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

Picture of Leather Binding a Paperback: a New and Improved Guide

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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"

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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

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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

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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

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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

Picture of 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

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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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

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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

Picture of 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

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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

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

Step 20: Check the Fit

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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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

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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.

Comments

jschapek82 (author)2016-08-22

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

solobo (author)jschapek822016-08-23

Nice! Looks great. Thanks for posting.

Claire MarieJ made it! (author)2016-01-12

Here's a picture—I don't think it's too bad for my first attempt. For next time I definitely need to pay more attention to making the 3/8" gaps near the spine more even though, and also making sure I have more time. Thanks again for the tutorial!!

solobo (author)Claire MarieJ2016-01-12

Looks great, thanks for posting!

AnitaC29 (author)2017-10-22

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

solobo (author)AnitaC292017-10-22

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

Mrs_dmiles (author)2017-09-13

What oz leather did you use here? Also which do you like better this method or your method where the whole cover is leather with no chipboard? I want to do a set of Harry Potter books

solobo (author)Mrs_dmiles2017-09-14

See soccer_kates comment... She also did a very nice looking Harry Potter set.

solobo (author)Mrs_dmiles2017-09-14

This was pretty thin, 2 oz probably. This method was a little easier and less time consuming than the tooled leather method, but the tooled leather results were a bit cooler I thought.

PseudonymousD made it! (author)2017-07-08

Great tutorial, I primarily used this one and looked at some other techniques as well. I used thick leather, and was unable to incorporate cover design, but the texture is well worth it. Thanks!

solobo (author)PseudonymousD2017-07-09

Oooh, nice, I like it! Thanks for posting.

That looks like one of the Witcher Saga books, am I right? I'd like to check those out; would you recommend starting with The Last Wish?

PseudonymousD (author)solobo2017-07-09

Wow, excellent eye! It is indeed! Redania and Temeria give it away? It is fact The Last Wish. I'm in the process of converting the rest of the series in a similar style. The American publishers, Orbit, distributed the books without much consent to their original publishing order. But yes, The Last Wish should be read first, as it is the first book written by Sapkowski and published in Poland. The following is the order in which they where originally published:

The Last Wish - a short story collection,
Sword of Destiny - a short story collection,
**begin novels**
Blood of Elves,
Time of Contempt,
Baptism of Fire,
Tower of Swallows,
Lady of the Lake.

One more book has yet to be translated into English officially, Season of Storms, but it is a standalone story. All of those are available on Amazon. Oh, and since your rather crafty, can you think of some way to distinguish the covers after completion? With either text or symbol? Embossing was all that I could find that may work, but it seems complex and costly.

solobo (author)PseudonymousD2017-07-09

Well I didn't recognize the names so I had to look them up, and then I started reading about the series and it sounds really interesting. I've got The Last Wish on my to-read list now, looking forward to it!

To distinguish the covers: one way with thick leather is to tool it (if it's vegetable tanned). I did this in another instructable (link below). But that might not work as well with the leather you have there. One idea would be to brand/burn the leather with a wood-burning tool or soldering iron (never done this myself with leather, but I imagine it would be similar to wood-burning; might be worth a try on a scrap piece). You could also make the bookmarks and headbands different colors, or sew a different button / concho onto the spine of each.

https://www.instructables.com/id/Bind-a-Book-in-To...

https://www.tandyleather.com/en/category/conchos

PseudonymousD (author)solobo2017-07-10

Dang, wish I'd have found your other tutorial as well, might have done some things differently. I'll save that for a future project. Great thought on the burning technique! I have a soldering iron laying around and will give it a shot. Hope you enjoy the Witcher saga as much as I did! I see your an author yourself; I'm adding Thane to my to-read list. Thank you sincerely for your assistance and the well-written guide, it helped tremendously.

solobo (author)PseudonymousD2017-07-10

No problem, glad it was useful! Hope you enjoy Thane.

Tolana (author)2017-04-07

Just curious - over time, has the leather stayed in the design, or have you seen any parts starting to lift (come unglued) from the indentations?

solobo (author)Tolana2017-04-10

Well I gave the book away so I'm not sure how it is now, but 9 months or so after making it it seemed to be in great shape.

EvanA25 made it! (author)2017-01-09

Hi, I finally got round to binding my D&D 5e Players Handbook.. I added some corners and also dyed it brown, although I taped the central Ampersand while dying and peeled it off after.

I gave it to my Mum for Xmas and she was so happy! Wouldn't have happened without your guide! Thanks so much.

solobo (author)EvanA252017-01-09

Wow, looks awesome! Thanks for sharing.

SheleshG (author)2016-12-01

on step 11 how thick does the cardboard need to be to make a design on it and what kind of cardboard?

solobo (author)SheleshG2016-12-01

I would recommend 1/16" chipboard (see step 9), but it's not super crucial.

Bonnermay (author)2016-11-25

My husband wrote a book, and I'd like to try this to give him for our 30th anniversary in about a month. I've never done anything like this, work full time, and have a pretty full life! Is this even realistic for me to attempt? (It looks like your instructions are very clear, but I'm wondering how many hours it might take a novice like me?)

solobo (author)Bonnermay2016-11-25

Yeah, I'd say four or five 1-2 hour nights would be plenty.

GeorgeHarris (author)2016-11-22

this is very useful

solobo (author)GeorgeHarris2016-11-22

cool!

EvanA25 (author)2016-09-29

I've got all the bits and am about to attempt this! When does the spine get glued? Is it glued to the leather but not the book?

Many thanks!

solobo (author)EvanA252016-09-29

Right, the spine is glued to the leather but not the book. Good luck!

Kelzan (author)solobo2016-10-30

I think the confusion is that step 15 says not to glue the leather to the spine, but actually you do glue it to the leather, just not to the book, correct?

solobo (author)Kelzan2016-10-30

Yeah... not sure why I wrote not to glue it to the spine. I think my thought was that the leather would slide over the cardboard easier if I only glued them together at the folds. Looking back, I don't think it would have made a difference. I'll modify step 15. Thanks!

DEAMONATOR (author)2016-05-28

Hi there I was Wondering how to Make a Leather cove for my Book that is Soft and Bendable or flexible like a soft cover Bible that soft over But is leather not paper can you help? thanks

solobo (author)DEAMONATOR2016-05-29

I'm planning on writing an instructable on that. It's basically skipping the cardboard step... you glue up the leather directly onto the end papers. I'll try to reply again once I write up better instructions.

ElaineMayes1 (author)solobo2016-10-24

Have you done the instructions for binding soft-cover style yet ?

solobo (author)ElaineMayes12016-10-25

I have! They are here (you can skip the tooling if you like):

https://www.instructables.com/id/Bind-a-Book-in-Tooled-Leather/

ElaineMayes1 (author)2016-10-21

I want to do a very large book, where the spine has begun to curl. You can tell I'm holding it together by string. Do you have any advice about a book such as this?

solobo (author)ElaineMayes12016-10-22

My only advice would be to make sure the binding itself (the glue and super) is intact. It's fine for it to curl away from the spine of the cover... in fact, books are designed to do this (that's why you don't glue the spine of the cover to the spine of the text block).

Kelzan (author)2016-10-17

So step 16 says to trim the cover material with an overhang that = the thickness of the cover. Does that mean the thickness of the outer cover material, the cover cardboard, or both of them together? At first I assumed it meant just the thickness of the leather, but your picture shows the overhang to be quite a bit more than just that.

Awesome guide, by the way, thanks for sharing!

solobo (author)Kelzan2016-10-18

It means the thickness of the cardboard; the idea is that the leather will be able to cover that thickness.

Thanks, enjoy!

Swabwithash (author)2016-10-15

Thank you so much for this!

I've recently read the cover off one of my favorite books and was looking for a way to fix it. This will be perfect. Of course, it's the 3rd in a series so I guess I'll have to cover the others as well. ;)

solobo (author)Swabwithash2016-10-16

Good luck! What's the book?

Soccer_Kates (author)2016-02-27

I just wanted to thank you so much for making this tutorial! I have been wanting a Harry Potter leather bound set for a very long time. However, I either didn't like the set or they were too expensive for me to realistically afford. This tutorial is going to let me finally have my leather books and they'll be that much more special because I know that I put my own time into it! One down, six more to go!!!

solobo (author)Soccer_Kates2016-02-27

Awesome, it looks fantastic!

Soccer_Kates made it! (author)solobo2016-05-15

Update: I'm finally done with my whole set! Thanks again for sharing this tutorial!!!!! <3

wirehead07 (author)Soccer_Kates2016-09-17

I'm doing Sorcerer's Stone right now! I like how you did the spines.

MarieS68 (author)Soccer_Kates2016-08-13

Harry Potter is exactly why I'm looking at this tutorial too haha. Your books look great :)

- from a fellow Potter head

pbolivei (author)Soccer_Kates2016-06-07

Those are amazing! Well done, very nice work indeed!

solobo (author)Soccer_Kates2016-05-15

Wow, looks amazing! That is so cool.

Questore (author)2016-08-13

Very clear and to the point, and well photographed. Your instructions make me feel as if I might actually manage something halfway decent!

solobo (author)Questore2016-08-14

Thanks!

MikaelaD2 (author)2016-08-09

Awesomeness

solobo (author)MikaelaD22016-08-09

Thanks!

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