Introduction: Idea Journal

About: I'm an Engineer and Project Manager by day, but love improving my home and building things. Hopefully my projects can inspire you to improve your own home or make something

Last December, Jimmy Diresta published a video on YouTube where he made a Leather Idea Journal. Mr. Diresta's videos make everything look easy, and, when I saw that video, I thought, "I could make that." I've probably watched that video about 27 times now, but this book was inspired by Jimmy Diresta, and I commend his video to you if you want more information.

Mr. Diresta's video shows a great leather embossing technique that I tried to replicate in this project, but I don't have a CNC so mine is A LOT simpler. I embossed my cover with an Engineer Castle, inspired by my time as an engineer officer in the US Army. I love the Engineer Castle, and thought it would be a great detail to my Idea Journal.


I used a variety of tools and supplies purchased from Amazon and from Dick Blick art supplies. I also made some primitive fixtures and alignment jigs in my shop to help with the build.

  • I used 24lb parchment paper that I bought on Amazon, normal 8.5" x 11" paper.
  • From Dick Blick, I purchased PVA Glue, Cotton Headband, Super, and Linen Binding Tape. These materials were all "Books by Hand" brand, which is produced by Lineco.
  • I bought a Bookbinding beginners kit from Amazon, also by Lineco. They had it at Blick too, but it was more expensive.
  • Leather - veg tanned leather sheet from Weaver Leather
  • Tuff Kote - leather sealer from Weaver Leather
  • Saddle Tan leather dye purchased from Weaver Leather

Step 1: Folding and Stitching Signatures

After assembling my supplies, I spent about two weeks getting up the courage to actually get started. With many things you've never done before though, it's best to treat it as a prototype, and not worry so much about the finished product. I got started one evening when my wife was catching up with some friends on the phone.

I folded each sheet of paper in half, so that I was left with a sheet that was 5.5" x 8.5" (140mm x 216mm). I grouped them into 10 signatures of 8 folded sheets. This gives a finished book of 160 pages, or 80 sheets.

I used a bone folder that came with the beginner bookbinding kit, but I didn't use it on every sheet. My fingernail worked just about as well. If you've had better success with one of these, feel free to leave me a comment!

After all of my signatures were folded and grouped, I went to the shop and built a little jig out of some scrap wood, Styrofoam, and chip board, to ensure I punched holes in the center of the spine of each signature.I measured some lines down the center of a piece of chip board, then aligned all corners into the top right, and punched holes at each line, ensuring that each signature had aligned holes.

Once all the signatures were punched, I started stitching. The Sea Lemon YouTube channel has some great tutorials on stitching together signatures. I started using what I believe is a "coptic stitch" but then started over and stitched each signature separately and used linen tape to act as a hinge. I don't know enough about it to speak to the relative benefits/detriments to either method. In my head, the linen tape 'hinge' would enable a more secure bond to the leather cover, but again, I'm not an expert.

Step 2: Creating the Text Block

I threaded the linen tape underneath each of the waxed thread signature stitches. You can see my homemade book press made out of scrap wood and some bolts in these pictures. It worked out ok, but I think if I make another book I'll make a bigger book press that applies pressure over a larger area, since this was hard to line up evenly. I then covered the binding in "Super" which is cotton cloth with a very open weave. I think this provides extra glue surface for better adhesion to the cover, but I recommend you check out some more authoritative sources on that.

I also put on some cotton headband, which is primarily to hide the ends/stitches of the signatures.

I used PVA glue to glue everything together here, and left it in my press to dry, and then focused on my cover.

Step 3: Making the Cover

I didn't take very many pictures during this step. I previously mentioned that Jimmy Diresta used a CNC in his video to cut piece of PVC trim board (or similar) with some words "My Inventions and Evil Intentions" this is an excellent name for a sketch book. I don't have a CNC, so instead, I took an Engineer Castle pin which is the branch insignia for Army Engineers, and pinned it into a small cutting board. I trimmed the cutting board to the approximate finished size of my book so that alignment would be easy.

I cut a sheet of 3 oz Veg-tanned leather to approximate size, using my text block (see previous step) to size it appropriately instead of measuring with a ruler.

I soaked the leather with water, then put the cutting board and leather in a plastic bag and shoved it into my woodworking vice for about 24 hours.

Lessons Learned - the cutting board I used had some texture to it, and that got imprinted into the leather, not super visible, but it could be better with a smoother blank. Another cool technique may be to use a board with interesting wood grain, to impart that subtle pattern into leather. As it was, the pin worked great, and left a good impression.

To dye the leather I used some alcohol based leather dye in a disposable roasting pan. Any excess dye was poured back into the bottle with a funnel. Be careful with this stuff! I got some leather dye on my hand, and it was colored for almost a week! I set the cover aside to dry for 24 hours or so, and then covered it with Tuff Kote leather conditioner. I used a rag to apply the Tuff Kote to the outside of the cover, the edges, and the first 3/4" or 1" inside the cover.

Step 4: End Pages

I was reading the map contest pages on this website, and I thought using a map for the endpages would look really cool. I happened to have a few old maps around, and cut two 8.5x11 sheets out of the map. I used more PVA glue to glue this page to the cover and to the first bit of the text block, including a heavy glue layer on the linen tape and the super.

I then clamped the whole book between a few boards, and tried to get even pressure all the way around. I left the book in the clamp on my workbench for 24 hours.

Step 5: Finished Product and Lessons Learned

The book turned out pretty well, considering it was my first try making a book. There are many ways it could be better and look more finished, but bookbinding fixtures and tools are pretty expensive (if you buy new) and due to COVID I'm not planning on going to any flea markets anytime soon. I think if I do another book, I'll use a thicker leather for the cover. The thread I used was pre-waxed, but it is very thick. I think a thinner thread would be just as effective, and lead to less-bulky spine. I've learned that a plow or guillotine can be used to square-up the signatures, but I really like that my book has a jagged edge; it makes it look more rustic.

I hope you like this project - if you make your own, I'd love to see it!