Iron Gall Ink damage

Platinum Classic Iron Gall inks

I love ink. One of the main reasons I love fountain pens is that I have a virtually limitless selection of ink colours available to use with these pens. However, I also realise that practicality plays a part. Much as I like unusual, light coloured inks, I don’t use them as often as I use darker or stronger colours. I’m fortunate in that, as a PhD student and university teacher, what I can deem “practical” is much broader than people in many (perhaps most) other fields. I am always excited when I see new inks which combine interest with practicality though. I was therefore delighted to receive samples of Platinum Classics inks to review.

Citrus Black with the Lamy Charged Green Al-Star
Citrus Black with the Lamy Charged Green Al-Star

Platinum have recently released a set of six inks which have some interesting and unusual properties: the Classic blacks range. These inks are “made by a traditional Japanese method which only Platinum still use.” They are iron gall inks and so oxidise over time so the ink darkens. The change is visible initially, especially if you put a lot of ink down on the paper. As it dries, it darkens dramatically. This process of darkening continues less visibly over a longer period.

Platinum Classic inks
Platinum Classic ink swatches

Cult Pens, on e of my favourite source for all things stationery, sent United Inkdom some inks to test out for review. You can see the products here. There are six colours in the Platinum Classics ink range: Citrus Black, Cassis Black, Forest Black,Khaki Black, Lavender Black, and Sepia Black. They are available from Cult Pens for £21.99 per bottle.

Cassis Black

Cassis Black starts out, unsurprisingly enough, the colour of blackcurrant juice, a bright pink-red. It dries to a deep pinky red. I am not a fan of pink at all, but this colour has enough depth to appeal to me regardless. I can see a bottle of this becoming the only pink ink in my collection.

Cassis Black
Platinum Classic Cassis Black

Citrus Black

Citrus Black is an unusual colour, which reminds me slightly of J. Herbin Vert Olive. Unfortunately, I don’t have a bottle of Rohrer and Klinger Alt-Goldgrun which I think might be the closest comparison. Citrus Black starts off a bright yellow with green tones, and dries to a dark greenish gold. It’s one of the most dramatic of the colour changes because it starts off so light in colour. I’ve been getting more and more fond of these sorts of acid greens lately and I like Citrus Black a great deal.

Citrus Black
Citrus Black swatch


Forest Black

Forest Black is a dark, deep green which changes the least in the initial minutes of oxidation. It starts off dark and gets a little darker over time. There’s a depth to this colour, like all the Platinum Classics, which gives this colour a real richness. In a pen, especially with a fine or extra-fine nib, I think it would be difficult to distinguish this colour from black. That in itself might make it appealing.

Forest Black
Forest Black
Forest Black
Forest Black

Khaki Black

Khaki Black is a deep, rich warm brown (and not very khaki-like at all, in my opinion). It’s very deep and reminds me of leather- it looks like it should be warm and supple to the touch. I don’t have much need for brown inks, but this is lovely and, like the Cassis Black, I can see it becoming an exception to my (not at all strict) rules. The swatch below also shows the shading of this ink, where a single pass with the brush in the lower left is a much lighter colour.

Khaki Black
Khaki Black

Lavender Black

I suspect Lavender Black will be the general favourite of these inks. It’s a deep red-purple and reminds me of Diamine Tyrian Purple, but Lavender Black is richer and deeper. I think this will prove to be a popular addition to all those purplophiles’ collections (that’s totally a word).

Lavender Purple
Lavender Purple

Sepia Black

Sepia Black, like Forest Black, starts out dark and darkens further as it is exposed to the air. This is a very dark brown, almost black but it’s slightly cooler toned than Khaki Black, with the tiniest hint of green. The depth of colour, again, could tempt me to get some brown ink after all.

Sepia Black
Sepia Black

Iron Gall Inks


Medieval manuscript
Iron gall ink damage to a medieval illuminated manuscript

As a historian, I find iron gall inks both fascinating, and worrying.

Historically, scribes made this ink by extracting tannic acid from oak galls (caused by gall wasp larvae on trees), mixing it with iron sulphate and binding it with gum arabic (there are variations on this recipe). The result was a very dark purple or brown ink which darkened over time as the iron oxidised. It was easy to make and water resistant so it became very popular in the Middle Ages. It was eventually replaced, after nearly 2000 years of use, in the twentieth century when other waterproof inks were developed.

Medieval and Renaissance iron gall inks sometimes damaged the paper on which they were used. This damage takes a long time to take effect, but has, in the worst cases, destroyed the manuscript. The acidity of the ink could eat through the paper and cause it to disintegrate. This is well illustrate in the image to the left, where the ink has eaten through the manuscript almost everywhere it was in contact with the paper or parchment.

Fortunately, modern iron gall inks are made to a different recipe and should not cause any damage to paper, or fountain pens. Modern manufacturers are aware of the potential pitfalls and have compensated, using different acids which are fully oxidised on contact with the air so they don’t damage the paper. That being said, Cult Pens recommends not leaving Platinum Classics inks in your fountain pens for extended periods of time so be aware. It’s better safe than sorry, especially with a beloved pen!

Iron Gall Ink damage

Paper Republic Grand Voyager review

United Inkdom has received a number of Paper Republic Grand Voyager XL traveler’s notebooks for review. Paper Republic is an Austrian company, based in Vienna, founded in 2012 but their products are starting to make a splash further afield now. Their small team (only four people) have worked hard to produce a high quality product and to keep that quality high.

Traveler’s Notebooks (TNs) are enjoying huge popularity at the moment. Essentially, a TN is a cover (usually but not always leather) with vertical elastics to hold interchangeable notebooks in place, and a horizontal  elastic closure. There are some standard sizes, but also a great deal variation, usually designed to house particular notebooks (such as A5 or Fieldnotes). I currently have a standard sized TN made by Ink Bandits on Etsy, and a smaller one which was a gift. The appeal of this system is its adaptability. Covers hold varying numbers of notebooks, but it would be reasonable to expect a cover to hold 3-5 without too much trouble. Some wider designs hold more, and of course it depends on the number of pages and paper weight of the notebooks. There are, of course, a huge variety in the inserts available. Etsy is a great source for these.

Paper Republic make two sizes of TN: the passport, the and the XL; and a phone case which doubles as a TN. I have road tested the XL, which they sent to me free in exchange for an impartial review.


Firstly, the cover. Mine is black leather with contrasting orange elastics (other colours of leather and elastic available). The leather is tanned in Tuscany (a very good pedigree), and is soft and flexible. As with all leathers, it will get scuffed with wear but in such a way as to add character rather than detract from its appearance. I’ve had mine in my bag getting bashed about for a week or so and it’s not looking worn. The covers retail at €60 from the manufacturer in Austria (with free shipping for orders over that amount), or £54 from Cult Pens.

Paper Republic Grand Voyager
Paper Republic Grand Voyager


PR Insert ink test
PR Insert ink test
Ink test reverse
Ink test reverse

The inserts are available from Paper Republic and Cult Pens, in plain, ruled, or grid, with 56 pages and 80 gsm white paper. They are available for 2 for 13 EUR (around £11.42 or $14.57 at today’s exchange rate) or £12 from Cult Pens. This is reasonably good value for money. The paper itself is ok (see ink test) but I’m not wildly excited about it. (There are also two types of undated planner insert but I could not determine from the Paper Republic website what, if any, differences there were between the two.)

You can see from the ink tests that the paper stands up to most inks with no feathering or bleed through, and very little shadowing.

(Pen test in order: Stabilo Boss highligher & pastel highlighter; Zebra Mildliner; Muji gel pen; Staedtler Triplus fineliner; Uni-ball Eye; Pentel Touch sign pen; Tombow Mono Twin; Tombow ABT; fountain pens with Diamine Tyrian Purple, Grape, Imperial Purple inks; flex nib fountain pen with Diamine Asa Blue ink.)


Insert on elastic
Insert on elastic

The biggest issue for me is the sizing. The XL is not actually A5. It’s close, but not close enough. A5 is a standard size: 145m x 210mm. The XL cover is 150mm x 210mm, so it’s a little wider than A5 as you would expect for a cover, though at only an additional 5mm, it’s not really wide enough to accommodate multiple A5 notebooks. That’s not necessarily a problem but the effect of the non-standard sizing is that much of the ability to customise the TN is lost.


The inserts, to fit the A5 cover, have to be much smaller than A5: only 135mm x 200mm. This makes more sense for the narrowness of the cover, but it also means that customers must either buy proprietary sized inserts from Paper Republic or trim down another notebook manually. You could, for example, trim down a large Moleskine Cahier to fit. However, these are expensive notebooks to cut up, and the paper is poorer quality than that of the Paper Republic inserts. You may, understandably, be reluctant to doing that though.


Despite the inconvenient proprietary sizing, this is a good TN. The leather is clearly high quality and has a lovely leather smell. The contrasting elastic colour gives the plain cover some character. I’d probably never have chosen orange but it’s really grown on me.

Paper Republic Grand Voyager
Paper Republic Grand Voyager
Back cover embossing
Back cover embossing
Paper Republic
Paper Republic






Insert and elastics
Insert and elastics
Cover, insert, elastic
Cover, insert, elastic
Insert and elastic
Nice match with the Lamy Copper Orange
Iron Gall Ink damage

Silvine Originals Notebooks review

A surprise winner in the Pocket Notebooks stash was the tiny Silvine Originals Pocket Notebook. Silvine kindly sent a few of us United Inkdom reviewers some additional products to test out.

As I said before, I didn’t expect much from the tiny Pocket, but its unassuming plain cover hid some pretty impressive paper. The pages admirably handled everything I threw at it. The paper is pure white, unlined in the case of the Pocket, and noticeably thicker than most notebooks. It has a little texture to it, but not a huge amount. It might even handle a bit of watercolour.

Silvine Originals
Selection of Silvine Original notebooks


Memo £4.50 (ruled)

Memo notebook
Untidy finishing on the stitching. Blue ruling. Perforated pages.

This is a handy pocket notebook at 97mm x 159mm, 52 perforated pages, and stitched binding. It might make a good bullet journal if you find the much-loved Leuchtturm 1917 option too bulky to carry around.


I wasn’t especially happy with the lines, and this goes for all of the Silvine ruled notebooks reviewed here. For me, the bright blue jars with the red cover and stands very starkly against the white paper. I prefer something more subtle, but this is a design choice that’s central to the branding so I don’t see it changing any time soon. The line spacing is 7mm which isn’t little too wide. It does have the feel of an old fashioned notebook as a result of the blue lines, but I don’t think it looks good. I’d definitely use this notebook with plain paper, or a dot grid provided it wasn’t printed in the same blue as the lines, but unfortunately, Silvine currently only manufacture this size with ruled pages.




Note £6 (plain)

Silvine Note
A proper notebook

This is a great sized notebook (125mm x 190mm and 52 pages). This would be an ideal TN notebook due to the high quality of the paper, but isn’t the right size. I’d be keen to see it in Traveler’s Notebook proportions (in addition to the Note size rather than instead). This was my favourite notebook of those sent by Silvine. It’s a nice size, and the plain paper is beautifully smooth. I can see me buying more of these.




Exercise £7 (ruled)

Silvine Exercise notebook
Red! Blue! Silvine Exercise notebook

This is another nice sized notebook (162mm x 230mm, 52 pages), intentionally reminiscent of school jotters. This too is a stitched binding with perforated pages, so it opens flat. This time, there is a red margin on the right. I quite like that, and think it might be nicer to have it paired with grey, or even red, line ruling. I just can’t get on board with that blue!

Project £14 (plain and squared)

Silvine Project
Silvine Project binding

This is a bigger book, slightly narrower and taller than A4 in size (200mm x 305mm) with plain and squared pages (squared recto and blank verso). It’s a multi-signature sewn binding with a spine, so is different from the other, single signature, notebooks made by Silvine. This allows more pages, and manages the weight of the increased size. It reminds me of softback version of school lab books. It’s a good size, and I can imagine that the squared and plain paper have many uses beyond drawing your Chemistry apparatus.

Silvine Project
Silvine Project plain and squared paper



  • lovely paper that is a pleasure to write on (particularly the plain paper)
  • classic, old school look
  • handy range of sizes
  • manufactured to high standards in Yorkshire, not mass produced cheaply (though this may make it difficult to get and pricey for non-Europeans)
  • sewn binding lies flat


  • limited range of size-rule types mean you might not be able to get the ruling you want in the right size
  • bright blue lines are a bit of an acquired taste
  • non-standard sizes may not be convenient
  • no dot grid option
  • ‘untidy’ finishing of sewing might annoy perfectionists


N.B. Silvine sent these samples in return for an unbiased review. Prices indicated were taken from the Silvine website and were correct at time of publishing. Other retailers may vary.


Iron Gall Ink damage

Kaweco Lilliput Fireblue review

The manufacturer lent me a Kaweco Lilliput Fireblue fountain pen for an honest review. This is a pen I’d had my eye on for a while due to its unusual looks. I’m not a big fan of Kaweco’s more popular Sport pens- there’s something about the shape I’m just not fond of, but the sleek lines of the Lilliput are very appealing. I decided to do this a little differently, and take a leaf out of Scribble’s book, by writing my review by hand but my camera, unaccustomed to the  bright light of sunshine we’re currently experiencing, couldn’t get a good shot of the text. Instead, I’ve had to capture it as a document, and the ink colour is all wrong! The review was written on the California State notebook reviewed here.

First off, the pen comes in a nice little tin. That said, you wouldn’t carry it around in this as there’s nothing to secure the pen inside. It’s pretty though.

Kaweco tin
Kaweco tin


As you can see, my writing is pretty scruffy here. I found the Lilliput difficult to hold comfortably and my writing suffered as a result. Fountain pens should be a pleasure to use and this just wasn’t. I can still feel a slight ache between my right thumb and index finger after 10 minutes or so of writing with it. My hands are about average size for a woman, I would say, so I think you might have to have very delicate hands to find this pen comfortable, assuming the weight of it didn’t bother you.

Kaweco Lilliput Fireblue
Kaweco Lilliput Fireblue


This is a really beautiful pen, and my crummy photographs don’t do it any justice, but I would caution you to try it before you buy. There’s no way I would be sending this loaner back to Kaweco if this were a standard sized pen! As it is, I know I’d never use it. I’d just gaze regretfully at it.



Iron Gall Ink damage

Mega Mini-Notebooks Review

The lovely Stu over at Pocket Notebooks sent some United Inkdom members a bumper pack of small notebooks to review. I received a really nicely presented box containing 6 approx. A6 notebooks, and a tiny wee Silvine.

Pocket Notebooks box
Pocket Notebooks box (including a little ‘sweetener’)

All of these notebooks should be able to handle fountain pens, so I decided to put the manufacturers’ claims to the test with a variety of pens and inks. I selected a variety of purple inks for no particular reason except I like purple. Here are the pens I used:

From bottom to top (the order used in the tests):

Tester pen selection
The selection of mostly) purple pens used to put these notebooks through their paces
  • Stabilo Boss purple highlighter
  • Stabilo Boss pastel purple highlighter
  • Zebra Mildliner soft purple
  • Muji gel pen (0.5mm)
  • Staedtler Triplus Fineliner
  • Uni-ball Eye (fine)
  • Pentel Touch brush sign pen
  • Tombow Mono Twin
  • Tombow ABT (636 Imperial Purple)
  • Lamy Safari fountain pen, M nib with Pelikan Edelstein Amethyst ink
  • Faber-Castell Basic fountain pen, EF nib, with Diamine Grape ink
  • Pelikan P405 fountain pen, gold EF nib, with Diamine Imperial Purple ink
  • Vintage Waterman fountain pen, flexible italic nib, with Diamine Asa Blue ink

The Tombow Mono Twin is a permanent, solvent-based ink, which I expected to go through the paper. You would be hard pushed to find through which the Mono Twin wouldn’t bleed- what I was checking here was how well the notebooks stood up to potential feathering with this pen, so judge the results on that rather than bleed.

The vintage Waterman is a VERY wet writer, so this really tested how well the notebooks could deal with a lot of ink. The results were somewhat surprising.


Silvine Pocket



This teeny-tiny notebook is on 110mm x 72mm and 40 pages in size, but is nonetheless an impressive piece of writing kit. They retail for £7.00 for 3 (approx. €8.25 or $9 US). The paper is plain, off-white, and the notebook has a sewn binding.

This unassuming wee notebook was one of the best at standing up to the rigours of the pen test.

None of the pens tested feathered at all, which was impressive. The Mono Twin did bleed through a little but there was no ghosting apart from that.

I’d definitely put Silvine notebooks on my To Buy List, but not this small. I’d be interested in an A5 notebook from this manufacturer if it had the same thick, off-white paper. The tiny pocket would get chewed up in my bag.


The California Back Pocket Journal

California Backpocket Journal
California Back Pocket Journal (right)
California Backpocket pen test
California Back Pocket pen test

These notebooks are slightly smaller than A5 at 88mm x 133mm and have 48 sheets, and a sewn (pamphlet stitch) binding. They’re available in lined, blank (as here), dot grid, graph, or a mixture of plain, lined, and dot grid, and are 3 for £10.50. The paper is 105gsm HP paper which is incredibly smooth.

The paper feels lovely, and handled everything except the very wet vintage nib, which, as you can see, feathered terribly and bled through the page. The bleed through on this was even worse than that of the Mono Twin. This was by far the worst result for the Waterman, which is surprising when everything else fared so well. There was hardly even any ghosting.

The Waterman result aside, this is a nice little notebook.

California backpocket detail
California back Pocket detail
California backpocket verso
California back Pocket verso

Another California Back Pocket: Tomoe River Paper



This appears almost identical to the previous, except it contains glorious Japanese Tomoe River paper. This is ivory-coloured and very thin, but can take just about anything a fountain pen can throw at it. I used a Hobonichi diary last year which was made from Tomoe River paper and have been a big fan ever since. It’s definitely worth the hype. Three of the California notebooks retail at £14.

The test results for this notebook are not at all surprising: no bleed through except for a small amount with the Mono Twin; no feathering; some ghosting due to how thin the paper is. The latter will bother some people but I don’t mind it. Tomoe River paper is a pleasure to write on.

Inky Fingers



This is the same size as the California notebooks, but has a coated cover which is a little stronger. It consists of 44 sheets of environmentally-friendly and sustainable wheat straw paper. It feels a little like recycled paper, having more texture than the other papers reviewed here, but doesn’t have the drawbacks of feathering and bleeding usually associated with recycled paper. The paper is white with very subtle specks, and the notebook is staple-bound.

This is a nice notebook, but at £6 each, they’re pricey. For my money, I’d rather get a Tomoe River notebook for £4.67, though I appreciate the environmentally-sustainable way the Inky Fingers notebooks are made.

The lines are narrow at 6mm, which I like. The lines are made of micro-dots which is a nice detail.

Also available are a blank notebook, and a Currently Inked Log book for the same price.


Clairefontaine 1951 Retro Nova



French company Clairefontaine make a variety of notebooks and jotters, supplying a lot of French schoolchildren with their classroom needs. They’re a favourite manufacturer of mine because of their high-quality paper, wide range, and good prices.

The Retro Nova is marginally bigger than the previous notebooks at 88mm x 140mm with 64 smooth ivory pages, and a sewn binding. They are 3 for £8, which is a stone cold bargain. Each of the three has a different cover pattern too. The one pictured here is “novelle vague.”

The pen test showed just how good Clairefontaine paper is. There was no feathering, minimal ghosting, and only the infamous Mono Twin bled through.


Story Supply Co.



Beneath a plain exterior decorated only by the Story Supply co.’s cheerful, retro logo, lies a solid little notebook. It’s 90mm x 140mm, with 48 pages of staple-bound, off-white paper. I tested the lined notebook, which has 5mm spacing. This retails at 3 for £11.

I wasn’t familiar with this company before, and was pleasantly surprised by how well the paper dealt with all of the pens. There was no feathering, little ghosting, and only the Mono Twin bled through (though there were slight hints of almost-bleeding through from the Waterman).

I liked this notebook a lot, but if pushed would have to state a preference for the Clairefontaine above. The Story Supply Co. paper is not quite as good, and it’s an extra £1 per notebook, for an inferior binding.


Darkstar Nomad



This is a differently sized notebook at 100mm x 140mm, so it looks a bit squarer than the others. It has 56 pages of white, dot grid, 100gsm paper and is staple-bound. Interestingly, the ‘dots’ are tiny crosses. These cost £8 for 3.

The Darkstar handled most of the pens well but the Waterman and even the Pentel Touch (which is also a wet writer) both feathered slightly. The Mono Twin and the Waterman bled through the paper, though the ghosting wasn’t bad at all.












Final Thoughts

This was a really interesting set of notebooks and I’m very grateful for the chance to test them all. My favourites were the Clairefontaine and the California Tomoe River. The Clairefontaine is the ideal combination of high quality and good value. The Tomoe River is a higher price for a specialist product that some people (like me) will love but  may find the ghosting and long ink-drying times a frustration.

2017-05-06 10.02.45

KWZ ink: Azure #5, Green #3, Foggy Green, Blue-Black reviews

I delightedly receivved some samples of KWZ ink from the lovely people at Pure Pens as part of a meta-review for United Inkdom. KWZ inks are made by Chemistry PhD student Konrad Żurawski in Poland and come in a variety of colours and types, including iron gall and waterproof varieties. I’m reviewing some green and blues here. 

KWZ inks
KWZ blue and green inks

Azure #5

Azure #5 sample
Test of Azure #5 with glass dip pen

Azure #5 is surprisingly dark for the title “azure” but it’s a lovely, saturated dark royal blue. It reminds me of Diamine Majestic Blue but without the red sheen. It’s definitely a colour that you could use for more formal situations where a restrained, but still a little interesting, ink is called for. It’s a nice, wet ink, but I don’t see it replacing Majestic Blue for me.

KWZ Azure #5
KWZ Azure #5 swab on watercolour paper

Green #3

KWZ Green #3
KWZ Green #3

Again, this is a nice, solid dark-ish green without sheen. There’s some nice shading with it, and it’s free-flowing and wet. It’s not hugely exciting though. It’s a little darker and less blue-toned than Robert Oster Emerald, as you can (hopefully!) see from the side-by-side below.

KWZ Green #3
KWZ Green #3
Robert Oster Emerald ink
Robert Oster Emerald









Foggy Green

KWZ Foggy Green
KWZ Foggy Green

Foggy Green is a far more unusual ink than the previous two. It’s difficult to describe, and I suspect the pictures don’t convey how it really looks. Even the name doesn’t suggest, to me at least, the real colour. It’s a very dark green, with a grey rather than black tone. The written sample (using a glass dip pen) is very dark, but still definitely grey-green rather than black. The grey tone is more apparent in the swab below, and is what stops it seeming black.

KWZ Foggy Green
KWZ Foggy Green swab on watercolour paper
KWZ Foggy Green
KWZ Foggy Green: close up


I’m not a blue-black fan. I’ve tried a few (Diamine Twilight, Pelikan Edelstein Tanzanite) but can’t quite get on board. I like my blacks to look like the staring void. I like my blues bright and interesting. Blue-blacks are the worst of both worlds. However, I was pleasantly surprised with KWZ Blue-Black.

KWZ Blue-Black
KWZ Blue-Black

Like Foggy Green, it’s a grey-toned colour, but very dark in the glass pen writing sample. The colour of the swab shows the lovely shading of this ink best.

KWZ Blue-Black
KWZ Blue-Black

My one concern about KWZ inks is the smell, though. Foggy Green and Blue-Black in particular smell very strongly. It disappears by the time the ink dries on the paper, but the wet ink reeks. Even just opening the sample bottles (which contain about 4ml of ink) releases a horrible chemical smell. It’s a strange, plasticy, synthetic smell that lingers for a few minutes after filling the pen. It’s off-putting, but at least it doesn’t last.

Zibaldone Da Canal 16v-17r

Why I’m ditching the bullet journal and turning to a zibaldone or commonplace book

Bullet journals, zibaldoni, and commonplace books

The explosion of interest in bullet journals which I’ve spoken about before, shows no sign of slowing in 2017. The new year encourages many people to turn over a new leaf, and for many this means getting organised. The hundreds of beautifully decorated pages on #bulletjournal. I’ve said before, and I still agree, that it’s a bullet journal if you say it is, and it doesn’t have to fit someone else’s predefined idea. If the inventor welcomes lots of variations, then Sue on that bujo Facebook group you joined doesn’t get to say otherwise.

However, as I adapt my own bujo system, I find myself thinking of it in different terms. In my other life, I’m a historian, and so it won’t surprise anyone to hear that I tend to think about things in historical terms. A little bit of research reveals that there are some fascinating predecessors to the bullet journal, reaching as at least as far back as ancient Rome.

Bujos of the Past

Romans kept notes of ideas, maxims, quotations and so forth, and called these collections locus communis. Emperor Marcus Aurelius himself kept one, and it became his Meditations. From the third century, the Chinese kept biji, which were similarly collections of notes. These ancient practices led, eventually to the Italian zibaldone, which were the basis for commonplace books and later, bullet journals.


The genre really came into its own in the thirteenth century, when Venetian merchants started keeping notebooks with them on their travels and at home. They recorded their trading activities, but also notable events and experiences, in their zibaldoni (zee-bal-done-ee). Zibaldone (singular) means “heap of things” and indicates that these books were used as receptacles for any and all information and reminiscences that the author wanted to keep track of. An early example is the Zibaldone da Canal, dating to 1312.

Zibaldone Da Canal
Zibaldone Da Canal, Venice 1312 (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)


Importantly, these books were written in the vernacular, meaning that they were for everyday use and not intended as formal documents (which would have been in Latin). In Florence, and other Italian cities, people kept ricordi (records), and libri segreti (secret, or private, books chiefly but not exclusively concerned with business information). In these books, people (almost always men) recorded business transactions, family births and deaths, observances of city life and political events technical information, indeed anything the author might want to refer to again later. Writers put these books together in no particular order, piling content in as and when it appeared. These books have provided highly important for historians. Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai, a fifteenth-century Florentine wool trader and statesman, was one of the most important keepers of a zibaldone. Not only does his book tell us about conducting business in the Renaissance, but it bears witness to the rise of the Medici and huge changes in civic government.

Commonplace Books

These Italian merchants brought their books to the foreign cities they traded with, and they caught on. By the eighteenth century, they were known in English-speaking countries as commonplace books, a translation of the Latin locis communis. Many notable people kept them: Thomas Jefferson, Jane Austen, H. P. Lovecraft and Napoleon, for example. A few have been published, like that of H. P. Lovecraft.

Zibaldone Lucchese
Zibaldone Lucchese, Abbot Jacopo Chelini (1748 – 1824), Archivio di Stato di Lucca


People filled their zibaldoni and commonplace books with all sorts of things: reflections on events, personal and political; recipes; business information; quotations; drawings and illustrations; letters; poems; reference tables, for example of weights and measures; proverbs and prayers.

Zibaldone Today

Today’s bujos record a huge variety of things. While I don’t usually track tv series I’m watching, I did track watching episodes of Murder One while I was doing archival work in Florence. Jane Austen may not have done this, but when we track and record things in our bujos, we’re taking part in a tradition that goes back far further than we tend to think.

Bullet journals, like zibaldoni and commonplace books are not diaries. They are not necessarily chronological, but they fulfil many of the functions of diaries. Like diaries, they work in two ways. They look both forwards (planned events and appointments) and backwards (when we record what actually happened). We keep track of our scheduled tasks and appointments in weekly or monthly spreads. We record things that happened without planning, in the form of general reflections or specific spreads. Gratitude logs are a popular way of marking things for which we were grateful each day. Historic zibaldoni and commonplace books tended to do much more reflection than planning, but the two are very much compatible. The bujo index helps out with locating information amid the hodgepodge.

I love the idea of renaming my bujo to acknowledge this long tradition. I kind of hate the abbreviation “bujo” anyway, even though I use it out of typing laziness. It seems increasingly fitting to me to think of my A5 dotted Leuchtturm1917 as a modern zibaldone (I study late medieval Italian history- I was hardly going to go for the English phrase!). I very much doubt it will ever of of as much interest to future generations of historians as that of Giovanni Rucellai. But that’s ok.

Commonplace book, Beineke Rare Books and Manuscripts, Yale
BuJo History pin
Rober Oster Emerald

Robert Oster Signature Inks Claret and Emerald review

There’s been some buzz around Robert Oster inks recently. Made in Australia, they’ve been difficult to find in Europe and North America until recently. In the UK, you can buy them from Izods Ink, who kindly sent samples for this and the other reviews for United Inkdom.

I received Claret and Emerald to review. I’ll confess that when I first received these ink samples, and did a quick swatch of each to get an idea of the colours, I was underwhelmed. Both of them seemed dull and lacking vibrancy. I had hoped that the Emerald would be a bright, dark green, and the Claret a rich red purple. The swatches showed an unexciting dark green, and a dark, greyish purple. Revisiting them a few days later, and creating new swatches, I find I’ve warmed to them a little.

Robert Oster Claret

Robert Oster Claret swatch
Robert Oster Claret swatch

Of the two, I was most keen to try Claret. I always like purples and dark reds, and I hope this would fall into both categories.

It’s dark indeed, and has some depth. I didn’t seem any shading when I tested it with a glass pen but you can see there’s quite significant variance in colour from the swatch. I bold- or stub-nibbed fountain pen might make this clearer.

Robert Oster Claret writing sample
Robert Oster Claret writing sample






Robert Oster Emerald

Emerald has really grown on me. Although I didn’t find it very exciting at first, on my second look at it, I appreciate the richness and jewel-tones of this ink. As you can see from the photo, there’s a huge variation in the colour: from bright green to almost black. As with the Claret, this wasn’t visible with the glass pen, but will be with a fountain pen using a broad or stub/italic nib. Anything which puts down a lot of ink should show this shading.

Robert Oster Emerald writing sample
Robert Oster Emerald writing sample



These are nice inks, and have great shading potential. The Claret is a little unexciting, but the Emerald is lovely. I can see me using both, though I doubt I’d buy Claret as Diamine Grape and Tyrian Purple, and Pelikan Edelstein Amethyst cover all my dark purple needs. I don’t have anything quite like the Emerald though, so that’s one I’d consider. The other United Inkdom reviews show that the Robert Oster teal and turquoise inks are pretty special- and I am keen to try out Fire and Ice which looks pretty special.


[Please excuse the rather dark pictures. It’s been a very dark and gloomy weekend in Edinburgh and there’s just not been enough natural light to take good photos!]

Nib + Ink A

Calligraphy Book Review: Nib + Ink

Calligraphy and lettering is big news at the moment. Instagram is full of gorgeous photos and videos of beautiful writing. As a long-time advocate of writing by hand, I’ve watched the craze grow with interest, and harbour hopes of someday improving my own skills in this department. The simple fact is that to improve, you need to practise, practise, and practise some more. It’s a time-intensive hobby and in the final year of my PhD, I just don’t have the time to spare. Perhaps in 2018!

I do, however, love to browse calligraphy and hand lettering books at the bookshop. One that caught my eye is Nib + Ink: The New Art of Modern Calligraphy* by Chiara Perano of Lamplighter London. I was delighted to receive a review copy from United Inkdom. It’s a beautiful book and one which has been produced to high standards. The paper is thick and the illustrations plentiful.


How to hold the pen illustration
Perano’s elegant and important illustration showing how to hold the pen

Perano’s illustrations of nibs, pen holders, and most importantly how to hold a pen, are clean and deceptively simple. Lovely nib icons litter the book.

The text is cheerful and encouraging. It’s aimed at beginners and covers all the basics, from where to find supplies, to how to choose which nib to work with. Perano lists suppliers at the end, for both the UK and international markets.

There are guidelines available for free from Perano’s website, and I always appreciate these little content upgrades.

The book is peppered with tips on how to get the most out of your practise, and how to improve your calligraphy.

There are lots of examples to copy, adapt, and use as springboards for your own style.

One of the biggest pluses of this book is that although there is a focus on practice and repetition, Perano is really teaching how to develop your own style. Each letter page has several variations in both the upper and lower cases, which encourages the reader to experiment with each letter.

This is a lovely book, and as I mentioned, the publisher didn’t skimp on production. The paper feels heavy and I think it would take calligraphy ink well if you wanted to practise in the book itself. However, for my money, I’d rather print guidelines onto marker/layout paper and practise on that. That feels like a more economical way to do it, and one where I wouldn’t feel like I’d spoiled this beautiful book with my novice scratchings.


Letter A exemplars
Letter A exemplars


The variations on each letter are not wide. There are three variations per letter, none of which is vastly different from the other two. Although she advocates developing your own style, if this book is the only one you use, your style is likely to be pretty similar to Perano’s. If you want something more classical, this is not the book for you.

There are a couple of things which Perano skips over which, in a book aimed at beginners, deserved a little more attention. The thing which struck me the most was that she mentions, very briefly, making your own ink using paint, gouache or acrylic. There isn’t really enough information to help you do this- you would have to look online for proper details. She doesn’t mention that if you use acrylic paint, you need to clean that off your nib before it dries or risk ruining the nib.



It depends…

Wreath illustrations
Simple wreaths take up a page eac

This particular issue will depend on how you use the book:

As a result of the intention that you practise in the book, there are a lot of blank pages (more accurately, pages with only guidelines printed on them). I mean A LOT of those pages. By my calculation, fully half the book is blank like this. Each letter page, like the one in the picture above, is followed by a guidelines page, and there are more than ten more double spreads of only guidelines.

If you want to practise in the book, this is useful, but even this amount isn’t enough to level up your skills. You’ll still need to print more (or at least print one sheet to use as a guide underneath your practice paper). This didn’t seem well thought out. If you don’t want to “spoil” the book, then there’s 80-odd pages of wasted space. If you do want to practise in the book, then there’s nowhere near enough.

There is additional “wasted” space at the end, when some fairly simple illustration elements are given entire pages to themselves. I’d have been on board with this if the designs were more complex and merited a closer look, but they seem pretty straightforward.


It’s difficult to come to a decisive conclusion on this book. I like so many aspects of it. I especially like the encouragement to develop your own style and not just to copy Perano’s. It’s a very positive. However, I feel, ultimately, that it lacks depth and variation. I can’t help feeling that all that empty space is an attempt to make up for a lack of content.


*Affiliate link: if you purchase through this link, I will earn a tiny commission at no extra cost to you.

Fieldwork planner

Bullet Journal Basics- How and Why

The Bullet Journal is enjoying huge popularity at the moment. Although Ryder Carroll unveiled his idea several years ago to great success, something’s happened in the last few months to propel his system into the public eye. Buzzfeed has run several articles about it too.

What is a bullet journal?

Counting down my remaining time in Italy doing PhD archival research
Counting down my remaining time in Italy doing PhD archival research

First thing’s first. Check out Ryder’s website. He created and refined the system and all credit is owed to him. There’s a great wee introductory video on his site and it’s the best place to start. Go check it out now. I’ll wait- it’s not long.

Ok. So now you know the system in its purest form. As you can see from though, there are so many ways you can adapt and customise it to suit your own circumstances and requirements. Check out #bulletjournal on Instagram and you’ll see lots of variations. (But do that later because there are currently nearly a quarter of a million photos there!)

What kit do I need?

Notebook and pens (with optional penholder)
Notebook and pens (with optional penholder)

A notebook of some kind and a pen of some kind.

Whatever notebook and pen(s) you choose are up to your tastes and funds. I use a Leuchtturm dotted A5 notebook which is a popular choice for bullet journaling because of the good quality paper, low price, and range of colours. You can use anything though.

Moleskine notebooks are also popular but the paper is inferior to that of the Leuchtturm and it won’t take fountain pen ink so it’s not an option for me. Should Moleskine ever up their paper game I’d be all over them- they have a great range of sizes and styles, though I think they’re over-priced.

If you like spiral-bound notebooks, use one of those. If you want to try the system out in a cheap school-style jotter, go for it. Already using a Filofax? You can create a bullet journal right there. You can even add it to your existing planner or diary if there’s a little space for it.



These are lovely but you DO NOT NEED them.
These are lovely but you DO NOT NEED them.

Use whatever pens you like. I love fountain pens so I use those. Pilot Frixion pens are erasable so you won’t have ugly scoring out when things inevitably need rescheduled. Pencils are even more erasable, so use those if you like them. That scabby old ballpoint you picked up from who knows where? If you like it and it works, use it!

Whatever you choose, DO NOT get hung up on getting the “right” supplies. You don’t need washi tape. You don’t need all 6892 colours of Staedtler Triplus Fineliner or all 3 packs of Zebra Mildliners imported from Japan.

My adapted bullet journal system

This is a calendar tracker I use to countdown the alarmingly few days until my thesis submission
Counting down the alarmingly few days until my thesis submission

The starkness of Ryder’s system doesn’t work for me. I prefer something more visual- boxing off lists and days and months, and so forth. I like to have a bit of colour in mine and I prefer ticking off boxes to crossing out bullets.

Along with the usual things (appointments, social events, etc), I also have some more unusual things to track. There’s my thesis: the most important thing. There’s also my blog, a part-time job, university tutoring, and some freelance work. I use monthly and weekly spreads to help me with these. Some of the detail (such as my train times) goes on Google Calendar instead. This is purely to keep things from getting too cluttered. It doesn’t make a significant difference to my planning if I get one train or the next one, so I don’t put it in my bullet journal. However, I do need to know if I have a ticket that’s only valid for a certain train, so I put that on Google Calendar and get a electronic reminder.

I also like countdowns so I use my bullet journal for these. For example, I have one that counts down to my PhD submission. I used another to count down the time I had left in the archives when I was doing my research in Florence.

Is it still a bullet journal if I adapt it?

This is a weekly spread I used when doing fieldwork in Italy
This is a weekly spread I used when doing fieldwork in Italy

There have been debates online recently, some needlessly heated, about whether or not the more ornate versions are still bullet journals. I use ticky boxes instead of bullets, so perhaps mine isn’t a bullet journal at all. It really doesn’t matter. I think the only person who has any right to decide if something is a bullet journal or not is Ryder, the inventor, and he seems quite happy to feature non-traditional, adapted, and ornate versions on his site.

I also think that the name we give a system is barely even a secondary concern compared to the key question: does it work for you? There’s no sense in moving from a colourful, decorated planner which works for you to a minimalist one in order to conform to what puritans think is the only way to bullet journal (or vice versa). If someone wants to tell you that you have deviated too greatly from canon and you have no right to call what you have a bullet journal then, meh. Something has probably gone a bit wrong in that person’s life that they are getting upset over the nomenclature of someone else’s to do list. Be kind to the poor wee scone, but ignore them.

Bullet Journal Basics 101- How and Why to Bullet Journal