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.
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.
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.
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.