All I wanted was a good notebook. One with good paper, rigid covers that don't fall apart, and a durable, supple spine that allows the book to open flat. And I was perfectly willing to pay a large premium for quality. You'd think this would be easy to find - after all, bookbinding is a well-established industry, and art supply stores like Blick, Pearl and Flax have entire aisles devoted to blank books... literally dozens of types, including status brands like Moleskine and Leuchtturm (now just names stamped onto Chinese-made products). I searched carefully for a good notebook, I bought and tested many. But, sadly, I must report that Globalism has brought us a wide variety of similarly poor products. The battle is over: marketing deception and cost-cutting won; craftsmanship and integrity lost.
So, after years of disappointment with the design shortcomings and shoddy quality of commercial notebooks, I finally gave up and decided to make my own. Reluctantly, because it's well established that hand crafted things cost tens or hundreds of times more in time and money than their mass-produced cousins. Starting from zero in a field like bookbinding, chock-full of ancient craft knowledge, is never easy, especially if novel features are envisioned. But, it was worth it to me, because by going "full-custom", one can get exactly what one wants, and as a bonus, it's nice to learn something new.
The Desirable Qualities of a Notebook
GOOD PAPER: The paper is key. It is most of a notebook, in weight as well as importance. In fact, everything else exists solely to position and protect this paper. When choosing paper, the prime considerations are:
a) structural - How well can paper tolerate repeated bending as pages are turned ("fold endurance")? How resistant it is to tearing at the stitching? Will edges get easily damaged by handling? Thicker is stronger, so is better up to a point... but too thick reduces fold endurance and unnecessarily increases the weight of the book. Fold endurance can be rough-tested by repeatedly folding/back-folding a sample. If it becomes weak enough to easily tear after 250 cycles, it's not suitable. The "bond" papers are engineered for excellent fold endurance.
b) surface qualities - A non-negotiable issue is how well a paper cooperates with your writing instruments. The candidate paper must be thoroughly tested with the type of pens/pencils likely to be used. Ball point pen skipping, especially on areas where oils from hands have been deposited through normal use, is extremely irritating, and should disqualify that paper. For pens and most pencils, very smooth surfaces work best. Bleed out is another important issue, the paper shouldn't cause a line to "spread out" by aggressively absorbing ink. To reiterate: microscopic surface qualities of paper are crucial to performance and can't be seen or felt, you must TEST.
c) chemistry - The life span of paper is largely a function of its chemistry. A good paper can resist hundreds of years of oxygen, light and humidity cycling whereas a bad one (like newsprint) will fall apart in a few years. At a minimum, the paper should be "neutral pH" or "acid free"; preferably it should be labeled "archival" which is supposedly based on ANSI standards.
d) color - I prefer maximum contrast between the writing and page, that means bright white color.
e) opacity - Paper for notebooks should be fully opaque, i.e. the writing should not be discernable on the other side of a page.
Based on these considerations and some experimentation, I chose Borden and Riley #234, "Paris Paper for Pens... archival, smooth, non wicking... ideal for all pens and markers". 14" x 17" pads of 40 sheets. 108#, 7 mils (a bit thicker than ideal), bright white. USA. I really like this paper - it works great with fine ball point pens like the Pilot Dr Grip 4+1.
LAY-FLAT BEHAVIOR: A rarely achieved goal of all books is that they open to any page flat, and stay flat without holding. It's especially important for notebooks that 2 facing pages lay like a single flat surface with no "deep valley" in the middle; this helps with readability, shadow reduction, and hand / arm movement. Achieving good lay-flat behavior requires a supple spine structure, and rigid covers.
Quality leather was used for the spine structure, acting as an anchorage for the paper groups and as a hinge.
DURABLE BOOK BLOCK: The core of the notebook (all but the covers) is called a book block, and the method of joining (binding) the paper groups is critical to the long-term survivability of the notebook. The book block must be loose and flexible enough to allow a large additional thickness of "pasted-in" material.
A redundant system of sewing with high strength polyester thread joins the paper groups to each other and to the leather spine. The fully leather spine is strong and flexible, easily withstanding overstuffing the notebook and the bending cycles that come with use.
DURABLE, CLEANABLE COVERS: The covers support and protect the book block, especially in transit. They routinely receive rough treatment and exposure to dirt and wetness, and so the covers themselves, as well as their connections to the book block must be very robust.
The covers were made of machined polycarbonate (an extremely impact resistant and stable plastic) and attached to the book block with an innovative combination of contact cement, epoxy and thread.
CLOSURE: A method should exist for keeping the book closed firmly during transit, this allows the covers to do their job of protecting the book block.
FULLY ARCHIVAL MATERIALS: All materials used in the notebook should be sturdy and stable. While it's true that nothing lasts forever, "archival" here means a useful life span measured in centuries. By examining the oldest examples of particular materials and combinations, it's possible to get a sense of what survives the test of time.