There are hundreds of notebooks on the market and everyone has a preference on size and format but when people are just dipping their toe into the world of higher end stationery, there are really just a handful of products that get recommended over and over again. Partially, these are the products that are the most ubiquitous because they are available in the widest array of sizes and formats, solve a very specific problem or are the most exquisite.
This list is not in any particular order.
- Rhodia: From their signature orange staplebound notepads to their “webbie” hardcover notebooks, fountain pen enthusiasts and stationery aficionados alike praise the quality of the smooth paper in Rhodia’s line of products. It’s available in grid, lined, blank and even dot grid in a myriad of sizes that will baffle the mind. I recommend either a traditional letter/A4 size or half-letter/A5 sized top-bound legal pad for starters. They are reasonably priced and will not feel like something precious. I continue to use Rhodia for testing pens and ink here on The Well-Appointed Desk for consistency sake as we have been using it for the better part of a decade. ($2-$25.95 on JetPens)
- Leuchtturm1917: The Leuchtturm1917 has become known as the step-up from a Moleskine notebook and the favored notebook among the bullet journaling crowd. The paper quality is better than Moleskine but may not withstand all fountain pens. If you are using a variety of pens and looking for something just a bit better, than the Leuchtturm brand is a solid option and is available in as many colors, sizes and configurations as you could possibly need. ($12.95-$27.95 on JetPens)
- Baron Fig Confidant: The Baron Fig Confidant is a more polished notebook. Baron Fig, as a company, is smaller than Rhodia or Leuchtturm1917 so they have been adding options and products to their brand slowly but they are creating a uniquely modern, American aesthetic and voice to the stationery landscape. While the Confidant is only available in three sizes, seven colors and dot grid, lined or blank, there is probably a Confidant that will appeal to you. Baron Fig also offers their softcover cahier line called the Vanguard as well as guided journals for specific interests. (Available directly from Baron Fig or from your favorite online retailer)
- Field Notes: I can’t talk about notebooks without talking about the tiny (behemoth) elephant in the room and that would be Field Notes. Field Notes reshaped the way people purchased notebooks over the last decade. They made them more than just a place to write a list, a story or a phone number. They made them collectible, covetable and something people obsessed about. We can discuss at length whether the paper quality is worthy of fountain pens (mostly, its not) and how often people use the excessive quantity of Field Notes they purchase with the Editions Subscriptions (usually none of them because they might be worth something someday!) but the bottom line is that Field Notes revitalized the appeal of the tangible notebook and if that doesn’t make it worth considering these pocket notebooks, I don’t know what is. Okay fine. Field Notes has become the verbal shortcut for a size of notebook (3.5″x5.5″ size) when talking about any other notebook. “Well, it’s Field Notes-sized,” one pen enthusiast says to another when describing the latest notebook discovery. “Fits Field Notes and other similarly sized books” states an Etsy page offering custom leather notebook covers. So there, that’s the other reason I put Field Notes on this list. A whole industry of copycat notebooks have since cropped up (for better or worse) as well as products to support the Field Notes craze. (Subscriptions via Field Notes but past limited editions can be found at Wonder Fair)
- Traveler’s Notebook: The appeal of the Traveler’s Notebook (while originally released under the Midori brand and now under the The Traveler’s Company) spawned its own revolution and accompanying fanfare. This is as much about the notebook’s container, a simple piece of leather held closed with an elastic through a hole punched into the leather and the cords of elastic looped through to catch loose notebooks suspended inside, as it was about the actual paper notebooks inside. Thankfully, the original system released from Midori offered good quality paper that kept people using the notebooks long enough to catch the attention of the internet and social media. Once people realized they could either make their own covers or put their own notebooks inside covers, a whole new world was born. Traveler’s Company continues to release notebooks, calendar planners and special editions that keep the product and brand fresh but the whole concept of having one cover and just swapping out the notebook inside became the impetus for a new generation ready for more environmentally friendly options. (starter kits $41-46.50 on JetPens)
- Nanami Seven Seas/Tomoe River: For fountain pen fans, this is the big leagues. Tomoe River paper like being invited into the secret society with passwords and handshakes. This whisper-thin paper that buckles and has massive show through might be a mystery to a newbie until someone shows you that ink with all the sheen and then it’s like “Oh, I get it now! I see why you suffer with waffle-y see through paper because look at that color!!!! I feel like I’ve been seeing the world in shades of grey until now!” That said, it takes eons to dry when you dump buckets of ink onto the page or live in the soupy humidity of the South. Notebooks have massive page counts and are pricey. But this is next-level pen experience stuff. (available from Nanami Paper or Dromgoole’s)
- Midori MD Notebook: Midori MD is probably my personal favorite everyday writing paper and it’s probably the least discussed in the pen community. There are three grades of MD paper and I think they are all awesome. There is MD (smoothest), MD Light (second favorite and a rival to Tomoe River IMHO) and (my personal favorite, it’s toothy) MD Cotton. Midori MD has minimal branding, comes with a plain cream cardstock cover, and available in lined, grid or blank. ($9.25-$16.50 on JetPens)
- Stillman & Birn Epsilon Sketchbook: While many won’t agree that a sketchbook is a notebook, I couldn’t complete a list of my favorite/most recommended/best notebooks without including the Stillman & Birn Epsilon Sketchbook which I probably recommend at least once a week. If not the Alpha, then one of the Stillman & Birn sketchbooks. The hardest part for many in picking out a sketchbook and specifically picking out a Stillman & Birn sketchbook is working through their complex naming system. The Epsilon is the toothier of the two 150gsm sketchbook options. Even I have goofed on occasion and purchased the Alpha by mistake as it is described as being medium grain and cold press. It’s not quite as toothy as the Epsilon which I’ve discovered I like better. YMMV. That said, overall, I have not been disappointed by the overall quality of any of the S&B sketchbooks I’ve used. For day-to-day sketching I do not need the heavier 270gsm paper in their other sketchbooks. (available from JetPens and your local art supply stores)
- Musubi: I can’t talk about notebooks without talking about Musubi. What they are doing at Musubi Atelier is elevating bookmaking to the artform it deserves to be while also providing a lifeline to people in parts of the world who need work and providing them with a dignified means to feed their families. Musubi notebooks are aspirational notebooks worthy of wanting made with the most exquisite fabrics and bookbinding techniques, filled with unique papers and tucked into stunning cases that truly feel like a gift. I have treated myself to one and you deserve one at some point in your life too. (purchase directly from musu.bi)
- Col-o-ring: I know it appears self-serving to mention Col-o-ring here but when I look at the notebooks and paper products I use on a daily basis, the Col-o-ring, Col-o-dex and Col-o-ring Oversize figure heavily into my rotation. I suppose I wouldn’t have made them if I wasn’t going to use them. While the Col-o-ring and Col-o-dex serve specific purposes of inventoring my ink collection, the Oversize is used for everything from comparing various inks to drawing and doodling to just writing notes and testing pens. When we originally made the Oversize, I wasn’t sure how much I would actually use it but it turns out it gets used as much or more than a lot of other notebooks in the house. Partially, it gets used because I’m so familiar with the paper so I know how pens and ink are going to behave but also because its a really convenient size. (available in our shop or through your favorite online retailer)