Friday, June 17, 2016

Stillman & Birn Softcovers: New and Improved

New and improved Stillman & Birn softcover sketchbooks.
U.S. sketchbook manufacturer Stillman & Birn has been on a long, hard road since last autumn, but the journey has been worthwhile.

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
The new Beta's first page is glued completely to the cover.
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!

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.


  1. Glad they solved the problem. They (and Michael especially) are so nice to work with. I wish we had a place locally that sold their books.

  2. Thanks for a very helpful and informative article. I've been searching online for retailers who carry the new soft cover sketchbooks. Everyone I've checked either doesn't carry them or has the old model. Can you let me know where I can purchase them? Thank you.

    1. Good to hear that you found my review useful! It's not easy finding S&B, but I know that Amazon carries the full line. I bought an 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 Beta from Amazon a few weeks ago, and it was the new stock, but of course it's impossible to know that before ordering. In theory, S&B pulled all old stock, and retailers are not supposed to sell them. I suggest ordering from Amazon, and when you receive them, check the label (per my suggestions in this post) before opening. If you get old stock, return and complain to Amazon and report it to S&B. S&B is very committed to not letting old stock be distributed. Good luck!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...