The dilemma

Or, rather, dilemmas…

  • I wanted a refillable, hardback, A5 journal cover that could fit a 96-sheet A5 notebook.
    • But this notebook is a clothbound Clairefontaine 1951, and I didn't want to cover up that wonderful cover design. (Long story short: for some reason, I thought 'clothbound' meant 'hardcover'.)

An image of a blue Clairefontaine clothbound 1951 A5 notebook, on a plain white background. It is closed; there is a subtle diamond outline pattern in white, and the binding is in black. There is a cream-coloured blank rectangle in the center of the top third of the cover; this is intended to be a space to label the book. Below this is a white label around the book, reading '1951' on the left, with the Clairefontaine logo in the center and some unreadable writing to its right.
Look at that cover. That's such a nice cover.

  • And I didn't feel like paying a lot of money for a cover.
    • And I didn't want to use a Midori Traveler cover, because a) they aren't the right size and b) I didn't feel they'd hold it securely enough. The Midori Traveler cover isn't wide enough, and it's too long. And I'm not even accounting for the extra thickness of the 1951.

A Midori Traveler cover in light brown; the notebook is closed, and there is a small button at the top left corner of the cover's margin, while there is a cord around the cover's middle point. A Midori Traveler cover in light brown; the notebook is open to its center, showing the cord passing over the centre fold of the notebook..
See that cord? That's all that holds everything together. I don't think it's really secure enough for a thicker notebook like a 1951. Also, the 'official' refills are usually only 64 sheets; the 1951 is 96 sheets.

Screenshot of Officeworks' specifications of Clairefontaine 1951 A5 clothbound notebook. Screenshot of Milligram's specifications of a Midori Traveler notebook cover.
If you can't read the text in the above images - Officeworks lists the 1951 as being 140mm wide x 210mm long x 10mm high. Milligram lists the Midori Traveler cover as 22cm long x 12cm wide - not the right size at all. And that price...yeah nah.

  • And, it turns out that it's quite difficult to make a refillable journal cover that will securely hold a softcover notebook without potentially damaging it somehow.
    • Most of them just use sleeves or bands at the front and back to hold the notebook in, sometimes with a cord that fits inside the book similar to a Midori Traveler. From previous experience, this is not at all secure.
    • Turns out as well that it's hard to re-bind notebooks, because I would lose at least some writing area in the process. (I also haven't actually tried bookbinding yet.)
  • I also wanted a pen roll or pen case of some kind that could also carry the accessories I need day-to-day
    • But I didn't want to pay for a Nock Co Sinclair case, because ouch, my poor bank account. Good pen cases are in about the same price range; cheap ones are...not really worth it.

Screenshot of a Nock Co Sinclair pen case listed on the Goulet Pens website. The case is a plain black rectangle, with two zipper tabs visible. The price listed is USD$40.00.
Add the USD$15.25 for shipping and covert, and this case is roughly AUD$70. Yeah, no.

  • And I wanted to carry 8 pens. Not 12, not 6. (For some reason, 8-pen cases are remarkably hard to find.)
  • And I wanted a case that looked classy, or at least like something for an adult.
    • So obviously not this Smiggle case, which inspired the design anyway.

A Smiggle Co stationery hard case, closed. It is bright blue and rectangular, with brightly-coloured pictures of candy on it, and a Smiggle logo in baby pink in the center. The same Smiggle Co stationary hard case. The case is open showing a baby pink liner; there are two blue mesh pockets in the left compartment, and on the right, bright blue fabric is used for a panel with several very small pockets.
This is definitely not for an adult.

  • And I was actually kind of pining for this very clever refillable journal but I was feeling uneasy about the company, and I honestly do like Clairefontaine paper better than khadi paper.
    • The main reason is that being smoother, I find Clairefontaine and similar papers much easier to write on. Hot-pressed and smoothed khadi (or 100% cotton) papers do exist, but they're very expensive - and Uscha doesn't specify if it's smooth-finished paper in there or not.

A dark brown leather bound journal on a white background; it is closed, and the leather is embossed with a pattern. The cover has two sections that overlap rather than being like a traditional book. There is a small brass C-type lock, which helps keep the journal secure. The same dark brown leather bound journal on a white background. It is cover-down, and the binding stitches on the spine are visible.
That lock is nice, but yeesh, $55 and shipping! And I'm a bit wary of the company.



As always, when faced with a dilemma like this, the thought always occurs: ‘I’m going to have to make this myself, aren’t I?’


The solution

After seeing the Smiggle case, the first part of the solution seemed obvious: put the pen case and notebook cover together.

This was even more obvious after a quick test at home showed that my Kakuno, when capped, is the same length as the width of the A5 1951.

An image of a Pilot Kakuno fountain pen, lying on top of a closed blue Clairefontaine 1951 A5 clothbound notebook. The Kakuno pen has a grey barrel and dark blue cap. The pen is almost as long as the notebook is wide.
Perfect fit!

The Smiggle case is designed to fit one or two notebooks in its mesh pockets, plus having pockets in the blue insert for pens and such. If I orient the pen pockets the other way, I have room for elastic loops for a ruler and a mechanical pencil as well. I could hold the 1951 safely in the case with some bands of elastic.

A larger image of the above-mentioned Smiggle hard case while open. The lining is baby pink. On the left side there are two bright blue mesh pockets, one in front of the other. On the right side, in shiny bright blue fabric, there are 5 very narrow pockets for pens or pencils, and 1 larger pocket for a ruler.
Take a look at the Smiggle case again. It isn't clear in this view, but the blue section is only attached on its left side - it folds over as well, so there's also space underneath/behind it.

So, this was the design I sketched up.

A very small pencil and pen sketch on lined paper. There are labels in dark blue ink indicating pen and ink vial pockets, the elastic straps for the ruler and the notebook; a small note to one side considers if a zipper closure alone is best or if it needs a strap as well. An additional note underneath considers leather or canvas for the outside, and white or black cotton for the lining.
Look, I'm not an artist.

I couldn’t figure out how I’d get the pens and the ink vials to fit, because it turns out that the 6ml vials Goulet Pens (and some others) use for ink samples are bigger than I thought. (Look, I’m bad at eyeballing things, ok.) I plan to do a moving centre panel like the Smiggle case, but the third section will have pockets for a bulb syringe, ink vials, and maybe some tissues or a suitable cloth.

So, I had the rough idea done. Seemed straightforward, right?

Haha. Hahahaha. Ha. No.

Problem 1: Fountain pens are different sizes, whomst’d’ve knew?

Yeah, funny story, turns out that fountain pens are slightly different sizes!

A screenshot of the dimension specifications of a Pilot Kakuno pen, taken from the Goulet Pens website. Highlighted in red are: the body diameter of 13.4mm, the body length of 127.4mm, and the overall closed length of 130.9mm
A screenshot of the dimension specifications of a Lamy Al-Star pen, taken from the Goulet Pens website. Highlighted in red are: the body diameter of 12.8mm, the body length of 130mm, and the overall closed length of 139.4mm
A screenshot of the dimension specifications of a Kaweco Perkeo pen, taken from the Goulet Pens website. Highlighted in red are: the body diameter of 12.9mm, the body length of 129.5mm, and the overall closed length of 138.6mm
Top to bottom: Pilot Kakuno, Lamy Al-Star, Kaweco Perkeo. Their body diameters are 13.4mm, 12.8mm and 12.9mm respectively; the body length and total closed length are all slightly different too.

How to make the pockets the right size? I’m never going to remember which pen goes where, so I can’t make each pocket fit a specific pen’s diameter.

Easy answer. I took the largest-diameter pen from my wishlist, and used that as my template. The optimal pocket width is 14mm.

Brief problem 1.1: Clips and noclips.

Not every fountain pen comes with a clip as standard. My Kakuno has a roll-stop bump, rather than a clip. Kaweco Sport pens have an optional clip that you (usually) purchase separately. Lamy pens are mixed on clips and not.

So, I couldn’t make the pockets too long, or I’d be unable to retrieve my clip-less pens. But if they were too short, the clip-less pens wouldn’t be secure. What do?!

Easy. I took the capped overall length, and subtracted the cap length to determine what the best option was. Too long, and I’d have to account for caps in the pocket width. Too short, and the pens would fall out.

I calculated the difference between cap length and total closed length, but then I remembered that the caps overlap the bodies a bit. I then tried calculating the cap length as a percentage of the total closed length. Most pens’ caps are around 40% of the total closed length, though the Kaweco Skyline and AL Sport caps are almost 70% of the total closed length.

Averaging the calculated values returns that the average cap is 48.5% of the pen’s total closed length; based on an average total closed length of 126.6mm, the optimal pocket depth is 66.1mm.

(Feel free to comment if you think my maths might be wrong though. I’m not always the best at it.)

Problem 2: Fitting everything else in.

So, after this, I tried arranging the items I wanted to carry in the case. Well. Turns out, I have to do a center panel, because it just won’t all fit. That’s fine, but…

Problem 3: Making it a hard case

Cardboard can fold, and loses all structural integrity when it gets wet. So my thought was, let’s cut up the cover of an old display folder, since it’s a fairly thin and flexible plastic but it is plastic. And I already have some I can use.

A folder with a blue plastic soft cover and black plastic comb binding; the cover is rectangular, with rounded edges.
This is what I mean. I've also seen them called 'presentation folders' or 'portfolio display folders'; the official name is 'comb-bound folder'. They usually have clear plastic sleeve inserts.

But this led to…

Problem 4: Putting it all together securely.

How could I stitch the lining to the outer? Wouldn’t one or the other end up tearing? And, was there a way to secure the plastic stiffening without ruining the liner or outer? (Obviously, hot glue is out.)

After doing some searching, I found this blog post about installing an invisible zipper in a lined dress, which gives me a pretty good guideline. Now, obviously, the context is different, but the overall gist is the same - stitch the liner and outer to the zipper independently. I plan to use extra-strong thread as well, just in case.

Still doesn’t solve the issue of securing the stiffener during sewing though, but I’m sure I’ll figure something out.

The final design

So, the final design looks more like this.

A pencil sketch on white paper of the proposed pen case. This sketch is larger and clearer. They show that the left section of the pen case will hold the notebook with three elastic straps to secure it. The right side of the case will have 10 small pockets for ink vials, and three slightly larger pockets to hold other items. Underneath these is a diagram of the center panel, which will have 10 narrow pockets for the pens, and two elastic straps to hold a ruler.
Like I said, I'm not an artist. I didn't put the measurements on here, but I will in an update. I also haven't decided on the actual liner, or the outer material yet. The closure is going to be zipper plus two straps, and I want to make another version for SCA camps that looks more like a book or other period-appropriate accessory.

You may notice that there’s now two extra pen pockets. One of these will hold a mechanical pencil, and one will hold an extra pen with a ‘fun’ ink in it (because turns out I’m into those).

Dialing it back a notch.

I mulled over the issues for several weeks, while the cotton drill I had originally bought to make a bike seat cover (I’ll explain in another post) gathered dust on a shelf. It wasn’t long ago, though, that I made the unpleasant discovery that I’m going through an ink cartridge or CON-40 converter’s worth of ink per week in my medium Kakuno. Suddenly, the two boxes of cartridges I bought with it seemed like a less sure supply. I had my ink samples, and eventually a bottle of Robert Oster Australian Sky Blue…but now I had to carry tissues and a flush bulb with me. The pencilcase I bought at the start of the year wasn’t going to fit everything anymore. I had to start leaving out most of the stuff I didn’t need (rollerballs for the BuJo colours other than blue, the stamps, the sticky flags) and I had nowhere else to put it.

So, I decided - I’ll just make the center panel to begin with, to hold my single current pen and the other bits and pieces. I’d figure out some way to carry an ink vial, pipette, tissues and flush bulb alongside.

The rest would have to wait.


Tune in next time for constructing the center panel!

As I plan to do with all of my craft/other process posts, I’ll update this post as I go with links to the other parts. Hopefully, they won’t be too far apart…


  1. You are here: Part 1: Development
  2. (TBD) Part 2: First build attempt.
  3. (TBD) ????




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