Introduction: 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

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

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

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

Step 4: Make Signatures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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