I like to write things down, whether it’s sketching out a design idea, doing some quick math to help with measurements or calculations, or planning out a project.
Regarding what I use for this, I tend to lean towards two extremes.
Sometimes I use a 25-cent ballpoint pen and the back of an envelope.
But other times, I use a fountain pen filled with ink, a retractable pen with rollerball cartridge, wood or mechanical pencils, technical pens and markers, or a machined pen with trimmed-to-fit gel ink refill with needle-thin point.
Most of my writing and sketching needs can be well-served by inexpensive paper. However, as with tools, I tend to seek out more enjoyable experiences.
When using certain writing implements, such as fountain pens, more premium paper makes things easier to read thanks to less bleed-through and feathering. Or, it can simply be smoother to write on.
Even if you don’t need special paper that works well with fountain pens and other heavy-ink pens or markers, a good notepad or notebook can still improve the writing or sketching experiences.
For instance, I have come to really like “dot grid” paper, which provides many of the same benefits of graph paper but without the distracting grid lines.
A surprising number of readers responded well to my recent Rotring 800 mechanical pencil deal post, and so I’m curious to see how many of you are also particular about the paper and notepads you use.
Here are some of the types of paper I like to use when writing or sketching with deliberate intent (as opposed to jotting down something quick such as on a Post-It, pocket notebook, or envelope).
What do you like to write on?
We’ve talked about similar before.
See Also: Get Yourself a Good Notepad
Regular Printer Paper
At $5 to $7 for 500 sheets of paper, it’s hard to beat the economy of standard printer paper. You might also want a clipboard or plastic folder to help keep everything together.
Since most of the other recommendations below are somewhat pricey, I felt compelled to add a reminder that printer paper (or copy paper) is just fine if you’re on a tighter budget – or if your needs are simple.
I have stuck with Hammermill multi-purpose inkjet printer in the past, and Target’s house brand of similar multi-use inkjet paper in recent years, out of convenience.
Any copy or printer paper will usually do. The brand generally doesn’t matter, but I like USA-made and try to stick to the same brand for a stretch for consistency.
Price: $5-7 for 500 sheets
Rhodia A4-Size Dot-Grid Notepad
I used to keep legal pads around, but found that I didn’t really use them much, and I resorted to using standard copy paper for sketches and more complex notes.
Rhodia notepads cost quite a bit more, but there are 2 clear benefits. First, the paper is smoother, and is more enjoyable to write on. Second, I really like their dot grid pattern, which provides graph-like structuring without being distracting.
The pages are micro-perforated and easily removed. The paper is Clairefontaine 80g SuperFine Vellum, which is smooth with a bit of tooth that works well with ink and graphite.
A4 is roughly letter-sized, and A5 is half the size.
Price: $9 for 80 sheets
If you want to keep things together, the wire-bound notepads are another good option.
Roaring Spring 5×5 Grid Engineering Pad
I wish I was introduced to engineer calculation pads sooner. One side of each sheet is blank/unruled, and the other side has grid markings. You can write on either side.
When writing on the plain side, the grid markings show through, helping to keep your sketches or measurements in neat alignment. When removed from the pad, the grid lines on the back of the sheet aren’t as prominent, which helps to make things easier to read.
You can accomplish a similar effect by placing a writing board with grid markings behind a sheet of plain paper.
The pads are a bit pricey, but I like them in lieu of memo pads or scratch pads. It’s available in tan (buff) and green. They’re punched to fit a standard 3-ring binder.
Price: $9 for 100 sheets
Maruman MNEMOSYNE Notebooks
Maruman MNEMOSYNE notebooks are a premium 5mm-grid notebook with ultra-smooth paper that’s micro-perforated in case you need to remove papers.
I like the horizontal A4 (N180A) and smaller A5 (N182A) sizes.
(When shopping for European or Japanese paper, A4 is approximately letter-sized. If you cut A4 paper down the middle across the short length, you get 2 sheets of A5-sized paper.)
The benefit here, aside from the smooth texture, is that there’s less ghosting and bleed-through compared to less expensive paper.
Maruman’s notepads are premium-priced, and so I try to use them more sparingly. My intent was to use this as my project notebooks, but I feel bad about “wasting” the paper due to its cost.
Price: ~$18 for 70 sheets A4, ~$11 for 70 sheets A5
Midori MD Notebook
Midori MD has different styles of notebooks, and I think their 5mm grid pattern is a good place to start.
The paper resists feathering and bleeding, which makes it very fountain-pen friendly.
Midori notebooks fold completely flat when open, which makes them a bit more user-friendly in my experience. I have found them to be almost as easy to write in or refer to as a notepad, but add-on covers can hamper this.
They have a basic almost spartan design, and you can add covers (Midori brand or 3rd party) to increase their durability.
Price: ~$12 for 88 sheets A5
LEUCHTTURM 1917 Notebook
Leuchtturm 1917 notebooks are available in different styles (e.g. dot grid, ruled, Bullet Journal, calendar planner), and with hard or soft covers. They are also available in a very wide range of colors.
The number pages are great for use as a project notebook or workshop journal.
These notebooks are a big step up from budget notebooks, with durable bindings and high quality paper.
I like these notebooks, but personally found that I tend to work best with larger notepads or pages that can be removed and moved around.
Price: ~$22 for 251 sheets A5
If you’re tight on budget, Amazon has their self-branded graph-ruled notebooks at 1/3 the price.
I love Field Notes books – notably, the top-flip reporter style, and the tyvek Expedition for my camping book. The reporters I use for planning in the shop, the Expedition i use a Fischer Space Pen refill in a zebra retractable shell, for my underwater upside down writing needs:)
I do too, but they’re too small for my design or workshop use, and I usually find myself grabbing scrap paper such as packing slips or loose printer paper.
I’ve always been partial to wire bound pads because the pad is always flat and I don’t have loose sheets. The Rhodia brand is my favorite, but it’s also a little pricey, but less so than the Maruman, which I’ve never tried. They also have the dot or grid in A4 or A5. $14 for 80 pages.
Graph-paper steno pads are my go-to. Being 8.5″x6″ is large enough for a lot of writing but small enough to stash easily. The spiral binding lets them open completely, and a medium binder clip keeps sheets from flapping around in the field.
Since the spiral binding is at the top, keeping the clip on the lower-right of the “active side” marks which side I’m using – since both sides are easy to use. The bundles of pads or clips are cheap, too, and I can clip a Pentel light-weight mechanical pencil to the binding for a complete scribbling package. Easy & low-cost to scatter a bunch of them.
Regular side-binding (like a book) blocks my hand from too much real estate.
I’ll have to look and see who makes our engineering pads. I know we don’t pay 9 bucks per though.
I’ve always been partial to the Leuchtturm or Moleskine in both the pocket-able and regular sheet sizes. For pocket-size, lined is usually my preference. For full-size “getting down to business,” graph- or even dot-type would usually be preferred… sometimes even a lab type notebook, so it is easily to reference and thumb through topically and by page number. As with quality pencils, pens and lead holders (rOtring, Koh-i-noor, etc), there will always be a certain amount of appeal to notepads and notebooks for me.
That said, in recent years with smartphones being so ubiquitous and always at hand, I have found myself using my notebooks/pads less and less as the smartphone is ALWAYS handy. This makes me sad… but also appreciate the benefits that having a camera/voice recorder/note-jotting tool in your pocket at ALL times. Though nothing replaces the quality old writing implements and pads… even if the only time I usually use them these days is when I am purposely sitting down to get my ideas out of my head and quickly plan something.
Another thing some might find useful or interesting — some years back, I discovered the joys of weatherproof printer paper! Anyone else here tried that? The type I have used is actually National Geographic brand (dubbed ‘Adventure Paper’), but similar products of presumably similar quality seem to exist.
I’ve actually found myself printing out (and in some cases, snap-shotting my written notebooks for printing out) plans on this stuff, especially when I know I’m going to be outside for a good period of time while using it (building a deck, shed, etc), and it holds up surprisingly well!
Anyone else try this stuff??
You can get waterproof notebooks and paper from Rite in the Rain (available on Amazon and HD at least). I’ve also snagged waterproof pocket notebooks from Daiso Japan.
Rite in the Rain is plastic coated paper and while it works ok, it does delaminate if it gets soaked. Rite in the Rain is also expensive. There’s also karst stone paper, which is, in my opinion, a better option and less expensive. I bought a ream of 8.5×11 and cut it to to 5.5×8.5 and punch it to use in my organizer. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the brand but there are several different brands available in a variety of form factors.
As for electronic capture vs paper, I feel paper is superior for my age-addled brain. I often take pictures of written pages (or portions of pages) for safekeeping. I also find writing numbers and dimensions to be far faster with a pen/pencil on paper than using either a keyboard or a stylus.
On a related note, the Livescribe / Anoto digital pen system looked promising for capturing handwriting but it required special paper/notebooks.. It had some impressive features like capturing concurrent audio while writing. I would have had to rethink my workflow to deal with the constraints of the system so when the OLED screen died on my pens, I abandoned its use.
Wow… Didn’t mention it, but I had very much same experience, with the Livescribe system. I actually liked it overall, but the OLED issue… I fought through two of them (Echos). Beyond that, as a ‘pen’, it just wasn’t really comfortable at all, and it didn’t write cleanly (the refills were not of particularly notable quality).
Really WANTED it to work. There are some newer similar offerings. But nothing special looking enough to persuade me to take an expensive dip into trying them. I hope some day this sort of thing is improved, though.
I moved from physical notebooks to using my ipad with apple pencil. I use a program called Penultimate. It has different “paper” layouts with various graphing paper sizes, dot grids, lines, etc. Projects are organized in folders depending on what it is for. Having it stored digitally helps me to not lose things and I can always go back and pull up an old project sketch and duplicate it and modify it for new dimensions, etc.
That being said, I love paper notebooks. I just can’t keep up with them.
I like a good value; while Rhodia & Leuchtterm1917 are very nice, in general they’re too pricey for me. I did get lucky a long time ago when Target put their Rhodia notebooks on clearance at 75% off.
Although I haven’t tried it, Doane Paper’s Grid+Lines is yet another approach. https://www.doanepaper.com/
I’m not a fan of spiral bound notebooks; I guess it’s a combination of aesthetics and the spirals sticking out when notebooks are stacked.
Note that the combination of paper and pen matters; for example, Moleskine is famous for being fountain pen unfriendly; typically the best paper for pencils is different from the ideal pen paper; fountain pens & roller balls tend to feather & bleed through; lefties have their own criteria (dry time is a lot more important), etc.
For Tomoe River paper, I’ve been very happy with Nanami Paper’s notebooks. However, they’re on the smaller side – I don’t believe they make any A4 sized notebooks.
Daiso used to some tremendous notebooks values: Japanese and Korean notebooks for $1.50, some in dot grid, yay!, but in the past few years, their selection has been boring.
I’d like to see more notebooks with a smaller dot grid, like 3.7 mm, that way I can skip every other dot and have a reasonable line for writing, while 5mm spacing is too small for my writing, and 10mm is too big. Nanami has some 3.7mm grid or dot grid notebooks (haven’t tried them yet because first I need to actually use more of notebooks I bought years ago).
I use Graph Ruled Composition Notebooks. They tend to be cheaper and I like the size. However, one down side is they do not lay flat. I did add a Quiver Pen Holder so I always have a pencil, pen, and 6in rule with it.
Love engineering pads, thankfully my work has a near infinite supply.
I’m a big fan of tally books for the shop and field. They’re the right shape to fit in my coveralls. If you’ve never seen one they’re slim hardcover notebooks used primarily for adding string lengths in the oilfield.
I’ve also started using Rocketbook notepads. Basically a whiteboard in a notebook. Have a QR code on them so you can photo your notes with your phone and email them to yourself in one click. They also erase so you can use them multiple times. Gotta remember to use the Frixion pens, but that’s not really a hassle.
Most of the time, I use clipboards and plain copy paper – lots of ‘em. I know exactly where 6 clipboards are right now – seems excessive but its not. Occasionally, I go big. I have a 2’x3’ square ruled pad on the drafting table that I use for large layouts. One of these days I want to try isometric sketching pads. I think Lee Valley sells them.
Koko The Talking Ape
For construction and concept drawings, I use 10-squares-to-the-inch graph paper, punched for 3-ring binders. I draw with pencil on a clipboard, then move them to binders when the project is done. I don’t need the grid for concept drawings, but it’s nice to just have the one kind of paper, for convenience. On ebay it’s quite cheap. 4 (“quadrille”)or 5 squares to an inch isn’t fine enough. Also, it’s nice to be able to vary the scale on the page, and that’s easier with a smaller grid. I could use my trusty architect’s or engineer’s rulers, with the various scales built in, but graph paper works well enough.
I used to use cheap mechanical pencils with oversize erasers, I think Paper Mate Clearpoint, but they break a lot at the eraser end, and I haven’t found anything better. I like nice drafting pencils, but they require a separate eraser, which is kind of a pain.
For writing (I’m also a writer) I use softcover notebooks with full-length sewn bindings, about 8″x10″ (A4) in size. Moleskine, Leuchterm and others make them, but the cheapest by far were from IKEA (they may be discontinued now.) They are light, compact, durable, and lie flat, so it’s easy to write on both sides of the page. The are much easier to carry around than hardcover or spiral-bound notebooks, and more durable than stapled. For pens I use disposable Varsity fountain pens. They write very well, and they’re only $3 each. And with a bit of work, they can be refilled with whatever ink you want. ”
Incidentally, another approximately letter-size notebook (besides A4) is B5. The shape is slightly taller and narrower than A4. Just another option. 🙂
Pentel Twist-Erase mechanical pencils have a big eraser. I’ve bought a cheap 3 pack that was made in China, and some more expensive ones that were made in Japan (looks like the Twist Erase III is made in Japan, is <$5, and has pretty good reviews).
I also have some Faber Castel's that are roughly comparable to the Twist Erase, except the eraser is smaller. I can't recall anything else with a huge eraser.
Koko The Talking Ape
Twist-Erases do have big erasers, but they don’t have retracting lead sleeves, so they aren’t safe to carry in a pocket.
AFAIK, I’m out of luck. Unless you can think of a mechanical pencil with a large eraser and retracting lead sleeve other than the Clearpoint?
I have to say in their defense, erasers are not a priority for drafting pencils. The usual 0.3, 0.5 and 0.7 mm drafting pencils have perfunctory erasers, and the old 2mm lead holders have none at all. If you’re working at a drafting table, that’s not important. But if you’re sitting on you couch drawing on a clipboard, it matters.
That’s a tough request, because retracting lead pipes aren’t common, and big erasers are even less common. However, based on selecting Twist-Up Eraser and Sliding Sleeve on JetPens.com (hopefully link will work): Jetpens filtered search link
it’s Kokoyu to the rescue! Looks like both the FitCurve ($4.55, 0.5mm) and Enpitsu Sharp ($4.55 to $13.75; 0.7, 0.9, 1.3 mm) have both – it’s really clear in some of the Enpitsu pictures. The erasers don’t appear as big (diameter or especially length) as the Twist Erase, but they’re much, much better than the typical drafting pencil.
Sometime I’ll add one or both to my collection (I must have at least 20 mechanical pencils)….
The Kokoyu FitCurve is great- I use one for school, and it’s a fantastic pencil. I’d recommend it, with the only downside being the rubber grip, which is pretty likely to hang on to sawdust, chips, etc. If you can get past that, it’s great!
The Enpitsu Sharp Mx does have a metal grip (that’s why it’s $13.75 at JetPens – can probably find it cheaper elsewhere, but the JetPens website is great).
Based on the pictures, I’d say the FitCurve eraser looks longer than the Enpitsu’s.
I dig the Veritas notepads. I’ll take any excuse to buy some fancy paper, but in the shop I don’t like anything that feels too precious.
I like them too. Plus the free shipping over $30.00 purchase
There are lots of good choices at Jet Pens.
I have a couple Rocketbooks.
The pages are plastic. It uses Pilot Frixion pens. The ink can be erased with a moistened cloth (or an alcohol cleaning pad). There’s a corresponding app that uses landmarks on the pages to record and organize the images. You get a *pdf file with your sketches. It will do handwriting recognition (so you can do text searches). I’m better at storing and retrieving images on my computer than in notebooks.
I love when you work stationary into the site Stuart.
For anyone looking for a quality, made in the USA notebook, Write Notebooks from Baltimore is a good place to look. They have a square, wire-bound, engineer notebook ( https://www.writepads.com/collections/notebooks/products/engineer-notebook ) and an legal-sized engineer’s memo pad ( https://www.writepads.com/products/the-engineer-memo-pad ). I’m not super keen on the wirebound books. Didn’t realize they had the memo pad…. Not enough time for Christmas but, would still make a nice gift for myself 😉
They have a ton of other types of notebooks that people might like too. Different sizes and different bindings.
I’ve also had good luck with Baron Fig. Have a few of their hardcover notebooks and a few of the Vanguard (soft cover). They do a bit more with limited edition colors and “guided” editions that are designed around a theme. I’m a big fan of their dot-grid.
Finally, for someone who is more into fountain pens or gel pens, tomoe paper might be good. Super thin so the notebooks tend to pack a ton of pages. The Nanami Seven Seas has a “cross field” design that is a little different. If you haven’t heard of this before, it’s thin like an old phone book or bible. But, it holds up super well to ink. I haven’t found Tomoe paper to work great with pencil. https://www.nanamipaper.com/products/seven-seas-crossfield-a5-grid-journal-6th-edition.html
Thanks, I appreciate it!
I haven’t seen that “cross field” paper before, but it looks interesting. I left out mention of Tomoe River paper, as I thought its thinness makes it a little less versatile for workshop use.
I use Rhodia dot pads of all sizes. My second choice is Northbooks. They lay flat and have page references. They’re nicer than the Rhodias, but I use Rhodias for everything from sketching to as-builts (I’m and Architect).
I typically sketch things to scale with an architectural ruler. It seems like 5mm grid would be confusing since it doesn’t match imperial scales. Lee Valley sells 1/4” grid paper which is good quality.
I use copy paper for sketches and Journaling which I then punch and store in a binder. I also make my own “field notebooks” using copy paper, graph paper or whatever is laying around. I mostly write with Pentel .7 twist erase III, Bic Crystal and Pilot G-2 gel pen, blue ink.
I don’t write much any more, due to all the computers but I’ve got several moleskins that I like to use. I do like graph paper and have a nice leather bound notebook.
I do a lot of sketching & use paper notes but I’m not all that picky. I’ve got pads of engineering paper and 5-to-the-inch graph paper lying around as well as random notepads. I use those most of the time. If I have a more serious project to do then I use spiral bound notebooks because they lay flat.
I’ve had the opportunity to use Japanese paper on a few occasions and there’s no doubt I like it better than the generic stuff from the office supply store but I’ve never gone out of my way to purchase it.
Back when I was still in college I used legal pads for note-taking, a habit I picked up from debate. That and Pilot Precise pens, which were the only ones I found which could keep up with how fast I would write. One of the strategies in debate is “spreading”–speaking as fast as possible in order to throw out as much information as possible during the very short time limit, with the idea being that your opponent might be overwhelmed and fail to address some point you made. So to keep up with that one learns to write notes very, very, fast and most pens can’t keep up. These days I just use mechanical pencils or drafting type lead holders. I like the feel of nice mechanical pencils like Rotring–I appreciate them the same way I appreciate nice mechanical watches, a well-designed manual transmission, old-school machine tools, and so on. There’s just something about feeling the mechanical parts interact with each other that’s appealing. But honestly I do most of my project work with cheapo Bic disposable mechanical pencils because I’ve only got one nice mechanical pencil but the cheapos all over my workshop and office. And I don’t feel bad about leaving the cheapos to get dirty in the shop while I wouldn’t be very happy if my rotring got blasted with welding spatter or doused in sawdust.
I’d probably get a nice notebook and it would probably sit because I would end up writing with a Inkzall on a piece of cardboard anyway. But in my mind of would fancy myself a sophisticated engineer because I still have said notebook though my cardboard would possibly be stained in oil towards the edges.
I just saw a Fireball YT video recently where Jason used the flip side of gift wrapping paper as giant graph/layout paper.
Something to keep in mind…
I use Pentel Twist Erase GT, and they have both a big eraser and a retractable lead sleeve. I was expecting them to break, but a 3 pack has lasted me about a year in a daily work use setting.
Black ‘N Red notebooks are what I use for meeting notes in the office. For the workshop, I’d love to find some spiral bound steno pad sized dot grid notebooks that are similar to Rhodia in quality but which cost only a few bucks… I have a hard time paying $6-8 for an A5 or steno pad notebook, though not for an A5 sized one.
When I was in college many years ago, I found it helpful to make my own notebooks using 24 or 32 lb laser paper (to allow for fountain pens to write without bleeding through to the other side or feathering, as laser paper is smoother), a dot grid created to my specs for free online (search for “dot grid paper generator”, there are plenty of options) and some paperboard or cardboard for backing. I’d punch it all with a few holes and then use binding rings to hold it together. That system worked well for me, was inexpensive, and only took an hour or two at the start of each semester to print everything and get it all set up.
No one has mentioned an electric eraser yet. Best thing I’ve added to my arsenal in years. I’ve had my two almost five years now. I started with a cheap Chinese one but wasn’t very pleased with it and bought a nice Japanese one. I use rechargeable batteries with it which last for weeks even though I use it dozens of times a day. Would like to know if there are less expensive but other good brands.
As far as the ‘feel’ of pen (and probably pencil) to regular paper, I love Docket GOLD pads. The difference between regular and GOLD is amazing. And I love Bic Atlantis 1.6mm ballpoint pens and Ticonderoga #1 extra soft pencils, but I’m a weirdo…. LOL….