Introduction: Handcrafted Custom Leather Portfolio
Third Prize in the
Tandy Leather Contest 2016
This instructable will show you how to make your own custom handcrafted leather portfolio from start to finish. It is designed to fit a 8.5" by 10" spiral notebook, some papers, a few pens, and a few business cards. It is rugged practical, and can be customized however you want. The one that is pictured was made for a wildlife biologist at Tarleton State University (Go Texans!) Depending on how often you work on it, it can take up to 2-3 weeks to make. I tried to make this instructable as detailed as possible, but if you get stuck somewhere, just leave a comment for me and I will try to help you. This is a pretty big project, but if you are patient and diligent with it, then it will all be worth it in the end when you see your finished product!
Step 1: Get the Goods
For this project I used a little under half of a 4-5 oz veg tan shoulder for the outer tooled cover and some 2-3 oz veg tan for the inner parts. The leather is expensive and can give you a bit of a sticker shock, but it is the most costly out of all the materials. The other materials are mainly for the dyeing and finishing steps; they are Eco flow super sheen, Eco flow gel antique, Eco flow gum tragacanth, leather cement, Fieblings spirit/alcohol dye, linen thread, needles to fit the thread, beeswax, a cellulose sponge, and a roll of contact paper/ cabinet liner. All of these things can be bought at Tandy Leather Factory, except the sponge (I got it at a dollar store) and the contact paper (you can find this at Walmart or a home improvement store).
In addition to the material, the other must haves are: something to cut the leather with (I used a rotary cutter with a metal square as a straight edge, but a razor knife would also work), diamond hole punching chisels, a wing divider, stitching groover, soft faced mallet, scratch awl, edge beveler, wooden edge slicker, and a ruler.
If you don't want to tool the leather, the things listed above are all that you need. However, if you want a decorative design or letters like mine, you need an array of leather stamps. These will vary depending on the design you choose; if you have never tooled leather before, I would strongly encourage you to do some more research on tooling and stamping leather before diving into it because I will not be covering all the details about it in this Instructable!
Some other things that would help make the project easier are a stitching pony, a sturdy/heavy granite or wooden table, a computer with Microsoft publisher, and a printer.
Step 2: Research and Development
Now that you have everything you need, it is time to come up with a design. If you want a slick finish with no tooling, this step isn't for you, move on one step. I'm not a very artsy person, so I use Microsoft publisher to make the outline of my projects. It is easy to add text, curves and other shapes at the exact dimension you want- I find this helps to mitigate error. For tooling ideas or patterns, it is useful to search google for other custom leather goods to find a little inspiration. I got the floral pattern I used from https://www.leathercraftlibrary.com/ for free! Once you feel at least a little inspired, use Microsoft publisher to make a basic outline of where you want the borders to be, and also to add any text, initials, patterns, or designs- this is where you start to solidify your idea. Once you have the design made, you can print it out on card stock paper so that you can eventually trace it onto the leather.
Step 3: Cut It Up
Now it's time to cut out the main leather pieces. In order for the portfolio to hold a spiral notebook, some papers, pens, and business cards, the main piece of leather should be 12" by 20". Use the 4-5 oz leather for this, and try to pick out a spot in the leather with as few blemishes as possible (especially if you are not tooling it!) So, take a ruler or metal square, measure a 12" by 20" rectangle, and using a scratch awl, put dots where the corners should be. Next, measure each side to make sure you have a perfect rectangle, and make adjustments as needed- it is of utmost importance to start with a perfectly sized piece of leather! Once you are sure the corners are good, take some kind of long, straight edge, and connect the dots. Now cut the marked lines very carefully using whatever you have to cut leather (rotary cutter, razor blade, prison shank, etc.) When cutting, it helps to put your straight edge along the line on the inside of the rectangle (this keeps you from accidentally nicking the piece being used), and cut alongside it to ensure a very straight line. Now that it is cut out, try to keep the topside of the leather protected from accidental spills, cutting, setting things on it, bears, communists, meteors, etc.
To round the corners, take a lid from a water bottle, put its edges on the edges of each corner, and trace around it. Once the corners are marked, carefully cut the corners with a razor blade knife.
For the inner pieces, use the 2-3 oz leather. The piece that holds the paper and has the pen and business card slot is called the paper flap. Looking at the open portfolio, the paper flap is 12" tall on the left, on the bottom it extends out 9" towards the middle, and comes out 1.5" on the top. The small vertical edge on the right of the paper flap toward the bottom is 2.5". The slanted portion just connects the dots. Cut this piece out with rectangular corners on the left, then use the main leather piece that has rounded corners to trace the corners on the paper flap and cut them. This is so that when you put them together they line up better. Again, keep the topside of the leather clean!
The piece of leather that holds the spiral in is a 12" by 6" rectangle of 2-3 oz leather. Cut this piece using the same precision as the main cover. Round the right side edges by tracing the rounded edges from the cover, and cutting.
The pen slot is a piece of 2-3 oz leather that is 1" by 4", and the business card slot is 2.25" by 4". The rounded top edge of the business card slot came from tracing a coffee can and leaving about 0.375" on either side of the circle.
Now that all the pieces are cut out, you should line the backside of the leather to prevent it from stretching/warping out of shape while you tool it. So, grab the contact paper, roll some out, and trace around all the pieces of leather you just cut onto the contact paper. Cut the paper, peel off the back, and stick it onto the bottom side of all the leather pieces. Use a ruler to press, and rub the contact paper on to make sure it sticks well. Put some elbow grease into rubbing the contact paper on because it will need to hold on under water!
After all the pieces are cut and lined, it is time to move onto the next step.
Step 4: Transfer Design
In this step you will put the outline of your design onto the leather using the wing divider, scratch awl, stitching groover, and whatever you printed from Microsoft publisher.
First, you should take the sponge, get it wet, and use it to wet the top of the leather (you don't need it soaking wet at this point, just get the topside damp). Set the adjustable stitching groover at 1/8" and test it on a scrap piece of leather to make sure the center of the groove is at 1/8". Now, run it along the topside perimeter of the main cover. Also run it along the edges of the paper flap, spiral holder, and business card slot that will have stitching on them. The purpose of the stitching groover is to make a little channel for the stitching to sit in and protect it from wear.
At this point, if you are not tooling you can skip ahead to the "Pre-stitching" section.
Next, transfer any border lines from your pattern onto the leather using the wing divider. Just set it at the desired distance and run it along the perimeter of the cover. After all the border lines have been added, take the printed design, line it up how you want and then don't move it from that spot. While holding the paper, trace out all the carving lines using an awl or something with a sharp point. Make sure to get a good scratch line or else it will be hard to see after casing the leather when it is time to carve it. You must work fast, but precisely on this part because the moisture from the leather will quickly make the paper deteriorate easily.
Once the design is traced out onto the leather, let it dry out, and then move to the next step.
Step 5: Case, Carve, and Tool
Casing leather just means soaking it in water so that it is pliable, soft, and easy to tool. Doing this properly is the first step in getting crisp, deep impressions from your leather stamps. Be ready to spend a couple hours tooling after you case the leather because the fewer times leather gets cased, the nicer it will be in the end. Also, it is important to case all pieces of a project each time you need to re-case; this is to help prevent any difference in coloring from piece to piece when it is dyed.
So, fill a bathtub or large sink with just an inch or two of water, then take your leather pieces, completely submerge them into the water, and watch for little bubbles to come out from around the edges. Once these bubbles totally stop, you can remove the piece from the water. Let the leather pieces drip dry for a few seconds, then move them to your tooling station.
To carve the leather, take your freshly sharpened swivel knife and carefully cut along any border lines that were not already cut with the stitching groover. While cutting, keep the swivel knife blade in between 1/3 and 1/2 the thickness of the leather so that you have deep, clean cuts to tool along. Once the remaining borders have been carved in, carefully carve out the rest of the design. The cuts look best when you can cut long lines without lifting the blade out-- this contributes to the "flow" of the piece. Also, try to avoid cutting offline, obviously. When cutting a lot of letters, it is easiest to cut all vertical lines of a section of text so that they are all parallel (This is also quicker than finishing one letter at a time). Then, rotate the whole piece of leather so you can cut the horizontal lines of the text. Once that is done, finish any remaining cuts on the text. Take your time through this part, it is better to be patient than make an ugly mistake!
Stamping the leather involves using your tooling stamps to make deep impressions that give your design a 3-D effect. The stamp(s) that I use most for floral patterns are bevelers. These stamps usually have a pitched square or rectangular head and can be slick, checkered, or striped. They can have very steep pitch or hardly any pitch at all and everywhere in between. It is good to have a few different styles for whatever your design calls for. The reason it is used the most is because it goes along cuts and pushes one side of the leather on a cut down to create a background and foreground in your design. Beveling a piece correctly is what best builds the flow. Flow is important in putting the background, foreground, and focal points in their proper place. Generally, you want the focal points (flowers, initials, figures, etc.) to be where all the other curly and leafy things flow to. Also, it is a good rule of thumb when beveling that whatever is largest on either side of a cut, is what is going to be in the foreground, while the other side is what actually gets beveled. If you get stuck at this part or any other stage in the stamping process, just look back at wherever you got your design from to see what it's supposed to look like! That will be the best way to tool things until you get used to floral design. For letters, simply just bevel around them, then use a background or matting stamp to press the back ground of the letters flat and add texture to it. To do a basket weave style stamp, I just make one thin line with the scratch awl at the center of the piece and going in whichever directing I want the stamps to go. Then, put the edge of the stamp on the line and hammer it in, go to the other side, and repeat making sure that corner of the second stamp barely touches the corner of the first. After the first line is done, just follow the alternating pattern of stamps for what seems like 15 million times.
After the tooling is complete and the leather has dried for at least 24 hours, you need to finish the design by adding decorative swivel knife cuts. These cuts shouldn't be as deep as the cuts made for borders and outlines because they are only for looks. They help the flow of the piece and fill in blank space. Look back at where your design idea came from to see what the decorative cuts look like on it. Alternatively, you can just Google "tooled leather" and get some ideas for making your own decorative cuts.
Step 6: Pre-stitching
Once the tooled leather has had at least 24 hours to dry, you need to burnish the edges of the little pieces (pen slot, business card holder, and buckle strap). At this step only do those pieces because you won't be able to burnish their edges after they have been glued and sewn on. For these thinner leather pieces use a small edge beveler to take the square edge off the leather on both the top and bottom sides of all pieces. Now the edges should be more pointed than square as shown in the picture. Next, use a coarse (100 grit) sand paper to round the point of the edge by rubbing. This will take some elbow grease, so if you have a drill or Dremel tool with some sanding drums, use that instead. Once all edges have been rounded with the coarse sand paper, switch to a fine (220 grit) sand paper to clean up the roughness on the edges. After sanding, damp a piece of tshirt or a rag and lightly rub the edges to clean them. Let the water dry for a few minutes. Stain the edges using your desired color of Fieblings spirit based dye. Apply the dye with a wool dauber and be very careful not to get it past the rounded edge on the top piece of the leather because the dye cannot be removed. Allow the dye to dry for a couple hours. Now using a small paint brush, apply the gum tragacanth to one or two edges at a time, wait for it to soak in (almost to the point where it is not shiny) and slick the edges down by rubbing the wooden edge slicker on them very briskly. Be sure to use an appropriately sized slot of the slicker for the edge thickness. A distinct tacky sticking sound will be made by the edge slicker when the gum tragacanth has dried enough and is properly burnishing the edges. The result should be a smooth, rounded and slick edge. This can take some experimenting to figure out so practice on a scrap piece of leather first. After all edges have been slicked, you can run the block of beeswax over them as an added layer of protection (remove excess beeswax with an old piece of tshirt).
Step 7: Punch Holes
To make holes for stitching, take the pen slot piece and use put leather glue or cement on the fuzzy side along the lines where the stitches will go. Next glue the business card holder on in the same way. Do the same for the buckle strap on the back of the main cover. Make sure only to glue along where the stitches will go. Let the glue dry for at least an hour so that the pieces will stay in place while being worked on. While these pieces are drying, you can cut any holes you need to set the buckle hardware on the main cover (for the buckle I used, it was just 2 small lines that could be cut with a razor knife).
Using the diamond hole chisels, hammer holes in the stitching groove created earlier. Make sure that all the little diamonds are oriented in the same direction because the key to stitching later is doing every stitch the same way, and if the diamonds don't go in the same direction, the stitches will look bad later. Again, punch the little pieces first because they need to be sewn on to their respective larger pieces before the larger pieces get sewn together.
Step 8: Applying Finish
Before you begin this step, you need to know exactly how you want to dye or stain your piece. The whole process of coloring and sealing the leather is called finishing. The style of finish used on my project is called antiquing and it is a multi step process. Most floral tooled pieces are finished in this way because it accents the cuts and details of your work. For leather that isn't decoratively tooled, you can just use a flat dye process where it will all end up the same solid color, you can also do this on tooled leather instead of antiquing it. No matter what you do, all finishes are messy, so wear some vinyl gloves and work on large pieces of cardboard or foil, and wear clothes you don't mind getting stained because stain is really good at staining stuff (weird right?) If you haven't used a certain dye, stain, or process, try it on a scrap piece until you are comfortable using it.
The first step in the antiquing process is to dye and background spots, letter outlines, or center pieces that you want to stand out. I didn't do that on this piece, but it is common to dye the backgrounded parts of the design darker than the foreground and dye the flowers with color or a lighter shade of dye. A fine tipped quality paint brush works best for detail dyeing; also try to use spirit based dye for this because they will not "run" like water based ones when a resist is applied. Once the any detail dyeing is complete and given a few hours to dry, liberally apply super sheen to the sponge and rub it into all of the cuts and patterns evenly yet pretty thick. Be sure to do all of the pieces, even if they're not tooled. This is called resisting, it blocks the antique stain from penetrating the leather except for in the cuts. Applying one coat of resist is enough, but more will make the stain an even lighter shade. When you're done applying resist, rinse out the sponge thoroughly so it can be reused. Let the resist dry for at least 10 hours before moving onto the next stage. At this point, you leather should have a nice shine to it. The next step in the antiquing process is applying the antique. I have always used the Eco flow gel antique (medium brown is what I used on this piece). Put a quarter sized glob of the antique onto the sponge. Then slather it all over the tooled portion; rub it in from the left, from the right, clockwise, counterclockwise, upside down, backwards, to the beat of "Workin at the Carwash", literally anything you can think of to get the antique deep in all the cuts and impressions. You should use enough antique to totally cover up the leather (the more the merrier), so add more as needed. Also, make it all a little darker than desired because you will lose some color when the sealing coat is applied. Again, be sure to do all the pieces. Once the antique has set for about 5 minutes, take a handful of paper towels, and wipe off the excess antique. Don't press the paper towels down in the impressions, the goal is to only remove what is on top. After all pieces have been antiqued, let them dry for at least 36 hours because the antique isn't actually absorbed in the leather (it just sits on top of the resist) it needs plenty of time to dry out. Wash the sponge out after applying antique.
For flat dyeing, you must deglaze the leather first. To do this, dampen a paper towel with denatured alcohol, wipe it on, and wipe it off with dry paper towels. I would recommend using water or oil based dyes for beginners because I find Fieblings dye hard to work with for doing large sections. Whatever you choose to use, simply apply the dye with a rag or sponge and spread it on evenly over the entire piece. Try to avoid touching the leather with your hands because it will leave a print if the dye has not totally dried. Let the dye dry for at least 24 hours before moving on.
After the dye/stain has dried, put on a coat of super sheen or acrylic resolene with the sponge. Do not scrub it on because stain will be picked up and removed. Instead, wipe it on in a back and forth pattern; try to only use the sponge to spread the sealant around. Let it dry for at least 12 hours.
Step 9: Stitching
Hand stitching is the most repetitive and monotonous thing for the whole project. It is all about doing each stitch exactly the same as the one before it and before that one and etc... It will take a few hours to stitch the whole project. To begin, unravel a wingspan length of thread and cut it at that distance. Now the thread must be waxed. Waxing the thread prolongs it's decay significantly and also holds the leather together better. Push the thread into the beeswax block and pull it through at least 10 times from both ends; try to rotate it each time so that the whole thread has wax on it. If you start to see little balls of wax build up on the thread, you have waxed it too much- just run it through your fingertips a time or two to remove excess. Thread one needle on each end of the thread, pull about 6 inches through, and twist the needle so that the thread on either side of it sticks together.
The first pieces that need to be stitched are the small pieces that have already been glued on. Put the paper flap in your stitching pony (if you have one) and push one needle through the first hole of the pen slot. Pull it through until the lengths of thread are exactly the same on each side. Now, push the needle on the back through to the front on the next hole and only pull out enough to just get past where the threads are doubled up on the needle. Take the needle that was already on the front and put it either on top of or below the needle the is barely coming out the front (whether it goes on top or below depends on the diamond pattern, see picture). It helps to pull the front and back portions of the first thread up or down with one hand, and place the second needle away from the first thread to keep from poking through the thread and damaging it. Once the second needle has been pulled out towards the back and it doesn't feel like it is going through the first thread, take a needle in each hand and pull it tight, but not so tight that the thread breaks. Now repeat the same process for literally one bajillion times... on the pen slot, you can stitch each vertical line with the same thread, just put both needles to the back of the paper flap after you finish a row, and go to the next row over and start. When all rows are finished tie a strong knot and cut the excess thread.
Stitch the business card holder on and the buckle strap next. Also, mount any hardware for the buckle that will be covered up by the notebook holder. Once everything that will be affecting by putting the main cover, paper flap, and notebook holder together has been completed, you can glue the big pieces together the same way described in the "Punching Holes" step. Give it some time to dry, punch holes in the main cover. This will be more difficult since there are more layers of leather. Try to keep the chisel perfectly straight up and level so that the holes come out in the stitching groove on the bottom as well. Now, begin the long task of stitching the entire perimeter of the cover.
You will need to splice the thread while stitching. Once you get to about 6 inches remains on each needle, start a stitch from the back but only push it through the first layer and pull it up in between the 2 layers, do the same for the needle on the front. Tie a small, simple knot with the 2 needles and pull it tight. If you can access the needles to pull the knot from the middle of the cover as opposed to the edge, pull from there because the knot will be easier to hide and the excess thread will be less noticeable. Now take the waxed length of thread and start it in the same hole that was just half-stitched so that the stitches appear to continue. Hide the knot and excess thread with an awl by pushing it down in between the layers if you need to. I find it much easier to work with small sections of thread and splice it frequently than working with one extra long length. Also, the thread will start to get worn at the needle ends, so smaller lengths of thread keep you from having to deal with fraying string (this will make the stitches stronger too). With that being said, it is important to get good at making clean splices!
Step 10: Burnish Edges
After stitching the main cover, the hard work is done! Now it is time to burnish the edges of the main cover. You may have noticed that some edges of you project aren't perfectly flush after stitching. It happens no matter how accurate and precisely you cut the pieces. It will need to be fixed to burnish the edges though, so just take a straight edge and razor knife or rotary cutter and trim any sliver that is preventing the edges from lining up perfectly. Be very careful doing this, one slip up could ruin you're almost finished project!
After the edges are trimmed flush, use an edge beveler to cut the corners of the edges; just like earlier on the smaller pieces, but use a bigger beveler since the layers are thicker. Repeat the same sanding process described in the "Pre-stitching" step. Wipe the freshly rounded edge clean with a damp rag, and let it dry for a few minutes. Dye the edges with a wool dauber using your chosen color of dye. Let the dye dry for around 8 hours, then use gum tragacanth and the wooden edge slicker at a sizable setting to slick the edges just like the smaller pieces we're done earlier. Apply the beeswax and wipe off any excess.
If you haven't already finished the edges of the right side of the paper flap and left side of the notebook holder, finish those edges now. Since they are not very thick, use the same edge beveler as used for the small pieces.
Step 11: Finishing Steps
To finish your project, apply one last coat of super sheen or acrylic resolene to the front, back, edges, and even the exposed fleshy side on the inside. Wait another 8 hours for it to dry.
Mount whatever buckle hardware you have to the buckle strap, and trim the strap if need be. You want the strap to barely be able to buckle closed when there is a full load in the portfolio. This is because the strap will stretch out eventually as it gets broken in.
Now you can finally sit back and admire all of your hard work! Enjoy using your new handcrafted custom leather portfolio, show it off to all of your friends, and direct them to this page so that they can make their own!
We have a be nice policy.
Please be positive and constructive.