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My father loved to write crap down. He’d dream up some idea or another, and he’d jot it down in one of a half-dozen little notebooks he used to carry around with him. I remember one time as a kid when I asked him about something, and to answer me he produced one of his older notebooks. Hell, I can’t remember what it was I asked. But I clearly remember him ruffling through page after page of drawings and scribbles, trying to find the answer. He paused on one page, which contained a crude (but surprisingly precise) drawing of a suitcase with two different kinds of wheels on it. “I really should’ve done something about that,” he said, tacitly suggesting he’d scooped the originator’s patent.

I tried to emulate him over the years, carrying around various cheap ringed notebooks like the ones he always stuck in his back pocket. The first real success I had at keeping a notebook long enough to reference it for information over a couple weeks old was with Moleskines. Since 2008 or so, though, I’ve gone mostly digital, snapping phone pics and doodling in various versions of electronic note-keeping apps.

I’d love to tell you that one or the other of these methods is the complete awesome, but really they each offer some advantages — and significant disadvantages. One size definitely doesn’t fit all. So in classic Toolmonger form, I’m going to run down some of the options I’ve tried so far. If you find one that really works for you (or if you have better ideas than mine!) please share in comments. I’ll be watching.

Read on past the jump for a comprehensive look at the options.

The Cheap Route

Obviously the best notes are the ones you actually write down, so there’s something to be said for carrying a lot of cheap-ass small notebooks instead of one or two nice ones. Above, you see my favorite candidate, the spiral. You can find these in all sorts of sizes, ranging from the standard 8-1/2″ x 11″ models college students used to take class notes in (back in the pre-laptop/tablet days) down to the little 2″ x 3″ promotional giveaways you used to find at every convention table. Generally you’ll find them only in line-ruled format, and they come in top-spiral and side-spiral layouts.

The low cost also makes them a bit more throw-away, too, as you’ll be a hell of a lot less concerned about carrying one in a shady place than you would a $10-$40 notebook. Of course, the ones small enough to pocket easily are also much too small for drawing, so these seem best targeted toward writing down quick numbers or specs, like the tire size on the car you’re thinking of buying (so you can find out what it’ll cost you to replace them) or the model number of the faucet in your bathroom (so you’ll get the right damn cartridge kit for it at the big box).

The Good: They’re cheap — like sometimes even free — and you can find ’em anywhere, so there’s really no excuse not to stash them anywhere and everywhere (or pick one up at the grocery store or gas station if you’re out). The small ones will fit in your back pocket — especially the top-ringed kind, which positions the spiral at the top of your pocket instead of drilling a crease in your ass (or worse yet, bending flat) when you sit down. You can rip out pages if you need to write something down for someone else.

The Bad: A corollary to the above is that the best notes are the ones you can find later. If you have 20 notebooks floating around, you’re unlikely to remember whether those bolt specs you jotted down two weeks ago are in the notebook in the truck, the one in your pocket, the one at your desk, or the one you lost at the flea market last Sunday. Also: The ring bugs the crap out of me. I’m left-handed, so the side ring creates a permanent hand tattoo after more than a minute of writing. (I generally turn them upside down.)  And I’ve never been good at holding a soft notebook in one hand while writing in it with the other.

The Moleskine

All the rage starting about a decade ago, Moleskines remind me a lot of the notebook in which my dad sketched his ill-fated suitcase idea. They’re perfect-bound with hard covers and a slightly-more-flexible spine. You also get an elastic strap, which you can use to band the book shut or hold the book open to the last unused page. Glued to the back binding you’ll find a small envelope in which you can stuff other people’s business cards, flyers, or other bits of free-form paper you happen to come across.

Certainly there’s a lot of nostalgia behind the Moleskine; the “philosophy” page of their website proclaims it the “heir and successor to the legendary notebook used by artists and thinkers over the past two centuries: among them Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and Bruce Chatwin.” (So you’ve got that going for you.) The modern Moleskine began its life in 1997 in Italy, targeted at the artistic/literary type in Europe and the U.S., via distribution primarily in bookstores. A decade and a half later, you’ll find them all over the place in formats ranging from the original hardcover to smaller (and larger) softcovers. Best of all, Moleskine offers ruled, gridded, and blank versions. For shop use, I’m a fan of the grid, but lots of folks swear by the blank sheets.

The pocket model runs around $10-12, which makes it a little too expensive to have tons of them, but not really pricey enough to worry about.

A tip for the wise: The Moleskine’s Achilles heel is its spine. If you carry the book around in a back pocket, sit on it, throw it around, and generally abuse it like you would any notebook that goes everywhere you go, eventually the spine starts to weaken and break along the folds. After going through a couple in this manner, I finally started reinforcing the spine with a piece of 1″ black gaffer’s tape right from the start. If you cut the edges carefully, the tape looks pretty natural on the Moleskine, and I’ve never had one come apart after this. It also strengthens the spine enough that you can carry a pen by stabbing its clip into the Moleskine’s binding without fear of the spine meeting an early fate.

Tip #2: If you’re going to carry a pen on the spine, you have a couple of good choices. The small, bullet-shaped black Fisher “Space Pen” makes for the smallest (and least likely to poke your ass if you sit on it) form factor. If you don’t pocket the Moleskine and are concerned with appearances, you might like these made-to-fit square pens and pencils. Personally, I carried the Fisher for a while, then finally just started sticking whatever pen I had around on it.

The Good: They’re durable. They take quite a beating and reject small amounts of water (light rain, for example) when closed. The features (band, envelope) are all useful and not just for show or hipster cred. They stack and store well, too. I have a stack of the four or five that I filled while in my Moleskine phase, and they look pretty much like they did when I filled them. Lots of page format options. Enough pages to last a while, but not so many that it looks like a mini dictionary. Fits well in a pocket (and slightly-rounded corners make it comfy there). Not too pricey. Very functional.

The Bad: Not a whole lot, except for the fact that it’s not searchable. This may not matter to you, but I often found myself digging back through old ones trying to find something I wrote down a year ago. My solution to this was to write the date with a hashmark on the outside of the page whenever I wrote in it, so at least I could flip through and find the general vicinity of the note I sought. That’s about as good as you’ll get without digital copies.

Specialty Notebooks

Though I’ve seen plenty an old shop hand with a Moleskine (albeit with a bit more sawdust or grinder debris than most poets’), Moleskine’s target audience seems to be the coffee shop crowd. (You know, the people who stay there rather than stop in for coffee.) Since Moleskines have become so popular, there are now plenty of boutique offerings for those who want to buy their way above the average Moleskine riff-raff. For example, consider this one from Makr, featured on Uncrate a few days ago. I’m certainly not arguing that it’s pretty. Its Smyth-sewn binding is definitely a plus, as the stitched-together pages will hold together well and allow the notebook to lie flat when open. But $38 is a little steep, I think, making it more of a desk item than something you’re likely to carry in the shop. And though you get a choice of six colors, you’re stuck with blank pages in all of them.

The Good: Sexy. You’re the only one you’ll see with this pricey a notebook. Some of them are really well-made.

The Bad: $40 buys a lot of crap for your next project, making it a whole lot more likely to see the light of day instead of languishing as sketched ideas in your $40 notebook.

Going Digital

If you’re one of the millions of folks who regularly carries around a smartphone (read: something with a functional keyboard and apps), then you’ve already made the investment required to take digital notes. This also overcomes some of the past problems with the mismatch of high-buck electronics and shop environments; you probably carry the phone anyway, so why not use it to take some notes?

Besides various note-taking and sharing applications, your phone probably also has a pretty decent camera, which quite simply kicks ass for helping you remember little things like how stuff looked before you took it all apart or what that weird tool you saw at your buddy’s place looked like. We at Toolmonger use the hell out of our smartphone cameras, snapping pix of new and interesting things we come across to write about — or popping a photo of the A/C filter so we can remember its size.

The Good: SEARCH. Seriously, try finding some random garbage you scribbled down two years ago in a Moleskine. It’s not easy — and certainly not anywhere near as easy as typing a few key phrases into the search field and tapping right to your note. And pictures are invaluable. Sharing is dirt-simple, too, as easy as tapping a couple times to SMS, email, or send to a cloud storage site.

The Bad: Typing on smartphones sucks. Drawing on them sucks worse. While you can easily draw pretty little pictures in your Moleskine (or on the back of a napkin), drawing on an iPhone screen is an exercise in frustration. Granted, there now exist some handy apps to make drawing a bit easier, but you’ll have to learn them as opposed to simply scribbling away. Also: don’t forget the possibility of data loss. I lost my full Apple Notes library once a year ago, and I’ve been a lot more wary of keeping important information there ever since.


So what’s best for you? You’ll have to match up the above with your own needs to find out. If we had to choose just one, we’d probably choose our smartphones, followed closely by the Moleskine. We love the high-buck boutique notebooks, but we’re just way too cheap to actually order them. And even though we’re cheap, we’re not cheap enough for the spiral-bound offerings. Maybe they just have too much of a junior-high vibe.

Let us know, if you will, what you use, and most importantly, let us know why. We look forward to hearing from you! 

Spiral Notebooks
Moleskine Notebooks
Terra Cotta Sketchbook [Makr]

PS: I doubt Dad really did invent the rolling suitcase first, as my experience must’ve been around 1975 or so. Still, I bet he came up with it independently.


36 Responses to Feature: Taking Notes

  1. TMIB_Seattle says:

    I really like the “Rite in the Rain” notebooks (http://www.riteintherain.com/)

    They run under $5 for the pocket sized ones in either spiral or bound, so I keep a few around- one in the bag I take to work, one in my coat pocket, a couple in the Jeep, etc.

    I really like the bound ones more than the spirals- they seem more permanent to me for some reason. Either way though, they are durable and cheap, and I can use them in damp environments. While I don’t actually write “in the rain” often, the coating on these pages seems to make them more durable, so the notepad that’s been stuck in my pocket for a while isn’t all beat up with pages that fall apart.

    I pair this with a Fischer Space Pen that I carry every day.

    If the notes I took are something important, I’ll transcribe them later and translate them from my own shorthand chicken scratches into something more readable and useful. I usually do this at my PC or tablet and put them into OneNote. If it’s just something transient- a phone number I don’t think I’ll need again, a measurement on a part that I’ll only need long enough to go to the store, etc. then I just leave it in the notepad, as I’m less likely to need to search on it again.


  2. Rick Darter says:

    Check out Evernote. It works on Apple – Droid and Windows. Free account is usually adequate…

  3. Regis says:

    I’ve been pairing written notes with Evernote by taking pictures of notebook pages. I’m not sure if it’s an Evernote premium acct thing or if the free account does it as well, but Evernote will do OCR so you can search your handwritten notes later.

    They’ve joined with Moleskine for an Evernote-specific notebook, but a plain old notebook works fine with it.

  4. Nick says:

    This is a something I’ve struggled with as well–A cheap, study notebook. I don’t like spiral bound as the pages come out too easily. Can’t justify the moleskine for it price and hipster popularity….not sure I can handle the stress of writing something important enough in one.

    What I’ve been kicking around with is a composition notebook. It has a string binding, seems durable, super-cheap. I hate the size, but I saw that some teachers have them cut in half so a single book can serve 2 students.

    I’ve been contemplating running one through a table saw (chop saw?) two make 2 slightly more manageable-sized notepads. Not sure what this will do to my table saw blade though.

    • ambush27 says:

      Shouldn’t hurt your blade, you will probably have to clamp it between two pieces if wood though.

      • Nick says:

        Was able to cut one in half on a table saw, no problem. Used a piece of 1/8″ Luan plywood as a backer board on the bottom. No tear out whatsoever.

        The cut pad looks like it would be best used with the binding at the top, flip pad style. This means the the ruled lines are going in the wrong direction.

        If you find a composition notebook with graph paper ruling, that would be ideal type to cut down on the table saw. I’ve seen them in stores before, but not recently.

  5. Noah says:

    I like the little books from Field Notes: http://fieldnotesbrand.com/

    However I tend to keep at least one yellow legal pad handy for daily note taking and list making.

    • Alan Kuper says:

      I’ve gone “all in” with this one.
      Thin enough that I’m not carrying the same one around forever. Thin enough also, to carry more than one active booklet.
      No Spine to break like the mentioned Moleskins. I’ve broken three or four of the reporter style graph paper version.
      Currently training myself to have one with me at all times. I’ve gone so far as to sew up a small little “FieldNote” bag that keeps my notebooks and pens permanently attached to the exterior of my Zuca-Pro. This keeps my notes immediately available at all times.

      3 for $10.

      I recommend laminating the outside cover for a little extra durability.

      Electrical Process-Packaging Engineer & all around RoadWhore.

      • Matt says:

        Me too! Switched a few months ago from a Moleskine to Field Notes. I also carry a space pen…cuz…it is always in my pocket! The fact that these are cheap, not too big and can fit in my back pocket and be sat on is a biggie. I recently bought three of the water paper version with bright orange cover and “dot” pattern (better than squares). Almost ready for a new one and I’m gonna try this water proof one. One way they could improve: put useful stuff on the inside rather than just a bunch of marketing blither.

        • Leon says:

          I use the Field Notes Expedition. The pages are made out of plastic instead of paper which makes them super durable. As a therapist, I carry notebooks on me at all times to keep data. The expeditions have held up the best. You do have to be careful about the kind of inks you use. Space pens and bics are fine, gels, not so much.

  6. Scott says:

    With the smart phone and drawing pictures; draw the picture on a scrap of paper and then snap a pic of it. It works everytime. 🙂

  7. Clint says:

    Moleskin at the desk and in the shop. Smartphone everywhere. When something in the Moleskin is worth saving and searching (rather than sketches of design ideas, which almost always get looked at in the shop), take a photo on the phone, attach a note to index it, and now you have searchable notes that can be sent to a larger app on the laptop.

    • Matt says:

      Yes, I use Evernote…practically automatic and every word, even the ones you hand write and take a picture of, are indexed. No note required. Pretty much all my notes or sketches start on paper and land in Evernote. Keeps getting better and better!

  8. Chuck Cage says:

    Great thoughts so far! I use Evernote pretty extensively at my desk and (until I graduated about two weeks ago) for college note-taking. One caveat: Don’t ever trust the app for extended note-taking. For example, you can use the mobile app to jot down a quick phrase or something, but don’t expect to keep it open for 20 minutes taking class notes. The apps have always been crashy, and they tend to lose your active note when they crash. For situations like that, I took notes in other more stable apps, then exported them to Evernote. And I do use the mobile apps from time to time to access the library remotely.

    Still, I find it easier to make shop notes on paper. Love the idea of scanning them in later, though.

  9. Mac says:

    Another Evernote devotee… I started using it on my cell long ago, added the desktop version. Pics, text, voice memos… Very very nice.

    For longer portable typing on my cell, I picked up a used Stowaway portable bluetooth keyboard (fleabay); had one for my Palm way back in the day and it worked great. Works wonderfully, as big as a full sized keyboard unfolded, and about the size of two decks of cards side-by-side folded up.

    Chuck – I hear you on stability. I haven’t had too many problems, but did once. I learned my lesson – save often.

    • Matt says:

      Yes, me too…can be a little unstable at times, but it seems to be getting better. The best “laptop” type of note taking app I have ever used is OneNote. However, it is only available for the PC.

  10. TL says:

    Around the shop I’m fond of clipboards with sheets of graph paper. I’ve got several, each with it’s own attached mechanical pencil. Away from the shop it’s the iPhone Notes app and the camera. The Notes app is great for keeping track of those things you need occasionally, but can never quite remember (Furnace filter size for example).

    Nothing like a cell phone camera to quickly grab prices at the big box so you can do project budgets. It also works great to quickly get all the specs off the side of the packaging for comparisons.

  11. TL says:

    One reminder when using electronics to record things BACK UP YOUR DATA FREQUENTLY. Either use a cloud service so it just “happens” or back it up local to your PC. For iPhone users, a local backup to iTunes should take less than five minutes if you do it frequently.

    Believe in the power of backups. Sometimes only backups can save you.

  12. Marcus says:

    I’ve been using composition note books for my notes for about 20 years now. Buy them in bulk from Amazon and you can occasionally get them as cheap as 40 cents each, but usually it’ll be around a buck+. I made it a habit from the very beginning to index my notes. Each page has a number. Each topic has a bullet point. Notes are written from front to back, naturally, but I create an index entry for each topic along with the page number its on from the back of the notebook to the front. That way I don’t need to worry about reserving enough pages for my index ahead of time. Less waste. It’s not as fast as searching digital media, but I find eye balling my index doesn’t take too long. I also find the act of writing stuff down helps my memory in general.

  13. aaron says:

    nice suggestions here, particularly the one about cutting down composition notebooks. I prefer blank/unruled pages, so I’ll have to look for one of those. Not too worried about the TS blade…

  14. Cameron Watt says:

    I keep a 5 subject spiral bound notebook in the truck. It doesn’t fit in a pocket but I prefer larger pages.

    The last guys I worked for had whiteboards beside their shop phones; much better than my own system of writing on the wall with soapstone.

  15. Eric R says:

    Who needs note books?
    It’s allll up in the coconut…lol

  16. craig says:

    i do a lot of both “analog” and digital note taking.

    to render the chaos into an accesible form i convert most items to pdf’s and archive them in indexed libraries.

    forty-some years of notes equate to 243gb/55190 files/2989 folders.

    the graphics (clipart, fonts, projects, etc) equivalent of this is exponentially larger and a bit less easy to access. the graphics add up to almost a terabyte.

    all this may be hoarding but the stack of hard drives (originals and backups) that hold all this crap can fit in a shoebox as opposed to the crates of notebooks i used to have.

  17. frankoamerican says:

    I am way too particular about my notebooks. They have to be thread bound like the Moleskins, but they must also be 3 x 5″ so they will fit in a shirt pocket. Moleskine makes some that fit these specs, but they are way thin. I found some at Target that are perfect,and bought several packs, as I will probably never find them again (as they were made in VietNam). They have the mottled speckled design like composition books, but are just the right size, IMHO.

    • Chad in Tucson says:

      The Dollar Store sells Mini Composition Books 3 for a dollar. Some come with sewn in pages (the ones that do say sewn in the upper right) and are 3.25″ x 4.5 “. Each pack comes with a notebook with a red cover, a green cover and a blue cover. They are 50 pages each and even work well with fountain pens.

  18. gary z says:

    I like to jot drawings and notes down on a piece of paper and hang ’em on the garage door with magnets. Seems to keep potential projects close at hand. I used to keep notes in my “Woodworker’s Log Book” from Veritas. Not only do they have a lot of great how too info, but they included blank note and graph pages. Unfortunately it is out of print. That and it’s easier to see stuff on a 16′ wide door……

  19. Dave Y says:

    I use composition notebooks for my engineering job and my hobby projects. At the end of the school sales you can buy 10 for $1 and they stack beautifully and never change in shape. I usually stick with wide rule and a nice G2 pen. I’ve just learned to ignore the lines anyhow. If i’m lucky and I find graph paper one I will use it. Each major project gets a book.

    But this is not nearly enough. I use trello a online task organizer to store project ideas, milestones, goals, organize purchasing lists from mcmaster, etc. It’s a really powerful tool and it runs on my phone as well.

  20. Ron says:

    I like composition books. Started using them in the Army. They are just big enough without being too bulky. Much better than trying to use a legal pad inside a portfolio. Recently found one at Walmart this has a 5×5 grid. Which is awesome for drawing patterns on for the scroll saw. I also use Evernote or Notes on my iPhone. I keep running shopping lists on Notes of stuff I need or of any supplies that are getting low (ie 100grit sandpaper, or a certain size screw), so that if I am at the big box to get something I just check my phone to see if there is anything else I need

  21. Chris Moore says:

    .. I’ve always kept several graph-paper pads on simple clip-boards to facilitate illustrations along with my notes. And when making to-do lists, start at the bottom of the page, because every project inevitably requires 6 other projects to prepare for the actual thing you want to do.

  22. Peter says:

    Can’t go wrong with a moleskin!

  23. Ryan says:

    You can’t leave out the notebooks from Doane Paper (http://doanepaper.bigcartel.com) These notebooks also called “grid+lines” is exactly that, Graph paper overlaid with lines like a traditional notebook. Spiral bound with thick covers that stand up to serious abuse. A few different sizes from back pocket to full size notebooks. I absolutely LOVE them. It’s all I use now.

  24. Bill from Maine says:

    Forget using a regular smartphone, but do consider the Samsung Galaxy Note series. They have drawing apps and handwriting recognition built in along with a huge screen that’s actually large enough to do real work on. The Note 3 just came out so look for a deal on the Note 2 – it’s just as capable. It’s Android so almost all the apps are compatible with what you use on your desktop. The S-Pen (think of it as a modern electronic stylus) tucks in the bottom so you wont lose it. The phone even sounds an alarm if you set down the pen and walk away.
    I’ve been using one as my phone for a year now and I’ll never go back to something like an iphone or Blackberry.

    • pete says:

      I like composition notebooks. I’ll title it and write my last name on it in permanent marker. then reinforce the bound edge with duct tape and then cover it with clear contact paper.

      I also used pocket size moleskin notebooks, covered in contact paper.

      for note on the go you might try.
      Pocket Mods (http://www.pocketmod.com/) once you learn the folds, it can be a handy notebook (if you don’t printed stuff). I make them out of scrap paper at work.

      great article.

  25. Rae White says:

    The ultimate notebook is the ZEQUENZ 360 notebooks. search for it on www and look at the images. They are pricey, but worth it over and over. No matter what, you will not destroy this notebook. You can bend it backwards, roll it, fold it open, it will just come back to it’s former glory. It comes in many sizes with or without lines. I discovered it by chance. I do not like a notebook with lines as I make a lot of sketches. And in USA I find that it is nearly impossible to find a notebook without lines. Give it a try, you will not be sorry. You will most probably have to order it online. Happy NOTES.

  26. Ryan says:

    I’m a 100% analogue guy. I would never take notes on my phone. There is something magical happening scribbling down DIY ideas on paper, wouldn’t you agree?

  27. Rog Mason says:

    I LOVE paper and note taking. After years of Five Star note books(no good if you are at the store and the book is on your bench at home), then Evernote/Livescribe (very clever and sophisticated but pen battery runs down at the wrong moment or it’s too big to lug around in the pocket) then most recently, reMarkable – VERY expensive B&W iPad type of device from Scandinavia (cool but not mobile enough to be practical and boot time from sleep is too long to start note taking when the phone rings for example) to last but not least – small wire bound, paper notebook in pocket with pencil in wire spiral, combined with iPhone & Apple ‘Notes’ – typed notes plus pictures – all cataloged and accessible from any device. Unlike the author, no data loss if subscribed to Apple’s free iCloud system. Accessible everywhere on any Apple device and custom cataloged in different titled Notes – e.g. HOME. WORKSHOP. CAR. BUY (shopping list), etc. I’m sure Android and Windows must have a similar system? Great solution for me.

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