Introduction: Refillable Leather Travel Journals

About: Engineer by Training, Artist by Doing

Learn how to make a custom, handmade leather journal for all your daily sketches and notes.

Completion time: 1 day

Essential supplies:

  • Leather pieces/scraps (more on this in Step 1)
  • Ruler & knife
  • Rubber/contact cement (or leather glue)
  • Speedy Stitcher Sewing Awl Kit (available at local hardware/craft stores and Amazon) or similar awl, thick needles, and thread
  • Your favorite paper-bound journal


  • Cutting mat & triangle ruler
  • Laser cutter (if you have access to one, or several grand in your back pocket)

Step 1: Source Quality Materials (Preferably for Cheaps)

I was first inspired to make some of my own custom leather journal covers when I went to a local creative reuse store and scavenged alllll of this scrap leather for around $10. I would highly recommend hitting up some nearby thrift stores and creative reuse/craft stores before buying any brand new leather. Reusing leather scraps also saves you from having to treat and dye the leather yourself (if you don't have any previous experience with leather working); however, if you have an ideal skin and dye in mind you will obviously want to source and treat your own leather.

As far as the size of leather needed, you should have enough footage to cover at least four times the dimension of the front cover of your journal with a little room to spare (e.g. if your journal size is 4" x 6" = 24" squared, you should have enough leather to cover 24" squared x 4 = 96" squared (or a 16" x 6" piece).

Step 2: Measure & Cut Outer Cover Dimensions

Here comes the super important part: you need to have an idea of what size journals you plan to use, because this will determine the dimensions for your leather. Some common journal sizes include (from smallest to biggest): 3.5" x 5.5" (i.e. pocket notebooks), 4" x 5.75" (known as A6 size, think standard postcard size), 5" x 7", 5" x 8.25" (think a medium Moleskine journal), and 5.8" x 8.3" (known as A5). Fortunately, because these journals will be refillable, if you know your maximum journal size, you can make a cover that will fit that size as well as anything slightly smaller.

Once you know your ideal journal size, before cutting you should draw a little diagram as pictured above. In this example, if my journal size is 4" x 6", this is what the size of my margins for the cover will look like to accommodate stitching and some wiggle room. For the top and bottom, I allow a minimum 0.25" margin per side, and on the left and right, I allow a minimum 0.5" margin per side. Feel free to increase the margin, but do not cut it any closer, otherwise your paper journal will not fit, and you'll have to trim down the covers (like I did on my first try).

Note that the binding thickness will vary according to the manufacturing of the journal you pick. For a thin journal, 0.25" is enough to cover the binding, but for a thick journal, you should measure the binding and increase the cover size as necessary.

After drawing a similar diagram for your cover (with your own numbers), calculate the total dimension of the leather and cut with your knife and ruler. If you have a triangle ruler or sturdy book corner, use it as a straightedge to cut 90 degree corners.

Then, from your remaining leather, cut two rectangles that are the same height as the cover and about 2/3 wide of the paper journal front cover. So for my example, I would cut two rectangular pieces that are 2.625" (about 2/3 of 4") x 6.5".

Step 3: Design Front Cover

This is the fun part! Use some of the leather scraps you find to design a nice cover.

In the two examples above, I created a vector illustration and used a laser cutter to engrave and cut out the pieces, but by no means do you need a machine to create cutouts. Get handy with your knife and make something interesting. Just remember, the more intricate your design, the more you'll have to sew.

Step 4: Sew, Sew, Sew

This is going to be the longest step in the process, but you're almost done! Sewing leather is a little tedious, but it's extremely easy to pick up.

Note: The instructional photos above are for sewing the inner pockets to the cover, but the same method can be used to sew your cover design. You should follow these instructions to sew your cover design first, then repeat to sew the inner pockets.

Figure 1

Glue the leather cutouts to the cover (or the flaps on the inside cover during round two), then clamp and let dry for 10 minutes.

Figure 2

a. Only when sewing the inner pockets: use a leather scoring tool (or the blunt end of a knife/scissors) to score a border 0.25" inside from the edge of the leather, on all four sides of the cover.

b. Use the awl to poke holes every 0.25" along the border, through both pieces of leather. (Yes, I know the inner pocket pieces aren't in the pictures. Pretend they're there.) It helps to poke all the holes on the front, then flip the pieces over and poke them from the back. Poking the holes beforehand makes sewing much faster and cleaner.

The following steps assume you're using the same Speedy Stitcher sewing awl I have. This is basically a crash course on how to use the sewing awl; you can find more thorough tutorials online.

Figure 3

a. To begin stitching, ensure the needle is threaded and insert the needle through the first hole.

b. From the underside, pull the thread from the needle through the leather. Important: you must pull enough thread for the entirety of your project (at least two arms' length to be safe).

c. Pull the needle back through the same hole, leaving most of the thread on the other side of the hole.

d. Insert the needle all the way into the neighboring hole.

Figure 4

a. Pull back a little on the needle to create a small hoop on the underside.

b. Take the end of the thread and pull it through the hoop.

c. Pull the needle back through the same hole.

d. Simultaneously pull the loose end of the thread and the awl to tighten the stitch.

Repeat for the entire border around the cover, sewing both inner pockets in place. To close a stitch, simply cut the thread off the needle after inserting the needle into the final hole (i.e. step in Figure 3d, should be the same as the first hole you stitched), then knot the two threads on the inside cover and snip off the ends.

Step 5: Purchase (or Bind) Paper Refills, Insert, & Start Journaling!

Finally! Once your stitching is complete, grab your paper journal and get ready to start using your new cover. Inserting the paper is a no-brainer, but if the paper is a little too snug, try using a ruler or sturdy straightedge to loosen up the stitching from the inside pockets and use two hands to slide the paper in. Enjoy! Feel free to leave any questions or suggestions.

Travel Contest 2017

Runner Up in the
Travel Contest 2017

Before and After Contest 2017

Participated in the
Before and After Contest 2017