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Stillman & Birn Epsilon Series Sketchbook

March 2, 2011

A video and written review of this new sketchbook.

Above: Video review of the new Stillman & Birn Epsilon Sketchbook. Again, apologies for the autofocus problems. When focused on a blank page it started to search around for something to focus on and settled on lens dust! See below for review details.

UPDATE March 2012—See additional comments about this product at the end of the original post.

I finally got my hands on a Stillman & Birn Sketchbook—8.5 x 11 inches, Epsilon series. It cost me $24.00 which I think is a good price for a book of this size and heft.

I wanted to run down some points of interest (both pros and cons) that I mention or allude to in the above video (can't see the video, see the Stillman & Birn Espilon Review at YouTube). (Also, don't worry about my hands, my fingers are bandaged because they are cracked from drawing snow piles, gloveless, in the cold.)

Stats:
Epsilon Series

Size: 8.5 x 11 inches; 62 sheets/124 pages heavy weight paper for pen and ink; natural white; 100 lb/150 gsm; plate surface; archival neutral pH, lignin and chloride free.

Design:
Hardcover, casebound, sewn signatures, great glue seams (where signatures meet); self-endpapers.

Note: Thin and thick or light and heavy when describing the weight of a paper are relative terms. For purposes of the discussion below I use the words light weight or thin to describe this 100 lb. paper because it is lighter weight than the 140 lb. watercolor paper I typically use. You may use paper that is lighter still as several sketchbooks on the market have 70 lb. drawing paper. The paper in these books would then be heavier than what you're used to using. Be sure to check the specs on your current sketchbook's paper for comparison.

Pros:
Super plate surface is a joy for pen work.

Dick loved the plate surface for writing with his various colors of Noodlers Ink. He'll probably be using these books for his engineering design books.

Easily removable labels. There is also a debossed logo at the base of the back cover, not glaring.

Solid cover boards will ensure a long life of travel, dropping, and shelf storage.

The signatures are sewn, and in my sample were neatly done, with no loose loops (which I had recently in a different company's journal).

The glue joins are really solid in this book. (Between the signatures there is a place where glue is applied from the back of the spine, before casing in, so that the first and last page of each signature join together.) In many books these pages pull apart easily and expose the spine. In many books the sizing on the paper causes the glue join to delaminate. Either way, it's a bad deal if you want your books to last. I really, really pulled and pulled on several of these in my book and I think they will easily withstand normal use.

The sheet, though thin, is sturdy. So sturdy in fact that I could use Stabilo Tones on it, dry, wet, dry again, and then a lot of buffing, without any pilling or bleed through onto the previous page. This is a huge surprise in a sheet of 100 lb. weight. A delightful surprise!

All the pens I tested work great on this paper, which is after all a pen paper. Gel pens, technical pens, fiber-tipped pens, brush pens, dip pens, even bamboo pens (another dip pen) all love this paper. (It just takes a bit of time for the ink to dry if you're going to do washes over it, and even then you might have some minimal bleeding of the ink into your wash).

Markers are fabulous on this paper. In particular the AquaMarker blends well with water on this paper. Stabilo All washes out in a delightful fashion on this paper.

Collage—with lightweight paper is OK. Anything heavier than the lightest weight of papers makes the page very stiff.

The Epsilon 8.5 x 11 inch opens flat so it's easy to work across the spread. I don't know how tightly the smaller sizes are constructed. In other sketchbook lines like this it always seems that the smaller sizes don't open as easily or as flatly as their larger siblings. Before ordering a gross of the smaller books be sure to check one for yourself to make sure you have the page spread space you are expecting.

Cons:
Opacity issues with the 100 lb. sheet—you can see through the page to your previous drawing, especially if you work with the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen which gives a thick dark line.

Note: See-through is an opacity issue. What you're seeing in the video, and what I'm talking about is see-through. How much of the art on the previous page is visible on the next page; a lot. But this is not bleed through—that's a totally different thing. See-through is something you can ignore, bleed-through is a deal breaker. Ink didn't bleed through this paper, even when ink was added to the reverse side of a wet page. Or when it was worked hard with Stabilo Tones—using various actions that often cause other papers to pill.

Lighter weight paper is not engineered for wet media. You can use wet media on it as I discuss in the video but the paper will buckle. (I do not mind paper buckling with use—but I know there are some fussy people out there that are bothered by this so heads up.)

Cover covering has a bit of a plastic-y feel to it that is not pleasant for me to hold, and is in fact a bit slick. I have dry hands yet I know the book will be difficult to hold in the heat of the summer at the zoo. I prefer bookcloth.

Ink takes longer to dry on this paper so allow more drying time and move your hand appropriately as you work to avoid smudging. I'm a careful sketcher and I had to watch myself.

Smearing, because of the longer ink drying time also interferes with my habit of immediately going to washes. Ink tends to pool in various places on this paper, in minute pools that you only see when you put on your wash. Just be aware that not all areas of your line will dry at the same rate, even if you are using acrylic ink! 

(Obviously, the ink handling characteristics are something you can adjust for and are pointed out as part of my experience to help communicate the working capabilities of this paper. This is a fast paper and when you adjust for it it's a lot of fun. Left-handers who have smearing issues in general will need to be especially careful.)

The I'm Not Crazy About It But Someone Else Will Love This Characteristic Category:
I mentioned above that I have a problem (personal taste) with the black covering used for these books to cover the boards. It isn't a fabric and it isn't a paper. Upon inquiry I learned it has both a latex and acrylic component to it to enhance durability and abrasion resistance. Only time will tell if such covering holds up to constant use. I've tried to scratch it and scuff it and it seems pretty hardy.

But How Does It Smell Roz?
This is the category I have to include, because you all know odors matter to me and are deal breakers. The cover material does have a slight odor that I don't care for (a slight chemical odor). Sort of a plastic-y smell. It aired out almost completely in about 4 days in the back room. I can still smell it if I put my nose right on the material, but it in no way prevents me from working in the book. The paper smells a bit more woody than I like paper to smell. That said, it's a clean and fresh woody smell and not a musty smell that several other commercial sketchbooks give off. I could actually live with this paper (in the Epsiolon Series). It also has no offensive odors when wet media is applied.

Little Quibbles, Because You Know Me I Always Have an Opinion:
Marketing—I'm unclear who the market for these books is—college art students? Adult, post school artists? Their ad copy talks about the relationship between the artist and the sketchbook, pushing the archival qualities. In a world filled with Moleskine sketchers I hope they can find a niche.

Labeling—while easy to read and easy to remove (thank you, thank you, thank you), I think it sends a mixed message to say that "paper matters, feel the difference," and then show artwork by dead artists done on defunct paper (because believe me I've spent most of my adult life tracking those papers down). I understand the urge to connect with "quality art" and make a statement about their product being suitable for the creation of quality art, but as presented the message comes off mixed to me. If the product catches on I look forward to seeing quality art, done on the paper the book contains, shown on the labels. For paper, or any art materials actually, I like the advertising to reflect what is possible on or with that product.

Other Factors:
You'll see when you go to their website that there are several series each with a different paper.

For most of the papers the books are available as casebound or wirebound books so you can have your sketchbook the way you like it. And for each series there is also a range of sizes that will suit most sketchers. (Though there isn't a square option in all series and I do love square books. Also I would really like something that is between a 5.5 x 8.5 and an 8.5 x 11 inch book, but that's just me. For size the only thing that comes close for me is the 8.5 x 11 inch casebound book and that is a heavy book to tote around.)

For the series with Extra Heavy Weight Paper like the Beta Series, only the wirebinding is available. The good news is that in these extra heavy weight paper series there is a 7 x 10 and a 7 x 7 inch book. The Alpha and Gamma series state that they accept light washes.

I have a Gamma sketchbook, and the paper feels the same as the Epsilon, except with more tooth for dry media. Maybe it will work differently. I don't know yet. I'm going to use it at life drawing with a variety of media and get back to you on it. I have to believe it will also buckle. (Again, buckling isn't a deal breaker for me.)

Besides posting at a later date about the Gamma I'll be posting about the Beta—which has Extra Heavy Weight (180lb.) natural white, rough paper that has "enhanced wet strength." I purchased the 7 x 7 inch for $17.00. Nothing to say about it yet as I haven't had time to crack it open.

Off to do some more experiments.

Update: March 2012—After Extended Use of these Journals

I'm not satisfied with the paper in these journals for note taking and sketching. I used two of them for taking notes in a 15-week Memory Drawing Class. One was the Epsilon, the other the Gamma. I had the same problems with both.

Work included sketching in the journals sometimes with pen other, times with ink. I also had to take extensive lecture and discussion notes. I found that the soft pencil leads required for the sketching (4B to 8B) smudged horribly on this paper and a simple swipe of the hand could almost totally erase the graphite. Cross spread contamination was ugly.

I also found that even as a right-handed note taker the ink from my Nexus and Stadtler Pigment Liner pens (both of which normally dry quickly on any other paper) floated so long on the paper that there are countless smears all over the notes from when I paused, looked up and listened, then shifted my hand, and returned to note taking. It has been a very disappointing experience.

Experiments with the Beta were not good. I intend to write a post and have lots of photographs but currently don't have time to put it all together. My main issue with the paper in the Beta series is that it curls ferociously when you use wet media and I find this is not conducive to working in the heavy, mixed media (which includes wet media) way I like to work. I also found the journals bound too tightly (wire coil too small) to accommodate the changes the paper undergoes after wet media. (The newer books may have different size coils as I did discuss all my findings with the company, but I haven't seen any recent books.)

I won't be using these books again. Please see the complete discussion of the pros and cons I discovered in this post and in the embedded video to learn whether or not the characteristics I find off-putting might actually work for you and your methods.

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