Stillman & Birn’s New Softcover Sketchbooks

I wrote my first blog post about Stillman & Birn sketchbooks at the end of 2011.  Back then I was a newbie sketcher, struggling to find the ‘perfect’ sketchbook.  At the same time, Stillman & Birn had only recently released a small line of high-quality sketchbooks and I was lucky to cross their path as it seemed I was buying a new sketchbook every week, trying to find one I liked.

Since that time Stillman & Birn has expanded their line of great sketchbooks, with their wide range of quality papers and formats.  And except for cheap notebooks I use for quick-sketching, I’ve used Stillman & Birn sketchbooks almost exclusively.  Most of the sketches on this blog were drawn in S&B sketchbooks.

So when Stillman & Birn announced the release of a new line of softcover sketchbooks, I got some immediately.  But there was a problem with the binding.  I called Michael Kallman (President of S&B) about this and I felt so badly for him as his shock could be heard in his voice.  But Stillman & Birn rose to the occasion, withdrew the books from the marketplace, and went to work to solve the problem.

I was both surprised and thrilled when Michael sent me a couple prototype books to test, one with their 150gsm paper and the other with their 270gsm paper.  I was thrilled to find that the binding problems had been solved and wrote about this on February 20th.

NewBooks

So What’s New Larry?

Two things have happened since then.  First, the softcover sketchbooks have been released to those of us who have been chomping at the bit to get our hands on them.  Second, I’ve gotten the chance to fill those two prototypes, allowing me to see how they hold up to my abusive behavior of throwing them into my art bag and carrying them everywhere I go.

I use 5.5×8.5 Alpha, 3.5×5.5 Alpha, and 8×10 Beta books and I love them all.  I’m not going to talk about the paper quality as you can find my comments on their great papers in my other posts and a simple Google search will yield many other artists singing their praises.  What I want to talk about is using them and how they wear because that’s what the prototypes have allowed me to experience that others may not have been able to do at this point in time.

Wear and Tear

UsedPrototypes

When you move from hardcover to softcover you do so mostly because softcover books are lighter (about half the weight of their hardcover counterpart), thinner, and typically a bit smaller because there is no cover overhang.  All of these things are true of the S&B softcovers (they do weigh about half the weight of the hardcovers).

The big fear, however, is that the softcovers won’t hold up under typical urban sketcher “throw them around” abuse.  I’ll be frank.  I didn’t have high hopes because I’m not kind to my sketchbooks, but these books hold up really well.   As you can see in the photo, these books look new in spite of having spent nearly four months being pulled in/out of my sketch bag almost daily.  Even the fact that the prototype books didn’t have their corners rounded as the commercial books are didn’t result in bent corners.

You might also note that the books aren’t swelled up from buckling.  This is a function of those great S&B papers, but  I was concerned that the Alpha book in particular wouldn’t flatten out as well as one with a heavy hardcover.  My fears were unfounded.

Softcovers In Use

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In use these books are a dream come true.  They open very flat – more so than the hardcovers.   I don’t work across the fold very much but it’s easy to do with these books, regardless of the weight of the paper.

This, and the fact that there is no cover overhang makes it very easy to scan sketches done in these books too.  I’ve fallen in love with the 8×10 format for this reason.  I have a hard time scanning 9×12 books, regardless of binding because they just don’t fit my scanner well.  The 8×10 books make it very easy and yet provide a nice size for larger sketches.

One thing that might be nice would be the addition of an elastic band to keep the books closed.  I  didn’t find this to be a problem with these larger books but with the 3.5×5.5, once you get into the book a bit I found that it doesn’t want to stay closed.  It’s not a big deal and I just used a rubber band but I thought I’d mention it.

Summary

I’ve been a Stillman & Birn fan for most of my short sketching lifespan and these new softcovers do what I didn’t think would ever happen.  It’s likely that I’ll stop using S&B hardcover books for the first time in five years.  I’ve fallen in love with these new softcovers.   Great paper.  Great format.  Light weight.  What more could a street sketcher as for?

11 Responses to “Stillman & Birn’s New Softcover Sketchbooks”

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  1. Great review, Larry, thank you! I’ve just gotten a couple, anxious to try them out. (And I love your sketches!)

    • Hi Kate. Thanks for stopping by. The more I use these softcovers the more I love them because I can carry two for the weight of one so I can have a choice of formats. Only my fickle nature over whether I prefer Alpha or Beta gets in the way 🙂 — Larry

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed your review Larry. I’m a S&B fan too – Alpha, Beta and Zeta hardcovers. When I heard that the Softcovers were going to be on the market soon, I was apprehensive about how they would hold up to sketching while standing up. There was no need to worry. I bought one (the Alpha) and it was so surprisingly tough that I also bought Beta and Zeta softcovers in varying sizes. Now I’m fully stocked and ready to go.

    • I suppose there’s a way to damage the covers but I haven’t found it. The cover material is better quality than that of its competitors which is probably what causes them to take the abuse of bouncing around in my art bag. — Larry

  3. Julana says:

    It is so hard not to get way ahead of yourself, buying sketchbooks. These look good. Will keep an eye out for them.

  4. Minjoo Yoon says:

    Hi Larry. Thanks for the great review. After going through too many sketchbooks, I’ve decided I like S&B Alpha paper the most, but the weight of the hardcovers have been making them impractical for me to carry them round daily. A lighter weight version seems to be the perfect answer, and I am glad the binding problem has been resolved in the softcover notebooks, but I still have a concern – whether the softcovers will be too filmsy and be unable to provide the support that hardcovers can. I personally find the Moleskine hardcovers most perfect in balancing the weight and the support and for the accessory touches, though I love S&B papers and sketchbook sizes a lot more. How would you compare the S&B softcovers in comparison to something like the Moleskine in terms of covers?

    • Hi Minjoo,
      Let me begin by making a bold, highly opinionated statement. I think Moleskine’s cover/binding is the ideal for location sketching and can’t understand why the rest of the industry doesn’t get that. I would be using Moleskine watercolor books IF the paper weren’t in a downward spiral towards horrible and if the small one came in a portrait format.

      Now…to S&B. Like you, I love their papers and the choices they give me. It really simplifies my life knowing I can go to one brand and get so many formats wrapped around quality, reliable papers. I’m a simple (minded?) guy and don’t want to have to fish around for a new sketchbook every time I want a different format.

      You’re right that the S&B softcovers are more flexible than Moleskine covers. If you’re the sort that holds the sketchbook in one hand while drawing with the other, I suspect that might be a problem for you for the first bunch of pages when drawing on the left side of the book and the last bunch when using the right side. Otherwise, the paper stack itself stabilizes everything. For myself, I’m ‘hold the book’ challenged and so I carry a thin board on which I rest my sketchbooks, hardcover or soft. In the last year that board has grown (now 11×14) for two reasons. One is that I can stick the bottom of it into my gut while I stand – sketchbook clipped to the top of the board. The other is that I can clip my watercolor kit in the portion not covered by the sketchbook. In short, the soft cover isn’t a problem for me given the way I work. BTW, the board also allows me to use single sheets if I decide I want to work on toned paper or some odd format.

      Hope this helps — Larry

  5. Alan says:

    Hi Larry

    I found a link to your ‘review’ on S&B Facebook page, fame at last !

    Great review but like Minjoo Yoon said above I am concerned over the flexibility not giving enough support and would welcome your comment on this aspect.

    Good sketching weather ahead !

    Alan

    • Fame? Not me brother. I just draw stuff 🙂 As for flexibility, check my response to Minjoo as I think it will provide a rationale for why I failed to address this issue in the review. I just never thought of it because of the way I work. Doesn’t everyone draw the same way I do [GD&R]? — Larry

  6. Jessica Seacrest says:

    Enjoyed your review very much Larry! No mystery as to what is on my wish list :). Thanks for taking the time and happy sketching!