Bind a Book in Tooled Leather

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Introduction: Bind a Book in Tooled Leather

About: I love writing, leather working, cooking, and playing board games. My short stories have been appeared in Spark, Abyss and Apex, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Stupefying Stories, Punchnel's, Kids 'Magination, a...

Turn an old ugly book with a broken cover into an heirloom-worthy hand-tooled masterpiece. After trying several methods, I think I've found a pretty good one. Here it is:

Step 1: Get the "Text Block" Ready

The "text block" is the pages of the old book that you're going to re-bind. I go into a lot of detail on this step in one of my other instructables (here), but the basic gist is pretty simple:

Tear the old cover off:

Clean up any fuzz or paper left on the spine:

(If needed, repair the binding by "fan-gluing"... see this great link and video for instructions).

Cut and fold "endpapers" (some nice-looking paper folded in half along the grain):

Glue the "endpapers" to the "text block" with PVA glue (or Elmer's glue). Apply glue ONLY to 1/4" closest to the fold:

Add "headbands" (little decorative pieces of cloth) and a "super" (a reinforcing piece of cloth on the spine) using some more PVA glue:

You now have a "text block" ready to be bound in leather.

Step 2: Prepare the Leather

First, get yourself some veggie-tanned leather (a type of leather that can be tooled and stamped). Thickness is totally personal preference, but you need two pieces a little bit bigger than your book.

Next, get (or make) yourself some patterns. I tend to google images of artwork (especially tattoos) and adapt them. You can also print up something directly (like the attached pdfs of my designs). NOTE: everything within about 3/4" of the edge closest to the spine will be covered up later, so don't bother with that area.

How big should the design be? An excellent question. The height should be 1/4" larger than your book, and the width should be 1/4" less wide than your book. For example, my text block (an old NASB study bible) was

6-1/2" wide and 9-1/4" high, so my leather pieces were

6-1/4" wide and 9-1/2" high.

Step 3: Tool the Covers

Tooling leather is a lot easier than you'd think. You can get some pretty cool-looking results even when you aren't doing things the "right" way. I'll go over the basic steps I took below, but if you want to level up your skilz, you should check out some of Tandy Leather's how-to videos or do some Youtubing.

To transfer your pattern to the leather, start by casing the leather. This is a step you'll do over and over again to keep the leather ready for tooling. Get the leather damp with a sponge, then wait for it to turn almost back to its normal color again... it should still be cool to the touch.

Use a "modelling tool" (or a blunt pencil, or a chopstick) to transfer your pattern onto your cased leather.

Use a swivel knife to score the pattern lines (remember to re-case the leather as it dries out):

Then use a beveler to bevel the edges. The beveler's slanted edge should face away from the raised area (to the right in the picture below):

Finally, use background tools to fill in any areas you want to look like shadows:

You can get fancier with pear shaders, texturing tools, etc., but 90% of the time the swivel knife, beveler, and background tools are all you need.

Step 4: Finish the Covers

To make the edges look nice, start by using an edge beveler to round the sharp corners.

Then burnish the edges (get them wet with water or gum traganth* and rub them with a slicker until they shine).

*gum traganth is supposedly "the stuff", but I haven't noticed it working much better than water

Optional: "mask" some areas of the design with a clear finish. This will make them turn out lighter when the antique is applied. I masked the leaves of the tree with one coat and the apple, snake eye, and snake tongue with three coats.

Apply a leather antique gel (or some other stain / colorant). Antiquing gel is easy: just rub it into all the cracks and wipe off the excess (the longer you let it sit before wiping off the excess, the darker it will end up).

Apply a few clear-coats for some extra protection.

Then buff everything with a clean cloth or paper towel and admire. Note the tongue, eye, and apple, which were heavily masked with clear coat before applying the antiquing gel:

Step 5: Connect the Covers With a Soft Leather Spine

I've found that soft leather tends to work much better for the spine (the book opens easier and the cover doesn't want to tear away from the pages). Find yourself a nice, thin (2 or 3 oz / 2 or 3 mm) piece of chrome-tanned leather and cut it to size. The goal is for the spine to overlap the covers by about 1 inch when the covers are placed on the book.

The diagram below shows three things:

  1. The soft leather will wrap around the spine and overlap the front and back covers.
  2. The soft leather needs to be about two inches taller than the covers.
  3. [Optional] - You can also cut a thin cardboard "stiffener" the width of the spine and the height of the covers.

My covers were 9-1/2" tall, so my soft leather spine was 11-1/2" tall.

My spine width (textblock plus two covers) was about 2", so to allow for about 3/4" of overlap on each cover (when it is placed 3/8" from the spine), my soft leather spine was 2 + 2*(3/4+3/8) = 4-1/4" wide.

Next (optionally), use a skiver to thin the edges of the leather spine. This will make it lay down more nicely against the leather covers.

Finally, line up your two leather covers, your thin leather spine, and your [optional] thin cardboard spine stiffener. Glue the overlapped regions with PVA glue, then fold the top and bottom of the thin leather spine down and glue those as well.

Turn over the finished book cover: you now have a "case" ready to glue to your textblock.

Step 6: Glue on the Covers

Apply glue to the front end paper, then carefully fold the front cover down onto the textblock. Repeat for the back cover. I recommend a piece of scrap paper behind the first page to protect the textblock while you're gluing.

Put the newly-glued book on a nice flat counter or piece of wood. Optionally, put knitting needles, long pencils, or chopsticks in the un-glued zone between the spine and the tooled leather cover.

Add some weight and leave to dry for a day or two.

Carefully open your book. If you've done everything right, you'll now have a very durable and open-able spine.

Step 7: Admire and Enjoy

You should now have a beautiful copy of the Bible / Harry Potter / Webster's Dictionary that's fun to look at, fun to feel, fun to show off, and even fun to read (unless it really is Webster's Dictionary). It should be very durable: mine's seen heavy use for almost a year now and seems to be no worse for wear.

Thanks for reading.

Tandy Leather Contest 2016

First Prize in the
Tandy Leather Contest 2016

Maker Olympics Contest 2016

First Prize in the
Maker Olympics Contest 2016

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71 Discussions

Hey man, nice work. do you think it would work to use a single piece of 4 or 5 oz veg tan as the cover instead of a three-piece? I was thinking that it might be possible if you used a skiver to carefully thin out the inside of thespine so that it folds much better. Do you think that would work (through your experience), or do you think I could even accomplish this without using the skiver to thin it out? My only concern currently is that thinning it out might make it more likely to wear quickly and not last.

1 more answer

Thanks!

I think it would work, and I've actually been meaning to try exactly that, I just haven't gotten around to it. I did try binding a book in a single piece of stiff 8-oz leather one time, which didn't work - it was just too stiff and the book wouldn't open without tearing off the glue. The book in this instructable was at the other end of the spectrum; all hinge points were thin, very flexible chrome-tanned leather. 4 oz veggie tanned leather is right in the middle, and I've seen journals bound with what looked like just that.

If you do decide to go for it, I'd love to see a picture / hear how it turns out!

Would it be possible to use tooled leather with your hardcover tutorial?

3 replies

I'm not sure what you mean... are you thinking of trying to stiffen the tooled leather using hard covers? I suppose you could, but you'd have to wrap the leather (or something else... maybe the endpapers?) on the inside of the cardboard to cover it up I suppose?

I just meant to ask if it would work out to use the tooled leather when making a hardcover for a book, like in your other tutorial - the one where you show how to make a paperback into a hardcover. Would it be too difficult to do that with tooled leather? And would you do the design on the leather before or after glueing to the cardboard?

You can definitely use tooled leather to create a leather soft cover for a book (even a paperback), as shown in this tutorial. In the other tutorial, you could substitute tooled leather, but it would have to be pretty thin leather (2 or 3 oz, 3/64") to be able to wrap around the cardboard as shown in that tutorial, which means the tooling impressions wouldn't be very deep / look as nice. You could probably do the design after gluing to the cardboard so you could make sure the design was positioned where you want it.

Note: if what you really want are stiff tooled leather covers for the book, I'd recommend following this tutorial and using thick leather (8 oz / 1/8" or so) - it ends up being just about as stiff as a hard cover.

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AbeV

9 months ago

Amazing work!

I'm getting ready to start something similar. What weight of leather did you use? Also, does the cover end up fairly stiff? Thanks!

1 reply

Thanks!
I used 8 oz (1/8"). The cover ended up a little stiff... not as stiff as a hard-back book though. If you hold the middle of the cover down with one hand and lift up on the edge with the other you can bend it about 2" before it feels like it might crease.

WOW!

What a fantastic project, and an incredibly well written instructable. Great stuff!

Thank you!

1 reply

No, you're right, I mentioned PDFs in step 3 and forgot to attach them. They're attached now! Thanks for pointing that out.

Congratulations on your win! I saved your tutorial, it is great! Thank you for sharing!

Thank you for sharing and explaining your process!

1 reply