Introduction: How to Leather Bind a Paperback

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 ordinary paperback book into a leather bound masterpiece... without any fancy tools or techniques.

I've spent quite a few hours scouring bookstores, libraries, and the web for the answer to a simple question: how can I put leather on my paperback book? There are plenty of book binding Jedis out there, but I'm not interested in restoring an old manuscript, learning about the history of scrolls and codices, or building my own cutesy journal with expensive hand-made paper and fancy stitches. I just want to take a piece of leather and glue it to my paperback and have it look nice.

Well, I tried the "just glue it" method. Twice. It didn't work so well. After taking apart some old books, gleaning what I could from book-binding manuals at the library, and analyzing what went wrong, I tried a third time. This is a record of my third attempt, which was pretty successful, pretty easy, and, well, pretty cool.

UPDATE: for a slightly different method, check out Leather Binding a Paperback: A New and Improved Guide.

Step 1: Measure

Write down the width, height, and depth of your paperback book. Also, write down the thickness of the leather and cardboard you plan to use.

In my case:

Width = 6"

Height = 9"

Depth = 3/4"

Leather Thickness = 1/16"

Cardboard Thickness = 1/16"

Step 2: Prepare Outer Surface for Gluing

Some paperbacks are shiny. Glue doesn't stick to shiny. Rough the outsides with some sandpaper, steel wool, etc.

Step 3: Obtain Glue, Leather, Cardboard

  1. Glue: I used a $6 bottle of bookbinding PVA from Amazon (here). It feels exactly like Elmer's Glue, but it's supposed to be more flexible and long-lasting. You'd probably be fine with Elmer's, or Mod Podge, since you don't really need flexibility for this project. There are also recipes for "wheat paste", a glue made from flour and water, that is pretty common for bookbinding. I've never tried it.
  2. Leather: I used cow-hide upholstery leather, sold for $10/pound from the scrap bin at Tandy Leather. I got a piece big enough for 6 or 7 books for $13. Any leather will probably be fine, as long as it's flexible. My first two attempts involved thick veggie-tanned leather that I had done some carving on, but it didn't work very well.
  3. Cardboard: I used the backs of several cheap notebooks. I would recommend springing for some stiffer cardboard at a craft store or something, if you have the time/money/energy.

Step 4: Add Headbands (Optional)

What are headbands? They are cool-looking little things right at the top and bottom of the spine.

Do they have a purpose? No. But they look cool, and they're easy to make/fake, so why not?

Fold cloth over cord, glue, then glue to the spine at both ends.

EDIT: kewpiedoll99 was kind enough to point out that FAKE/FAUX headbands (like these) have no practical purpose, but signature bound books often have sewn headbands that increase the structural integrity of the book. Here is a fantastic tutorial she found on sewing headbands on signature bound books:

Step 5: Cut Cardboard

Cut three pieces of cardboard.

All three should be 1/4" taller than your paperback (height + 1/4"). In my case: 9" + 1/4" = 9-1/4".

Two should be 3/8" less wide than your paperback (width - 3/8"). In my case: 6" - 3/8" = 5-5/8".

One should be as wide as the depth of your paperback, plus two leather thicknesses, plus two cardboard thicknesses (depth + 2*leatherThickness + 2*cardboardThickness). In my case: 3/4" + 2*1/16" + 2*1/16" = 1".

Hopefully the diagram makes this more clear.

Step 6: Align Cardboard With Masking Tape

Use a few pieces of masking tape to align the three cardboard pieces with 1/2" spaces between them. The masking tape is temporary.

If you want to get technical, the space should probably be 1/2" plus the thickness of the leather. If you can measure / hold / tape cardboard that precisely, more power to you.

Step 7: Cut Leather

Cut your leather so that it is overhangs the cardboard by 1/2" on all sides.

Draw the outline of the perfectly centered cardboard on the leather. This will make aligning things easier later on.

Step 8: Glue Leather to Cardboard

Glue the leather to the cardboard, with the tape side up (so you can remove the tape when you're done).

Be careful; PVA dries quickly. Glue one sheet at a time.

A paint brush is helpful for spreading the glue evenly.

Use a weight to press the glued pieces so they dry flat.

Step 9: Cut the Leather Corners

Cut the corners of the leather so they'll fold up evenly. Cutting a nice 45-45-90 triangle off of each corner works well.

I cut a tad too much off on mine, so the leather folds don't quite meet each other. Try to avoid this.

Step 10: Fold and Glue the Leather Edges

Fold up each leather edge and glue it in place.

I found a ruler helpful in getting a nice fold and holding down the edge to stay in place.

Step 11: Add Filler Cardboard (optional for Thin Leather)

Your leather now leaves little lips at the edges of your cardboard. This might be ok if you have very thin leather, but if you don't, you'll want to fill in the gaps with cardboard that is about the same thickness as your leather.

Cut three pieces to fit and glue in place.

Use a weight (as always) to hold everything down as the glue dries.

This is a good time to admire how your book is about to fit into this cover.

Step 12: Glue the Cover to the Paperback

Put a sheet of paper (preferably wax paper) between the front cover and first page of your paperback. Repeat with the back cover and back page. This will keep any glue from getting on your pages.

Glue one cover at a time, making sure that the new leather cover hangs over the edge of the paperback by 1/8" on all sides.

Don't glue the spine or hinge sections (see diagram). If you glue these, the book won't open properly.

When everything is glued, put weights on top of the closed book and let the glue dry for a long time (several hours). Use nice flat boards to avoid putting dents in the leather cover.

Step 13: Laser Engrave (Optional)

Since I designed the original cover for this particular book, I happened to have the graphics files. I was also lucky enough to have access to a laser cutter/engraver. I used these to burn the cover design onto the front and back of the leather cover.

An alternative would be to use a soldering iron to hand-burn your own design, or to paint one, or to just leave the cover blank (you minimalist you).

Step 14: Clean Up and Admire

Use some rubbing alcohol to clean up any stray glue... and you're done.

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. Also, check out my blog (DIY and engineering analysis of fantasy fiction), and connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.

Vintage Contest

Runner Up in the
Vintage Contest

Glue Contest

Second Prize in the
Glue Contest

Summer #mikehacks Contest

Participated in the
Summer #mikehacks Contest