Leather Binding a Paperback: a New and Improved Guide

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Introduction: Leather Binding a Paperback: a New and Improved Guide

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Second Prize in the
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Papercraft Contest 2015

Runner Up in the
Papercraft Contest 2015

Last year I wrote a fairly popular guide on leather-binding paperbacks. Since then I've done some more experimenting and come up with a method that I think is a bit easier and turns out nicer.

I will:

  • Stick to tools you probably have lying around the house
  • Avoid jargon and unjustified persnickety-ness. Like, instead of saying, "The seasoned artisan will be sure to use only the highest quality acid-free endsheet paper and a 17-cm bone folder from a reputable source when preparing for the traditional pastedown operation," I'll say, "Find some paper you like and fold it in half."

Step 1: Tear Off the Old Cover

The Gist: Carefully peel the existing paper cover off of your book.

Detail:

  • Put the book down on the table
  • Open it
  • Put one palm on the first page to hold the book down
  • With the other hand, peel the cover back towards the spine like you're trying to shuck a giant ear of corn
  • Turn the book over and repeat if necessary

Step 2: Clean Up the Spine

The Gist: Rub off the fuzzies.

Detail: Rub them off. Use your thumb, or an eraser, or maybe a little bit of sponged-on water to soften them. Don't get too crazy, just clean it up a little.

Step 3: Pick Out Some Cool Papers

The Gist: Get two pieces of paper you'd like to see inside the front and back cover of your book.

Detail:

  • Size: Paper height = book height. Paper width = 2 x book width.
    • Example: My book is 9 inches tall and 6 inches wide, so my paper has to be at least 9 inches tall and 12 inches wide (see how I did that complex math in my head?!)
  • Type: Doesn't really matter. Normal-ish. Not tissue or cardboard.
  • Where: Craft stores, art stores, Amazon. I used these.

Unnecessary Trivia: If you want to sound smart, you can call these pieces of paper "endpapers", "end-papers", or "end-sheets". The side glued to the cover is (creatively) called the "paste-down". The other part is called the "flyleaf".

Step 4: Fold Papers in Half

Gist: Fold each piece of paper in half. Crease goes with the grain.

Detail:

  • Paper has "grain" (kind of like wood). Find the grain by gently bending the paper. It's very slightly easier to bend the paper "with the grain". See this video (the useful part is 0:50 to 1:30).

Why "with the grain"?

  • Paper grows and shrinks when humidity changes. It mostly grows and shrinks across the grain.
  • We're going to glue down the folded part of the paper. That means the fold won't be able to grow or shrink.
  • If the fold is across the grain rather than with the grain, the growing and shrinking paper will be stressing the glue and crinkling the paper.

Step 5: Trim Papers to Book Size

The Gist: Trim to match the size of your book.

Detail: If your book is 6 inches wide and 9 inches tall, trim the folded paper to 6 inches wide and 9 inches tall.

Step 6: Glue on the Papers

The Gist: Glue the folded paper onto your book. Glue should only extend about 1/4-inch from the spine of the book.

Detail:

  • Lay your folded paper on some scrap paper.
  • Spread some glue on a small section near the fold (use more scrap paper or masking tape to mask it off if you want).
  • Stick the folded paper to your book. Crease goes right next to the spine.

Glue: Elmer's glue ($3) is probably fine. There's also special bookbinding PVA ($8) that's essentially the same thing, but marketed for book binding. Weigh your risk-averseness / perfectionism against your cheapness / laziness.

Step 7: Beef Up the Spine

The Gist: Glue a piece of fabric onto the spine.

Detail:

  • Get some thin, stiff fabric (color doesn't matter).
  • Cut it so that it is about 1 inch shorter than the spine and 2 or 3 inches wider.
  • Center the fabric and glue it to the spine of the book (with Elmer's or PVA).
    • Note: In this picture, the ends of the fabric are still dangling. You can either leave them like this and glue them to the paper later, or you can glue them down now.

Unnecessary Details: This piece of cloth is called a "super". It adds a little bit of strength to the spine and helps keep the papers from peeling away from the book when you put your covers on. The old-school way was to make it out of cheese cloth, but some people say cheese cloth is too weak. Making it out of muslin works well, or you can even buy yourself some special cloth marketed specifically for making supers out of. The important thing is for the cloth not to be too thick (like not felt or velvet) and to be fairly stiff (not too stretchy; don't use your mom's old nylons). I use old pillowcases/sheets.

Step 8: Add "Headbands"

The Gist: Glue some cool-looking folded cloth at the ends of the spine.

Detail:

  • Get some "headband" material
    • OPTION 1: Buy it on amazon ($5 for over 100 books worth)
    • OPTION 2: Make your own (fold a piece of fabric over a piece of string and glue it)
  • Cut two pieces of headband as wide as the spine of your book
  • Glue the two headband pieces onto the spine of your book
  • Make sure the bump side of the headband just barely hangs over the top/bottom of the book

Unnecessary Trivia: Headbands used to have a structural purpose. In most modern books, they don't. But they sure look cool.

Step 9: Get Some Cardboard

The Gist: Get some cardboard to make your covers out of.

Detail: You want something sturdy, about 1/16 inch thick. I used chipboard from Amazon for this project, but I've used the back of sketch pads before too. I wouldn't recommend corrugated cardboard (like you'd get from a box), because it seems like it would crease and dent too easily, but I've never actually tried it... maybe it's awesome!

You'll need enough for 2-4 pieces that are just a hair bigger than your book.

Step 10: Cut Two Pieces of Cardboard to Size

The Gist: Cut the cardboard about 1/4-inch taller and 1/4-inch narrower than your book. Grain should run from top to bottom (just like the papers).

  • Example: 6 x 9-inch book => 5-3/4 x 9-1/4 -inch cardboard pieces

Detail:

  • The cardboard needs to overhang the book by about 1/8-inch on the top, bottom, and one side.
  • It also needs to have a gap (say 3/8-inch) near the spine so that the leather can fold.
  • This means:
    • It has to be about 1/4-inch taller than your book (1/8 + 1/8 = 1/4)
    • It has to be about 1/4-inch narrower than your book (1/8-inch bigger for the overhang, 3/8-inch smaller for the gap)
  • Check for the grain direction of the cardboard the same way you did for the paper. Make sure the grain (the easy-to-bend direction) runs from top to bottom (just like it did with the papers).

Step 11: [Optional]: Glue on Some Cool Designs

The Gist: Use extra cardboard to glue a second partial-layer on each cover piece.

Details: The sky's the limit. You could even X-ACTO the edges of the second layer to get rounded curves and stuff. Just realize that any gaps that are really small (like less than 1/8-inch) will be hard to get the leather to conform to.

Step 12: Make a Spine

The Gist: Cut a piece of paper or card stock to give a little shape to the spine of your new leather cover.

Detail:(see the red piece in the diagram)

  • Measure the thickness of your book. Add the thickness of your cardboard covers. That's how wide your spine piece should be.
    • Example: 3/4-inch thick book + two 1/16-inch thick cardboard covers => a 7/8-inch wide spine.
  • The spine should have the same height as your cardboard covers (which are 1/4-inch taller than the book itself).
    • Example: 9-inch tall book has 9-1/4-inch tall covers and a 9-1/4-inch tall spine.
  • Final spine dimensions (example): 7/8 inch x 9-1/4 inches.

Step 13: Use Masking Tape to Line Things Up

The Gist: Lay out your covers and spine and tape them to keep them that way.

Detail:

  • Lay the front cover face down on the table.
  • Lay the spine 3/8-inch to the right of the front cover.
  • Lay the back cover face down 3/8-inch to the right of the spine.
  • Tape.

Step 14: Pick Out Some Leather

The Gist: Pick out some leather (or other cloth).

Detail:

  • Get a piece that's a little bigger than the total size of your laid-out covers and spine.
  • Thin, flexible, chromium-tanned leather is best for this type of binding.
  • If you don't want leather (or can't find some), just use some cool fabric! I've done this before, and it looks pretty nice.

Where to get leather: If you live close to a leather store like Tandy Leather, go in and see if they have anything for sale (I found a nice big sheet of this black-dyed pigskin for like $20). Otherwise, check Ebay or Tandy Leather's online catalog, or get a free leather couch on craigslist and cannibalize it. I would stay away from vegetable-tanned leather (unless you're planning to finish it yourself). Anything you find on furniture or upholstery is probably fine, as long as it's flexible and you like it.

Step 15: Glue the Leather to the Covers

The Gist: Glue the leather / fabric onto the covers. Press it into all the nooks and crannies of your 3D cardboard design.

Detail:

  • Coat part of your cover (say the front cover) with glue. (if you're Lightning McQueen, you could do the whole thing at once).
  • Lay a big piece of leather down on top with enough to overhang your cover by about an inch on all sides.
  • Use something pointy-ish but smooth-ish to push the leather down into all the little 3D parts of your design (if you have them). I've used the butt-end of a toothbrush, a capped Sharpie, the blunt end of a ceramic chopstick, the handle of a butterknife... whatever's handy and not sharp enough to mark the leather.
  • Repeat with the other part of your cover and the spine.

Step 16: Trim the Leather

The Gist: Leave a margin of about 1-inch on all sides. Trim the corners at a 45° angle, leaving an overhang about as big as the cover is thick.

Detail: Use scissors, or an X-ACTO knife, or an axe (if you're Paul Bunyan).

Step 17: Fold and Glue Two Sides of the Leather

Fold and glue the top and bottom.Keep things nice and tight. Set a weight on top for a few minutes to make sure the glue has set.

Step 18: Make Sure Corners Are Creased Well

Pay special attention to the corners of the two folded slides. Add some extra glue and crease with a table knife or something if you have to.

Step 19: Fold and Glue the Remaining Two Sides

Keep things tight. Pay close attention to the corners and make sure they're pressed down well.

Step 20: Check the Fit

Lay your book on one half of the cover. Make sure the cover overhangs by about 1/8-inch. Fold the cover over the book and make sure everything fits nicely.

If you left the ends of the fabric on the spine dangling in step 7, glue them down to the papers now. Pull them nice and tight.

Step 21: Glue on the Covers

The Gist: Glue on the front and back covers, but not the spine or the gap next to the spine.

Detail:

  • Put a piece of scrap paper just inside the outer paper to protect the pages from glue.
  • Get the book all lined up.
  • Put glue on the paper, but leave a 3/8-inch gap near the spine un-glued.
  • Close the cover on the glued paper and press firmly for a minute or so.
  • Repeat on the other side of the book.

Step 22: Put Everything Under Weights to Dry

The Gist: Stack some books or weights on top of your book for a good day or two while everything dries.

Detail:

  • Make sure your book is sitting on something smooth and clean... little bumps or specks of dirt will get imprinted into the leather.
  • [Optional]: Use knitting needles, two pencils end-to-end, or something else to press the leather into the gap next to the spine while everything dries.
  • Put a smooth board on top of your book.
  • Stack some books / weights / big heavy rocks on top.
  • Wait for a day or two so that everything can dry without warping.

Step 23: Enjoy

You now have a leather-bound version of your favorite paperback book!

Want to check out my novels (about teenage medieval secret agents), short stories (about everything from dystopian futures to sword-and-sorcery fantasy) food experiments (about biscuits, hash browns, and pancakes), and book reviews? Take a look at my website and like my facebook page, where you can get updates about giveaways and other news.

Thanks for reading.

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127 Comments

rebound my copy of Infinite Jest using this method...very helpful

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Nice! Looks great. Thanks for posting.

Any recommondations for hardbound books?

Yes, you can do them exactly the same way; the only difference is when you're removing the old covers (steps 1 and 2). Almost all hard-cover books are perfect bound (i.e. with a layer of glue) underneath the covers, just like this one is. You might need to remove the old endpapers (see step 5) as well. Then you'll have a textblock and can start at step 3 to follow this tutorial exactly.

One more question, what do you use to cut the cardboard and leather? I don’t think scissors will make a very clean edge, (maybe for the leather, but not with the cardboard) especially if you’re designing something for the cover.

For cardboard, an x-acto knife (for detail) or box cutter (for strait cuts) works pretty well. I used a laser cutter for the detail on this one.

hello, i was wondering what types of fabric were best to substitute leather? I don't have access to any, but im really excited to try this tutorial!

There are some traditional cloths (binder's buckram is the gold standard), but I've honestly just picked ones I liked for the few cloth-covered case-bound books I've done. Try gluing a piece of the cloth down; as long as the weave isn't so loose that the glue soaks through and looks like a stain on the outside of the fabric, you're probably OK.

Nice no-nonsense tutorial! Thanks so much - I can't wait to try it

You're welcome! Good luck, and post a picture of what you make if you get the chance!