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The Best Paper Notebooks: Reviews and Buyer’s Guide

Shopping for a new notebook can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. There are literally hundreds of different options available, and the truth is that any one that you choose will do its basic job just fine. With that said, there's no denying the fact that some notebooks are better than others depending on what you plan to use it for. To help you find the best paper notebook for your specific needs, we spent 30+ hours reviewing notebooks to find the most ideal options in a variety of categories: general writing/note-taking, school, drawing, pocketbooks, and outdoor work. Article Summary

Paper notebooks have a place in everyone’s life at one point or another. Whether you’re going back to school, heading to the park for some sketching, taking notes at your job, or writing poetry, a notebook is a necessity. However, if you’ve worked through various artistic mediums before, you’re probably privy to the fact that not all notebooks (and their paper) are the same – there are many different sizes and styles for a whole assortment of different uses.

There are several aspects to choosing the best paper notebook for your particular usage, especially if you keep valuable art or sensitive information in there. The last thing you want to happen after creating a masterpiece or taking three hours of notes is to find out that your pen’s ink has soaked through four other pages of writing, or that the condensation from your afternoon beverage ruined everything you just spent time on.

We’ve spent about 30 hours researching the best paper notebooks for a variety of common purposes, and we’re going to show you exactly which ones are most ideal for things like school, work, and drawing. During our review process, we also considered different environments like indoor and outdoor (yes, this makes a difference!) as well as protection from the elements (like water). No matter what you need a notebook for, we’re confident that one of the following selections will be suitable for you.

The best utility notebook (general note taking, writing, etc.)

If you need a notebook for general writing purposes like note taking, journal entries, or desk work, you’ll probably want something that’s reasonably sized so that it can be easily carried in your hand or your bag (traditional 8.5″ x 11″ notebooks can be a bit inconvenient in these cases, but this is obviously completely down to your personal preference). Moleskine is one of the biggest names in notebooks and journals, and their Classic Notebook is the go-to for writing, research, and most other common things you’d need a notebook for.

The durable cover around this notebook will keep your sketches, notes and scribbles safe whether you’re backpacking across the Smoky Mountains or backpacking across campus. The paper is acid-free and heavy enough to stand up to most pens and pencils, but isn’t textured for charcoal or heavy enough for watercolor applications (which is what drawing pads are for, we’ll talk about those later on). There is an inside pocket to hold a few of your important documents, and also an elastic bookmark to keep your place and keep your pages from flying around if you’re journaling on a windy day. Overall, the Moleskine Classic is a great utility notebook that will easily hold up until you fill out the pages and afterwards.

The best notebook for school

Let’s face it, notebooks are most commonly used by students, whether in elementary school or in a PhD program. School presents a few unique challenges for a notebook. They’re rarely carried by themselves, so durability is a must; multiple subject dividers are useful for saving space in your messenger bag or backpack; and college-ruled lining is preferred for organized notes and neat essays. There are several notebooks out there that fit this description, but the Five Star 3-Subject Spiral Notebook takes the cake for the best school notebook.

Five Star is one of the biggest brands in academia, and chances are, you’ve probably already owned one of their products before. Their products are durable and trusted within the educational world to accommodate your needs and hold strong through drops, falls, and tosses. Five Star’s 3-Subject Spiral Notebook has become the gold standard for school notebooks with its durable, waterproof front cover, thick back cover, and multiple subject dividers. The paper is ideal for note taking (and quick doodles when your professor goes off on a tangent), and the dividers are thick enough to quickly reference the subject you need. They also contain folders for pertinent documents and handouts, which is a big plus. If you need a school notebook, you’ll be hard-pressed to do better than Five Star.

The best notebook for drawing

If your notebook will primarily be used for more artistic purposes, it will benefit you to pick up something that has been designed with that purpose in mind (duh, right?). Regular notebooks are lined, which obstructs your drawings, and the paper isn’t textured to grip more unique mediums like charcoal or colored pencils. Picking up a drawing-specific notebook is going to allow you to bring the most out of your art, whether you’re doing preliminary sketches for a webtoon series, doing caricatures at the state fair, or simply expressing yourself in your free time. No matter what kind of art you’ll be making, the best notebook for drawing is without a doubt the Strathmore 400 Series Drawing Pad.

Strathmore is one of the most trusted brands in the art world, and for good reason: they are famous for their surfaces for charcoal, graphite, acrylic, oil, watercolor and pretty much every other applied medium you can think of. This particular notebook is more of a catch-all for all of your relatively dry medium needs (charcoal, graphite, ink to an extent), and it serves that purpose well enough to have become a favorite among professional artists and art students alike. Its paper is heavy and toothed to provide texture and a workable surface for messy mediums like charcoal, but light enough to be manageable for finer mediums. Also, the binding is a spiral binding on top, which means that the pages are turned vertically – the preferred standard for most artists. For a solid drawing notebook, look no further than the Strathmore 400 Drawing Pad.

The best pocket notebook

Sometimes you want to have the ability to jot something down without carrying around a big ol’ regular-sized notebook. What’s the solution? A pocket notebook, of course. These smaller-scale notebooks probably aren’t going to cut it for detailed drawings or big Venn diagrams, but they will do just fine for quick notes, grocery lists, poems, and several other purposes. Pocket notebooks have a lower profile so they can fit inside your pocket comfortably – this means less pages, but it’s a compromise that comes with the territory. If a pocket notebook sounds like something you might want to use, our pick would be the Field Notes Kraft Notebook.

The Field Notes pocketbook has an extremely low profile due to its stapled binding, rather than having a spiral that can be a little bulkier. The paper is also lighter than some of the other pocket notebooks, adding to its portability. The light paper makes it a bit of a hazard for fountain pens, but is fine for most other pens and any pencils you have handy. The cover is thick enough to protect your pages without being uncomfortable in your pocket, but there are also several external covers made especially for this notebook that can be purchased separately if you find yourself tossing it in your bookbag or purse more than your pocket and you want some added protection.

The best notebook for working outdoors

Maybe you feel stifled by the indoors and prefer to do most of your writing outdoors, or maybe you have an outdoors job that requires you to be note-taking in less ideal conditions like wind or rain. Either way, most notebooks fall apart when exposed to the elements, so outdoor writing requires not only a durable cover, but more durability in the paper itself. There are a few notebooks on the market with weather-treated pages that allow you to write outdoors without worrying about a raindrop smudging off your last paragraph – and our favorite is the Rite in the Rain All-Weather Notebook.

The paper in this notebook has been specially treated to be water resistant, and you can write on it whether the paper is wet or dry (with different implements, of course). When wet, this notebook can be written on with all-weather pens and most pencils; when dry, you can write on it with anything under the sun except a fountain pen, which will bead off due to the excessive liquid contained in the ink’s delivery system. The durable cover will protect your notebook from the scuffs that come along with outdoor use, and as an added bonus, the entire notepad is recyclable. If you’re looking for a burly notebook that’s perfect for getting caught in the rain or catching up on your writing while weathering a damp, grey day, the Rite in The Rain All-Weather Notebook is the best solution available.

Things to consider before buying

At the end of the day, almost any notebook can be used for any purpose – but that doesn’t mean it’s the most fitting choice. Choosing the best paper notebook for your intended purpose is helpful simply because it makes your life easier. We’ve already gone over what we think are the best paper notebooks for different common needs, but now we’re going to break down different aspects piece by piece so you can see why we think particular styles are more suitable than others for each scneario.

Sheet size

The size of the paper is probably the most obvious and simple quality to decide. Needless to say, there are notebooks and paper of every size out there, so you’re free to choose what you like. However, during your selection process, you should be wary not of the size you want, necessarily, but the size that will be practical for you. For example, thinking you’ll only need a pocket notebook when you make three-page-long lists with detailed notes and large, flowery lettering is going to end up a frustrating endeavor.

Paper weight

The weight of paper, in contrast to the size, can have a few more intricacies. To put it simply, “heavier” paper is not only physically heavier, but it is thicker, which means that there is less of a chance of bleed-through. There’s also more opportunity to texture the paper so mediums like conte and charcoal can adhere to the surface, as paper that’s too light won’t have adequate thickness for raised areas.

Most school notebook paper is going to be lightweight, and generally all pretty close to the same poundage. The system for measuring the weight of paper can be a bit confusing at first, but it’s easy to get the hang of (artists will have a relatively firm grasp of this already).

“Paper” is broken into a few categories like Bristol and card stock. These different materials have different properties, but how weight is measured is the same in any variety of paper. Basically, as the poundage increases, the thickness of the paper increases. Therefore, a piece of 25lb paper will be much thinner than a piece of 90lb paper. Lighter weights are good for pencils and most pens, with increasingly heavier stocks being useful for ballpoint pens all the way through watercolor paints, which require extremely heavy paper (watercolor sheets are generally 140lbs, compared to a computer printer’s 20lb paper).

Paper style and ruling

The style and ruling of the paper in your notebook is going to have a pretty large effect on how your writing/drawing comes out. There are quite a few styles out there:

Lined paper, which is great for regular writing, note-taking, and list-making.
Graph (or grid) paper, which is good for math/science work, precise drawing, and is even fine for writing if you don’t mind the verticals getting in the way.
Dotted paper, which is great for drawing but a little less handy for writing.
Unruled (or unlined) paper, which is the best for drawing but not necessarily good for writing if you don’t have a strong tendency to write in straight lines.

In terms of ruling, that is simply down to preference. Ruling refers to the measurements in-between the lines of the paper. College ruled paper has 7.1mm in between each line, while legal ruled paper has 8.7mm in between each line. The difference of 1.6mm may not some substantial on the nose, but if you’re filling up one sheet after another, you’ll certainly notice the difference. Depending on your writing style, you may choose a smaller ruling to fit in tight lettering, or a medium or large ruling for more stylistic freedom in your writing and a little more room for loose lettering.

Paper color

No, all notebooks don’t exclusively have white paper, although that is the most common. There are several reasons one might choose to have a color of paper in their notebooks other than white, and anyone from legal secretaries to artists and teachers might use tinted paper from time to time.

Of the non-artistic purposes for using colored paper, the most common is because bright white is stressful on the eyes. Off-white and yellow notebooks are prominent in administrative industries where there is near-constant attention on the notebook for periods of several hours at a time – this is why legal pads are generally yellow.

For artistic purposes, one might choose tinted paper to make the whites pop out more as highlights, which provides more contrast than a white background. Also, depending on the colors used in a piece of art, choosing a notebook with colors that provide contrast or complementary values can make a piece pop without needing to manually color in the background (which can be a time consuming process).

For students, white is generally fine; however, if you’re going to be creating works of art or working with a notebook for hours and hours on end, a colored notebook might be worth looking into.

Notebook binding

Binding can actually make a pretty big difference in the functionality and durability of your notebook. With that said, there isn’t necessarily a “better” option – it just comes down to preference and purpose. There are three types of bindings that are the most popular: spiral, stapled and glued. Here are the pros and cons of each:

Spiral
Spirals are generally used in school notebooks for easy page turning and the ability to stand up to punishment in a backpack. They can be attached at the side or at the top, depending on how a notebook is intended to be opened. There are several pros to spiral notebooks. The metal spiral can stand up to a pretty good beating and still serve as a good binding for the pages to turn upon. Since each side of the notebook is separated by the spiral when opened, you can fold one side over to save space on your desk or work area, which is a nice bonus.

With all of these pros, however, there is a pretty big con: if the spiral becomes bent, unraveled or otherwise slightly deformed, spiral notebooks become an absolute nightmare to use. Have a binder that’s already half full of important notes? Might as well tear them out or buy a new binder rather than wrestle to turn the pages from a bent spiral.

Stapled
Stapled bindings are more often than not used for low-profile notebooks, such as pocket notebooks. Their small size is one of their most appealing aspects, as they are quite a bit thinner than spiral and many glued notebooks, even with similar page sizes. The staples hold in the binding at the side, so you don’t have to worry about the spine falling out like with some of the lower-tier glued-binding notebooks. They are also generally more flexible.

The main disadvantages of stapled bindings is that they aren’t quite as durable as spirals (even though they are generally more durable than glued bindings) and the binding is very thin so you have to hold the notebook open while working or reading out of it.

Glued
Glued bindings, most popularly used in books, are popular in notebooks that are made for final art pieces, typography, calligraphy – basically anything you want to be shown off. This is largely due to tradition and portfolios in book form simply being a popular idea. Practically speaking, glue has a few benefits. In terms of usability, it strikes halfway between stapled and spiral bindings, as one side won’t fold over, but many of them will stay open by themselves on a tabletop. Glued bindings can also be very sturdy, which is good for transportation.

Glued bindings have their fair share of disadvantages, with the biggest one being that the paper can eventually start to fall out. If your notebook contains work that is important to you and can’t be replaced, you’ll have to have the pages completely rebound, which can be a stressful process when manipulating sensitive art pieces and other irreplaceable devices.

Wrapping it up

Choosing the right notebook isn’t rocket science; however, it may be a bit more involved than you previously thought. Take into account the pros and cons of each type of notebook, as well as the different aspects of paper we talked about, but above all – be realistic when determining your needs. You may have to try a few different types out before you find the perfect match for your work, but once you do, you’ll have a solid notebook source for life!

Comments 2

  1. Just stumbled across this roundup – great to be included! Thanks.

    Generally, you’re right about fountain pens. Any water-based ink is bound to have trouble on water-resistant paper. That’s why we recommend against gel and fountain pens. Pigment-based utensils like ballpoint pens, permanent markers, and others, work perfectly on Rite in the Rain and other water-resistant materials.

    1. Hey Jim,

      You’re welcome! You guys truly produce some awesome notebooks at Rite in the Rain, so keep up the great work!

      Glad to hear our note against the use of fountain pens was correct as well. I’ll be sure to have the guide updated to include your own recommendations, just so others know which specific utensils they can count on.

      Thanks for your comment!
      Cory

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