Working in the Smooth Zeta Soft-bound Journal from Stillman & Birn

November 22, 2017
First page spread in my smooth, heavyweight Zeta Sketchbook from Stillman & Birn. This is actually the inside cover and first page of the sketchbook. The book has self-endsheets of the same paper it contains (a common practice in binding). Typically I leave the first page blank for a title page. I jumped into this first spread without that in part to test how the cover would stand up since the verso page backs the cover. I feel very good about the stiffness of the cover.

A couple months ago I picked up a Stillman & Birn Soft Cover Zeta Book. I don’t use Stillman & Birn books. I don’t care for the way they make their hardcover books and their papers are either too lightweight, or in other ways not responsive to the way I work. With so many other choices on the market I’d rather use something else.

However, on this day Dick was with me looking for a smooth paper notebook in a certain size range (8 x 10 inches or so). He uses hardbound books for notebooks to write not only his meeting notes, but his engineering projects.

Darin Rinne, co-owner of Wet Paint, suggested Dick take a look at the smooth version of the Zeta book. This book is 8 x 10 inches (soft cover) and contains the Extra Heavyweight paper—270 gsm. While it might not be the brightest white paper on the market I think it clearly qualifies as a bright white paper which I know is important to lots of people besides Dick.

Dick didn’t like the hardbound journal that is 8.25 x 11.75 because of the clunky spine construction.

But then, as often happens, Dick wandered off to look at other books with more pages. While I might be happy with a book that has only 52 pages, Dick likes to use the same book over a longer period of time.

Dick didn’t buy a Stillman & Birn (hereafter S&B) book that day. He ended up contacting Michael Rogers Press and ordering a number of books he once purchased locally from their press. The lighter weight paper in those books was still smooth enough and suitable for his fountain pens. Those sketchbooks all have many more pages.

But I was standing there looking at the smooth paper in that soft bound book and wondering what it would be like to work on it in mixed media. So I bought one to test.

Today’s review is going to be a bullet list of points because my plans to write a more in-depth review were derailed when I took a fall and tore up my left foot. I have very little time to sit upright before my foot (in a walking boot) screams for elevation. 

As always I make clear what my preferences are so that you can decide if that is something you like or not—because what I don’t like about a product might be the exact thing that you are looking for in a product.

The review will be published in several parts over the next 10 days or so. Each part will look at specific pages I created and make points about different aspects of the paper, relating to the different tests.

My Main Conclusions about the Smooth Zeta Soft Bound Journal from Stillman & Birn

While the paper is a lovely, serviceable smooth surfaced paper, my initial dive into the book made me grumpier and grumpier until six spreads in I realized that the Zeta paper didn’t have the “fun factor” that working on other papers generates.

“Fun Factor” is a nebulous thing that’s hard to specify and it will vary from person to person. But working artists know it when they feel it—it’s how we develop our go-to materials and papers. As the reviews unfold over the next several days you’ll be able to see more clearly some of the not so elusive characteristics I chase for in a paper. Taken together they add up to the “fun factor” because they determine the varied ways in which I can use a paper. Versatility is important to me because I work with so many media within one book.

Today I’m listing positives and negatives in one continuous list as I draw the points out from my notes and review my finished pages.

For me there are too many negatives or “so whats” in my experiences using this book. So I will not be purchasing it again unless I find I’m going to be doing a lot of brush pen work in a short space of time and want to contain it in one book—the brush pen is very fun on this paper.

In fact if you work in ink using a dip pen, parallel pen, pigment liners, brush pens, or fiber-tipped pens you will probably really enjoy this smooth paper.

My Pros and Cons about This Paper

1. The soft cover binding is pleasant to hold and is of sufficient stiffness to protect the interior. (Many commercially bound journals are going with this sort of plasticized surface, and in general I don’t care for it on any of them. S&B’s soft cover has a slight pebbly impressed texture.) 

2. Like other commercially bound journals going with this type of covering they are not suitable for people working in humid conditions (like a Poultry Barn in the middle of a Minnesota Summer). If you want to use this book for those conditions I recommend you make a simple paper dust jacket for it.

3. I haven’t been able to take my book into the field because right after purchasing it I caught a cold and then bronchitis which kept me indoors for 7 weeks. Then this weekend I took a fall and tore up my left foot and ankle and that means even in the walking boot I won’t be standing and sketching for a long time. Therefore I can’t render a comprehensive report on durability of the binding. However I can state that as I’m moving through the book (two thirds of the way through) the spine area of the pages that have been used has collapsed to concave, through use. This is normal with other commercially made soft-bound books. The question is will it be uniform throughout the use, or will the spine do something odd at the last few pages? Don’t know. I would not let this keep me (or you) from buying one of these if this is the type of paper you like.)

4. The book opens flat throughout and it is a simple matter to scan spreads from this book construction.

5. The glue binding reinforcing the SEWN signatures is sturdy and flexible. (I require a book to have sewn signatures, that’s a deal breaker for me. Along with sewn signatures it’s always good to see that the spine is supported by glue.)

6. There are no unpleasant odors from the glue, cover material, or paper used to construct this book.

7. The heavyweight paper is sufficient in thickness to provide a good base layer for collaged elements. 

8. I am using the last half stick of my PURPLE UHU Gluestick. (This is a discontinued product that a friend sent to me! I have not found a replacement for this yet.) The paper in this journal worked well with this glue. Because the paper is thick and stiffish, I would use PVA or pastes on this paper without fear of extensive buckling.  I weight my pages when I have attached something with glue so this also minimizes buckling. If you don’t burnish your collaged bits down and then weight them in place (under wax paper) while they are drying on ANY journal paper, why aren’t you? (Before I finish my book I’ll use some PVA and report in the final review!)

9. In the opening image today I used Pentel Brush Pen (pigment ink) and Pentel Brush Pen with dye-based water-soluble ink. The wash out of the latter worked OK on this paper. The paper is sufficiently sized so that you can do a quick wash out that is even or streaky as you deem necessary. (I will have more on this aspect in other reviews with other images. It’s a complex issue that one example won’t cover.)

10. The top image was begun with a Pilot Lettering Pen and that pen works well on this smooth paper.

11. Once I got to adding a little watercolor to the paper the areas worked with ink wash were not as receptive to moving the watercolor around. In general washes go only where you push them and don’t have the flow you’ll find (and may depend on) on papers sized for watercolor. I paint on many non-watercolor papers and this is not an issue for me. If it is for you keep this in mind. (I will post a comparison of watercolor on this paper and on my favorite printmaking paper in another post so you can focus on just that aspect.)

12. Even where there was no ink and I applied watercolor (left side of spread, vertical bar) the result was streaky.

Detail of the lapel areas that shows a little bit of light lifting caused the paper to pill. I will deal with this in more detail in another part of this review series. I expect mixed media papers to be sturdier than this.

13. Attempts to do even a little bit of wet ink lift off (something I do regularly on other non-watercolor papers) did not go well. See the right-hand side portrait—lapel area, detail image provided. There the paper is beginning to pill after very little attempt at lifting. (I will deal with more examples of this type of approach in the other parts of this review.)

14. Montana Marker, which was used in the background of the top image, is easily accepted by this paper for clean application.

15. The heavy weight paper held up reasonably well to the repeated working with different types of pens across this spread.

That wraps up this first look at this sketchbook.

I will have four or more posts coming up in the next 10 days that review this paper from the perspective of different tests, or the repetition of a test to verify that I’m getting repeatable results. Please check back this week and next.


    • Tina Koyama
    • November 22, 2017

    Looking forward to this series of the type of in-depth, thorough testing you always put your products through! Personally, I’m a huge fan of S&B Alpha and Beta, which are textured. I have a Zeta book, but I haven’t used it much because I prefer more tooth with the media I tend to use (graphite pencils, colored pencils and water-soluble colored pencils). I’m interested in seeing what you use with the Zeta, as it might give me more ideas on how to use it. So sorry to hear about your foot!

    1. Reply

      Hi Tina, glad you enjoy these. I don’t use any of the S&B books because I have problems with all their papers. But this one was so smooth I just thought…Besides I really like plate surfaces. But it has been an adjustment and these posts (I think there will be 4) show that. I won’t say that I’ll never buy another one of these, but it will be a long time. I’d have to have a special use that it was suited for, and frankly I’ve got other choices which would work better for all that I do.

      I do believe that the series will give you a lot of approaches for how to work in this and they may be approaches that you’ll enjoy. If nothing else pen and ink works well in this book.

      Ah, the foot. It is most frustrating to not be out enjoying the final days of no snow on my bike. I am going to go take a screaming break right now!!!

    • Cathy
    • November 23, 2017

    Hope you are having a Happy Thanksgiving despite your foot! Thanks for your review on this paper, you give me food for thought on different types of media and how they work!

    1. Reply

      I had a restful Thanksgiving at home eating leftover Nepalese food. So I was in heaven! More reviews of this paper are coming so please be sure to read them all. Thanks for reading.

    • Connie Ivey
    • November 23, 2017

    I am now 8 weeks int0 my boot and truly feel your pain. It is just so inconvenient. Thanks so much for the info as I did want to know about more about the
    zeta before I jumped in. Always appreciate your info. Best of luck with your healing, and Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. Reply

      Sorry to hear you are also booted!!! EEEE. Be sure to read the whole series before you jump in. I posted a second today and there is another coming on Friday and Monday I think.

      Hope you were able to have a bit of holiday even with the boot on slowing you down.

    • Cindy Burton
    • November 24, 2017

    Thanks ,Roz! I just bought one and haven’t used it yet.
    Hope you are better soon!

    1. Reply

      I will be interested to know what you think about it. I have just published part two and there are more parts to come. I’ll be glad when I can just set it on the bookshelf and move on, it has been a frustrating book to use.

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