|New and improved Stillman & Birn softcover sketchbooks.|
Containing excellent papers and bindings that allow pages to
lie flatter than most hardbound book, S&B hardcovers had been my sketchbooks
of choice before I started binding my own. (Note: This review will not cover S&B’s
sketchbook papers, which have been widely reviewed by other bloggers. Suffice
it to say that I’ve tried and love them all.) The only thing I didn’t like
about them was their thickness, which made the books heavy and bulky to carry.
(Reducing bag weight was the primary reason I started hand binding.)
Shortly before the holiday season last year and to much
consumer excitement, S&B announced a new product line: softcover versions
of its popular sketchbooks. Thinner and lighter, yet still containing the papers
I already know and love? I was among the excited!
|Pages between signatures in the |
bad S&B Beta tore when opened fully.
Unfortunately, my enthusiasm didn’t last long. You can read my full review from last December, but here’s a summary of the main problems I encountered: In the
small Alpha version, when I forced the book open at each page to make the
spread lie flat, the paper tore away from the thread on most of the signatures.
In the Beta version, which has heavier paper, the strip of adhesive between
signatures was so wide that the spread could not be opened completely unless
the pages were literally torn apart. This was a deal breaker for me, as I often
like to sketch across the gutter.
It didn’t take long for word of these and other binding
problems to spread around the interwebs. S&B responded by halting
production and pulling the product line from distribution. (This was in the
middle of the holiday shopping season – I’m sure it was a painful move.) Its
website announced that any consumer who had purchased the bad books could
receive a refund by sending a copy of the receipt indicating purchase price. It
also reassured fans that the company was working hard to resolve the issues and
put the softcovers back into production ASAP.
|The glue between some signatures is still visible in this new|
Beta book, but the paper didn't tear when spread open.
I was one of the consumers who responded by submitting a
receipt, but when I did, I said I didn’t want a refund – I preferred that the
books be replaced after the problems had been resolved. I had enough faith in
S&B’s previous commitment to high quality and customer service that the
books would eventually be improved.
It took six months, but my replacement books finally arrived
– an Alpha and a Beta version in each of my two most-used sizes (3 ½ by 5 ½ inches
and 5 ½ by 8 ½ inches). I immediately ripped off the shrink wraps and put the
books through the same torture I gave to their predecessors: I opened each page
spread fully and folded the covers backward until they nearly touched. (I
learned to do this from S&B when I first started using the hardbound
editions. The company recommends it as a way to relax the binding so that the
pages will lie flatter.)
|When I opened my old Alpha that I had never used, the cover|
completely separated from the book block.
I’m happy to say that, for the most part, they survived my
torture, and the bindings are distinctly different and improved. In no case did
the paper tear away from the stitching. The adhesive between signatures is sufficiently
narrow to reduce the stuck-together issue I encountered before. In a few cases in
the Beta books, when I forced the page spreads open, the adhesive between signatures
stuck enough that some paper fibers pulled up, but the pages didn’t tear, and
the adhesive is visible in some places. But this degree of sticking together is
definitely tolerable and not a deal breaker for me, even if I sketch across the
gutter. The Alpha books in both sizes are flawless.
I noticed a couple of other significant binding differences:
In the bad production line, the
cover was attached to the book block only at
the spine. In the new books, the first and last pages of the book are
completely glued to their adjacent cover, giving the whole binding more
strength. On my cursory glance, I didn’t even notice this difference, but it
became apparent when I pulled out the old books to compare them. I opened the
cover of my old pocket-size Alpha, which has been sitting quietly on a
bookshelf for the past six months, and without any force, the cover came
completely unglued from the spine!
|The new Beta's first page is glued completely to the cover.|
Note: The loss of those glued-on end leaves as useable pages
is reflected in the page count. For example, the old Beta contained 56 pages,
and the new Beta contains 52. For the Alphas, the page counts are 96 (bad
books) and 92 (good books).
|The top of the spine shows a big difference in the way the new|
books are made.
A second significant difference is the way the spine looks
from the top (see image below): In the new book on the right, you can see that the adhesive
fills in the spaces behind and between signatures in a very different way than on
the old book. When I mentioned this to Michael Kalman (S&B’s front man who
gets top kudos for his exemplary customer responsiveness all through this issue)
and showed him this image, he said, “Your picture reflects the changes that the
bindery made in the adhesive type and process used for casing
in the book block into the cover. After much testing with the
bindery, we determined to specify these changes in order to assure a much more
secure binding template. I think the picture shows this more ‘solid’
binding, and that is what the new books feature.”
There’s one more thing about the image above that’s important if you plan to buy the S&B softcovers: On a shrink-wrapped product, it’s
one of two ways you can tell the difference between good and bad stock.
|Note the number of pages in the book you are buying -- it indicates whether it's|
old or new stock.
The second way is the page count. I
compared all the belly bands, and they are identical in every way except for the page counts noted above. In
theory, all the bad books were pulled from retail stores as soon as the binding
issues came to light. But it’s possible that some stores still have old stock
that may remain mixed in when new stock hits the shelves. If you order online,
it would be worthwhile to ask to make sure you are getting new stock, and you
can use the number of pages as reference.
Good work, S&B – I’m a fan again!
And how does this new-and-improved softcover affect me and
my sketching life? I’m not sure. I’ve been happily binding my own the past
three years, but I occasionally feel belabored by my own process. More significantly, my handbound books, which,
I admit, look beautiful together on my bookshelves, take up a lot of space. In my current format of four sheets
per signature, I get 96 pages per book. Three softcover Beta books would take
up the same horizontal space on a bookshelf as one handbound book – but I’d get
156 sketchable pages in that space.
A 5 ½ by 8 ½ softcover Beta book is about twice as heavy and
thick as one of my hand-stitched signatures, but also a tiny bit smaller. Once
I bind my current stack of signatures, I’m going to start using and carrying that
Beta and see how it feels. Now that I’m confident the binding isn’t going to
fall apart, I’d be happy to go back to S&B, but there are other factors to
consider. We’ll see.
9/6/16 I filled the softcover Beta, and here's the post with my conclusion.