“Back to School” Means Dirt-Cheap Notebooks! Are They Any Good with Fountain Pens?
Fountain pens are wonderful. That’s a given. But because they use water-based ink, they’re really not suitable for most run-of-the-mill paper (see what I did, there?). Fountain pens aren’t very popular in the US, so most of the everyday paper found here is a poor match for pens that use water-based inks. Ballpoints and gel pens effectively make up the entirety of American daily writing instruments, so manufacturers only need to supply paper that works well with those inks…which, really, any crappy paper can do.
So that leaves us poor fountain pen users stuck buying higher quality paper, mostly imported from France or Japan. These papers are great, but they’re pretty expensive compared to the filler paper and notebooks found all over the US.
The Case for Cheap Notebooks
It flat-out stinks that we have to pay $9 to $15 for a fountain pen friendly notebook when you can pick up composition books for $0.50 at the BigBoxStore when schools are about to start up again.
Sometimes you just don’t want to waste a good Rhodia DotPad for work notes, you know? So a common question from students and other people on small budgets is if there is any cheap paper that works well with fountain pens. Most of the time, the answer is “no,” but every once in a while someone finds a cheapie notebook that surprises.
Enter Jeckyll & Hyde (a.k.a. Norcom)
Over the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of flap over Norcom composition books, which you can get for $0.50 (half a US dollar) during back-to-school time. These notebooks are very close to B5 sized, have stiff card-stock covers, come in both college and wide ruling, and have pretty durable fabric tape binding (over staples). They really make perfect work notebooks.
Due to their cheap prices and ubiquitous presence in every store in America, people started trying these Norcom notebooks with fountain pens. Some found them to be very fountain pen friendly and praised them online. Others found them to be absolutely unusable due to crazy amounts of feathering and bleed. How could one notebook yield such different results?
A Tale of Two Countries (Or Twelve)
After much discussion, arguing, name-calling, questioning, and tears, folks started to notice that these Norcom notebooks were coming from various countries, with a strong correlation between certain countries and paper quality. It was largely believed that American and Vietnamese paper were the worst, Brazilian paper was the best, and the Indian & Mexican paper were inconsistent.
I happened to be passing through a BigBoxStore while on vacation, and remembered the Norcom discussions as I passed through the back-to-school area (if you thought I could get through there without buying something, you’re very mistaken). So I picked up a sample from each country I could find, ending up with Norcom composition books from Brazil, Colombia, Vietnam, and the USA. I also picked up a Casemate (store brand) composition book from China just for fun (I liked the plastic cover).
So I put each one through several tests with various types of pens to see how they performed.
A Quick Look at the Differences
Although the Norcom books have similar covers, interior cover prints, and tape-over-staples binding, just about every attribute is different across all of them:
- Paper color: All four books had different color paper. The Vietnamese paper is closer to cream than white, the US paper is the most yellow, the Brazilian paper has a bluish tint to it, and the Colombian is probably the closest to plain white.
- Printed rules: All four books have blue lines ruling the pages, but the line weight and color are all different. The Vietnamese lines were the finest, crispest, and darkest blue in color. The US paper has the blurriest and lightest (almost cyan) lines. The Columbian and Brazilian lines are very similar: the blue is very violet in color and the line weight is slightly heavier than the Vietnamese. The Brazilian lines are a bit crisper than the Colombian.
- Ruling & top margin: The Vietnamese and Colombian books are both wide-ruled, and the number of lines & size of the top margin is the same in both books (the Colombian is printed a little higher on the page). The US and Brazilian books are college-ruled, but the Brazilian book has one more line than the US book, giving it a narrower top margin
- Binding tape: All four books have different binding tape. The Colombian book is plain (resembles black masking tape), while the other three have unique patterns. The Vietnamese book has the widest tape, the Brazilian book is slightly narrower, and the US and Colombian have the narrowest.
- Corner Cuts: All four books have cut/rounded corners. The US and Colombian books have the smallest cut radius…hell, they’re not even really rounded…just snipped (or sanded) off. The Brazilian and Vietnamese books have a larger cut radius, but the Brazilian book is the only one where they tried to make it look nice and smooth.
- Title Boxes: Each of the four Norcom books have a title box on the cover, but they’re all in slightly different positions and have different rules around them.
In most of the posts I found online, the Brazilian books were found to be the best. Not this time, though. This composition book was the worst one I tried. And I mean it was horrid.
- Every fountain pen feathered (some a LOT)
- Every fountain pen bled through the page (with a couple tiny dots transferring to the following page), rendering the back side of the paper unusable
- No shading or sheen
- The Zebra Sarasa 0.7mm gel pens bled through (with a couple dots on the following page)
- The Pilot Precise V5 liquid ink rollerball feathered a little
- Verdict: NOT fountain pen friendly at all. Avoid.
I’m not sure I read any posts or opinions on paper from Colombia, so this one was a total wild card for me. (I didn’t see any notebooks from Mexico, so maybe they switched plants from Mexico to Colombia?)
- Only two of my fountain pens feathered: Think Vacation (M) and Pilot Falcon (SF). Feathering was minimal, though. The paper stood up surprisingly well for feathering.
- Only my broadest/wettest pen (Think Vacation) bled through much. I got a couple tiny dots on the backside of the page with a couple of the other pens, but the back side of the paper is definitely usable if not using broad/wet pens (or Sarasa pens).
- Shading and sheen both present and accounted for.
- What’s with the Sarasa pens??? My other gels didn’t bleed through. If you’re using 0.7mm Sarasa gel pens, you might decide not to use the back side of the paper.
- Not a single dot of any ink on the following page.
- Verdict: MOSTLY fountain pen friendly. You’ll have to test it with different pen/ink combinations, but you should find something that yields great results.
Norcom Composition Book (USA)
I expected the US paper to be the worst. Imagine my surprise when it had the least amount of feathering of all five notebooks.
- Feathering was effectively non-existent. There are a handful of tiny tendrils from my wettest pen (Think Vacation) and the Pilot Falcon, and that’s it. And I need a loupe to see them…they’re not visible with the naked eye.
- Ghosting was heavy for all pens. I think the paper is probably the most translucent of all the books. Bleed-through was minimal. I got a couple dots that soaked through, but none transferred to the next page. I probably wouldn’t use the back side of the paper in this book, but I think a lot of people wouldn’t mind the ghosting.
- Good shading, heavy sheen.
- Again, the Sarasa pens bled through (WTF?).
- Verdict: VERY fountain pen friendly. I don’t like the ghosting, but the lack of feathering is worth it.
Norcom Composition Book (Vietnam)
I didn’t have very high hopes for the Vietnamese paper going into this. It performed a little better than I expected, but not well enough for me to consider it for use.
- Feathering was hit-or-miss. Some pens didn’t feather at all. Others feathered a lot. Strangely, the Pilot Falcon, which did feather in a couple of the books, was very well behaved on this one. The Tactile Turn Gist and Think Vacation were mad featherers.
- Ghosting wasn’t bad for most of my rollerballs, but several of my fountain pens bled through pretty heavily (as did the Sarasas…surprise!).
- Looks like I got a couple of dots from the Sarasas transferred to the following page, but they’re barely noticeable.
- Shading and sheen are both impressive.
- Verdict: Somewhat fountain pen friendly. The Lamy 2000, Pilot Falcon, and Yiren 856 all worked beautifully in this book. It’s another situation where you’d have to test pen & ink combinations to ensure you have something usable. But if this is the only source you can get your hands on, you can make it work.
Casemate Composition Book (China)
Just for fun, I figured I’d throw in a Casemate composition book, too. It’s from China, so I thought it would be nice to get another country in the mix. The Casemate was twice the cost of the Norcom (a full $1.00), but I like the plastic cover and the fact that it’s college-ruled.
- Feathering is minimal. Most pens had a few tiny tendrils, but just a small amount. The finer pens fared very well. The broadest pen (Think Vaction) feathered quite a bit, but the others were all very usable.
- Ghosting is practically non-existent. Had a couple spots of bleedthrough from the Sarasas, but nothing that would hinder using the second side of the page. Easily, the best of all the notebooks for its ability to handle ink. If it’s important that you’re able to use the second side of every page, then the Chinese Casemate is the one for you.
- Shading and sheen are moderate…not the best, but noticeable.
Honestly, except for the heinous Brazilian paper, all these notebooks can be used with fountain pens…at least ones with fine nibs. If you feel the need to use broad, wet pens, then you should probably just stick with Rhodia or Clairefontaine. But if you’re looking for a cheap notebook for work or school and you’re okay with fine-nibbed fountain pens, then most of these books can work for you.
Least Feathering: Norcom, USA
Least Ghosting & Bleedthrough: Casemate, China