The Mini-Binder Sketchbook System

SketchbookThere’s a bit of throwback enthusiasm going on right now among the otherwise digitally inclined for the mystique of Moleskine. These decidedly analog, leather-bound notebooks and sketchbooks are a counterpoint to the foundering PDA market: they are idea keepers and organizers that can capture fluid, organic meanderings of the brain in a way that neither the Palm OS nor the Pocket PC can hope to approximate. What’s more, rather than losing their value and technological currency with age, they are built to grow more precious with repeated use, as their owners invest ever more care and time into filling their pages.

Hack Your Own Alternative

At least part of this current spike in interest can be attributed to Merlin Mann’s excellent 43 Folders, which is ostensibly a blog about ‘hacking’ the tools of life and work to get more done in a timelier, more satisfying manner. In that spirit, I thought I’d share my own take on these paper notebooks — I have nothing against the tactile beauty of Moleskine, but for both work and independent sketching and note-taking, I’m thoroughly committed to a more modular yet less glamorous platform.

I’ve never had a name for it before, but if you need one, you can call it the Mini-binder Sketchbook System. It consists of, literally, nothing more than a US$5, vinyl-bound, three-ring specialty binder that measures 8.5 x 5.5 in, a similarly-priced adjustable three-hole punch, a stack of your favorite letter-sized paper, and some means of trimming that paper, like a ruler and an X-acto, or a simple paper cutter.

Some Assembly Required

To assemble: just trim the paper exactly in half along its tall edge, so that two stacks of 8.5 x 5.5 in. result. Combine the stacks and adjust the three-hole punch to match the ring binder, then punch holes in the paper. Insert into the binder, and you have a new sketchbook for less than the cost of a movie ticket.

Mini-Binder Sketchbook Diagram

Aside from cost, the primary benefit of this system is its superior modularity, something that can’t be easily matched by Moleskine’s stitched binding. You can literally add pages anywhere you like, and remove or re-order pages at will. Often, I’ll fold letter-sized documents in half, three-hole punch them, and insert them right in the notebook.

Below: Non-binding binder. Two pages from an old sketchbook.

Three-ring Circus

I’ll paste clippings and found items right on these pages too. In fact, you can add just about anything to the sketchbook, without fear of overdoing it. In a traditional sketchbook, such additive tendencies become a real problem about halfway through the pages, when the stress of all that surplus material begins to wear on the binding, causing it to bulge. With a three-ring system, this is a non-issue — the pages aren’t stitched together, so they are free to ‘float’ along the rings as necessary.

The Mini-Binder Sketchbook System

Given that the best place to start building such a system is in the aisles of your local Staples, I’ll grant that the mini-binder sketchbook lacks the outright romanticism of its Moleskine counterparts. But I’ve been using these sketchbooks for over a decade now, and I like to think that I’m as fond of them as any Moleskine owner is of his or her archives. It’s low-cost and versatile, and when I look back through the dozen or so binders I’ve filled, what I regret most is not that they lack a gorgeously broken-in leather binding, but rather that I haven’t done as much work in them as I’d like to.



  1. As an added bonus, you can buy the dividers sold for standard 8.5×5.5 planners so you can organize the contents of said notebook (i.e., a drawing journal where you want to divide up the content by month to more readily see progression and quickly flip to a drawing you remember doing back in April). Of course, going the cheaper route, you can just add the tabs using a package of standard mailing labels folded in half on the side/top/bottom of the page.

    I personally used to purchase the 8.5×5.5 planner binders (with zipper and pockets and stuff) but then fill the binder with my own paper/printouts. One of my old binders used to have the entire script from Monty Python and the Holy Grail printed out in binder size. It was fun to revert back to it and just read a scene when bored or needing comic relief.

  2. Charles: those day planners are exactly where this system originated. In the early 90s, I was using a DayRunner organizer in this format. Eventually I stopped using the DayRunner pages altogether, but I kept the format.

  3. I’m currently on a Moleskine for just taking notes and having short lists with me no matter where I am (my planner is a little too bulky for some days/trips). Real handy when trying to remember what movies to buy/rent, books to buy, music to buy, etc. as well as writing down quick URLs I see in roadside advertising or bumper stickers.

    However, I do have a Franklin planner that I plan on trying to keep up-to-date… Had a PDA before that and it just wasn’t the same (mostly used for playing chess). Meanwhile, I’m working on Getting Things Done (also because of finding So we’ll see what I end up with after all this.

  4. I just tattoo things on my arm. When I run out of space, I’ll use my wife’s arms.

    I used to keep an “analog” writing/sketch book, but due to RSI issues I don’t use it very much (I can’t write for very long before my wrist implodes). I’ve taken to bringing my laptop (which has an ergonomic keyboard) or a Palm around. I also almost always (as in, even when I go to the grocery) carry around a stack of 8-10 3×5 cards.

    Jotting down ideas or sketches has never been a problem for me. The problem for me is retrieving the information when I need it. I’ve got a stack of maybe 500 index cards in a box on my desk. Every once in a while I go through them just to toss irrelevant ones and to remind me what’s there, but lord help me when I’m called to remember or find the information on one of those cards.

  5. And here I was searching for a moleskine-like notebook with both grid paper and sketchbook paper. Silly me. Ingenius idea! Now I just need to make a trip to the local Staples. Thanks for the tip. :D

  6. I’m not sure if, by “order,” you mean buy or if you mean organize and arrange. If it’s the former, you have to dig around your local office supply store for the binder — the most elusive part. If you mean the latter, well, I don’t have a great system for organizing them. I suppose I could (and probably should) apply some kind of labels to the spines so that they are easily distinguishable on a shelf. But I’ve never liked affixing anything to cheap vinyl, as it tends to peel off over time.

  7. I used to have a Filofax organiser which was pretty much the system you outline here. However, I always hated how the rings got in the way with my writing when my hand got near to them, which is one of the main reasons I stopped using it.

    One of the things I really like about Moleskines is the fact that the spine never interferes with my writing as it glides over the spine.

  8. This is great, for the fact that I was just searching for a new Moleskin notebook.

    Now that I can just as easily create a makeshift Moleskin, maybe I could save a few pennies in the long run (or not).

  9. The system you describe is precisely one that I adopted while in grad school as my quasi-lab notebook. I also used it as a mini sketchbook, mostly during meetings. I must admit, there is definitely something reassuringly flexible about loose-leaf paper: being able to reorganize pages, keep topics together, remove pages that were re-edited in a cleaner format, etc. I would usually print out half-sheet calendars, address lists and such and put that in as well. I spent years looking for the perfect notebook format, and this was one of the better systems I found. If there was a better loose binding system than 3-ring (sadly there isn’t really) then I’d probably never have switched.

    There was one eventual fatal flaw for my purposes, however. It didn’t fit in my pocket. Which means I didn’t like to carry it. Which means that I didn’t always have it when I wanted it and didn’t update it with ritual regularity. Ok, it was perfect for leaving at my desk or at home, so it did serve it’s purpose in that respect, but I was looking for something generally useful at all times. Something to jot notes in, take logs in, and most importantly sketch in. At the moment, the pocket Moleskine serves that purpose, and for everything else I also keep a tiny pocket at-a-glance calendar with an embedded small stash of post-its in my back pocket at all times.

  10. What about archiving? I’d like a way to be able to read these filled notebooks after they are filled without having to store tons of binders.

    One idea I’d thought of at some point was to run ribbon through the holes and make a front and back cover. Or to bind them, somewhat crudely, into a book kind of thing.

  11. I had no idea the moleskin thing was a “thing.” Is it possible to be so out of the loop that you’re in the loop without even knowing it?

  12. I’m a dedicated Moleskine user, but this binder idea is pretty cool. May be kinda bulky, though.
    I think your assembly diagram has convinced me to switch…

  13. Yeah, this mini-binder system isn’t exactly conducive to stuffing it in your back pocket and taking it on the go. To be honest, I would probably use it more if I could. As a kind of compromise/workaround, what I’ve done is use a regular little notebook and tear out the pages I want to keep and paste them into the mini-binder. A real kludge, I know, but one plus side is that using this method you can also capture scribblings and doodlings that you make on random papers while in meetings. I do this all the time.

  14. OMG! You are a genius!!! How come I didn’t think of cutting those pesky letter size papers into half and hole punching them!

  15. one plus side is that using this method you can also capture scribblings and doodlings that you make on random papers

    That’s what they make gluesticks for! A couple of swipes of glue and anything will stick in your book.

    Seriously, I really like this bound sketchbook method, but I think it’s a little bit too versatile for me. I like my sketchbook format to be a little restrictive, as if the book itself was a “form” with certain strict rules, like writing poetry in strict haiku form. In my case, I use a tiny book with tons of pages of (naturally) graphpaper. Filling the book is the larger mountain I climb, and solving the daily problems of how to deal with page bleed-through, the locked-in page sequence and the inevitable narrative feel of the book, the diary or log-like quality, etc, all help put a nice set of boundaries on what I put in my books.

    I think your binders are cool and I am certainly tempted by the idea, but I think I’ll stick with my linear, formal “book” format for a while.


  16. Love the idea of the 3-ring. But I use a spiral bound visual diary/sketchbook as a sort of inbetween.

    The paper has that rough cartridge paper feel (which I find nicer than plain old photocopy/printer paper) and is thick enough to let me mess with different mediums like water-colour or ink and it won’t bleed through.

    The spiral binding also lets it expand a little for when I stick random things in.

    Oh and er, “Hi!”

  17. I’m intrigued by this system, but all the murmurs about not being pocket-sized give me pause. Although I’m not sure why, because my current system is to use Cambridge« coil-bound notebooks for all my jotting.

    I usually have two or three on me, one for work related notes and creative stuff, one for poetry and artistic stuff and a blank one just waiting to be filled after one of the others gets fully. I ended up buying a big messenger back from Timbuk2 to carry this stuff around in, but it works pretty well for me.

    I like Cambridge« because they use a really stiff cardboard backing that lets you write pretty much anywhere so long as your hands are free. One for holding the book, one for holding the pen.

  18. Excellent idea! I use my sketchbook for a variety of purposes. I draw in it but I also do collage using a variety of things. I write lots of lyrics and thoughts in it as well. Inevitably I’ll end up taking meeting notes in it for work, church or any of the various board meetings I am in. This system will allow me to transfer the meeting bits to a different book after the fact.

    I’m going to create my book with a combination of art paper, lined paper, colored papers and various pages from books and magazines that I’ve saved. I’ll shuffle these together and when I get to a picture page it’s time to make a collage! Later I’ll move these into another book to tell a story. This is simple and exciting!

    For those that want a smaller book why not purge an old day runner and cut paper to fit it? I have a tiny address book I’m going to try this with. Ir’s a perfect size for my pocket!

  19. I’ve been battling back-forth between these two for the last 4 years. I can sometimes keep at one for a couple of months, then I’ll see something that makes me want to switch. I love the versatility of 3-ring binders – different types of paper u can add (etc) but i hate 3 punch holes jumping out at me in my sketchpaper. I love the romanticism of moleskines (and any other pre-bound notebook)
    but the lack of different types/colors of paper discourages me.
    The way that i have been working now is still using the 3-ring binder (the 8.5 x 11) size with the plastic inserts, and do all of my sketching on regular 8.5×11 size paper but without the holes. when finished i simply slip the sketch inside the plastic sheet. reworking the paper gets to be fun, esp. leaving it out in the sun or staining it for a “aged look”.. if you’re into that kinda thing…

  20. You can pick up the binder for $1.97 and a 120 sheet pack of college ruled filler paper for $1.82 at walmart. I have been using a system like this for years. I keep about half lined paper, one quarter blank paper, and one quarter address/phone number pages and calendar inserts.

  21. Heck, if you’re really sneaky and cheap, you could just use the office copier and copy your own custom phone number papers and diagrams. Plus if you know who to bug, you can find those old day-planner binders anywhere.

  22. Small paper cutters as well as special punches
    for rounding corners, etc. can be found in scrap-booking stores. They have all sorts of paper cutting technology that might appeal to the artistic among us.