While I use a Moleskine wallet for my day-to-day notes, reminders, and idea, I like to have a more substantial journal to record more complete thoughts in. I used to buy leather journals at local bookstores for the task, but for the last one I bought some scrap leather, paper, and tools, and built one for myself. I used it for more than a year, and it served me very well. I’ve recently built another one, and this time I took a few photos along the way so I could show other people how to do it as well. So, without further ado:
Leatherworking and Sewing Awl. You’ll use this to actually sew the leather. Chances are, leather heavy enough for use as a book cover will be to heavy to sew with a normal needle. You can probably find one of these at a local hardware store.
Scalpel. A heavy duty scissors would likely work as well, but I prefer the control a scalpel offers. You can also use a scalpel to carve designs into the leather.
Needle nose pliers, to help with the sewing.
Leather shaping tools. If you intend to tool the leather yourself, you’ll need something appropriate to the task. I used a standard leather awl and a spoon-tipped modeling tool for mine, but with a little searching you’ll find that there is every imaginable tool out there for the shaping and carving of leather.
Scrap leather. You can get leather for quite low prices by searching online (I get quite a lot of mine off of eBay) or asking owners of local leather working shops to give or sell you their scrap. For book covers, I like heavy, stiff leather. If you want to tool the leather yourself, make sure you buy veg (vegetable) tan leather, which is pale in color. If you buy this, you’ll probably want to buy stain also (see below).
Thread. This should come with the sewing awl. It just needs to be heavy enough to work with and hold up over the years–presumably your journal will be built to last.
Leather Dye. If you want a different shade than the leather you already have, you can use a dye. You can also use dye to make permanent patterns on your leather cover. If you use veg tan leather, you will have to use the dye (or stain) to “set” the leather once you’ve worked it.
Paper. There are plenty of places to get reams of good, high-quality paper online. You can also check a local craft store. Make sure you get something sturdy which you won’t mind looking at for a while. Also make sure the paper is “acid-free, archival quality,” which will ensure the journal remains in good condition for decades to come.
Making the Journal
1. Start by making the pages of the journal. For the method I use, I fold sections of seven 8.5″ by 11″ sheets of paper directly in half, and pile the sections to make the inside of the journal. You can use any size you like, and any number of pages –the important part is the fold itself. Make sure the folds are well creased and even for each section of paper.
2. Now, stack the folded sections together to determine the width of the journal’s spine. From here there are two ways to go–you can either create a wraparound cover of the sort common to many leather journals, or you can actually create a separate spine and cover. For this journal, I chose the second option–we will follow that path for the rest of this post.
3. Cut the spine and covers to size. Make sure to make the spine half an inch wider on each side than the thickness of your stacked pages, as you will use this extra material to sew on the covers.
4. Tool and stain the pieces. Now’s the time to create your cover design and implement it. Veg tan leather offers by far the most opportunity for decoration. You start by the tooling process, where you soak the leather surface (I just apply water liberally with a brush) and then make impressions in it with your leather tools. Once the leather dries, you can make more sharp designs by actually carving patterns into it with your scalpel. In these photos, the Ouroubouros (circled snake) and symbol on the front are carved with a scalpel, while the circled A on the back is tooled using the wet leather method. Then, stain the leather in a shallow vat or with a brush. You can make further designs when the stain is almost dry by scraping it clean with a knife–this is how the runes were created on the front of mine and the stripe pattern on the back. Notice how scraping off the stain also highlights tooled sections where the stain isn’t scraped off.
5. Sew the pages to the spine. This will take some time, and be careful–it’s easy to end up with some very crooked sewing lines if you’re not careful. I start by using a piece of scrap paper to mark out a guide for spine sewing. You should only need six holes or so, but they should be even, for appearance’ sake. You will sew by making your awl puncture directly into the crease of one of your paper stacks (I use seven sheets per stack instead of ten or more because it makes sewing easier) and through the leather of the spine, in a straight line running down the crease and the length of the spine. Sew the rest of the stacks in line with the first, making them as tight as possible–I’ve created journals in the past that felt poorly-made because the paper sections were sewn too far apart, making the leather feel “loose.” When you’re finished you should have your “book” of pages in the center of the spine and about half an inch of loose leather front and back.
6. Use that loose leather to attach the cover and back. Sewing the covers “inside,” that is, between the flap and the paper itself, will make for a tighter binding, but will also require a longer period of pressing (see step X). Sew tightly, using perhaps a third to half an inch per stitch, making your knot on the inside of the cover when finished.
7. Do any touch up staining with a small brush, if it’s needed, such as along the edges or over knots here and there.
8. Once all the stain is dry, place the journal under heavy weight, evenly distributed across the surface. I use a stack of old clothbound national geographic collections, probably weighing around fifty or sixty pounds. This is to crease the pages and lock the cover into the “book” shape–if you don’t this, the journal will constantly be falling open from the stiffness of the paper and the spine. Leave it under the press for a few days.
9. Pull it out of the press and put your name on the front cover. You’ve put a lot of work into this journal–you don’t want to lose it now!
And there you have it. If any of you try this, take a picture and send it my way–I’d love to see what you come up with!