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.

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: