Friday, May 3, 2019

First S&B Zeta Filled

My first filled daily-carry Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook

One of my blog rituals has been to show each completed sketchbook and the covers I made for it after I had filled enough signatures to bind them together. Now that I’ve decided to use Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbooks as my daily-carry instead of hand binding, I didn’t want to miss that ritual of closure and completion. It’s not the same with a store-bought sketchbook, so I probably won’t do this every time. But since it’s the first off-the-shelf, daily-carry sketchbook I’ve filled in a long time, it feels worth noting. It’s also a good opportunity to see how the pros and cons have shaken out, now that I’ve used 52 pages in a month:

  • As I’d hoped, the paper is the biggest benefit of this change in my sketchbook. I appreciate Zeta’s smooth surface and substantial weight; it is a joy to use with all my favorite media: colored and graphite pencils, markers, brush pens, ballpoints, fountain pens. (Surprisingly, as much as I loved it during nearly six years of use, I don’t miss Canson XL’s cold-press surface after all.)
  • The 5½-by-8½-inch page format is comfortable for all the compositions I typically make. My handmade signature’s 6-by-9-inch page gave me a half-inch more on each side that I thought I might miss, but I don’t. I don’t even notice the loss.
  • I also got used to the slight additional weight and bulk of the S&B book. I am, however, more conscious than ever of keeping the rest of my bag as slim as possible.

I had initially rejected this Derwent waterbrush for normal use, but its overly
generous tendencies are just right for pre-wetting the paper.
  • The difference in surface sizing took some getting used to, and I don’t consider it ideal for wet media. After running into problems early in the book, I stopped spraying the surface to wet it evenly before spreading color – a quick trick I’ve been using for years. Now I use a clean waterbrush to do the job. (It’s a Derwent waterbrush, which I had initially rejected for normal use because it releases too much water. But it’s ideal for this specific task.) I can still use a spritzer for my foliage technique.
  • The only thing I miss about not using handmade signatures is that I can’t fold back the side I’m not using. S&B’s softcover binding is somewhat flexible, but not flexible enough to fold back. It’s slightly more cumbersome to hold the entire book open, especially when standing, but I’m tolerating it.

Overall, I’m pleased with the change and happier than I expected to be with the paper. Every sketchbook choice requires compromises, but the Zeta requires very few. It just goes to show that sometimes a sketchbook shakeup is exactly what I need.

Using a store-bought sketchbook has one more benefit that I hadn’t even thought of: Cracking open a fresh, new book. I know some sketchers feel some anxiety about all those clean, blank pages staring back at them. But now that I’ve just peeled the wrapper off my next Zeta, I feel nothing but anticipation: All the sketches just waiting to be made.

Stillman & Birn Zeta takes everything with aplomb.


  1. To make each book unique, I add stickers to the covers. Sometimes I make my own, print and glue to the cover. They're not as durable but it doesn't matter as the sketchbook isn't in use for a long time.

    I haven't noticed... do you use a binder clip to keep it open. I find that helps in holding it while standing to sketch.

    1. Zeta pages are so heavy (like Canson XL 140 lb) that they don't blow at all, and the book stays open easily. I like folding back the side I'm not using just to make it easier to hold with one hand.

  2. Nice review of how the Zeta works for you. The S&B books are good. I like the Beta which takes watercolor and ink pretty well. What I like is that it lays really flat. I have some Strathmore sketchbooks and although I like the paper the fact that they don't lie flat is annoying, especially when you get the the back of the book. I end up having to clip it to a board.

    1. I agree -- I've rejected several sketchbooks that have nice paper but the bindings don't open flat. When you're standing on the sidewalk, stuff like that can be so annoying. They are a deal-breaker for me.


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