Field Notes Review, Part II: The Notebook.

Earlier this week, we reviewed the fragrant pencils that Field Notes sent us for review. Today, we will review the ubiquitous brown notebook. Field Notes thoughtfully send us a Mixed Pack, with one lined, one graphed and one just naked. We’ve put one through a good number of pencil tests and offer this pencil-specific review.聽 (And thanks for Field Notes for the great mention on their site!)

Cover Material: French Dur-O-Tone 80#C “Packing Brown Wrap.”
Paper: Boise Offset Smooth 50#T “White.”
Binding: Three-staple saddle stitch.
Size: 3-1/2鈥 X 5-1/2鈥?
Page Count: 48 pages.
Unique Characteristics: Witty information printed in front and back of cover, including reward/address blank; possibly also being made in the USA.
Origin: United States.
Availability: From FieldNotesBrand.Com and select online and brick-and-mortar retailers.

When you first open a three-pack of Field Notes, you might notice that the package resembles a certain “Cahier” produced by a company whose products and historical claims are not without controversy. There are three identical, soft-covered notebooks held together by a central, horizontal band. However, the notebooks diverge there.

For starters, let’s compare the claims. One notebook claims to be the favorite of Hemingway, Chatwin, et al., although the company was founded in the 1990s and produces its notebooks in China. While I don’t have a problem with Asian production in itself, and while the company in question has revised its statement to call their notebooks the “heir” to the classic used by some of my literary heroes, lots of people have felt intentionally duped. For myself, I have a softspot for Moleskines that I can’t seem to quit. The claim made by Field Notes is that they are inspired by classic pocket ledgers and farm notebooks. No one is claiming that Field Notes will boost anyone’s creativity. Field Notes claim to be useful. The premium price ($10 + shipping for three thin notebooks, unless you’re lucky enough to live where you can get them in person) seems to run contrary to the simple and down-home heritage. However, I honestly have no idea how much old farmers’ notebooks used to cost, let alone with taking inflation into consideration.

So, Field Notes are useful pocket tools for writing down information on the go. Their size and weight definitely lend themselves to this purpose, and their solid construction continues in the same vein. There are myriad other reviews on the net (see Field Notes’ site for a list) which call them durable, practical, attractive and a pleasure to use. I found all of these claims to be more than true.

First, the cover is stiff, with clean printing. Even after rolling around with graphite pencils, in a vintage Army bag and being stuck in piles of other books and notebooks, my Field Notes book actually looks barely used. The book tends to stay open as a result of the stiffness of the cover. This doesn’t bother me, but I can imagine it bugging the heck out of some Comrades. There is no bookmark, which did bother me a bit, but a tiny binder clip did the trick nicely and actually looked very good doing it. (A Field Notes binder clip one day?)

The paper is white, with lines that match the cover (in this case, brown). They are well-spaced and even throughout the notebook. The last time I bought a pack of pocket “Cahiers” with graph paper, two entire books were off-center, one so much that it was difficulty to use. The Field Notes’ paper feels both thicker and stiffer than a “Cahier,” and it has a better tooth and more consistent texture. That bodes well for pencil lead being able to make nice and dark marks. I noticed that lighter and harder pencils are difficult to use on this paper. Anything lighter than an HB Mirado or Grip 2001 didn’t leave a mark that I could read. The paper works very well with soft pencils and exceedingly well with pencils with a bit of a scratch factor. As you might remember, I said that the Field Notes pencil had a little scratch to it and that I thought it made sense, so that Comrades could write on the run and know they were leaving a mark. I think something similar can be said about the paper. Pencil doesn’t glide across it the way that it glides across Rhodia paper, but that’s not what Field Notes are made to do. They are made to travel in your pocket and help you to remember things, solve problems, etc. A durable pencil and durable paper, especially when the “feedback” indicates that you are, in fact, writing down legibly the name of that author your Comrade mentioned on a hike or the contact information of someone you met on a trip. Besides — overly creamy paper in a rough and stiff brown cover seems like a bizarre contradiction somehow. One problem I found with using pencils in these notebooks is ghosting. “Ghosting” is what I call the transfer of graphite from one page onto another by means of the pressure from writing on the backs of pages. This happens with soft pencils all the time in notebooks. But it feels like Field Notes are especially prone to this messy graphite shadowing. However, I’m sticking with my idea of these as practical notebooks, not pieces of art. As such, ghosting is only a moderate issue, when writing is still perfectly legible. Unless you actually pet your notebooks and re-read them often, it’s not likely to bother you.

Not only that, but the notebook and pencil make a great pair, with their matching aesthetic (not just the print), durable and practical design, and slight edge.聽 I like to think of Field Notes products as akin to bags made of Army canvas.聽 Their roughness amounts to, as I said, an edge.聽 They are hardy and do seem to sacrifice delicacy for practicality.聽 That’s what I personally like about my vintage Army map case (shown above) and, often, about pencils in general.聽 They always just work.

21 thoughts on “Field Notes Review, Part II: The Notebook.”

  1. John,

    Great review! I love Field Notes. Back in March 08, I reviewed the Field Notes notebook (Apologies for lack of CSS or images at the link 鈥 all of my posts are gone forever, except in the Internet Archive).

    One of the things I noted, like you, was the heartiness of the notebook. I accidentally ran mine through the washer, and although I couldn’t continue using the notebooks, I was still able to read the pages and transfer them to a new notebook (incidentally, when I wrote about that, BoingBoing picked it up and Field Notes sent me a gratis set of new notebooks! They are great to interact with).

    Something of note: Did you get one of the Field Notes ballpoint pens? Although I wouldn’t expect you to talk about it on this blog, I didn’t care for the pen very much. I thought it would be more fitting with the style and ruggedness if they included a Skilcraft pen, used by the federal government. They are old-timey looking and work well.

    Again, great review, and yay for Field Notes!

    1. @Andy, Sorry I missed the pen question — I was thinking the same thing about the Skilcraft pens! My dad was in the Army when I was growing up, and I always had some of them that we stole (!) from his briefcase. They were (are?) made in the USA and have a nice look to them.

      1. I broke down and ordered a pack of the pens with my last order of the *special* item from yesterday’s Field Notes email. I couldn’t help myself. : )

  2. Thanks for the review! Graphite transfer used to irritate me quite a bit, but now when I am writing on the back side of an already filled-out page, I stick a piece of paper between the previous two pages to catch the graphite. In my plain Moleskines, I use a graph paper page from a cahier for that purpose, as it also provides me with guidelines. Every once in a while I’ll have to dig out and eraser and make a few passes over the inserted page to keep it clean, but it works like a champ to reduce transfer and improve the appearance of each page.

    1. I’ve been doing that with Moleskines, but that paper is so thin that I still get the ghosting/transfer, especially with softer leads. The new Blackwing, while beautiful on other papers, makes an unholy mess in the thin paper of Moleskines. : )

  3. Pingback: High on Cedar?
  4. The review fell a little short by not mentioning the printing on the cover. Not only is the Field Notes equipped with a date and owner register on the back of the cover, along with an indication for reward if found, but on the inside back cover-suggested uses. Some of these are hillarious! Shady transactions and escape routes included in the 30 suggestions. Also on the page: Specifications of the printing and paper and a useful 5 inch ruler printed on the edge. I use my field notebook for woodwork projects and keeping track of my agricultural chores. My introduction to them was as a surveyour helper.

  5. alright! I have just now getting around to buying a pack of these bad boys, with pencils to boot!, and I’ll be picking them up in Chicago tomorrow. They’ll be accompanying me for a week in the Porcupine Mountains State Park in Michigan. I got the mixed pack, just to see the difference. I’m excited and thought I should share.

    1. Excellent!
      I should probably mention that the paper was changed since this review. It’s smoother and less prone to smearing the graphite. But fainter pencils don’t work as well.
      Blackwing 602s are lovely on the new paper, though.

      1. good to know; I was not a tremendous fan of the paper in the Steno, and I don’t know if it’s the same as the cahiers, though I have come to enjoy it more with use. I’ve been putting off getting any of these notebooks for some time..don’t know why, maybe shipping costs(?)..but then I’ve put off new Scout Books too. no idea. thought about making my own for a while, which I may still do. Glad to know the 602s are nice, and I’ve expanded my collection (somewhat…though still not too extensive) so I’ll be able to do some comparisons. Also, got a box of Pearls, which are pretty dreamy. The boy (12 years old) loves them for drawing. They are now his absolute go-to pencil for this sort of thing, which is pretty cool.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *