Two-Ring Binders Über Alles

[this can be subtitled: a primer on working with paper outside the US and Canada.]

it all started on twitter when i complained that i was spoiled from my two years in Germany (2005-2007) by handles on toilet paper packages. i always figured they were put there for the benefit of those who use public transportation since it makes such a bulky item so much easier to lug around, but it’s one of those little things that would make life easier for everyone. before i continue, though, i would like to highlight those on twitter who indulged in a bit of schadenfreude. “friends” indeed! 😉

Some two-hole-punched artifacts from grad school -- a long document and my Studienbuch (sort of a personal permanent record; it's your responsibility to keep track!)

Some two-hole-punched artifacts from grad school — a long document [PDF if you’re interested] and my Studienbuch (sort of a personal permanent record; it’s your responsibility to keep track of your classes and grades — I wonder if they finally computerized it now.)

it got me to thinking about other things that are seemingly better in Europe (or elsewhere) — not the more widely-discussed public transportation or rail infrastructure or social welfare programs or music contests, but the little things like those two flush buttons, one for um, smaller deposits and one for larger, so you don’t use more water than you need. i think what i miss most as a whole are office supplies, or bürobedarf. they really have it all figured out there. from the paper sizes to the way they punch holes and how their binders work, it all makes so much more sense. there used to be a website for a company that sold European two-ring binders that extolled the virtues of the system, but i can’t seem to find it anymore (which prompted me to write this).

paper sizes

first, a brief word about paper sizes. if you have worked with international (i.e., not from US or Canada) documents you probably have come across the taller but skinnier brother of letter-sized paper, A4. but what’s A4? like several European (and worldwide) standards, it originated from DIN (Deutsches Institut für Normung, or the German Institute for Standards) and, without getting too techy, is based on a 1:√2 aspect ratio, meaning if you cut a paper into two equal halves parallel to the short edge, the two new sheets have the same proportions.

An explanation of the A paper series, from Wikipedia

A visual explanation of the A paper series, from Wikipedia

an A0 sheet of paper has an area of 1 square meter. cut that four times, and you get the A4 size (approximately .24″ skinnier and .71″ taller than letter). if you want to shrink or enlarge something, it’s guaranteed to fit perfectly in the next paper size up (say, A5 to A4 to A3), unlike going from letter (8.5″x11″) or legal (8.5″x14″) to tabloid (11″x17″), and if you fold a piece of paper in half to make a brochure, it’s the next size down (so, a folded A3 makes for a 2-up A4). this came in handy when i was designing a poster for a student conference — i could make it one size which would scale perfectly from large pieces of paper to small.

clever, isn’t it? more information on wikipedia.

the one-two punch

and now my main point: the gloriousness of the two-hole punch. here in the US we are likely to see two-hole punches (if at all) at medical or legal offices where they punch the top of a sheet to add to a manila folder that requires flipping up and over. at first i thought two-hole punching was dumb — i mean, aren’t three holes better than two? but no. they are not.


Shelves from my old dorm room. Looking through old pictures and seeing this one with the binders was the main impetus for this blog post.

a two-hole binder, with the rings in the middle of the sheet about 3″ apart (technically 80mm, via another standard), allows you to rummage through your papers with both sides of the top completely free — just like going through a stack of paper, but they’re securely bound (much lower) so they won’t fly all over the place. it’s also more conducive this way with groups of stapled documents since there is not a ring so close to the staple point, giving you freer access. also, anecdotally, having the rings further away from the sides means less tearing when flipping pages since if you tug at a corner, the binding holes are further away and less prone to ripping.


one of my favorite things, though, is the heftstreifen. it’s like those big brads they use to secure top-two-hole-punch documents here, but it goes along the side. it’s perfect for grouping pages and documents together — especially stacks too thick for a staple — and since they follow the same two-hole system, they’re easy-peasy and reusable (unlike, say, spiral binding where you need a special machine). you can see a blue one in the first picture above. as a bonus, on some, there are holes on the left so you can stick the entire thing into a binder! genius!

the first time i saw one i was floored (after figuring out wtf it was), and this cheap doodad was what made me fall in love with the two-hole system.


first off, their binders have grab holes (sorry, can’t think of a better term) so you can easily pull them off a stuffed shelf. but the innards are what confounded me — think of this as a mini-manual.

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia (i understand these are called “Lever Arch Files” in [British] English?)

no, you cannot pry the rings apart with your hands (trust me, i tried in vain) like you can with most three-ring binders. sort of like a trapper keeper on steroids, you lift the lever to open and push it down to close. no fuss, no muss, no painful fingers from prying, and it’s a much easier one-handed operation versus the two you need to work the metal tabs at the top and bottom of a three-ring system.

and what’s that other thing for? it goes on top of your pages to keep them nice and tidy and further secure them in the binder. the black thing is a locking switch that keeps it in place on the rings. so if you’re adding pages on top, unlock it, flip it to the left side of the rings, lift the lever to open the rings, put your new sheets in, close the lever, flip the holder back to the right, press it down a bit and lock it into place. you can also use it to squish in some extra pages, too. it sounds complicated but it’s really not. it also helps to keep pages from flying open to the left when you quickly open the cover.

oh, speaking of opening the cover, there are some binders that expose a little bit of the rings to the outside. i couldn’t figure out why until i opened one up — there are little bumps on the two openings that, when closed, make it so you have to give it just a tiny bit more force to open. an easy way to help keep your binder closed!

a few more unrelated observations

i could write a whole series of posts on things i miss or helpful tips, but i’d ruin some of the fun in discovering cultural differences, so i’ll end with two little tidbits:

  • in Germany, at the end of a business presentation or a class lecture, instead of clapping, you knock on the desk. yep. as a student it was customary to knock at the end of each class. (just knock until everyone else stops, usually about 5 seconds or so.)
  • working a radiator: yes, the higher the number, the hotter it will get, but there is a difference between off and “snowflake”. i was told that you turn the knob to snowflake when you are leaving for an extended period of time in the winter; i guess it keeps a minimal amount of water flowing so it won’t freeze and burst. (i found this page with more details on operating a German radiator.) also, i can’t recommend an over-the-radiator humidifier enough. they’re cheap and a good way to combat the dryness of winter air.

a brief word on euroglyphics

have you ever tried to decipher the symbols on a clothing tag that tell you how to wash/dry/dry clean? well, imagine all your appliances labeled like that. much has been written on this topic, but suffice it to say i had to do a lot of asking around to figure out how to work the washing machine, dryer, and oven.

a final wort

i suppose the grass is always greener, so i can at least console myself with glazed donut breakfast sandwiches :P. neener neener!

2 Comments on "Two-Ring Binders Über Alles"

  1. I grew up with the metric system and the A4 paper. I really can’t stand feet, inches, Fahrenheit and pounds. They’re so arbitrary and unnecessarily complex!

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