I first heard about the TWSBI brand via the Fountain Pen Network forums, which are a great place to discuss and learn about all things pen-and-notebook-y. I personally don’t have a mania for fountain pens, but people who do are very picky about the paper they use them on, so I’m always interested to know what notebooks they recommend.
TWSBI is based in Taiwan. Their website states that they started out as a manufacturer for other brands (I’m curious as to which ones), and then branched out into making their own line of fountain pens and inks, and more recently, notebooks. (The website also explains the origins of their name, but it does not specify how you’re supposed to say it out loud. My guess is “rhymes with frisbee”.) I’ve never seen their notebooks in physical stores, though they do have some US online retailers listed on their website (without specifying whether they carry TWSBI notebooks or only their pens). I decided to buy two notebooks directly from the TWSBI website (no response to my request for a sample to review, alas).
I chose the small size in unlined and squared formats. When I saw that these measured 3.75 x 5.5″, I was a little worried– as I’ve written here many times before, I’m pretty picky about the size and proportions of my notebooks, and I don’t use the otherwise wonderful Leuchtturm pocket notebooks because they are 3.5 x 6″. So that extra quarter-inch of width could have been a deal-breaker… but it wasn’t! These notebooks are indeed wider than a pocket Moleskine (seen in the photos below for comparison), but I still like the shape.
The first impression is that these are nicely and carefully made, as well as that they have a strong inky smell (this goes away relatively quickly). The corners are tidily cut, nothing is crooked, and they feel solid. They are softcover, but not overly flexible due to the pocket in the back. There is a debossed logo on the middle of the front cover and again on the lower back cover– I usually prefer plain covers, but I don’t mind it on the front, it’s subtle and looks like some sort of enigmatic symbol. The elastic closure is black, and comes tucked around the back cover when you first buy the notebook. It is the right length to stay tucked neatly there, but also feels a little loose in its stretchiness. You get a pop of color in the skinny ribbon marker and the sides of the back pocket, which are red. I love this little design touch– it’s like a suit jacket that’s totally conservative on the outside but then has a colorful lining. Inside the notebook, everything is totally plain– no branding, no defined space to write your contact details in.
Another point of differentiation: these have 240 pages, all of which are perforated. I’ve never understood why Moleskine gives you 240 pages in the large notebooks, but only 192 in the pocket size. I love having the extra bit of thickness. The perforation is very lightly cut– in a way, this is good, because the pages shouldn’t start coming loose on their own, and you don’t get that extra bend in them at the perforation line when you open the notebook flat. But the downside is that if you want to tear out a page, it won’t happen all that easily unless you fold it first along the perforation line.
What about the paper itself? Will it be everything that picky fountain pen users have hoped and dreamed of? Not quite, I’d say. It’s a nice off-white, with subtle fine grid lines in the squared version– they make Moleskine’s grid lines look very dark in comparison. The color is not as creamy as Moleskine’s, but not bright white either. According to hearsay on the FPN forums, it’s 80g– it feels about the same thickness and smoothness as Moleskine paper. It’s a pleasure to write on, and my fountain pens worked great, though it could be about 15 seconds or more before they were smear-proof. But showthrough is a wee bit worse than average, perhaps– not totally dissimilar to other papers that feel like it, but a bit worse than an older Modo e Modo Moleskine that I compared it to. Fountain pens didn’t bleed through, but a couple others did.
The big question with these notebooks is how they’ll stand up to daily use. Moleskine’s first softcover notebooks were notorious for falling apart at the spine, which they seemed to address by adding an extra strip of reinforcement where the cover is attached to the pages. I can’t see any such reinforcement in the TWSBI. The spine does not have a heavy layer of glue, which is why it opens perfectly flat, but I could already see a couple of spots where the signatures had gaps between them. Softcover notebooks can also be prone to fraying and curling at the corners. We’ll see what happens when I subject one of these to being tossed in my bag every day.
And that is the bottom line here: I love these enough that I DO intend to toss one in my bag and use it as my daily notebook someday soon. In recent years, I’ve gotten away using from softcover notebooks, but these have kind of rekindled the lust that the softcover Moleskine originally inspired in me, until I became a bit disillusioned with them and went back to mostly hardcovers. The TWSBI notebooks look classy, feel well-made, and if you can live with some show-through, they’ll be enjoyable to use– at least for a while! I’ll definitely revisit the TWSBI with a follow-up review on durability. I’m also hoping they’ll branch out into producing a hardcover notebook– I’d love to see how they’d do on that sort of binding.
You can buy these on Amazon for $13.99 for the small size, with free shipping (at least in the US), or you can order directly from TWSBI. At $10.99 for the small size, TWSBI’s price is lower, but they charge shipping, which for me was about $6-7 for two notebooks, if I’m remembering correctly, so either way the price is about the same. And to me it seems like a very good value for the quality of what you’re getting, and the extra page count vs. other similar notebooks.