Introduction: Bind a Book in Tooled Leather

About: I love writing, DIYing, Crossfit, and playing board games. My fantasy novels are available on Amazon and my short stories have been appeared in Spark, Abyss and Apex, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Stupefying Stor…

Turn an old ugly book with a broken cover into an heirloom-worthy hand-tooled masterpiece. After trying several methods, I think I've found a pretty good one. Here it is:

Step 1: Get the "Text Block" Ready

The "text block" is the pages of the old book that you're going to re-bind. I go into a lot of detail on this step in one of my other instructables (here), but the basic gist is pretty simple:

Tear the old cover off:

Clean up any fuzz or paper left on the spine:

(If needed, repair the binding by "fan-gluing"... see this great link and video for instructions).

Cut and fold "endpapers" (some nice-looking paper folded in half along the grain):

Glue the "endpapers" to the "text block" with PVA glue (or Elmer's glue). Apply glue ONLY to 1/4" closest to the fold:

Add "headbands" (little decorative pieces of cloth) and a "super" (a reinforcing piece of cloth on the spine) using some more PVA glue:

You now have a "text block" ready to be bound in leather.

Step 2: Prepare the Leather

First, get yourself some veggie-tanned leather (a type of leather that can be tooled and stamped). Thickness is totally personal preference, but you need two pieces a little bit bigger than your book.

Next, get (or make) yourself some patterns. I tend to google images of artwork (especially tattoos) and adapt them. You can also print up something directly (like the attached pdfs of my designs). NOTE: everything within about 3/4" of the edge closest to the spine will be covered up later, so don't bother with that area.

How big should the design be? An excellent question. The height should be 1/4" larger than your book, and the width should be 1/4" less wide than your book. For example, my text block (an old NASB study bible) was

6-1/2" wide and 9-1/4" high, so my leather pieces were

6-1/4" wide and 9-1/2" high.

Step 3: Tool the Covers

Tooling leather is a lot easier than you'd think. You can get some pretty cool-looking results even when you aren't doing things the "right" way. I'll go over the basic steps I took below, but if you want to level up your skilz, you should check out some of Tandy Leather's how-to videos or do some Youtubing.

To transfer your pattern to the leather, start by casing the leather. This is a step you'll do over and over again to keep the leather ready for tooling. Get the leather damp with a sponge, then wait for it to turn almost back to its normal color again... it should still be cool to the touch.

Use a "modelling tool" (or a blunt pencil, or a chopstick) to transfer your pattern onto your cased leather.

Use a swivel knife to score the pattern lines (remember to re-case the leather as it dries out):

Then use a beveler to bevel the edges. The beveler's slanted edge should face away from the raised area (to the right in the picture below):

Finally, use background tools to fill in any areas you want to look like shadows:

You can get fancier with pear shaders, texturing tools, etc., but 90% of the time the swivel knife, beveler, and background tools are all you need.

Step 4: Finish the Covers

To make the edges look nice, start by using an edge beveler to round the sharp corners.

Then burnish the edges (get them wet with water or gum traganth* and rub them with a slicker until they shine).

*gum traganth is supposedly "the stuff", but I haven't noticed it working much better than water

Optional: "mask" some areas of the design with a clear finish. This will make them turn out lighter when the antique is applied. I masked the leaves of the tree with one coat and the apple, snake eye, and snake tongue with three coats.

Apply a leather antique gel (or some other stain / colorant). Antiquing gel is easy: just rub it into all the cracks and wipe off the excess (the longer you let it sit before wiping off the excess, the darker it will end up).

Apply a few clear-coats for some extra protection.

Then buff everything with a clean cloth or paper towel and admire. Note the tongue, eye, and apple, which were heavily masked with clear coat before applying the antiquing gel:

Step 5: Connect the Covers With a Soft Leather Spine

I've found that soft leather tends to work much better for the spine (the book opens easier and the cover doesn't want to tear away from the pages). Find yourself a nice, thin (2 or 3 oz / 2 or 3 mm) piece of chrome-tanned leather and cut it to size. The goal is for the spine to overlap the covers by about 1 inch when the covers are placed on the book.

The diagram below shows three things:

  1. The soft leather will wrap around the spine and overlap the front and back covers.
  2. The soft leather needs to be about two inches taller than the covers.
  3. [Optional] - You can also cut a thin cardboard "stiffener" the width of the spine and the height of the covers.

My covers were 9-1/2" tall, so my soft leather spine was 11-1/2" tall.

My spine width (textblock plus two covers) was about 2", so to allow for about 3/4" of overlap on each cover (when it is placed 3/8" from the spine), my soft leather spine was 2 + 2*(3/4+3/8) = 4-1/4" wide.

Next (optionally), use a skiver to thin the edges of the leather spine. This will make it lay down more nicely against the leather covers.

Finally, line up your two leather covers, your thin leather spine, and your [optional] thin cardboard spine stiffener. Glue the overlapped regions with PVA glue, then fold the top and bottom of the thin leather spine down and glue those as well.

Turn over the finished book cover: you now have a "case" ready to glue to your textblock.

Step 6: Glue on the Covers

Apply glue to the front end paper, then carefully fold the front cover down onto the textblock. Repeat for the back cover. I recommend a piece of scrap paper behind the first page to protect the textblock while you're gluing.

Put the newly-glued book on a nice flat counter or piece of wood. Optionally, put knitting needles, long pencils, or chopsticks in the un-glued zone between the spine and the tooled leather cover.

Add some weight and leave to dry for a day or two.

Carefully open your book. If you've done everything right, you'll now have a very durable and open-able spine.

Step 7: Admire and Enjoy

You should now have a beautiful copy of the Bible / Harry Potter / Webster's Dictionary that's fun to look at, fun to feel, fun to show off, and even fun to read (unless it really is Webster's Dictionary). It should be very durable: mine's seen heavy use for almost a year now and seems to be no worse for wear.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this Instructable, I hope you'll consider reading one of my fantasy novels - this one in particular has a main character whose mentally disabled father is a master leatherworker... you'll find a scene where he makes a book very like this one in an attempt to save the family shop...  

Tandy Leather Contest 2016

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Tandy Leather Contest 2016

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First Prize in the
Maker Olympics Contest 2016