Tag: review

Review: Field Notes Utility Graph & Tom Sachs Notebook

Oh, the hullabaloo around the quality control for the latest release of the Field Notes Colors Edition Utility Graph and Ledger has reached epic proportions. My Graph set had no visible flaws but the lower corners on the Ledger had a bit of a booger on a couple of them.

(Here is where I start my speculation… I did not speak with Field Notes about this and everything here is based on my own personal experience.)

Since I work in the printing industry, I know that stuff like this happens all the time. Ink coverage gets too heavy, things get mis-registered, the blade on the cutter gets dull, the paper is too thick for the folding machine, etc, etc. If the issue is not too severe, inhibit legibility or is not something like someone forgot a plate color (like they forgot the red on the belly band which is integral to the design aesthetic and would give the design team a stress tic) it is often let go by both the printer and the designers/clients in order to meet the deadline or the costs to trash everything and start over would be exponentially cost prohibitive. Not to mention, some of the materials may have been custom ordered and might take several weeks to be reacquired. You crazy people knew down to the minute when the email announcement for shipping of the Colors Edition was going to drop so stopping the print run to fix a booger-y corner and push back shipping by weeks potentially could have created anarchy. Not to mention how much money Field Notes/Coudal already had tied up in this print run. So… that said, let’s talk about the actual notebooks.

The shortfold back cover has also been discussed at great length by a lot of people already but I thought I give you a good photo and my own opinion. It’s short folded by about an 1/8″ and when unfolded it reveals a 5″ ruler on one side and 13cm ruler on the other. Pulling it back a bit from the edge of the rounded corner  gives the edges of the ruler a bit more stability, in my opinion, so that it is less likely to tear at the edges were it to have been flush with the cover and had the full rounded edges. That may or may not have been the reason that Field Notes chose to pull it back from the edge a bit. Maybe that will be one of the questions asked at the RelayCon event in October?

What the pen community has been happy to discuss about the Utility edition is the paper stock. It’s Mohawk Via Vellum 70# text. Fuss buckets will still bemoan that they’d rather just have grid or just have ledger but that’s what meet-ups and the Field Nuts Facebook Group are for. You can trade the ones you don’t want for the ones you do. Field Notes are grown-up trading cards.

I put the 70# Via Vellum through its paces with a variety of daily use pens like Lamy, Franklin-Christoph, Kaweco, Aurora, Sailor and Pilot fountain pens with fine nibs small enough to write on these small graph paper spaces as well as a variety of gel, felt tip and pencils. I didn’t have any issues with feathering, even with some fine italics, a brush pen or a Papermate Flair.

And from the bask side of the paper, there is the lightest bit of show through from the brush pen only. Pretty impressive. So, despite all the fussing about quality control and “What’s with the ruler?”, the 70# paper in the Utility edition meets all the utility standards that the average fountain pen geek has been asking for.

But wait… there’s more.

Bob brought home another notebook for me that bore a striking resemblance to, not just any Field Notes but, to the very similar colored cover Utility. It’s the Tom Sachs “10 Bullets”  Pocket Notebook. The “10 Bullets” comes as a 3-pack and sells for $20. I didn’t know anything about Tom Sachs or the “10 Bullets” prior to receiving the notebook. After a little research, I discovered that Tom Sachs is an artist with a working studio and several people who work for him including, at one time Casey Neistat. The “10 Bullets” appears to be both tongue-in-cheek and a creative statement but bears a striking resemblance to the Utility Edition so I couldn’t avoid talking about it here.

The cover is also Mohawk Via Vellum 80# (216 gsm) in Safety Yellow but on the inside, the Tom Sachs notebook uses Mohawk Superfine Eggshell Utrawhite 24# (30gsm) and uses a “ghost grid pattern licensed from Edward Tufte“. Really? It looks like 0.25″ standard grid to me. The book is slightly larger than a standard Field Notes both in height and width — about a 1/4″ taller and a 1/2” wider. On the cover are ten bullets in black matte foil with a matte white foil or silkscreen.

The inside cover is handwritten in the distinctive Tom Sachs penmanship and black ink.

Inside the back cover is a photocopy of a ruler and a millimeters to decimals conversion chart. They look photocopied like a zine. The last eight pages of the notebook are assorted reference guides including Sach’s 10 Bullets.

Overall, there are 59 pages of grid paper to use in the Sachs notebook so I put one to the test.

Directly across from Sachs’ “10 Bullets” I tested the same pens I used in the Utility notebook. With the wider spaced grid and the lighter weight paper, I ended up needing a page and a half so you get to see the back side of the page and the remainder of the writing samples in one go.

You can see that the type bleeds through in some cases and shows through much more often than it did on the Via Vellum 70# in the Utility notebook. While I like some of Sachs’ artwork, his more ironic “10 Bullets” video and notebook is way too ironic and smarmy, hipster, self-referential, I’m-not-sure-who-he’s-poking-fun-at-here. I get that we are a bit obsessive and ridiculous at times about our notebooks and our particular-ness and I’m okay with that and if he’s making fun of himself as much as us, then great. But somehow, I think it got lost in translation. And in the process, the product is pricey and not very good. If you’re going to make something snooty and self-referential and charge an arm and a leg, make it better than this. I’m glad I didn’t pay for this one. It was a print sample.


DISCLAIMER: This item was sent to me free of charge by Field Notes for the purpose of review. Tom Sachs did not send me their notebook to review. It came to me by chance but I did not pay for it either. Please see the About page for more details.

Review: Dingbats* Wildlife Grey Elephant Notebook

I was recently introduced to a notebook company with a pretty long history called Dingbats*. The company was started in the early 19th century in Lebanon and has been passed down to the current great-great grandsons who have brought the business into the 21st century with a very interesting line of products. I got to try out their Elephant notebook in their Wildlife line, an A5+ (6.3×8.5″) with a textured leatherette cover and a debossed elephant in the center of the cover. The notebook has an elastic closure, ribbon bookmark and a gusseted pocket in the back for loose papers. There’s even an elastic pen loop that was stretchy enough to fit my Aurora Optima though it was a bit of a tight squeeze.

The end papers have a paw print pattern printed on a butter yellow color stock. There is a place for your personal information of the inside front page in case of loss. I like that the note at the bottom just says “please return to me” rather than Moleskine’s reward line. Its much altruistic.

Inside, the paper is 100gsm cream, acid-free, FSC-certified paper with a total of 96 sheets or 192 pages. I received a dot grid notebook and the dots are spaced at 5mm. The dots are printed in grey and are smaller than the dots in my Baron Fig notebooks but the grey is a shade or two darker. There are also grid, lined and blank paper options available if dot gird is not your catnip.

Every single page is micro-perforated as well. I didn’t notice the micro perforations at first until I was flipping to the last few pages where most notebooks include a few pages with micro-perf. Then I flipped through and noticed that all the pages were perfed. With very careful folding along the perforation, I was able to cleanly remove a page from the middle of the book.

The sewn binding allows the notebook to lay flat with no issues. Easy peasy. I almost forgot to mention it because, to me, with a bound notebook, this should be a no-brainer and should only be mentioned when notebooks don’t lay flat. But lat’s all cheer that the Dingbats* notebook does its job beautifully.

The Dingbats* notebook completely lived up to its claim that it was fountain-pen friendly. I had no issues with my daily carry fine and extra-fine nib fountain pens. I also tested an assortment felt tip pens, pencils and whatever I had laying around to get a varied perspective. Everything performed well, dried in a resonable amount of time and had no feathering issues. I, on the other hand, had some unique spelling issues today. No judgement. I must have been particularly tired.

From the back of my ink testing page, there was almost no show through at all and even the beefy Plumchester 1.5 brush pen had little show through.

When my husband saw the Dingbats* notebook, he really liked it as well. He’s not the stationery enthusiast that a lot of us are so I’m always pleased when a notebook or pen turns his head. He particularly liked the feel of the leatherette cover. And both of us enjoyed perusing the small pamphlet included with the notebook of other products offered by Dingbats*. Some of the products we really liked were the School Agenda with tri-language and the Personal Agenda available in English-Arabic. In the current cultural environment, I like knowing that students and adults in the US could get an Agenda that had Arabic featured. I do hope Dingbats* will offer these Agendas in the US market for 2018.

The Dingbats Company also has a strong environmental policy and include information on their web site and promotional materials about their dedication to keeping their paper making as clean to the environment as possible.

I really like the Wildlife series notebooks. They are good quality with all the right features, great paper, and a competitive price point. If you’re looking for a bound notebook alternative to what you are using right now, Dingbats* might be your next new notebook. Fingers crossed, next edition added will be a panda?


DISCLAIMER: This item was sent to me free of charge by Dingbats* for the purpose of review. Please see the About page for more details.

Review: Manuscript Notebooks & Crate Info

Manuscript Notebooks is a company that specializes in notebooks with a literary bent. They offer Large (A5), pocket (passport) and hardcover (pocket-sized) notebooks featuring classic literature covers.

The covers are a matte finish coated stock rather than the uncoated paper used by a lot of other companies giving it a slightly more durable feel. On the inside cover is a “table of contents” but because its printed on the coated paper stock it would be difficult to used with anything other than a ballpoint pen. It is a clever design but not entirely useful.

The spines feature a sewn binding rather than a staple stitch. I like the look of this and is a nice alternative that seems in keeping with the vintage vibe of the book covers rather than a more utilitarian staple.

Since I keep an A5-sized Traveler’s Notebook as well as my 5th Anniversary Edition Star Ferry Traveler’s Notebook, Manuscript’s two standard cahier sizes perfectly meet my needs. Not to mention, I have a certain penchant for books. So I had my fingers crossed that the paper quality would be good…

I pulled out a good array of “everyday carry” tools to put the paper to the test.  According to my contact at Manuscript, the Large A5 and the hardcover journals both contain 75gsm post-consumer ivory cream paper. The paper in the passport-sized pocket notebooks is blank 85gsm post-consumer. The hardcover journals are the only books with white paper and ruled pages.

In my initial tests, everything looked good with standard testing. I didn’t drench the paper, though I did throw the Plumchester 1.5 brush pen in at the end just for a challenge. I did pepper it with standard fine and medium fountain pens, some fine italics, a Papermate Flair and the standard general writers like a Pilot G2 and Sharpie Pen.

In a more close-up shot, you can see that I didn’t get any bleeding, feathering or splining of the ink. I’m very happy to report that there was also minimal show through as well, even with the great big, juicy brush pen, though there was a bit with that one. That was to be expected though.

There are 86 pages in each of the A5 notebooks so there’s plenty of doodling and writing space for the $11 price tag.  The Pocket notebooks are sold in packs of 3 for $11, each with 48 pages so they are priced competitively with many of the other notebooks currently on the market. While I did not get to test the heavier 85 gsm paper in the Pocket notebooks, if its the same stock as is featured in the A5, only slightly heavier, I think it will be excellent.

Manuscript is also introducing the Manuscript Crate. Each month Manuscript Crate will send a set of Pocket notebooks with a different literary cover art, such as Sherlock Holmes, Alice in Wonderland, Dracula, and many more. The literature will span all genres and international editions. Sometimes the cover art will be instantly recognizable, and sometimes they will be obscure limited run covers printed a long time ago in far away places. But every month will be a surprise. Right now, they’re giving away $10 gift cards towards your crate purchase to the first 500 people that sign up for Manuscript Crate. The monthly fee for each Crate will be $10 and shipping will be around $2. So the $10 gift basically gives you a free month. Manuscript is also hoping to include some surprise extras in their crates like stickers, bookmarks and miniatures pencils.

It looks like there is Manuscript is another source for good quality A5 and pocket notebooks if you don’t mind blank pages. Since you can use guide sheets, that shouldn’t be a make-or-break issue. And if you like pocket-sized books, the subscription service might be a good option as well.


DISCLAIMER: This item was sent to me free of charge by Manuscript Shop for the purpose of review. Please see the About page for more details.

Review: This Is Ground Medium Leather Notebook Cover & Notebooks

What could be hidden inside these silky, black nylon bags? I wondered the same thing when they mysteriously arrived in my mailbox recently from This Is Ground, most known for their high-end leather goods designed to hold electronics like iPads and iPhones.

What I found inside the luscious bags were two perfect-bound notebooks (perfect, of course) and a supple French Grey Medium Format Notebook Holder which is designed to perfectly carry one of the notebooks as well as business cards, credit cards, a mobile phone and such.

One notebook was called the “Designer” which features grid lines and the other was the “Artist” which is a blank format.

I found that the inside lower slit was perfect to hold a pocket/passport-sized notebook, so I tucked a Baron Fig Apprentice in the pocket though an actual passport would also fit in the pocket if you’re traveling and the This Is Ground site shows the pocket holding cards instead.

The top slit held my business cards perfectly and the secretary pocket on the left can be used for loose papers or a mobile phone. The right hand pocket is for the notebook.

Its a very aesthetically appealing format. The whole arrangement looks very pulled together in a meeting.

I tested the blank “Artist” notebook first. The paper has a soft ivory color and the only printing on the inner pages in the Artist book is the initials “TIG” in the lower right hand corner of each page. I used my usual “daily carry” items for testing the paper: fountain pens, felt tip markers, pencils, gel pens and a few specific art tools. Most of the fountain pens I used on the paper tended to spread a appear a bit wider than they actually are. There was a little bit of feathering on the edges of the letters creating a general “spread”. It just seems to be a more absorbent paper. My guess is that there isn’t any sizing on the paper to prevent the more liquid-y inks for settling into the paper fibers. So, gel inks, oily ballpoint and pencil are going to behave much better on the paper. There was a little show through and bleed through which, after seeing the feathering on the front was to be expected.

I had the most fun using the Plumchester brush pen and the Papermate Flair with colored pencil and watercolor markers on this paper, even though there was show through on the reverse. They handled nicely on the front.

The perfect-bound format does not lay as flat as I’d like without working the spine a bit and then the book doesn’t really close flat. Luckily, the leather cover weighs the cover down so it looks tidy.

The “Designer” gridded paper has a light dotted line grid pattern. The grid is spaced at 0.25″ (7mm) which, at first, looked a bit wide but ended up being fine. The lines are quite light and unobtrusive which is excellent.

The paper in the “Designer” is the same as the “Artist” in terms of weight and color. Both books feature 60# natural off-white paper with 110# covers and measure 5×8″ with 48 pages. There is also a ruled option available, if that’s how you roll. Notebooks are $15. There’s a Warhol “Banana” edition of the “Artist” available for $17.

My dreams for the notebooks Version 2.0:

  • Improved paper quality (it doesn’t have to be totally fountain pen-friendly but at least fountain pen-tolerant would be nice)
  • Cahier editions (3-pack) that are stitched or sewn so they lay flat and users can fit one in the left hand slot and the right hand slot
  • Artist edition has thicker, more art-specific paper. Maybe if has fewer pages but is actually more drawing paper rather than just blank paper with a catchy name

I love the leather notebook cover. It feels fantastic and looks ridiculously professional. While I love my Traveler’s Notebook, it doesn’t always look as upscale as I need to be at work. The This Is Ground Medium Notebook Cover definitely ups my “classy” game. The only down side is the notebook and that the cover only holds their proprietary-sized notebook. It becomes a serious limiting factor. I understand wanting to get the repeat business of selling refill notebooks, but the convenience of being able to refill with more standard-sized notebook (even in a pinch) might entice more people to invest in such a lovely notebook cover.

I am going to continue to use the Medium Notebook Cover and hope that This Is Ground will continue to improve the inserts for the cover. Because the cover, they got right.


DISCLAIMER: This item was sent to me free of charge by This Is Ground for the purpose of review. Please see the About page for more details.

Sharpeners for Thick-Barreled Pencils

Review by Tina Koyama

My vast love of colored pencils is directly proportional to my frustration with sharpening them. While my desktop Carl Angel-5 does a decent (and sometimes very good) job on most colored pencils of average barrel diameter, it can’t handle pencils of slightly larger girth, which happens to be the case for two of my favorite colored pencil lines – Derwent Drawing Pencils and Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles. (While I don’t use them often, I would think jumbo graphite pencils would run into the same issue.)

When I’m home, I often hand-sharpen them with a knife, but as an urban sketcher, I often need to sharpen in the field. I can’t take a knife on a plane, and it seems imprudent to stand on a street corner with a knife in my hand. So I’m left with portable sharpeners as my primary option.

I’ve tried many with terrible to fair results; none have been excellent. Ever hopeful that the grail is still out there, I decided to try four that seemed promising:

Clockwise from top left – Ratchetta, Stad T’Gall, Kum special, Kum 4.

Sonic Ratchetta

Of the four, this see-through, brightly colored, high-tech-looking gizmo “with notification” intrigued me the most. It took me a while to get the hang of the ratcheting motion, but once I did, I realized it could save wear and tear on my hand and wrist, which I appreciate. The sharpening blades turn as you sharpen, requiring only a short back-and-forth motion, so you don’t have to crank your wrist all the way around and continually regrip the pencil.

The “notification” feature – a button that pops out when the pencil is fully sharpened – doesn’t seem to work consistently. However, I get a nice sharp point on my standard-diameter pencils, both colored and graphite. Unfortunately, neither of my two thick pencils – the round-barreled Derwents and the semi-hexagonal Caran d’Aches – would fit. To be fair, the Ratchetta’s description says nothing about accommodating fat pencils, but I guess I got so excited about the design that I forgot about my objective.

Kutsuwa Stad T’Gaal

This one gets the prize for the most puzzling name. And once again I’m guilty of getting so excited about the design that I didn’t read the description carefully. When I saw the dial that enables choosing among five settings, I must have jumped to the conclusion that the settings were related to pencil diameter. (I think I was imagining the wall-mounted classroom sharpeners of my youth that had a variety of hole sizes on the dial.)

Reading the instructions that came with the Stad T’Gaal (and by “reading,” I mean looking at the diagrams, since I can’t actually read Japanese), I quickly realized that, in fact, the settings numbered 1 – 5 are not about pencil girth at all but instead enable you to choose the length of the sharpened core. Setting 1 results in the shallowest cone; setting 5 the steepest.

Chagrined at my misinterpretation, I was nonetheless rewarded – both the Derwent and Caran d’Ache pencils fit! Well, perhaps “fit” is too charitable. It’s more like I am able to maneuver them in with some effort, like squeezing into jeans from a few years ago. And like those jeans, there is an unseemly consequence: the mouth of the sharpener takes some of the finish off those thicker pencils. Nonetheless, the Stad T’Gaal does a clean job of sharpening them at various core lengths. Standard-size pencils come out beautifully, too. The steepest No. 5 setting is probably not long enough to satisfy fans of “long point” graphite sharpeners, but it exposes an impressive length on my thick-core Derwents. Bonus points for coming in several fun colors.

Kum No. 410 Magnesium 2 Hole

This no-frills sharpener is the least appealing of the four I tried because it doesn’t contain the shavings. Away from home, I must remember to catch the shavings in a tissue until I’m near a trash can, which isn’t a huge deal, but is still something to think about.

Equipped with two holes, the smaller is intended for standard-diameter pencils, and the larger accommodates pencil barrels up to 10.5mm. Paradoxically, neither of my thick pencils sharpens well in the larger hole – the blade doesn’t seem to make contact evenly – but using the counter-intuitive smaller hole, both the Derwent and the Caran d’Ache are sharpened satisfactorily. It exposes a decent length of core without coming to a deadly point (which some graphite writers covet but isn’t really necessary for colored pencils). The mechanism is not what I would call stellar, as I have to exert extra effort or pressure to get the job done, and it doesn’t feel secure.

As I was sharpening with the smaller hole, the sensation and result gave me déjà vu, and then I realized that the Kum No. 410 is probably identical to the inner workings of the dome-covered Kum 301.08.21, which is my current sharpener of choice that I was hoping to improve on. (Of the two, I like the domed one better, since it contains my shavings.)

Kum Special Diameter Pencil Sharpener for Triangular & Hexagonal Body Pencils

I had the highest hopes for this Kum because its name indicates that it’s intended for pencils of special diameter. Surely my difficult-to-accommodate Derwent and Caran d’Ache qualify as “special”! Like the Kum No. 410, this one offers two holes that look suspiciously similar to the ones in the 410. (Don’t tell me I’m having yet another case of déjà vu!) But in fact, they are not identical because neither hole accommodates the Caran d’Ache. The smaller of the two holes does sharpen the Derwent adequately.

Incidentally, although I don’t use them much, I was curious whether a couple of Koh-i-Noor jumbo triangular pencils – a Triograph and a Magic – would fit. Nope.

Final Impressions

Since it’s the first portable sharpener I’ve found that can accommodate all the pencils I typically use and also sharpens beautifully, the Kutsuwa Stad T’Gaal is a versatile keeper in my bag. If only its mouth were just a tiny bit wider, it wouldn’t scrape the lovely matte-finish lacquer on my pricey Caran D’Ache Museum pencils. The grail search continues.

tina-koyamaTina Koyama is an urban sketcher in Seattle. Her blog is Fueled by Clouds & Coffee, and you can follow her on Instagram as Miatagrrl.


DISCLAIMER: The items included in this review were provided free of charge by JetPens for the purpose of review. Please see the About page for more details.

Pencil Review: Dixon Reach Deep Hole Pencils

I confess that when I saw the Dixon Reach DEEP HOLE pencils I laughed uncontrollably. My reaction to these pencils (or at least the branding and packaging) was similar to the reaction a lot of people had to Bic for Her pens. I understand that there is a use-case for these within the construction industry but the HOLE (pun intended) thing is just so BIC for HIM. Especially considering that, on first glance, its just a bridge pencil repainted in “manly” black paint.

I provided a clear photo of the packaging for full entertainment purposes. My other response was that “doesn’t graphite mark on most surfaces anyway?” to the second point that indicates “special lead marks on most surfaces”.  The final bullet indicates that the lead is PMA certified which is also vague. It could either be certified by the FAA Parts Manufacturer Approval, Pilates Method Alliance or… maybe… the Pencil Makers Association! Probably should have been a bit more specific since it looks like its pretty hard to get that particular certification.

I got out my trusty Hester & Cook trusty Bridge Pencil to compare to the Dixon Reach and it turns out that the Reach is actually thinner than a traditional Bridge pencil. It’s also a good deal longer even without a ferrule and eraser. While I find a Bridge pencil pretty comfortable to handle the Dixon is too thin to really handle for much more than the occasional mark making as its been indicated for use. The long, paintbrush length gives it a strange balance too. It’s slim dimensions will mean sharpening will require either a knife or some experimentation to fit into a standard sharpener.

The graphite is pretty dark and a bit waxy. I suspect that is what makes it more “write on any surface”. I does erase pretty easily with my favorite Staedtler Mars Plastic. It doesn’t smudge too much but is susceptible to water solubility so the waxiness is a water soluble wax. If you are using this to mark on surfaces, you should be able to get most marks off with soap and water (think Stabilo All pencils and other grease pencils).

So there you have it. Next time you are at the hardware store (Bob found these for me at Lowe’s), don’t forget to skim the end caps and pencil aisle. You never know what you might find.

Notebook Review: Baron Fig Vanguard Black Box

The Baron Fig Vanguard Black Box is probably no longer a big secret but I’m going to hide the photos of the actual covers of the notebooks behind a “read more” so if you don’t want to have the surprise ruined, you don’t have to click through. Especially since the NEW Vanguard Edition launched last week. So, really… but not many folks have been talking about this edition. I feel like it got lost in the shuffle of the holidays and all the other special releases and I think people might kick themselves if they don’t grab this one since its still available so I thought I’d get my review out now. Better late than never.

Everything prior to the “read more” will not be a spoiler so feel free to continue to read on.

First, the Black Box comes in another one of Baron Fig’s excellent boxes. This one in matte black with gloss black symbols on the cover: an x, an o, a wave and a leaf. It reminds me of a puzzle, something from Welcome to Nightvale or an episode of Lost.

The big news is that its one of the first editions of the Vanguard with dot grid. AND… the paper looks to have been upgraded to the same stock that Baron Fig is using in the Confidant. The stock is  toothier than in my previous Vanguard editions and the color is creamier.

See that texture? Alternately, if you liked that smooth smooth Vanguard stock, then this is not the edition for you.

When I did a side-by-side comparison of the Black Box edition paper and an original Vanguard, the paper in the Black Box handled like the Confidant which was much more to my liking. My fountain pens were well-behaved and the toothiness of the stock meant that pencils and pen nibs didn’t slide around of their own accord.

The photo above is a close-ups of the ink handling of the two books. The bottom two frames are the same pen on the two versions of Vanguard. Fountain pen users will recognize that weird ink resistance on the right as opposed to the left which is just lovely shading. (It’s Oster Fire & Ice ink, if you’re curious.)

Okay… this is it… You want to see the cover details?

(more…)