Longtime readers will know the staff here at Tools & Toys are fans of all things analog. Sure, we’re still total geeks about gadgets and gear, but we also find a lot of joy and satisfaction in the feel of putting pen to paper.
To that end, we’ve assembled a collection of nice pens, paper, gear, and tips to help you get the most out of your own analog writing tools. Your wallet has been warned.
These are just a couple of the pens we enjoy using. Believe us, the world of fine writing utensils is massive — listing them all would take far too long.
There’s something comforting about having a drawer full of your favorite pens, reassuring you that if you lose (or lend one out) it doesn’t matter because they’re cheap and replaceable. For us, we prefer stocking up on the Uni-ball Signo DX 0.38mm. Its fine, somewhat scratchy tip just feels good to write with, and the ink goes on nice and clean. Also, the balance and weight of the pen feels great in the hand.
The best fountain pen for starters. The nib writes silky smooth, the barrel and clip can take a beating, and it’s easily refillable with cartridges. (It can also use an ink converter for bottled inks.)
If you’re at all interested in dipping your toe into the world of fountain pens, don’t waste your money on ultra-cheap disposables — they’re likely to leave a bad taste in your mouth for how nice a decent fountain pen actually is.
What is a fine pen really, without something equally nice to write on? And boy, are there a lot of awesome notebooks and such to write on these days. Here are just a few of them.
An obvious choice to some, but one worth mentioning all the same. Field Notes are our go-to memo books. At 3.5″ x 5.5″, the standard editions are perfect for stashing in your back pocket, and they come in your choice of grid, ruled, or plain paper. (Bonus points for stashing Field Notes in an awesome leather cover like the Hellbrand Leather Field Notes Cover or the DDC Stuff Sheath.)
As nice as the standard Field Notes are, the real fun is in their COLORS series. Every quarter they release a special limited-edition lineup of Field Notes centered around a theme of some kind. Some of our favorites over the years: “Night Sky”, “Fire Spotter”, “Shelterwood”, and the more recent “Two Rivers” edition (which is still in stock as of this writing).
The dot-grid Confidant by Baron Fig, in our humble opinion, is just about the best journal notebook on the planet. It’s exactly the right size, has exactly the right type of paper, and is very well made. We never leave home without one in our bag.
The Hobonichi is a beautiful planner — known as a techo in Japanese — that goes beyond schedule-planning by also acting as a journal, notebook, sketch(note)book, scribble pad, and generally a place to capture thoughts and moments.
Each page (one per day) shows the current moon phase, and every two-page spread contains a unique quote, from the heartfelt to the humorous to the whimsical. There are also informational pages sprinkled in, covering topics such as herbs and spices around the world, international size charts, random-selection games around the world, national holidays, and more.
The thin, light Tomoe River paper is resistant to ink bleeding, and is part of what keeps the 464-page book so compact. The cover is a textured matte-black material that feels good in the hand, while the stitch-binding allows the book to open flat for easy writing.
If you’re a paper nerd you owe it to yourself to check out the Levenger Circa notebook lineup. They have full-sized notebooks, smaller sizes, leather notebooks, plastic covers, desk punches, action planners, all sorts of paper refills and more. It’s an entire lineup of the finest quality of papered goodness that all works within Levenger’s Circa system.
Patrick Rhone described this system perfectly when he reviewed it for us:
But, for many things, you need flexibility in the grandest sense of the word. You need the freedom of being able to re-arrange pages at will. You may have need to mix different paper types and styles. Maybe you need to mix 5×8 with some 3×5 cards with some 8.5×11. Or, perhaps annotated ruled pages, followed by a blank one, followed by two gridded pages, followed then by a zipper pouch for miscellaneous scraps. There are those times when you’d like to print off a report, punch some holes into it, and then put it into a notebook with some related handwritten notes. When such flexibility is needed, I reach for my Circa instinctively. I know a project has become a Project — one that really matters — when it has a Circa to live in.
Notebook Organization Systems
Some prefer their notebooks to be a little more free-form. Others need some sort of structure to keep their tasks and whatnot in check. If you consider yourself part of the latter group, here are a few clever systems you may find worth adopting.
Bullet Journal Method: Ryder Carroll’s clever system and structure for keeping notes, tasks, ideas, and events in a physical notebook journal. As he says in this overview video, its a great way to track the past, organize the present, and plan the future.
Dash/Plus System: Patrick Rhone’s handwritten markup/syntax for marking the status of items on a to-do list. A dash (-) indicates an unfinished task, a plus (+) indicates a completed one, and so on. It’s really quite an elegant system, as Patrick himself describes best:
The beauty of this system is that it is all built upon, and extensions of, the original dash. Therefore, it is easy to change items from one state to another (an undone action item to a done one, an undone action item to waiting or delegated) and in the case of an non-dashed item changing completely the item is circled to denote that.
Notebook Tagging: Adam Akhtar developed a clever “tagging” system for physical notebooks that relies on an index at the back and corresponding markers on the right edges of the pages:
“[…] notebooks are hard to organize your ideas. You either split your notebook into several sections for each ‘category’ and end up wasting valuable pages in the quieter sections or you just write your ideas as they come along making them hard to find later on.
If this sounds familiar then you are going to love this little hack I was taught here in Japan by a friendly salariman. It’s a little messy, and not something I’d use all the time but for the right subject could come in handy.”
Bags and Accessories
If you’re going to have all this great pen and paper stuff, you’ll want some gear to carry it with. Again, these are just a few of the possibilities.
You could use just about any bag to carry pen and paper items (the stuff is generally small, after all) but we like Ugmonk’s waxed canvas messenger bags in particular because they’re stylish, water-resistant, and roomy enough to accomodate all your daily gear. Comes in your choice of navy (pictured above, left), black (pictured above, right), charcoal, or army.
- Brasstown ($35) — Six-slot pen case that rolls up into a small bag, which itself can hold other small accessories.
- Lookout ($20) — Three-pen holster with flap enclosure. (Sold out as of this writing, but keep an eye out in the future because it’s awesome.)
- Sassafras ($20) — Bi-fold with five pen slots (three standard-sized on the left, two larger ones on the right) with flaps on each side.
- Hightower ($20) — Another bi-fold, but this one has three pen slots on one side and a single memo book pocket on the other.
- and more.
Though it was designed with a passport in mind, this simple little folio works just as well for a pocket notebook, along with an iPhone + charger cable and a couple writing utensils. The “bonded canvas” refers to the combination of its 10 oz. water repellent duck canvas exterior and 7 oz. bonded flat twill interior. It also sports a brass zipper enclosure with red leather zipper pull. Quality all around.
Kendall & Hyde’s leather notebook wallet is just the ticket, and is exactly what you’d think it is — a larger-than-average leather wallet that can hold a Field Notes notebook (or similar memo book) plus cards and cash. It can fit a passport in place of a notebook, should you ever need to travel with it. Made from vegetable-tanned full-grain harness leather, meaning it will probably outlast you.
If all else fails, you can’t go wrong with a Grid-It. It’s essentially a board of elastic belts that can securely hold all your analog writing tools (or other items) in place, in pretty much any configuration you want, then either carried alone or tossed into a bag. The zipper pocket on the back is great for Field Notes notebooks. If the 12″ x 8″ model pictured above isn’t quite right for your needs, they have plenty of other sizes available.