Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Product Review: Stillman & Birn Softcover Sketchbooks

Stillman & Birn's new softcover sketchbooks.
Up until the middle of 2013 when I started binding my own, U.S.-made Stillman & Birn had been my favorite sketchbook. While relatively costly, the excellent papers and superior hardbound binding (which allowed opened pages to lie flatter than most hardbound books) of Stillman & Birn’s products made them a very good value. If I hadn’t discovered my “Stefano” system, I’d probably still be using S&B books today. (In fact, just last week I finally found a local shop that carries loose sheets of S&B papers, which I’d been looking for for at least a year, but that’s another blog post, coming soon.)

That’s why, when I first heard the announcement a month or two ago that S&B was coming out with a softcover edition of its popular sketchbooks, my heart skipped a beat or two. While I didn’t really think a softcover would address the issues that had initially prompted me to seek out my Stefano solution (the weight of a hardcover was only one issue), and while I wasn’t looking for a replacement for the Stefano’s larger format, I was excited by the thought that perhaps the pocket-size (3 ½” x 5 ½”) softcover edition could meet my other sketchbook need: A small, thin, lightweight, catch-all sketchbook for everyday-carry. You’ve heard me rant many times about my need for this, which no notebook or sketchbook maker has been able to meet. But if S&B put its delicious papers, which I already know and love, between thin paper covers, surely that would be as close as I could possibly come to finding my grail pocket sketchbook!

Actually, I already knew it couldn’t be the whole grail, because at about a half-inch thick, it’s quite a bit bulkier than I prefer my catch-all sketchbooks to be (ideally, it would be about as thick as a Field Notes notebook, which is less than ¼” thick). But if it were perfect in other ways, perhaps that girth could be overlooked. (I’d be happy with a partial grail.)

End pages of adjacent signatures in the Beta version are
glued so heavily that the spread won't open completely.
During Black Friday weekend, Wet Paint (which, incidentally, is a really terrific art supply shop in St. Paul that I visited the last time I was in the Twin Cities) announced a storewide discount and also that the S&B softcovers were in stock, so I quickly ordered an Alpha and a Beta in two sizes: 5 ½” x 8 ½” and 3 ½” x 5 ½” (both portrait format).

When they arrived, I took them all out of their wrappers to examine them, inside and out. The covers have a pleasantly smooth matte finish that feels almost leathery (in fact, I like the way they feel better than the shinier, textured hardcovers). The Alpha and Beta papers are the same as ever (thankfully). The binding, however, is a different story.

In the Beta versions, the end pages of adjacent signatures are glued together with a strip of adhesive that is so wide that the page spread can’t be opened completely as the rest of the pages can. This is a problem for me because, as you’ve seen, I often sketch across the gutter of a page spread. I tried forcing one of the glued pairs apart to see if the result would be tolerable. They couldnt be separated, so the paper tore.
When I forced the glued pages apart, they tore.

In the Alpha books, the paper is lighter weight, so a thinner strip of adhesive could be used to glue the signatures together. Although I can still see that the glue is present, those page spreads open out almost as fully as the other pages, so it’s not a deal-breaker.

Disappointed in the Beta’s binding, I had high hopes for the Alpha. I then put each book through the same process I used to use with each new hardbound S&B when I first unwrapped it: I opened each page fully and folded the fronts of both covers backward until they touched. I learned to do this from S&B when I first started using the hardbound edition. The company recommends it as a way to relax the binding so that the pages will lie flatter.

Caveat: I haven’t heard that S&B is recommending this action for its softcover edition, but I did it anyway, because if I’m not sketching across the gutter, I often fold one side of my sketchbook behind the one I’m using; it adds support and makes the book easier to hold. (In fact, one complaint I have about all hardcover sketchbooks is that they can’t be folded back and held easily this way.) I was delighted to find that the S&B softcovers could be bent back this way – even the larger ones. I started having fantasies. . . could these be the grail after all?

My delight was short-lived.

When the covers were folded all the way
back to make the pages lie flat, the paper
tore away from the thread on one or two
stitches on almost all signatures.
(Apologies for the blurred images!
Apparently I pushed the limits of
my camera's macro capabilities.)
The Betas held up to my torture; perhaps the heavier strip of glue between signatures helps in that regard. The larger Alpha fared well also. When I got to the pocket-size Alpha, though, I could tell that the stitching was being stressed as I pulled the covers open, but I kept going, opening up each page. On five of the six signatures, the paper tore away from the thread on at least one stitch and sometimes two. Now the binding is crooked, and I clearly “broke” it. I think it could now fall apart without too much provocation.

Today I took the two Alphas for some field testing at Zoka Coffee. On a normal day, I’d take just the larger one, but in theory the pocket-size one would live in my bag constantly, so I wanted to test the heft and bulk of both in my bag at once. The two together definitely felt bulky – more than I’d want to carry regularly – but the weight was tolerable. Those paper covers (as well as fewer pages) have helped to slim the books down.

The Alpha paper, of course, is the same paper I’ve always loved for ink-with-light-wash sketching, and the Beta paper would be my first choice for watercolor. But the bindings on both of these softcover editions have significant flaws – the Beta with glue between signatures; the Alpha with faulty binding within the signatures – that I’ve certainly seen on cheaper sketchbooks and notebooks. I did not expect to see them from S&B.

12/8/15 ink, colored pencil, Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook
I’ll still be able to use the Betas on smaller sketches (that don’t cross the gutter), and the larger Alpha is worth taking out on the street (or to Zoka Coffee) again, especially since one side can be folded back without apparent harm. (The smaller one, which is likely to fall apart soon, isn’t worth taking out.) But I won’t be buying more of these.

Poof – the sound of another potential grail biting the dust.

Edited 6/17/16: See the review of the new-and-improved softcovers.


  1. Sorry to hear these didn't live up to your testing. I had heard these had arrived and was hoping they would stand up and be worth getting.

  2. I've been anxiously awaiting for your review of these. You, and Larry and Parka, are my go to for sketchbook reviews. I feel your disappointment. I'm sorry it didn't work out for you. I did order one of these, so it will get used eventually, in some fashion. I think you and I pout our sketchbooks through similar rigor, and this is excellent information... And so begins my foray into binding my own pamphlet sketch journals, and/or my continued sacrilege of dismembering pre-made sketchbooks to get what I want!

    1. Wendi, I look forward to hearing about your bookbinding adventures (dismembering is a version of bookbinding! ;-) )! The only way to ensure you get everything you want is to "roll your own"! :-) Have fun!

      - Tina

  3. Hi, Tina: I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of these at Dick Blick's web site. When I emailed Stillman & Bern to find out when they would be shipped, they informed me that the softcovers have been recalled for the issues you found when you used yours.
    I think you qualify for a refund. Didn't know if you knew about this already:

  4. Yes, I've exchanged e-mails with Michael Kalman, and I've asked him to replace the sketchbooks I bought with the newly made ones (rather than get a refund). We'll see how it goes, and I'll write another review when I have a new one in my hands. Stay tuned, and thanks for checking in, Sandra!

    - Tina

    1. Looking forward to your review! Take care, Sandra

    2. Hi Sandra -- I contacted Michael again, and he says the new (replacement) books are not yet ready for production. They are still working the kinks out.

  5. Have you tried their spiral bound sketchbooks? I prefer them... also, have you check out the new Nova line.

    1. Yes, I have a few larger-size books with spiral bindings that I use at home. I don't like to carry sketchbooks with spirals, though. Here's my review of the Nova line: https://tina-koyama.blogspot.com/2017/09/product-review-stillman-birn-nova.html


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