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.
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.
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.
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!
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.