Introduction: Custom D&D Spell Binder
While listening to a favorite D&D actual-play podcast of mine (NADDPOD), a host made a comment that she could never find cool binders for her D&D spell cards. I immediately knew that this was something I could create for her! My initial thought was to make it out of leather, but I quickly realized I would have much greater success making binders out of foam. I know that seems like a bit of a jump, but my theatrical painting background means I am much more comfortable creating leather with paint than actually working with the real thing. Plus, the host I wanted to make this for is vegan, so sending her something made out of a dead animal seemed like a faux pas. I was greatly inspired by the Cosplay community as well, who make a great deal of amazing things out of a simple piece of foam. Armed with my painting knowledge and past crafting experiences, I began gathering ideas and supplies!
To create one of these binders, these are the supplies you will need:
- Pen and pencil
- X-acto knife or small blade
- Cutting mat (or other surface protector)
- Cotton fabric strips
- Mod Podge
- 3-Ring binder mechanism (like these)
- Chicago screws (like these)
- EVA foam or craft foam sheets, big enough for your binder size
- Design to transfer
- Ball tool
- Super-glue of choice
- Various brushes
- Various acrylic paints (cheap craft paint works great, but if you want dark saturated colors, get some artist quality acrylics because they have purer pigments and won't look chalky)
- Black paint is a necessity
- Clear top-coat of your choice
- Coordinating paper for the inside endpages and pocket
- Your imagination!
Step 1: Create the Binder Base
Before doing anything, you must decide how big you want your binder. Since I wanted my binder to be able to hold standard sheet protectors, I knew it needed to comfortably fit a 8.5"x11" sheet of paper. Based on those measurements, I sized my dimensions up an inch to have a 1/2" space around all sides, resulting in final measurements of 9.5"x12". I also knew my chosen binder mechanism was 1/2" in size, so I went ahead and made the spine 1" wide for a comfortable fit. These measurements in hand, I began cutting cutting two 9.5"x12" pieces from my matboard, and one 1"x12" piece for the spine.
With those cut, it's time for assembly! Using the cloth strip as the flexible joint, I glued the pieces of matboard together. Make sure you leave a gap between the pieces that is at least as big as the profile of your matboard so that the binder can close!!
Once the glue is completely dry, I found it to be a good idea to go ahead and paint the inside spine area black, since it will be very hard to reach once you've attached the mechanism. Then trace the holes of the binder mechanism onto the spine where you want it to be, and create holes for the Chicago screws. I found using a power drill with a drill bit worked great! Once your binder rings are secured, it's time to move on to the fun parts!
Step 2: Cut Out the Foam Design
For this binder design, I wanted it to look like there were cut-outs in the leather. To create that effect, I had to cut out my design before I glued the foam to the binder base. In this instance, I found the easiest way to cut this pattern was to print out my design and tape it to my piece of foam (also cut to 9.5"x12"). Using a ruler and X-acto knife, I cut out all of the interiors of the shapes.
Make sure to be very careful about where you stop and start your cut! It's always better to go back and cut a little more if needed, than to have sliced entirely through a shape you need intact. Also make sure your blade is perpendicular to your foam, otherwise you will end up with strange bevels everywhere!
Step 3: Glue on and Embellish the Foam
Once the foam details are all cut out, it is time to glue it to our base! I again used Mod Podge for this task, and made sure to stipple the glue everywhere that the base matboard would be seen so I didn't leave brush strokes anywhere. This is important to keep in mind because it really helps to sell a believable leather texture later!
After the glue is dry again, it is time to add in the details. To transfer my runic writing, I printed out my design to the scale I needed, and scribbled all over the back of it with pencil. Then, when you trace your design on the front side with a pen, the graphite transfers to the foam where you have traced. A great tip to keep in mind is to print out your design in GREY, not full black. That way, when you go over your design with a pen to transfer it, you can see your progress! In a similar vein, I love red ball point pens for this task.
Once the design is transfered, it is time to "engrave" the details. I found that by scoring the limits of the engraved areas really helped get a crisp line. Then use your ball tool to smash down the foam between the scored lines. This takes a bit of time and elbow grease, but I absolutely LOVED the result! Note: the foam will warp a bit if it isn't attached to anything, that's why it's important to glue your foam to the matboard BEFORE you start "engraving."
All of my triangle and spine details on top of the foam I cut separately and glued on with super-glue.
Step 4: Seal the Foam
After your designs are complete, it's time to seal the foam! Sorry for the picture subject change, the best example of sealing that I have that is from another binder. Exact same technique, just different design! Sealing the foam is an important step for many reasons:
- It creates a barrier between the foam and the paint, so that the paint isn't just absorbed into the foam.
- It adds stability to the foam by creating a stiffer layer so the foam is protected from dents or scratches.
- It also is the way in which I created an orange peel texture to the binder to help create some lovely paint effects later on!
I am continuing to use Mod Podge because it is thick enough to hold texture but still flexible enough that it won't crack over time. When applying the Mod Podge, make sure you are again stippling the product on in order to avoid brush strokes. A cheap chip brush is a great brush to use because the bristles are stiff enough, but not too densely packed, and creates the perfect texture!
Step 5: Paint the Foam
After yet again waiting for the glue to completely dry, I base coated the whole front of the binder with black acrylic paint. I chose black because I wanted to achieve a dark weathered leather effect, so starting with black really gets us there quick. Again, be sure to stipple on the paint to avoid brush strokes.
Now for the fun part!! Working my way up from a dark brown to a lighter brown, I dry brushed on the colors. Dry brushing is when you only have the tiniest amount of paint on the brush, so when you sweep the brush over the surface, the high points of the texture catch the paint. This is why you have to be so careful to avoid brush strokes in your texture, because you would be highlighting them with this step! You can't create believable leather with brush strokes in it!
I used a large variety of browns in order to give the leather effect believable dimension and variation. Make sure you never completely fill in an area with one color either, you want to preserve some of the black base layer to also help create dimension.
Step 6: Add in Details
Even though the variety of browns I dry brushed on helped to add depth, what really sells this look is a simple black wash. To create a wash, just add some water to your black paint! First, I flooded the cut out shapes with my wash and used a paper towel to remove the paint from the center of the shape, creating a shadow around the edges. Once dry, I then did the same exact thing but didn't remove paint with the paper towel, REALLY highlighting my cut design. This creates the appearance of two different tones of leather on top of eachother.
With a small brush, I then took the same black wash and went over all of my engraved detail, blotting out some paint when needed. Again, this really helps all of your hard work pop!
Once I was pleased with my paint job, I clear-coated it with a matte varnish to protect the finish. I used an aerosol can of varnish, because again it eliminates the potential for brush strokes. If you also use a rattle-can aerosol finish, make sure you have good ventilation and a respirator!!
Step 7: Attach the Finishing Paper and Pocket
Now for the finishing touches! For my binder, I found some LOVELY marbled paper in this gift wrap set. I cut it into 9"x11.5" rectangles, so that there was a 1/4" gap all around. To attach the paper to the inside cover, I coated the area with our old friend Mod Podge, and placed the paper on top. I used an old credit card to squeegee out any air bubbles and make sure the paper was firmly attached. I then found some coordinating plain construction paper to fashion into a pocket. The pocket is 9"x5", but has 3/8" flaps on the three edges so I could fold them under and use them as glue tabs. I also used this same color of paper to add my name to the back cover. Always make sure to sign your work!
Step 8: Enjoy, and Get Inspired!
Now you are ready to impress your D&D party with your incredible binder! Once you have the binder base down pat, you can truly do anything! Here are a few examples of other binders I have created to get you inspired. Happy crafting!
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