Softcover Stillman & Birn Sketchbooks: Initial Thoughts

September 23, 2016 | 26 Comments

A few weeks ago I received a package of the new Stillman and Birn softcover sketchbooks to test out. They are available in every paper type in the S&B range and in five different sizes. This photo shows four sizes (the largest size can be seen in the photo below) with only the Beta and Alpha paper.

My thought when I initially heard about the new range was that the lack of a hardcover for a support when sketching in all kinds of situations wouldn’t suit me. But now that I have them here, I really like the feel of holding them in my hand. Having a lighter-weight version of the sketchbook paper I love is a really important feature – in particular for my everyday book which I carry around with me everywhere.

This week I finally finished my current Alpha 9 x 6 hardcover book that I started in May before my big trip, and so I cracked open the A5 portrait book (5.5″ x 8.5″). It feels wonderful to have a different format sketchbook and the reduction in weight is not insignificant!

Here is a photo of my new softcover 5.5 x 8.5 on top of my old 9 x 6 hardcover and the larger size 8 x 10 cover on top of a Moleskine A4 sketchbooks with the weight comparisons. All I can say is “wow!”

I have hardly sketched this week, but here are my first thoughts:

  • I love the feel of a lighter weight sketchbook (I know I have mentioned this two other times already, but this is huge!)
  • It makes my daily sketchbook feel a little more personal and less formal than a hardcover – I like this very much,
  • It is less bulky than the hardcover version – so much easier to get in and out of my everyday handbag.
  • Like all other S&B books, it opens flat – this is a massive requirement if you want to sketch across the gutter. So a big tick!
  • It was lovely to be able to stamp the sketchbook number on the front cover (Kelly Purkey Southport stamp set with Stazon ink)
  • I am wondering how tatty the cover will get with all the rough handling I normally give my sketchbooks.
  • I normally use rubber bands to hold my pages down (from wind etc) but I can’t do that with these books as it curls the whole book, though I can use one to hold the whole book together. So instead of rubber bands, I am having to use bull-dog clips which I normally don’t like using as they easily catch on things in my bag. But I am willing to have a go and see how bad it is (probably not a big problem). I have noticed already that the clips are leaving a mark on the cover, but I am not overly precious about my sketchbooks. I love the wear and tear and warped pages of a used book.
  • As I use a support board most of the time when I am out and about I am thinking that lack of support in the sketchbook itself is not such a big deal, but of course, I have to remember to have the board with me.
  • Doing my daily latte sketches this week (sitting at a table) there was a noticeable flex when drawing on the left side of the spread. This will obviously occur at the start and the end of the book when working on the side with fewer pages, but not so much when I am working in the middle of the book.

Here is the book in action in the cafe – the pencil shows the flex of the book, and when I painted I was holding down the page with my little finger.

Here is the book clipped to my support board. I wasn’t painting today so my hinged flap in it’s closed position worked perfectly. Ha! a nice surprise. More about my support board here.

So in summary, even though I consider myself a hardcover sketchbook girl, I am really excited to try something different. I can see that the smaller sizes might be the most useful for me as a book I carry in my pocket and the flex issue will not be so noticeable in them.

I am already surprised that I am liking the feel of the 5.5 x 8.5 book much more than I expected. So stay tuned for the final verdict once I have filled it.

Huge thanks to Stillman and Birn for adding softcover to their range and for sending me these books to test.


I know a number of people have been using them for a while, so if that is you, I would love to hear how you like them. Please leave a comment!

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  • Dee Ludwig says:

    I am on my second book. I love them. For a more casual artist, like me, it is great! I have used mine far more than any I have tried before. It costs a bit more than I would like, but I would agree with all of your observations. I am using the Beta paper and love it and the book has become the one I find myself looking for as its size seems perfect for my needs. I have used a light weight rubber band to hold it closed and find the cover seems almost impenetrable! It has held up beautifully, no bends or tears or frays. I am not sure I would like the larger size, but was surprised that the 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 double spread seemed to be just right for most everything I was wanting to do! Again, it is a bit pricey and I hope after it is on the market for awhile it will go down a bit.

  • Nice review. I have been wanting to try the new, improved softcover Stillman & Birn books. I like the paper in the hardcover Beta but it is too heavy to drag around sometimes. I never thought about the covers getting messy from constant use. That is a consideration. I am glad I waited to buy them since they had the problem with the original ones that came out. I’ll have to find a place to order them.

    • Karen King says:

      Joan, I buy most of my art supplies, including S&B sketchbooks, from Amazon. Some items if being shipped from other destinations can take longer to arrive, but as I remember, the sketchbooks came pretty quickly. Also, I like to read the comments people make when they give a rating on the products, especially if it is something new for me.

  • Diane says:

    Part of the weight difference in the Alpha is that there are fewer pages in the softcover, 92 pages vs 124. I do like the lighter weight but opted for the heavier and slightly bulkier but also more pages on the longer trip I am about to take. We’ll see how that works out.

  • Carmel Campbell says:

    I ordered them earlier this week in the Beta. Looking forward to trying them. Thank you for reviewing them.

  • Sandra Deutsch says:

    PLEASE! Give more information on your chloroplast board, especially about the hinge. What dimensions do you use for specific sketchbooks?

  • LauraLupe says:

    Hi Liz. I haven’t tried these books yet. But instead of a large rubber band, in case you can’t find one – try a piece of elastic that is not expanded but cut to exact size around your book with a half inch larger and hand sew together quarter inch seam. It will only take a couple of stitches if you use half inch elastic. The work very well. Just a thought.

    Are the books white and are they good for watercolor?

  • Deb Mostert says:

    Heya Liz, thanks for the review……where do you get these from in Australia? I’m on the hunt….

  • Hi Liz,
    So far I’ve filled 1 1/2 5.5×8.5 Alpha books, 1 1/2 4×6 Alpha books and have almost completed an 8×10 Beta book. I love these softcovers. I talked about them here:

    I found your assessment interesting as it supports my own views. Those first few and last few pages of Alpha books do flex and cause support problems as you describe. The Beta books don’t have this problem because of the thicker paper.

    I’ve always been an Alpha fan but one other thing may cause me to move to Beta paper for these softcovers. As you know well, Alpha paper will buckle a bit when wet but with the hardcovers the paper tends to flatten out. Because there’s no cover weight to facilitate this, the Alpha books ‘swell’ somewhat as you work through them. It’s not a horrible problem but it exists. I throw my books into my bag somewhat willy-nilly and didn’t much like the idea of a swelled book and thin cover bouncing around in the bag so I had to start using a rubber band to hold the book closed. I don’t have that problem with my Beta book(s). BTW, the books I’ve filled do have scuffed covers but none of the edges have frayed or bent. As you say, it’s nice to be able to easily write the volume numbers on the covers. — Larry

    • Emily DeArdo says:

      This is really useful, thanks Larry! It’s sort of leaning me toward trying one of the Betas when I’m done w/ my current Moleskines.

    • John Mize says:

      A 2 inch binder clip on the softcover S&B softcover cooks takes care of the swelling nicely. Time in the bag with the clip on and it looks flat as new.
      I use a support board to hold the sketchbook when painting so I have the clips anyway.

  • Tina Koyama says:

    I love the softcovers for all the reasons you mentioned! The reduced weight AND bulk is very significant! And even though S&B says that the hardcovers open flat, there is still the tell-tale shadow in the gutter when scanned. NOT so with the softcovers — they really do open flat. Another huge advantage! I’ve always loved the papers, so I’m buying only the softcovers from now on. I worried about the cover not being as durable too, but since there are fewer pages, they are carried around for less time. Here’s my review:

  • PJ Magalhaes says:

    Love the paper for the Epsilon Series, it is by far my favourite and heaviest sketchbook. Considering i have been carrying it around and that it adds to my carry on luggage weight total, i am looking forward to getting my hands on a couple of these softcover sketchbooks. Thanks for the post (and the continued awesomeness that is your blog Liz) and for everyone’s input as well.

  • Flory says:

    Thanks for an excellent review, Liz. Last year when they came out, I bought two large softcover Zeta books and took one on a long trip. I was dismayed when the binding broke almost immediately. You mentioned a recall by S&B, but I probably missed that boat. I decided to just live with these two books. Zeta paper has its quirks with wet media, but I love the weight and smooth texture of the paper. Going to softcover does make a BIG difference in the weight of my bag! I’m awaiting details on your support board with interest. Thanks to other readers as well for their comments.
    By the way, about two years ago I bought an Alpha midsize book that turned out to be defective (a wrinkle in the front endpaper caused a dent in the first ten pages or so). I sent S&B a photo, and they sent me a replacement book. Good customer service.

    • Hi Flory, Thank for your comment about our customer service. This is one of our company’s core operating principles. You are entitled to a refund or replacement of the defective sketchbooks which you purchased last year. Please contact us at [email protected] to arrange this.

  • Ramona U. says:

    Excellent quality. My favorite sketchbooks.

  • Love your website and this review is fantastic. I stumbled here trying to figure out the differences in name on the S&B paper types (Nove, Alpha, etc.) mainly because I just purchased a Nova Series softcover sketchbook and loved how it felt (as a sketchbook) but the paper was darker than I expected. I’ll use it though, it’s good it forces me to do some high contrast work I haven’t done in years.

    Question, have you ever used Neodymium Magnets? They are cheap, some come in really cool shapes and finishes and they attract all kinds of metals. Small pieces have a great deal of pulling force, more than the clips, which could keep your pages down and create some very cool shapes on the cover. I am going to try them out on one of my books as I also like to see wear and tear form up over time, but I want to see how functional and how interesting They might be.


  • Oh and of course they would go awesomely with your name!

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