Commercially Made Journals—Hand•Book Journals: An Updated Review (Part 1)

January 28, 2015

Above: Sketch with a Pentel Brush pen, fine point with pigment ink, and another Pentel Brush pen filled with dye-based, watersoluble ink. 8.25 x 10.5 inch Hand•Book journal.

Quite some time ago I wrote a review on Hand•Book Journals—their regular drawing journals are the focus of today's post, not their watercolor paper journals

In November I was in an art supply store and walked past their display. They had an 8.25 x 10.5 inch journal. I'd never seen that size before and since all my journals are currently on growth hormones I had to buy one. It was pricey, about $35. But I felt it was worth it as a test, and I had good memories of the last one I'd used in 2009 (more about this later).

First I have to say that the journal was well made. The sewing and binding were tight and well executed. The journal opens flat and scans flatly across the gutter.

The journal, with its real bookcloth cover (I selected a dark blue one) was a delight to hold. A real delight. We live in an age of "faux" this and "faux" that. I have commercially made journals with all manner or synthesized faux leather coverings, and others that have rubberized covers (I really don't understand this whole move to rubberize the surface of everything, even some of the dust jackets on novels I've purchased lately have been subjected to this treatment). Am I the ONLY ONE in the world who hates touching these things? They feel slimy and tacky simultaneously. I have very dry hands so it's not an excess of sweat on my part that makes them unpleasant to hold. One bookseller told me the treatment was to combat shop ware, and then confided in a whisper that on darkly printed cover art the finger smudges were more noticeable. Sigh.

I just wish someone would stop that. I like to hold books that have cloth covers and Hand•Book delivers on this. 

So, well-made (and my journal held up throughout one month of furious use), and a delight to hold.

The size (8.25 x 10.5 inches) was also wonderful for me. I like to fill the whole page with an image and then if I'm so inclined I like to write a bit about the event or subject in the negative space—or leave it blank.

I opened my book and started right in with a mixed media piece that I'll show you in another part of this review. The brush pen loved the paper. (REALLY loved the paper—just enough drag to let you know where you were going and had plenty of traction to stop quickly; just enough texture to make use of the brush pen's tip of individual synthetic hairs. This type of brush pen is my favorite as it gives you so many more options than the felt-tipped brush pen.)

When I started working with other media everything fell apart—the paper wasn't happy. I have prepared three more posts dealing with aspects of this paper's response to different media. Today I just want to mention that the paper wasn't happy with wet media.

This was a surprise to me, since I remembered working on it with wet media before, and because my friend Roberta Avidor had worked in these books with watercolor. I was frustrated and puzzled.

I also couldn't stop drawing on the pages with the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen. (I'm pretty much a brush pen addict.)

Because I was bothered by the paper not matching my memory I called a friend who had an older journal of this type and borrowed it from her. The book had been part of a round robin and I had worked HEAVILY in gouache on its pages for my entry. Other participants had also worked in mixed media.

For my part the early stages of the gouache painting as well as thicker later applications all had worked well. I remembered also that the paper had less bend to it and that it was more opaque (i.e., I couldn't see what was on the next page spread as easily).

When I got my friend's book, I had Dick measure the paper's thickness in the three books: my friend's (8.7 mil.); a small journal of this type I'd purchased sometime before 2010 but not used (8.7 mil.), and the new 8.25 x 10.5 inch (7.8 mil). We tested multiple pages in each book to double check. The newest book had thinner paper.

This would explain many of the frustrations I was experiencing with the book. 

This is either a global change in their paper production or an indication that they can't control their manufacturing tolerances. For an artist the difference in thickness can make a significant difference in what can be accomplished on a sheet.

When comparing the three books, actually when they were open on the table and I was waiting for Dick to get home and measure the paper, I noticed that the unused pages of my friend's book, which had no artwork of any sort were turning color on the outside edges. The book was from 2009-2010 and that's just five years. This is the type of discoloration I expect to see in acidic paper.

There was also a color shift from my small journal (unused) and my new large journal, but the color of the pages was uniform and I put that down to simply a different batch, which is normal).

Throughout the end of last year you can see posts of my pages from this test book. I went crazy with the brush pen in it because that's what worked best. Every time I made a drawing I felt sad that I couldn't take it further with other media.

I also found that when I use some of the dye-based, fugitive, and watersoluble inks that some of the Pentel Brush Pens (specifically many of the ColorBrushes) contain, I could get that ink to seep through the paper sometimes on its own (when a lot was applied) but always when I added water. The pigmented inks did not do this.

So if you want a nicely sized book that is great for pencil, colored pencil, and some pens, in particular the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen, and you like a little texture on your paper to give the brush pen a bit of drag, this is a good choice.

Note that if you want to scan heavily inked drawings made in this book, and not see the images from the next spread coming through, you can place a sheet of black paper or cardstock behind the page you're scanning and that usually stops most of the "see-through" effect. (This will not in any way remedy the seep-through of the dye-based inks.)

I have a lot of favorite papers that are lightweight, but lovely for sketching on with pen. I still make them into books despite the show-through qualities. That for me is not a deal breaker.

If you purchased one of these books years ago note that they are not the same and you might want to purchase one to test it before investing in buying in bulk. And based on the discoloration of the paper in only 5 years I would think of these books as better suited to notebooks than art journals.

I have written more about my experience with different media in three more posts that I'll be posting during this next week, but my basic recommendations listed above don't change.

I'm very sad about this because I really enjoyed holding this book in my hands and that's a big part of journaling for me as I sketch standing up holding my book 90 percent of the time.

I wish other manufacturers of bound journals would return to fabric-covered boards.

    • Carol
    • January 28, 2015

    About 2010, I had a small, unused Handbook sketchbook (4×6) that had been sitting closed on a shelf for about 2 years. When I went to finally use it, the edges were discolored almost a half inch in – I had to throw it away. Now, I’ve had Handbooks since then and haven’t seen the problem in those books, but at least now I know it wasn’t my imagination.
    I’m sad to hear the paper has changed – I love these Handbook journals…

    • Alison A
    • January 28, 2015

    You are most definitely not the only one to hate the feel of those rubberized books… just awful

    • Dana
    • January 28, 2015

    You and Alison A are not alone… I hate them too but thanks to you I now know why. I’m a library girl and haven’t come up against these ’till now. My friend just leant me a few books and I was surprised by the feel. …… Go Hardcovers!!!

    • Tina
    • January 28, 2015

    Roz, are you aware of Baron Fig journals?
    I supported their Kickstarter campaign a while back, so I have one of these cloth-covered books. The paper is too thin for anything other than writing, but the company is very good about listening to what customers want. I went on and on about the desire for heavier paper in a small sketchbook, so they now have heard plenty from me. Since they already have a nice cloth-covered book, tell them what kind of paper you want inside!

    – Tina

  1. Reply

    I reviewed my experience with Hand print journals on my old blog back last summer. I took a class from Charles Reid last March. Being a diligent and adding student I bought his supplies. One of the thig s he recommended was a handprint sketch book. Whipping they Sam Flaxs Atl I bought one of the hand print cloth books. A square one. Took it to class. He painted a couple of small Wc in it to show me my errors so I decided to keep it for future classes with him. I bought another smaller one the 5×8 landscape from Amazon.

    Excited I started using it. Something was week g. It was actually repelling g the watercolor like it had been greased. Like you I compared the two journals. The newer one had thinner paper. Hmm.
    Made a trip to Columbia SC and stopped at City Art the store Charles Reid recommends to get your class art supplies. Had an extensive discussion with the store owner Randy abt the cloth bound journals. He doesn’t sell them. The one Charles Reid recommends is a $45 spiral bound one. Needless to say I didn’t buy one. Once stung you don’t get my money again.

    It’s sad because like you I thought it was lovely to hold and feel. I have yet to find a journal book with that slick feeling paper that I really like. Most of them seem to have that paper. Student grade I think. I know it’s not 100% cotton.

    I guess I will just Modge podge some nice paper or linen on the ones with the rubbery covers like Strathmore. Those so far seem to have the nicest paper.

    Bytw recently heard that rubber flip flops from China are actually out gassing chemicals that wearers absorb thru their skin. I wonder WHAT crud is in those book covers that our fingers are absorbing?

  2. Reply

    Good article. Have not noticed yellowing. Am going to contact Global.

  3. Reply

    Gina, for some reason your name got listed as Giba, but maybe it’s been Giba all the time and I’ve just been calling you Gina, if so APOLOGIES!

    I’m glad you’re contacting Global. I think they will probably say it’s drawing paper and it’s not supposed to be used for wet media, but I am interested to know what they say about the change in thickness!

  4. Reply

    Tina, I didn’t know about these and went to look at their site, and they seem to be set up with exactly the same format and styles as the Leuchtturm journals I have written about on my blog.

    It’s too bad that the paper is too thin/unsuited for wet media because they look like lovely cloth covered boards.

    I’ll poke around the site and see if there is somewhere I can urge them to bring out a journal with paper that will be useful for visual journal keepers, but I’m not too hopeful. I’ve asked others to do the same in the past and they claim the paper costs are too much in those scenarios.

    I saw a kickstarter about a guy in Southeast Asia (I think it might have been Thailand, but I don’t recall) who got together with a binding company and made small landscape journals with THSaunders/Waterford paper. I heard about it after it was underway and funded or I would have funded him even though I don’t care for landscape journals.

    I remember reading his site and his discussion of how expensive it was to get the size journal they were getting with waste (because of grain direction and sheet size) etc. The same issue everyone runs into, it’s frankly the same issue I run into when I make custom journals. It’s just life.

    So ultimately it becomes an issue of how much we are willing to pay for a journal that has the paper we want in it. And if someone will make it that way, with quality and FABRIC COVERS!!!

  5. Reply

    Margaret I wrote a reply to this comment when you placed it on Facebook so they probably sent you a note.

    I’m confused if you meant Hand•Book and typed Hand Print. If there is a journal made by a company named Hand Print I don’t know it so I can’t comment.

    My Hand•Book journals haven’t repelled watercolor they’ve had the opposite issue of letting it soak through.

    I really love my Strathmore 500 series Mixed Media journals (which contain the 500 series and it’s 100 percent cotton paper) and I put a newsprint folded jacket on them when I’m using them so I don’t have to hold the weird texture of the cover on the softbound books.

  6. Reply

    What an eye opener this post is. I’ve been so dissatisfied with the watercolor sketches in my carry-along sketchbook this month but I never thought it could be the paper and not me. As soon as you pointed it out it is so obvious that the paper is thinner in my new book.

    I have used HandBook for about six years and until today have been very happy with them. Now I cannot trust the company. I wonder if they know they have just lost their reputation among those of us who use watercolor.

  7. Reply

    Diane, sometimes products like this change and if we don’t notice and things still work for us that’s great, but sometimes it’s very easy to notice differences when you come back to something over time (instead of being constantly using something). Sometimes a change is so dramatic we can know the exact day it happened and point to the exact image when we know a paper changed. Sometimes we just have bad days so we need to try for a bit to see if there is a change in product.

    With this journal it was pretty obvious to me for a host of reasons and it’s sad because I’ve loved them. Some folks, I’m sure will continue to use them—read my post from today (Friday) and see the continued review where I actually talk about how one might continue to use them for certain approaches).

    Since watercolor matters to you and you want to see improvement I recommend that you seek out an alternative. And I suggest some in Friday’s post as well.

    Thanks for reading.

  8. Reply

    Thank you for your reply. I just commented too on your facebook post.
    I agree about often not noticing things when they sort of creep up on you. I have been not very happy with my WC sketches never thought to invetigate why. Unfortunately for me I tend to buy these journals three at a time so still have one left to use after I finish this one. But as you said they are good with some tools so that is how I will now use them.
    Last night after I read your post I could not go to sleep thinking about it so got up at around 2am and decided to pull out a Strathmore mixed media 500 and compare them using WC on both. The differences are so obvious in a direct comparison. So Strathmore will be my choice for the next little while and Ill use up my HandBook journals with ink and brush pen and colored pencil sketches.
    Thanks again taking the time to do the work and respond to our concerns.


  9. Reply

    I’m sorry you couldn’t sleep last night, but I’m glad you put the time to good use by trying your S500MM Series book. I’m glad you found it fun to use. I love that paper!

    And yes you can fill your other Hand•books with sketches using media that work in them. I understand about buying in bulk!

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