Some Fountain Pen Friendly Budget Notebook Options

2016-07-10 all_three_blog_postIf there is one thing I am somewhat mindful of in this hobby (or obsession if we’re being honest) relating to pens, their associated inks, and paper — it is the cost of feeding the habit. I am not even speaking of bigger ticket items such as a quality fountain pen or leather-bound notebook — simply those everyday stationery purchases we often make.

Of course relative to that new pen purchase, a notebook or notepad remains fairly cheap by comparison, irrespective of brand or manufacturing quality. Although your standard A5 (No. 16) Rhodia pad may come in at AU$7.00 – $8.00, and even the A4 variant only AU$13.00 – $14.00, things can go skyward pretty quickly when stocking up on a few “essentials”. Like many, I have boxes and drawers filled with a collection of such products ready to be called into action when the inclination or need arises.

That being the case, why the need to seek out lower end options? A valid question, and I often ask myself whether I have become someone who buys something just because it is cheap — regardless of quality. However I can assure you I do have some standards, and only search for, test out, and put into ongoing use the products which although may not be perfect, will at least pass those minimum standards and be enjoyable and satisfying to use. I am certainly not going to put up with poor paper just because it was a bargain, spending my writing time cursing at the ink feathering or nib catching on cheap, rough paper.

At times I’ve actually found certain features in some of the cheaper options have suited me a little better than some of their higher priced cousins. Let’s face it though, there is a certain amount of satisfaction to be gained in finding some local, readily available alternatives which reduce the rate at which I burn through those more “premium” products.

I do acknowledge I am lucky enough to have access to many retail outlets given I work in the Brisbane CBD. All of the products here were simply bought off the shelf, and if available online, result in additional postage charges, rendering them less of a budget buy. I do feel for those of you unable to simply walk by in your lunch break, drop a few gold coins and walk out with a notebook or two.

As always, my intention is not to sell these products to you — merely to report in on how I found them to be valid options which are a little easier on the budget. All three I purchased myself, and I have no affiliation with any of the manufacturers or retailers.

Kokuyo Campus B5 Notebook – AU$2.80 DanDa

2016-07-10 campus_cover_blog_postThis notebook has been in daily use for the past month or so, and performed extremely well at the task. As you can see the cover is a little worn. “Daily use” generally involves blog post drafts, coffee tasting notes, general notes or song lyrics rewritten to test out a pen or ink. Many and varied content, however a common theme being longhand writing — often several pages at a time.

Design wise, the Kokuyo Campus series comprises a selection of thin, glue bound (external tape reinforced) notebooks unadorned with any additional pockets, closure straps or the like. They actually remind me of a standard school exercise book in many ways (perhaps with the exception of the better paper quality). The cover is simple card stock, which is not overly thick however does the job as intended.

Not having used any of the Japanese made Campus line of notebooks before, the quality of the paper was certainly pleasing, though not a complete surprise given listings with online retailers noting the paper to be decidedly fountain pen friendly. The 70 gsm paper handled my daily writer (typically M or F) fountain pens with aplomb, showing no feathering, bleed through, nor ghosting of any significance. Writing is almost as smooth as you’ll find anywhere — great paper for most fountain pens.

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With a 0.7 mm Retro 51 refill, the show through was just a touch more evident, however as always I also put this down to my heavier hand when using rollerballs or ballpoints.

The slightly off white paper shade provides a perfect canvas for true ink colour representation, and dry time is comparable to, if not better than some of the heavier weight papers — dependent on ink type of course.

The Campus line of notebooks comes in various sizes in plain, ruled or grid options, and the pre-printed No., Date and bold title lines at the top of the page are a nice touch. Although my numbering always goes in the bottom right corner of each right hand page, other indexing or notations can always take advantage of the field provided at the top.

The model I’ve been using contains ruling at 6 mm spacings, with contains additional 7 mm markings along the top and bottom lines for reference in the vertical plane.

2016-07-10 campus_spine_blog_postOverall I am very impressed with this thin, light, high performing notebook, and if there were any negatives, it is probably only the binding, which is beginning to stretch a little in the initial pages. I suspect I have contributed to this by regularly (and unnecessarily) bending the book back on itself to then lay it flat for writing — probably not the best habit given running the heel of my hand up the open book would achieve the same result. Coming in at 60 pages, I imagine most will have this notebook filled and move on before any real issues are seen with the binding, however it is perhaps best to take at least a little care.

I’ll certainly be buying from the Campus line of notebooks in the future, and if you haven’t already — I’d highly recommend at least trying them out. For the princely sum of AU$2.80, there is not a lot to lose, and as far as I’m concerned is quite the bargain for what you get.

Side Note: The design and evolution of the Campus series of notebooks is also an interesting story.

The Complete Report Pad — AU$2.80 Daiso

2016-07-10 reporter_cover_blog_postThis particular purchase was driven by the need for a “correspondence” notebook or notepad which was fountain pen friendly, contained tear off sheets, and was a little larger than an A5 Rhodia No 16 notepad.

The specific reason for this being I write a good portion of the letters I send during my lunch break, and often do so sitting at the bar of my favourite cafe in the CBD. Said bar is fairly narrow from front to back, and not therefore suited to the Rhodia A4 sized pad I had been using. Having resorted to the A5-sized Rhodia No 16 instead, ideally I wanted something in between to fill the void, with a B5 sized notepad was of course the way to go.

The Complete Report Pad is an Indonesian made B5 tablet style notepad sold through Daiso, and as noted above — for a bargain basement price.

The top binding is again glue with tape reinforcing, and allows straightforward tearing of sheets from the pad once completed. The front cover is your standard glossy, slightly thicker paper stock, with the rear thickened cardboard. Both do their respective roles as intended, however the front cover is not designed for very rough use.

Of course the most important aspect is the paper. Ruled at 6 mm spacings, the pages also sport a title bar along the top, containing pre-printed Date and No. fields. There are also 6 mm divisions marked at across the top and bottom-most line of each page. The ruling and printed divisions/fields appear on the front facing side of the page only, with the intention of single-sided use.

I’ve not been able to find specifications as far as the weight of the paper is concerned, however a reasonable estimate would be in the order of 70 gsm or so. Whether this is correct or not I am not sure, however the performance is certainly comparable to papers around that type of weight.

2016-07-10 reporter_close_blog_postWriting performance is very, very good for the price you pay for this notepad. It is not dissimilar to the Kokuyo paper I’ve described above, yet is marginally toothier to the feel. Again I’ve used numerous fountain pen nib types (M and finer) and inks with no problems. A small amount of ghosting with no bleed through; feathering is non-existent; and the overall feel of the paper provides a pleasant writing experience. I’d still describe this paper as being relatively “smooth”, yet of course it is not your Rhodia or Clairefontaine.

There really isn’t too much more to say about this one. For my intended purpose of finding an appropriately sized correspondence notepad, The Complete Report Pad is just about perfect. For the price you can pick these up for, they are exactly the sort of thing to grab a few and leave them in the various places you may jot down a few words or as I do — write a letter.

Wonder if they’ll let me leave a stack on the end of the bar?

Aqua Drops Twist Ring Notebook by Lihit Lab – AU$4.70 Officeworks

2016-07-10 aqua_drops_cover_blog_postHere is where I’ve really upped the ante, with the 30 page Aqua Drops Twist Ring notebook thundering through the register at a cost of AU$4.70 — almost double the price of the two mentioned above. To me it is still considered a budget option, though in the same store you can pick up a Rhodia No 16 Notepad for a list price of AU$7.16. There is also a B5 sized Aqua Drops notebook listed at AU$5.00 — agin for 30 pages.

The choice here though is not necessarily just price, but some of the utility gained in features of the Aqua Drops Twist Ring — namely the fact it is easily refillable, and those refills can be obtained in plain, ruled or grid loose leaf sheets. A packet of A5 refills will set you back AU$2.95, so in effect, once the notebook is purchased you have endless refills at a similar cost to the products above. I’ve mentioned the B5 size, and refills for this size are AU$3.50.

Although the utility of refilling and/or rearranging sheets in this notebook is probably the main drawcard, the writing performance is right up there as well. This is super smooth 70 gsm paper, and any nib or tip will glide happily across its surface. All of your ink colours will shine on the white paper, and while the lines are not overly dominating, aren’t quite as light as the Campus notebook.

If you are a heavy fountain pen user, and use a lot of broader nibs combined with wetter inks, the paper is probably not going to be up to scratch for double-sided use. However for my medium nibs and finer, the only negative is a little ghosting on the reverse of the page. There is no bleed through or feathering to be seen at this end of the nib spectrum, however my European mediums were right on the cusp of feathering with certain inks.

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The refill system is quite straightforward, with a tug on the top and bottom of the page adjacent to the spine when the notebook is open, popping apart the rings. I’ve not had the product long enough to comment on the longevity of the plastic spirals, however they seem strong enough. Fatigue with repeated use may perhaps be a factor, though equally it may not. Being circular in shape, the rings feel quite strong, however I wonder about something like a heavy textbook being dropped on the spirals — which I guess you’d never know until it happened.

My other main quibble, which isn’t unique to this particular product — more so with spiral bound notebooks in general, is the inevitable “page wiggle” which occurs while I’m writing. Unless the pages are a fairly tight fit on the binding, which tolerances generally prevent — I find myself needing to hold the page steady rather than simply resting my free hand on or beside the notebook. Not a big deal however I do find this a little annoying to constantly do.

With a packet of grid refills, I’m planning on using this as a recording notebook for my coffee roasting. Perfect.

Three new notebooks — budget intact

Although this post is not intended to be a head to head comparison of the three products I have described above, I have certainly come out of the experience a little more knowledgeable on the merits of each. Also worth mentioning in addition to those above, is the “X” branded spiral notebook from Officeworks which I have previously written about.

To be honest, I would buy and use all three again. One thing is for certain though, the B5 Complete Report Pad is now my default for written correspondence. I love the size, the paper is great, and sheets tear off with ease. A definite ongoing purchase when the current one runs out.

Of the other two, the Campus Notebook slightly edges out the Aqua Drops, and appeals mainly based on the quality of paper and overall lightweight yet quality construction. The Aqua Drops notebook series I consider a solid option, and for me, would be an ideal “project” notebook, as the option to add, subtract, or rearrange pages (of ruled, plain or grid options to boot) is a real positive. A few sketches and notes as part of a project negates the ongoing “page wiggle” issue of prolonged writing sessions, and tends to be where a lot of spiral bound notebooks I try end up.

As I mentioned above, I do find satisfaction in seeking out lower cost stationery options, which, admittedly aren’t always on point, however the three above are great options to try out for yourself. If they don’t suit? Well, I guess you haven’t really lost much in finding out.


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Officeworks X A5 PP Spiral Notebook

x_a5_pp_post_cover_with_pensI picked up this notebook at my local Officeworks for AU$2.99. That’s right — three bucks. My expectations as to how it might perform under a fountain pen were therefore not overly high, however feeling the paper while in the store suggested it just might be a little better than expected.

Home I went — not expecting much, however in the knowledge at worst it would end up a rollerball or gel pen notebook and at least see some use. What I ended up with was a whole lot more than that.

Design

x_a5_post_X_logoThe X A5 PP Notebook is part of the broader range of ‘X’ series stationery at Officeworks, consisting of notebooks, paper, writing instruments and various other accessories. I believe these are an Officeworks “own brand” type line up. All would be considered reasonably priced, with many downright cheap, as is the case with the subject of this post.

x_a5_pp_post_coverThe A5 is a double spiral or wire bound notebook with slightly frosted, transparent, hard polypropylene (hence “PP”) front and rear covers. Also available is a variant with a ziplock pocket at the front and an elastic enclosure, for the princely sum of AU$4.99.

Apart from the branding sticker in the bottom right hand corner of the front cover, the notebook carries no other features or markings, which suits the simplistic design. Given the cover is transparent, there is of course a great opportunity to decorate the first page as you please, and presto: instant personalised cover design. Commensurate with my overall design and creative abilities, mine remains blank.

x_a5_pp_post_labelOne other point to note is your usual preferences regarding binding in notebooks will of course apply. I know many find the large wire binding to get in the way of a fluid writing experience — particularly when writing on the left side of the page, or vice versa for left-handers. If that is how you usually find things in these notebooks, you’ll find it here as well. On a positive note, I’d say there is a medium amount of “wiggle” in the page when writing — also something I typically find characteristic of wire bound notebooks, which if excessive, can certainly be a deal breaker for me. They have done a pretty good job here.

Overall, the X A5 has a robust feel to it, and for the price, is certainly not an unattractive notebook. Sure, it’s not likely to set your desk on fire in the style stakes, however the simplicity of the design ensures it won’t necessarily look out-of-place on that desk either — a characteristic often missing from items at the lower end of the market.

Specifications

The specifications listed on the Officeworks website:

  • Cover: frosted clear polypropylene
  • Binding: double wire
  • Pages: 180 (90 sheets)
  • Paper: 80 gsm white
  • Ruling: 5×5 mm dot grid
  • Size: A5
  • FSC certified (Forest Stewardship Council) paper
  • Country of manufacture: China

Paper and performance

As noted in the specifications above, the 80gsm white paper comes with a dot grid ruling and 180 pages — more than enough to keep you going though a few ink chambers of writing. The pages themselves are not perforated, however tear out easily enough, and do not leave the entire edge of the sheet torn to shreds like some wire bound notebooks.

It’s when it comes to writing on these pages that the real value for money here is hammered home. With fountain pens, this paper really does punch well above its price tag. Certainly not as smooth across the surface as say Rhodia paper, however performance-wise it doesn’t suffer.

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With finer nibs you’ll experience a little tooth on the page (something I prefer, as long as it’s just a little), however I would still describe the overall experience as a smooth one. Wider and wetter nibs only get smoother, with no feathering, show or bleed through the page. I’ve mentioned in the past I can deal with a little bleed or show through, but feathering drives me crazy.

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Remember I paid three dollars for this notebook.

Of course as with any paper performing in this way, at times there will be issues with dry time if you are powering along, and testing shows typical inks will dry at around the 20-25 second mark, plus or minus 5 seconds or so for wetter or dryer inks. Of course it goes without saying its ability to handle rollerball, gel ink, or your standard ballpoint pens is assured.

This is without doubt some of the best value 80gsm notebook paper going around, and is readily available online or at your local Officeworks store. This post on The Fountain Pen Network would suggest I am not alone in this line of thinking.

Conclusion

Having picked up this X A5 notebook on a whim, when “back to school” shopping at Officeworks with my kids, the hope was it might be a reasonable quality, cheap notebook to have lying around. It turned out to be way more than that.

Of course it won’t replace your Rhodia No. 16, but wow, it’s a heck of a lot closer than you might think, and I’m certainly likely to be back for more. It would indeed be a great option to accompany the purchase of a new Pilot Prera fountain pen if that’s why you entered the store.

Well done Officeworks — extremely well done.