function of this paper (a coworker suggested it’s for lots of tabular data, much like an Excel spreadsheet is now), but the grid on the left is separated into six columns by pink lines, which I believe are three times wider than the horizontal line hight. The right side of the spread is separated into two columns by a pink line, with smaller vertical blue lines that make a grid that’s twice as tall as wide.

Boorum & Pease Memo Book No. 6565

As I mentioned earlier, my father-in-law built a boat. We all thought it was an improvised affair; with PVC pipes lashed to two-by-fours and duct tape. But he’s apparently been planning it for quite a while. In fact, he has a whole notebook where he planned it out and documented his project:

Boorum & Pease Memo Book

Boorum & Pease Memo Book

Boorum & Pease Memo Book

I blurred out my father-in-law’s name because I assume he wouldn’t want to that out floating around on the internets.

Boorum & Pease adThis notebook is branded with the “Boorum & Pease” name, which sounds to me like something Click and Clack from “Car Talk” would come up with. The Boorum & Pease Co (Blank Books and Loose Leaf Devices) has been around since, it looks like, the 1870s (as this 1904 ad boasts, “for more than half a century”). They sold specialized notebooks for laboratories, ledgers for accounting, receipt books, et cetera.

Boorum & Pease memo book lined paper

A close-up of the cloth binding on the Boorum & Pease memo book.

A close-up of the cloth binding on the Boorum & Pease memo book.

I’m a fan of the binding on this book — it’s cloth-bound, reminescent of old, mid-20th century hardcover books. How handsome would the cover be with a big foilstamped signet or simple illustration?

The paper is nothing to write home about, but it’s a nice, plain college-ruled page. It’s thin, but not too thin. Since this isn’t my notebook, I wasn’t able to test it with pencil and fountain pen, but I imagine it might handle a dry to medium fountain pen without too much bleeding.

In fact, the still around, though it’s unclear to me who owns that brand name. I don’t think they are their own company. They still make columnar books (kinda gaudy looking, if you ask me), and while this particular model is not still in production (#6565), they still make something that looks reallllly close, #6559. I doubt it’s cloth-bound, though.

Here’s a pretty great history of Boorum & Pease by Walter Grutchfield.

Other old vintage memo books

I’ve seen lots of great memo books like these over the years that just seem like they’re made better than your typical notebook serving similar purposes. Sure, there are small independent ventures that produce great ones now, but these were in mass production, and no doubt costed much less than indie craft notebooks now.

Do you have any interesting ones to share?

Review of the Pencils.com Palomino-branded hardcover notebook


About a month ago, Alex from Pencils.com was kind enough to send me a box of new paper products Pencils.com is selling — I wrote about them on this blog previously.

It’s been a month, and I’ve been using a few of those products pretty thoroughly. My very favorite is the hardcover Palomino Luxury Notebook, sized medium.

A contemporary of the Moleskine and its kin, I lament the passing of Black Cover, the blog in search of “the perfect little black notebook” that gained so much momentum in its fairly brief existence and its even briefer re-appearance early this year. Nick, the blogger, is a tremendous reviewer — I wonder if he ever got one to try!

In order to appreciate these little hardcover notebooks, you have to embrace the subtle differences. Relatively speaking, almost all of the $15-$20 5×8″ notebooks are generally the same quality, serve generally the same function, and are styled generally the same. I’ll try to highlight the differences here, as I see them:

Style and Features
The Palomino Notebook’s most obvious, and to me, the best difference between it and others is the orange stripe that runs along the spine. I love orange, and I especially love Palomino Orange (and Golden Bear orange). When I’m using one of those pencils, it makes a great match. When I’m not using one of those pencils, it still looks great on its own. What a difference a splash of color makes!

I love the orange spine on this notebook.

The little stitched pattern on the sides are nice, too — I’m not sure if it is a tribute to something, or is a style all its own, but it gives it the look of an old, hand-sewn Italian stitch.

Like a Moleskine it has a cover page spread where you can put your name and contact information in case you lose it. It’s on a really lovely heavyweight paper that just drinks in your ink (Yes, I used a pen to put my name on this page, since it should be permanent) and doesn’t bleed through.

Also like a Moleskine, it has a pocket in the back! It’s made out of what looks like folded-over tear-proof paper, so you can put some stuff back there (sometime I hoard cash in it, but don’t spread that around) without tear.

One feature lament: I really, really like gridded pages. I’d love to see a Palomino notebook sporting that option, besides the lined or plain pages currently offered.

Quality
It is of superb quality. It has more of a hardcover book-like binding the Moleskine, and though it’s a bit stiffer when I lay it out on a tabletop, it’s getting better, and I don’t feel like I’m pulling the paper out while doing it.

The paper itself is nice. In a discussion with John at PencilWrap.com, he mentioned that the paper was really smooth. Agreed. (Also, go check out his review of the “flex notebook” cahiers, because he took way better pictures than I did, and compared them side-by-side to the Moleskines!)

Though it’s very smooth, I felt like it had a bit of tooth, since it’s supposedly optimized for a pencil. A pleasure to write on, at least with a Palomino Blackwing 602, a Dixon Ticonderoga, and a Golden Bear, all three of which I’ve had with me this week.

I also think that the cover of the Palomino is better. It’s a bit more leathery, a bit more supple, and does not bubble up like some of my Moleskines have been known to do.

If, say, the Moleskine was the standard of which people use hardcover notebooks, and if we set that value at 10, I’d give the Palomino notebook a solid 13. It’s a great price, at $17.95, exactly the same as a Moleskine. Admittedly, Moleskine has a better variety of pages (they have formats for storyboarding, music composition, etc.), and currently offers a special Star Wars collection, which would clinch me right there if I was actively in the market for a notebook.

However, I love the California Republic brand, and the Palomino line, so I’m excited to have a notebook in this brand, too.

Coming soon(ish): Thoughts and photos of some of the other notebooks!

Disclaimer: As I’ve written before, I am formerly an employee of Pencils.com. I no longer work there or receive any money from them, so this review is not being funded by them. This product was sent to me free, however.

Gallery of Images
(Click to embiggen) 

Gridbooks: bring digital and analog together

Sometimes when you’re creating something as physically intangible as a website, you need to be able to piece it out longhand. Paper and pencil (or pen) gives you a chance to run your hands along the lines of the elements, feel the length and width under your fingertips, and give yourself time to conceptualize it.

The good folks at Gridbooks recently sent me some samples of their product to try out. They produce really good quality notebooks with flexible grids for ad design and webpage layouts.

I was excited, though I quickly realized that since I’m not a web developer, I couldn’t fully utilize their intricate grid. I needed a better, more experienced opinion.

I handed the samples over to my friend Josh Tuck, a talented web designer and food blogger at The Quest for Zest, a great high-class local food blog. He produces some of the best, boldest, simplest grids I’ve seen. And since he’s the one from whom I learned about Gridbooks in the first place, I knew he’d be interested in giving them a try.

Josh says:

When I was in college, print design on computers was just beginning to crawl out of its infancy into toddlerhood. Our school couldn’t afford speedy new Mac 9500s, so we learned paste up with actual paste instead of “cmnd+v”. I carried this pencil-and-pad approach to laying out ads into my career in advertising. I noticed that when I sketched ideas, for ads or websites, the final result was always better then when I started designing on the Mac.

So, from an old-school designer’s point of view, Gridbooks are spectacular. Halfway through testing – with markers, pencils, and circle templates scattered on my desk – I wondered, “Why the hell wasn’t there something like this years ago?” They give you just enough guidance to make concepting easier without getting in the way of the creation process. They are surprisingly versatile, effortlessly usable, and beautifully minimalistic.

That beauty is only “so” nice though, and I like that. As any proper pen and pad snob will eventually confess; if the product is too nice, it risks never being used. I have a stack of sketchbooks and a mug of like-new pens because I am terrified I will ruin them by scrawling something unworthy of their perfectly designed form. Not so with Gridbooks. While they are attractive enough for any designer to carry into a brainstorming session they aren’t so good looking that they will never get used.

The cover of the Ad Book is a toothy 80 lbs. cover stock. It’s folded over on itself for added weight and it’s discretely printed in silver ink. The paper for the interior pages is an 80 lbs. text weight with just the right finish for pencil or pen. The grid lines and dots are just visible and all but disappear under your sketching; a feature I wish I could get from a certain Milan-based notebook company whose products I covet more then my next breath.

Gridbooks also use an ingenious technique of overlaying many grids on the same sheet. All the key ones are there; banner ads, skyscrapers, and big boxes. Each one is color coded for easy identifying and they are all pixel accurate. The same is true of the web layout pad with it’s 960 pixel 8, 12, and 16 column grids in addition to 3, 4, 5, and 6 column grids.

I tried a variety of pens and was pleased to find that they did not lose their edge or bleed through the page. You can truly use both sides of the sheet without fear of blotting up past ideas.

Gridbooks are worth every dime of the purchase price. I firmly believe that sketching is still superior to jumping straight into Photoshop, Fireworks, or even Balsamic. Sketching forces you to focus on the big picture and not get bogged down in the details and Gridbooks make that process faster and more painless then ever.

All photos by Josh Tuck. (In fact, these are the best photographs this blog has ever seen! I need Josh to take all my pictures.

Image Gallery:

Orange fever: The classic Rhodia notepad

NOTE: This post originally appeared at the now-defunt PencilThings blog on July 9, 2007. See it, sans CSS or images, at the Internet Archive here.


I first discovered this wonderful little orange notebook back in 2003 when I was watching one of my favorite shows, Good Eats. The host, Alton Brown, was writing a grocery list on a Rhodia notepad. It didn’t process with me, until a year later when I attended college at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. There is a great little store there called T.I.S. that sells textbooks, college apparel, and office supplies. Yes, office supplies! A veritable plethora of pens, pencils, and paper.

One shelf had a shoddy little orange display. Though it was in disrepair, the orange-ness and the stylized European look lent itself to hipness and—what immediately attracts me to almost any consumer product—cult following. That episode of Good Eats sprung into my mind, and I realized: if my hero Alton Brown has one, by gum—I need one too.

Fallacious though my reasoning was, it was one of the best purchases I ever made. Yeah, it is cool looking. (Aesthetics count for a lot, just read some of my pencil reviews.) The bright orange and the crisp black  go so well together, you don’t even think of a Halloween theme. Immediately upon opening the cover, you know you’ve reached notepad nirvana. The satin-finished paper is think, luscious, and smooth. If writing on a standard notepad is like driving down the street, writing on Rhodia paper is like cruising in your hovercraft across a giant swimming pool. On a calm day. Take a look at the paper:

Isn’t that nice? (The image is not mine.)

Notice that both pictures feature graph paper in their notebooks. Chill out, man, that’s the way the Europeans do it. I personally like it. That way, you can write with the notebook turned portrait or landscape. For your American purists out there, they do come in lined versions.

I can even tell you what my favorite size is—the 3″ x 8.25″. It is extremely long and skinny and fits in the palm of your hand really well. Perfect for making lists and, if you are a reporter, taking notes on the go. I spent some time working for a newspaper and this was my best friend.

Unfortunately, yes—Rhodia is expensive. An 8.5″x11″ pad with 80 sheets will cost you about $9, as opposed to less than a dollar you might spend on a Mead notebook from Target. But it is worth it. Trust me.

Find Rhodia notepads at Pencil Things and many other fine stationary retailers. Also, one of my favorite blogs, Rhodia Drive, is devoted to their full line of products.

Overall rating: 4.5 out of 5 points.


UPDATE 09/27/10: I’ve been using Rhodia notepads every day since then. Often when I review a pencil, it provides a white background on which I base the blackness of the graphite. I have discovered, as John from Pencil Revolution mentions in his review of Field Notes, that for some pencils, the creamy, smooth paper of Exaclair products sometimes doesn’t “catch” the graphite as well as something more fibrous, like Field Notes. But for high-end pencils and—gasp—ink pens, Rhodia is king in smoothness, bleedlessness (which I’m pretty sure isn’t a word), and quality.