On Notebooks: Moleskine vs Field Notes

5th of April, 2011 ·  32 Comments

I make no secret that I like owning and using quality products. I’ve made no secret that I love using notebooks and writing in analogue. And I’ve made no secret of my love for Moleskine products.

At work, I needed a steno pad at my desk. Already being a fan of fine analogue products, and Moleskine not having this type of product, I decided to order a Field Notes steno pad. While I was at it, I ordered a 3-pack of plain notebooks, a product that competes directly with the Moleskine Cahier I’ve typed so much about.

For the purpose of this article, I will refer to to the Moleskine Cahier notebook as Cahier, and Field Notes books as Field Notes.


similarities

Both Field Notes and Cahier books are the same size: 3½ x 5½ inches. They both have rounded corners, but Field Notes corners have a larger radius. They ship in similar packaging.

Notebook packaging

I think it’s interesting the Field Notes have plainer packaging than the Cahier. Smaller, too. And less yellow.

And that’s just about that for similarities. In every other way I’ve been able to measure, these books are different.

 

materials

The books are made of three materials: a cover, paper, and a binding agent.

Cahier covers feel a little thicker than Field Notes. It’s pretty subtle, and I’m not sure most folks would notice it if they weren’t looking for it, but there you go. It’s really difficult for me to put a value judgement on this at this time. I’m gonna have to wait and see.

The books have different paper types. Field Notes is very straight forward. Printed on the inside back cover, it says, “Innards: Boise Offset Smooth 50#T ‘White.’” I really liked that paper when I worked for a printer. It’s what I made my own notebooks with, what I printed my own materials on.

All Moleskine products use Folio Ivory paper. It’s a great paper and a joy to write on, but I have no idea what it really is. It could well be custom made for/by Moleskine, and it is a superb paper. I went out and shopped pens for a couple weeks to find the best pen for that paper.

I use black, blue, red, and green pens. They look a little harsh and unsophisticated on white paper. They look idealized on the ivory.

Also, you get more pages, 64, with a Cahier, but I don’t think that’s an advantage, believe it or not. By the time you’re done using a book, it’s really abused. I suspect the Field Notes books, with only 48 pages, will be less decrepit by the time they’re full.

Lastly, the last sixteen pages in a Cahier book are micro-perforated, making tearing the pages out easy and clean. It’s a blessing and a curse. Easily tearing out pages is great, but easily foldable pages with a built-in weakness isn’t so great. No tear out pages in the Field Notes.

Moleskine wins on this one, but only by a bit. Boise paper is made in the U.S. and feels great. Moleskine paper is ivory, and it feels perfect to write on. And I’ll level with you: I enjoy just touching that paper just for the sake of touching it. And I like Moleskine’s choice of ivory over white. Nothing wrong with white paper, but something so right with the shade of ivory Moleskine chose.

Then there’s the binding. Cahier’s bindings are stitched [photo, source], Field Notes are stapled [photo, source]. On the surface, I’d say stitched is obviously stronger, but Coudal.com keeps posting photos of Field Notes in action, and they sure do take some abuse. I suspect stitching would make Field Notes books prohibitively expensive, and time will tell if it’s an issue. If it’s not, then kudos to them for doing it cheaper.

 

design

A major selling point for the Cahier notebook was how dead simple it is. There’s nothing printed on it at all. The logo is on the back cover, near the bottom, and it’s embossed, not printed.

Embossed Moleskine logo

It turns out that over time, having a notebook you can’t tell which end is up on is kind of a drag. I fixed that with spray paint and a stencil (it’s fascinating that I picked Futura bold—read on). There’s a pretty good argument that says if you have to modify your product with spray paint and a stencil, it’s not perfect.1 There’s also nowhere very good to write your name and phone number down in case you misplace the thing.

The Field Notes book, on the other hand, is a mess of printing all over the place. I worried it’d be a pain and a distraction, but it turns out it’s charming. They use Futura(!) to typeset everything, and it looks great. The kerning is awesome, and the placement is perfect.

The inside back cover has a 5-inch ruler printed in it, along with a list of 30 ways to use your Field Notes book. The inside of the front cover has a place for your name, email address, the date and place you started using the book, the date and place you finished it, and a box for “pertinent coordinates.” I’m not sure what other people use that box for, but it’s pretty prominent for something so vague and weird. I may simply write down my home’s GPS coordinates.

Inside front cover of a Field Notes bookInside back cover of a Field Notes book

 

An empty Field Notes book is chock full of personality and humor. Then you start writing and drawing in it, and it gets even better.

Every Moleskine book has a pocket for “notes or clippings.” The Cahier books are no exception. What they did was glue an extra flap of cover inside the back cover. Every last pocket-sized Cahier book I’ve ever used has fallen apart and required taping up. So good job for putting a pocket in there, but bad job for allowing it to fall apart every single time.

I imagine the Field Notes guys looked at it, considered the pocket carefully, and realized they couldn’t do a pocket that’d be worth the cost, so printed a bunch of humorous stuff in there instead. I’m glad they did.

 

other stuff

I don’t consider myself a patriot by any stretch of the imagination. As a matter of fact, the first and only time I’ve ever been proud to be an American was when President Obama was elected. It’s sort of slid just a smidge since.

For all that, I’d rather buy the book made by a skilled pressman in the U.S. than from whoever assembles them in China and Italy.2

If nothing else, buying Moleskine means my books require way more fuel to get to me. Buying Field Notes is a lot more local, and thus more ecologically friendly. Plus, skilled labor is something we should be celebrating and encouraging. Unless you’re a Republican. In that case, never mind.

On the topic of buying local, I’m a little sad I can only get Field Notes via the Internet, while Moleskine books are available at the local Barnes and Noble. On the other hand, it is fun to watch the shipment travel from Illinois to my mailbox here in California. So we take the good with the bad.

 

conclusion

Yes, there is a conclusion. Field Notes and Moleskine both make great products. There’s enough room in the world for both of them. Moleskine makes a second-to-none reporter notebook (I’m a reporter!) and their large plain notebook is simply a work of art you get to write in (and the pockets in both are usable).

Field Notes makes no such products.3 They aren’t competing there. They’re competing in the pocket sized notebook market. And though I don’t like the paper quite as much in a Field Notes book, I like everything else more.

I like my reporter notebook and my large plain notebook, but it’s unlikely I’ll buy another pack of Cahiers since I’m already putting together my next order of Field Notes products (I’ll be ordering “The Kit”).

Oh, and Cahier books are available in four colors. Field Notes books are available in a near-infinite variety of colors because the Field Notes guys get a good idea, print a run, and you have ‘em till they run out. It adds to the fun of the thing.

Oh, and Field Notes included a “General-Purpose Band of Rubber” in my order. That band has unironically made my Moleskine reporter notebook better.

I hope there’s some 5½ x 8½ notebooks in the future. That’d make a great thing greater.

  1. If you have to add lime to your beer, your beer’s probably not very good, either.
  2. “Moleskine books are printed and bound in China and designed and assembled in Italy.” So binding isn’t assembling?
  3. Interestingly, I got into this whole thing because Field Notes makes a product Moleskine doesn’t: the steno pad, which deserves its own review.








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