Introduction: Pocket-sized Notebooks With Recycled Grocery Bag Covers

Picture of Pocket-sized Notebooks With Recycled Grocery Bag Covers

This is sort of a two part tutorial. First, I'll show you how to bind your own pocket-sized notebooks. Second, I'll show you how to fuse old grocery bags into sheets of plastic to use as covers. The plastic can be used for many things, though. They can be sewn together like fabric to make bags, wallets, clothes, shower curtains? I don't know... I'm sure you can think of a million things.

Alright, here's how I do it...

Before you get started, you'll need:

• Paper (I like to use all-weather copier paper to make cheaper waterproof journals for backpacking)
• Ruler
• Box Cutter or X-Acto Knife with a nice sharp blade
• Sewing Needle
• Thread
• Glue

A thick upholstery needle would be great, but I just use the thickest sewing needle that came with my sewing kit and it works fine. I use heavy-duty polyester outdoor thread. For glue, I use a glue gun, but you can try it with whatever glue you have that is suitable for paper and plastic.

To make the cover out of plastic grocery bags, you'll need:

• Plastic Grocery Bags (Trash bag, Plastic Sheeting, or an old throw-away poncho also works)
• Scissors
• An Iron
• Wax Paper

Step 1: Pre-Print

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Decide if you want to print anything on the pages first. I tend to print graph paper lines on mine. For printable graph paper, check out, or download my graph paper PDF here.

Since I use mine for backpacking, some things I might print are: 

• Maps
• Trip itinerary
• Trail information
• Flight, bus, or train information
• Graph paper lines
• Important phone numbers
• Trail food recipes you want to try out
• Instructions on how to tie a bowline knot to hang your new hammock
• A few Sudoku puzzles for when you get bored
• Photos of loved ones

Step 2: Cut Paper

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Decide how many pages you want and the dimensions. I like to make the pages about 1/4"-1/2" bigger than what the final notebook will be, because I trim the notebook to size at the end. That way, it has nice clean edges.

Eight pieces of copier paper will make this 64-page notebook.

Step 3: Fold Pages

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Next, fold the pages in half, one at a time.

Step 4: Make Signatures

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Take 5 or 6 pages and tuck them into each other, like a small book, to make what bookbinders call a "signature," or "folio". You'll be making 3 signatures for this 64-page notebook.

One reason for making three signatures rather than just folding all the paper together into one, is so the book will lay nice and flat when closed. The fold also helps prevent pages from tearing out of your notebook, unlike just gluing them all together at the spine.


Step 5: Measure Holes

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Stack the signatures and mark 4 holes equally spaced apart. The holes are where you'll be sewing them together. I used binder clips to hold them in place. If you're going to be trimming the sides at the end, be sure to measure from the center out, so your holes are still relatively centered after trimming.

Step 6: Poke Holes

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Poke holes into each mark along the fold in each signature. Put something soft underneath for the needle to go through. I use an eraser.


Step 7: Sew

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Now you're going to sew the pages together, like the diagram in the photo above (click to enlarge). Use heavy duty thread. Polyester or wax-coated thread will be better for making a waterproof backpacking journal, but also, wax-coated thread will prevent the thread from cutting into the paper.

Start by cutting off about 18" of thread and tie a knot about 2" inches from one of the ends, to stop the thread from going all the way through the first hole. Now thread your needle on the other end and sew into hole 1, then out 2, then into 3, and so on in the numbered order on the photo. Keep the string taut as you go, but not so tight that you tear the paper.

When you go out of hole 10, you're going to tie a knot with the loose piece of thread hanging out of hole 1, and then continue sewing into hole 12. When you get to the end, feed the thread coming out of hole 17 through the loop created between holes 4 and 5.

If you want more pages, and so have more signatures, just keep this same pattern going until you're done. When finished, trim off the excess thread and you'll have something that looks like the second image attached.

Put it aside for now, and next I'll show you how to make a cover by fusing together plastic grocery bags with an iron.


Step 8: Get Plastic Grocery Bags

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You certainly don't have to use plastic grocery bags to make a cover, but they are waterproof, free, and most of us have tons of them. Also, you'll have something unique that you'll want to show people, and you won't find anything else like it anywhere (that I know of).

A big reason I use plastic grocery bags is because they will otherwise become waste. Try to avoid taking extra bags at the store to make covers if you can, otherwise you're not really recycling anything. If you don't have any extra bags, I'm sure one of your neighbors will.


Step 9: Cut Plastic Bags

Picture of Cut Plastic Bags

One standard size grocery bag is enough to make a cover. Just cut off the handles and the bottom of the bag, then fold it in half two times, so you have 8 layers total. As you can see in the first photo above, I didn't want any store logos on my cover, so I cut out the blank sections of multiple bags instead, to make a stack of 8 layers.

If you have bags that have colors or designs that you like, even better, get creative. I made the cover in the second photo with a yellow Dollar General bag layered on top of a bag from Target.

If there is any ink on the bags, make sure that it is not on the top or bottom of the layers, or the heat from the iron will smear it and make a mess. Either turn them upside down, or put a layer without ink on top.

If you do mix bags from different stores, or use bags with lots of ink, they may not fuse as well, but it has worked well for me most times.

You can also use markers to draw your own patterns onto the bags. On this notebook cover, I decided to draw an Appalachian Trail logo (see third photo). Just remember to place the ink upside down, or put one layer on top of it.

If you look at the last two photos, you'll see that I used this same method on one of my journals to embed the "recycle plastic bags" logo that I found on one of the grocery bags. You could also write something like, "Volume 1" or "2013 Yosemite Trip," to keep multiple notebooks organized.


Step 10: Sandwich Plastic in Wax Paper

Picture of Sandwich Plastic in Wax Paper

Place the plastic between two pieces of wax paper on an ironing board. As in the photo above, I trimmed the plastic, so it fits between the wax paper with enough overhang, so they don't come in contact with the iron.

Set your iron temperature to medium-high, or about the same setting for silks. All irons are different, though, so you may have to adjust if it's not hot enough. It doesn't have to be perfect, as you'll see, but if it's not hot enough, it may take a long time to fuse the plastic together. If it's too hot it could melt or shrivel up the plastic too much.


Step 11: Iron Plastic

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When the iron is hot, iron the bags while maintaining a constant slow motion and applying some pressure. I start from one of the edges and work my way to the opposite side, to prevent air bubbles. The wax paper will stick to the iron at first, but it will get easier after a few passes. Do this for about 30-60 seconds, and then flip it all over to iron the other side. When you're done, peel away the wax paper like a giant Fruit Roll Up.

Step 12: Test Plastic

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If all goes well, what you end up with will look something like this. Rub it between your fingers to make sure the layers are all sticking together. If not, iron it again. If it's not sticking well, then the iron may not be hot enough.


Step 13: Bend Plastic at Spine

Picture of Bend Plastic at Spine

So now you have a sheet of plastic to use as a cover. Get the notebook you sewed together and your glue. I prefer using a glue gun, but if you don't have one, most glues suitable for paper and plastic will work.

If longevity or archiving is important to you, use an acid-free glue.

Bend the plastic where the spine of the notebook will go It's okay if the plastic is bigger than the pages, cause we're going to trim it all up at the end anyway.


Step 14: Glue Notebook to Cover

Picture of Glue Notebook to Cover

Run a line of glue along the spine of the notebook pages and stick it into the bend of the plastic, like the pictures attached. Note: You want to put hot glue on the paper first, and not into the fold of the plastic first. The glue comes out too hot and can cause the plastic to shrink.


Step 15: Trim Notebook

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Now using a ruler and box cutter or x-acto knife, trim off the three sides. I do this at the end, so it will have perfect edges, and at this point the cover won't need to be heated anymore, and so, won't shrink anymore.

Step 16: Glue First and Last Pages to Cover

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This step is optional, but I like to glue the first and last page to the cover itself. It gives the cover more rigidity and prevents the cover from ever tearing off. Place a heavy book on top of it while the glue dries to prevent curling. You can use pieces of wax paper on the outside and inside of your covers to keep glue from getting on any of the pages or the heavy book.

Step 17: Other Tips

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And the first photo above is the final product! It sounds more complicated than it is. Once you get the hang of it, you can make them pretty quickly.

Other Tips

• The fused plastic grocery bags can be sewn together on a sewing machine to make reusable shopping bags, wallets, clothes, or whatever. To give you an example, I sewed pockets in the notebook on the second photo above, to store a credit card and ID. Also, the paper can be taken out so the cover can be reused.

• You don't have to use grocery bags. Trash bags fuse together well also, and have a fake black leather look to them when done. For you fellow backpackers, you can also fuse trash compactor bags with this method to make custom-size plastic bags for pack liners or waterproof bags.

Thanks for reading. If you have any questions or comments, check out my blog, "A Backpacker's Life List," at


GraceW31 (author)2017-02-13

It is PERFECT for our "visit to pioneer times"! They suggest brining a journal, but if we do, it has to look authentic. This is the PERFECT faux leather journal for that! ❤️ My sister and I love it!

ryangrayson (author)GraceW312017-02-15

Glad you got some use out of my instructable! If you're looking for the faux leather look, I got the brown bags from Kroger. And a black trash bag gives a nice black leather look.

3366carlos (author)2016-01-30

very nice, can you add a close up picture of the signatures sawn together? It's hard to see the ones that have glue on them. Thanks.

god1066 (author)2013-09-03

Hey. Firstly, fantastic instructable ! Love it. I just have a couple of questions. Firstly, what dimensions did you cut the paper to for this particular instructable? And secondly, is there anything else you could use to sandwich the plastic between when ironing? I don't know where to get wax paper from and wondered if anything else would work?. Thanks very much for any help !

Kindest regards

ryangrayson (author)god10662013-09-06

Wax paper is ideal, not sure what else would work, but Lorddrake is right. Pretty much every grocery store, wal-mart, etc. will have wax paper in the baking or zip-loc aisle. I'm forgetting the exact dimensions of the one in the pictures, but I usually make them about 3.5" x 5"

Bevity (author)ryangrayson2015-04-18

Wax paper is so common place that you don't think about it until you move to a country that doesn't have it... There are so many times I needed some, but it just doesn't exist here. They do have baking paper, sort of like parchment paper, but there is no wax on it.

mkslocomb (author)ryangrayson2014-10-07

Also available in the same section of the grocery store is freezer (or may be called butcher) paper. It is only waxed on one side (have that face the plastic project) and won't cause problems for your iron.

Lorddrake (author)god10662013-09-04

you should be able to get waxed paper at your local grocery store. Check the baking aisle.

LucyL1 (author)2015-04-16

Ya know, I'm so glad there are people who can turn trash into treasure. Who doesn't have an abundance of plastic bags, and recycling them is a great idea. I plan on making several of these.

Hamm45854 (author)2015-03-15

Absolutely ingenious. Great idea

BrettW2 (author)2014-12-25

this is brilliant. I just made my first notebook. instead of gluing the cover, however, I used staples to bind the cover and pages. works awesome.

SeedRally (author)2013-12-11

Just set my iron on medium-high (for cotton blends) and that was way too hot! Haha. Silk was my low setting and that worked fine. So if everyone just puts their iron on silk that may be the "safe zone"

ryangrayson (author)SeedRally2013-12-12

Yeah, It's best to start cooler and raise the temp until you find what works. I've discovered that irons vary a lot, which makes me not trust the setting on my clothes.

SeedRally (author)2013-12-11

Did you use the hot glue for this step? Or did you something more like a glue stick?

ryangrayson (author)SeedRally2013-12-12

I have used a thin layer of tacky glue on some and a glue stick on others. The paper didn't absorb as much moisture with the glue stick, so it looked better, but it didn't stay attached as long. I've heard contact cement works well for combining paper and plastic without the paper absorbing too much, but I haven't tried it.

ratgirl13 (author)2013-11-22

Thanks for the great 'ible. Just finished making one with another 'ible - the bubble paper. This is going to be a great stocking stuffer. It was fun to make and very easy.

dimtick (author)2013-09-04

I have a pocket notebook design that the grocery bag cover would work great with.
I've been using old magazines for covers. can't wait to try out the ironing trick.
Nice Job!

ryangrayson (author)dimtick2013-09-06

Very nice! I like that idea.

dimtick (author)ryangrayson2013-09-07

Love your blog also by the way.

OutdoorGirl16196 (author)2013-09-06

And a notebook, of course

OutdoorGirl16196 (author)2013-09-06

Awesome idea! I'm going to try making a wallet!

tpurdum (author)2013-09-06

Can you print on a transparency and fuse that between the grocery bag layers? That way you could have anything you wanted as a cover?

ryangrayson (author)tpurdum2013-09-06

I don't know if the transparency would fuse with the plastic bags, but if it were cut much smaller than the notebook, so the bags fused around it, that would probably work alright. I'll play around with that and let you know.

sabu.dawdy (author)2013-09-04

love your idea.. :D

shizumadrive (author)2013-09-03

How long does the material last? I know some plastic bags are supposed to break down after a set time.

ryangrayson (author)shizumadrive2013-09-03

I don't have a great test for longevity yet, since I haven't been making them for years. If they're not stored in direct UV light and, in the case of waterproof notebooks, kept dry, the polyethylene terephthalate plastics in most grocery bags will probably last for decades. Hopefully someone with more knowledge on these materials can reply to this.

Something that just came to mind is that I've never tried this with plant-based grocery bags or the biodegradable grocery bags, but even in those cases, they need to be in soil to biodegrade. Although, you're probably not talking about how long it takes to biodegrade, but rather how long they hold up well and remain functional.

When I use them, I tend to abuse them more than normal though. I always hike with one in my back pocket. They may be in my pocket everyday for days or weeks at a time. They hold up pretty well even after that. I've never have a cover fall off.

If the plastic isn't heated up enough, sometimes the layers will start to split apart at the edges. Be sure to rub it between your thumb and fingers after ironing to make sure they are melted together well. If not, increase the heat a little and apply more pressure and make sure there are no air bubbles.

Either way, they still hold up a lot better than my paper notebooks.

shizumadrive (author)ryangrayson2013-09-04

Thanks thats what I wanted to know. I carry a moleskine in my pocket everyday and this will be a nice alternative if it can take the same abuse. Sounds like you have put it through the same. Thanks for the response

shizumadrive (author)2013-09-03

cover idea is great. well it all is.

CTeichert (author)2013-09-03

Thank YOU! for this absolutely wonderful tutorial!

Goatie (author)2013-09-03

Great Instructable I will have to have a go at making some for my next trip. I backpack with a sketchbook.

foobear (author)2013-07-12

Wow, beautiful job. Nice result.

lchalifoux (author)2013-03-17

Great Instructable, Ryan! Thanks especially for the extra tips for sewing the covers so that they can be reused with fresh inserts, or contain pockets, or maybe have a flap, or be used for wallets, etc. Really great information, wonderful photos, very clear instructions. Can't wait to try this out! It will be perfect for a notebook I can take with me kayaking or for my gardening notes. 

BTW, check out Rite in the Rain for all kinds or water-resistant paper, including blank copy paper that comes in white, green, or tan, and also an 11 x 17" format.  Not cheap, but if you record lots of data in the field under challenging conditions, might be worth it for your situation.  You can get their products at many of the big outdoor suppliers like REI, Cabelas, etc.  Grainger, a well-known industrial supplier, seems to carry their entire line.

You can use a pencil, or a special all-weather pen.  There are some interesting ideas for pen holders that I'd like to adapt using Ryan's techniques.

I know I'd love the option to make myself custom notebooks that I could tuck in a pocket, use under any conditions, and not worry about losing important notes.

Rite in the Rain  also offer lots of different, reasonably priced pre-bound formats that could be made extra-nice with a cover using Ryan's fused bag technique.  For outdoor enthusiasts, you can see the options by clicking on Products / Shop by User Group / Recreation, and then choose your area of interest.  

Hope this is helpful to all outdoor enthusiasts who would like to explore making things with Ryan's very helpful Instructable, and take it outside for an adventure!

Thanks, Ryan!

Penolopy Bulnick (author)2013-02-12

Fun, fun! I've heard of ironing bags, but hadn't really seen anything done with them! Thanks for the tutorial :)

Me too. I fused the grocery bags together before to make a waterproof liner for a backpack, but I never finished that project. Then one day I was looking around for something I could recycle into notebook covers and remembered the grocery bags. They can be sewed too, so you could use them to make all kinds of things. Trash bags work too, and actually have a nice fake leather look to them. I use this technique to make custom sized trash compactor bags to line my backpack when I go on a hiking trip.

Tupulov (author)2013-02-13


ryangrayson (author)Tupulov2013-02-17

Thanks Tupulov!

irishsoniv (author)2013-02-16

how did you come up with 64 pages? If I fold 6 pieces in half and then combine and make 3 of them then I end up with 36 pages. Maybe I'm missing something. I look forward to making my own. Very good idea

ryangrayson (author)irishsoniv2013-02-17

It's because I count both sides as one page, like a book. Each sheet of copier paper is cut in half then folded in half. So you get 4 pages of a book with each half sheet of paper. I used 8 sheets of paper, so 64. You could use as many pages as you want, though. but I think 5 or 6 sheets folded together into signatures is a good amount to keep it laying flat when closed. You could stack more signatures together though, and sew it together with the same pattern. I also like 64 pages because much more and it's not comfortable to sit on when it's in my back pocket :)

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