Refillable Leather Book / Journal Tutorial (Loads of Pictures)

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Making memories since '67
A long time ago I did a tutorial on making a wet formed bag. It seems to have been quite popular and hopefully helpful. So spurred on by that success and only 6 years later I am here to inflict my second tutorial on you :)

As last time I need to point out I do not do that much leatherwork and so am still very much a beginner. I’m probably doing lots of things wrong. That said, I seem to stumble through and I am happy with my results.

So here is what we are going to make. A refillable leather book / journal / sketchbook with an integrated pen or pencil holder. When finished it will look like this, except with whatever design you have picked.


And from the back


And with the pen holder open so you can see it in use


If you are experienced in leatherwork you have already probably seen enough to now go and make this book. probably better than me ;) For the rest of you who are less sure we will go through it a step at a time. If the project seems too big a step for you then you can miss sections out and just do a one colour book without the pen holder, like this.


Or a multicolour but again without the pen holder, like this


Or if the multicolour part scares you but you are fine with constructing the pen holder then you can go for something like this


The options are varied and you can take what you are comfortable with and start with something easy. You could even just go with plain leather and no carving, no dying and no pen holder as a starting place. Also of course you can use the techniques to do your own design rather than any of the ones shown. Again start with a design you are comfortable with or just outside your comfort zone then move on from there. This was the first book I did with more than one colour.


Every other multi coloured book I have done is pictured above so you can see I have not being doing it that long but experimenting and pushing yourself will yield results.

So without further ado lets get on with the tutorial. As only up to ten pictures show up per post I will split this into a few posts so all pictures show in each section.

Before we start you might want to sort out the insert for the book. I use these ones which you can get in various sizes, , however, I have also made my own. As luck would have it a few leatherworking tools and some paper are all you need. This tutorial will show you exactly what to do.

Once you have your insert it will govern the sizes of your cover. From a pice of thick leather cut a rectangle big enough to wrap round your insert. In this tutorial all sizes are governed by your insert so I will not be giving set sizes.


I always cut a bit bigger than I need. Height wise you are going about half an inch more than your insert. This leaves enough of a border for you to stitch round the edge and still have enough room for the insert. Do not panic about getting this size just right. If it is too big it still looks fine and if it is too small you can trim the cover of your text block so it still fits in and it can actually look better that way. Being a bit OCD i used to obsess about getting it so the text block cover was not trimmed but eventually realised that it was not a big deal.

In the early days I just wrapped the leather round the insert giving a rounded spine to the book but found that cutting channels either side of the spine gave the book a nice square spine and a much more professional look. I use a large groover to cut these channels but you could use one of those V shaped plough things (don’t you just love my technical terms?). I have one but really can’t get a good cut with it. You could probably get away with using a normal groover but would need to go over it a lot of times.

To get the spacing right I get a scrap piece of leather the same thickness as i am using for the cover and cut to parallel channels to check i have the right spacing to fold neatly round the insert.


Once I am happy with the spacing I use this scrap piece to mark where the actual cuts / grooves will go on my main cover.


And then I groove the main cover


This is when I tend to do my final sizing. i fold the cover round the insert and mark out an even border all round. As I have said top and bottom is not super critical as you can trim the cover of the insert to suit but if you are making the pen holder be sure to leave enough room for the pen to sit between the edge of the paper and the edge of the leather. I have only once made a pen holder where there was not enough room for the pen. I nearly cried, then I realised I could trim the whole insert back a little and all was good again. There is always a solution :)

The other pieces you need to cut are two rectangles of thin leather to be stitched inside the cover to hold the insert in place and the pen holder section. This I cut from a medium thickness of leather but you can use the same thickness as the cover or even quite thin leather. It is up to you to choose based on what you have available and what you prefer the look of. The size of the “H” for the pen holder is to suit your book but the width of the arms is about 20mm but again feel free to experiment. You could actually make the pen holder, closure as a rectangle but I like the “H” shaped option. You will also need a small piece of elastic, although I have used thin leather for this in the past. If you will always use the same size pen then leather looks nicer but elastic gives you more leeway.


Now we have the main cover at its finished size we can chamfer the edge.


Then I use a normal stitching groover to groove round the edge of the front and back of the cover. You really only need to stitch on three sides of the front and back but I think it looks way better if it is stitched right round all four edges on the front and back. I also groove the pen holder as you can see in the picture. There will not actually be stitching in all these grooves. Some are just part of the design.


On this occasion I had created the design on the computer and printed it it out. The next stage was to trace this with a pen which is on the left, with the printed one on the right. Often times I will actually trace the pattern from a picture on the computer.


Then on the reverse of the tracing, using a pencil (2B or softer if you have it) I mark out the lines of the pattern.


Place the tracing on the cover where you want the design to be and rub over all the lines using a stylus or any blunt smooth object.


And as if by magic you now have the pattern on your leather. I read in books that you need to wet the leather then use an old dry pen or the like to “draw” over the lines of the tracing. This was a pain to do and I look back in horror at all the hassle I want through when rubbing the penciled pattern onto the leather works so well. The pencil will easily rub out if you need to change something, as we will see later. If the lines are a little faint you can go over them with the pencil to make sure they are clear enough.


Again the books all tell you to wet the leather before cutting any pattern into it. I strongly recommend you ignore this and do your cutting dry. In my experience the leather stretches and does not cut as well when wet. I have yet to find any advantage so get your swivel kind and get to cutting the pattern into the leather.


Having cut the compass part of the pattern I line up the pen holder to see how it fits in with the design. The wording is too far to the right and interferes with the closure.


So I use an eraser to rub out the words on the leather. Line the tracing up with the words more to the left and rub over the words to mark them in their new place. Far enough left to not interfere with the press studs of the closure.


That done we can now cut the wording in.


With all the cutting done we can go over the whole of the front with the eraser to remove any remaining pencil marks.


and here we have the front cover with the design all cut. Ready to get wet and carve :).


If that fills you with horror remember that you could just dye the whole thing one colour at the this stage and it would still look good. But I have complete confidence in you that you can shape the cover to really bring out the design. If I can do it you certainly can.

Before I wet the cover I stamp the letters for the points of the compass.


For this I use letter and number stamps I have. And again, I do it dry.


Now it is time to wet the cover. I use warm water for this.


How wet you get the leather and how long you leave it will be something you get a feel for. If it is too wet it will not take the impression as well and will tend to spring back. Again don’t worry about this. As it dries out you just keep going and it will take.

I do not do any fancy carving. I am pretty much limited to knocking back with textured background tools and sloping the leather in to lines in the pattern (again there is certainly a technical term for this that is escaping me). The good news is this means you do not need a lot of tools. You could pretty much get by with a stylus or blunt knife.


I start near the centre of the pattern knocking back the areas in the back of the compass. Take your time. There is really no rush in this. Often taking a break and coming back to it you will find you make better progress. Usually because the leather is a bit drier.


There is no real work to be done to the letters I have cut but I open these up with a stylus. A dry pen would work just as well. This helps when it comes to colouring them and makes them stand out more.


Next I bevel the edge down to the compass to make the compass stand out. I am using the tool for this in the picture but often times I find a flat stylus good for this to shape the leather.


In the process of bevelling the edge “under” the compass I have wiped out the letters for the points of the compass.


I re-stamp the letters and mark out the stitching. I use the pricking fork for this but a real life eating fork would do. I used to use the stitch marking wheel for this but did not find it gave as strong a mark. Doing this while the leather is wet gives you really clear marks for every stitch.


Take a big sigh of relief. You are done with shaping and stamping.


Looking at the above pictures you will see the leather has dirty marks on it. The leather is darker where it is knocked or pressed back and in general it all looks rough. So if you liked the look of the finished pictures at the start of this thread and are currently thinking your attempt looks bad and will never work out, relax. It is the same when we move onto dyeing the leather. I always think it look awful until it is waxed and polished so brace yourself for that ;).

I fold the book into the finished shape to dry. This is not compulsory but it does help the book sit in the closed position when dry. Otherwise the book will have the tendency to want to be open.


Let the cover dry for a day. You can start dyeing when it is damp but I am starting this cover by colouring the letters with a fine black pen. Using a pen you are best to have good dry leather. This is where opening up the letters while they were damp will have really helped. You can try colouring these with a thin brush but I have had no success with that.


Then I start dyeing the black circle of the compass with a fine brush. Steady as you go here. Don’t overload the brush with ink or it may drip as you move it over the leather. Also rather than try to “paint” right to the edge I find that wetting the leather more near the edge will let the colour soak up to the edge where the cut will stop this going further. My preference for dyeing is using the alcohol based Fiebings dye. The brush I prefer I have trimmed the bristles to make them short and stiff to improve the accuracy.


Again using a fine brush I have now coloured the legs of the compass. These are dark brown but look black in the pictures. The lighter parts are not coloured.


The back of the compass is going to be red.


As is the main part of the front and back of the cover and the closure. I dye the larger sections of these using the wool dobber. Then either colour up to the edge with a brush or dye the edges first and fill in with the dobber.


You can see the colour looks patchy and in some places is a bit over a line or not quite up to it. If your work looks better than this then great but if not, again do not worry the finishing fixes a lot of this. Also I like the colour a bit mottled when finished as it makes it look more hand dyed rather than a factory dyed piece.

The thin bits of leather to hold the insert in place are dyed black and this is done with the dobber. I dye them even in the bits that can’t be seen. Know one but me will know but it would still bug me.


Lastly I dye the outside edges of the cover and the spine of the cover.


I have also punched the holes for the press studs on the closure.


Carving and colouring done it is time to get stitching.

I am stitching this book with artificial sinew. I really like the look of the stitched sinew and use it in the majority of my projects now. The first bit of stitching will be the elastic onto the closure / pen holder. We need the sinew for this, a couple of needles and an awl.


Using artificial sinew saves you all the hassle of colouring and waxing linen thread, however, straight off the roll it is flat. You need to roll the sinew to make it thread shaped. I rub it against my thigh a bit at a time till it is all done.


I clamp the closure and the elastic in a stitching pony. I cannot recommend getting a stitching pony enough. It is so useful. Trying to hold the leather and stitch it at the same time is possible but far from fun. I pierce all the stitch holes in a run at once with the awl. Not the one hole then stitch you read in the books.


Then I stitch the first run of stitching.


I’m not going to even try and teach anything to do with actual stitching. I think I do it the way it is taught in other tutorials. It certainly seems to look like stitching I see elsewhere. If you need to learn I recommend Al Stohlman’s The Art of Hand Sewing Leather.


Going back along the other line of stitching I use a bulldog clip to keep the elastic where I want it to be.


With the stitching to the pen holder finished I set the press studs.


Now some more sizing. Put the insert inside the cover. Put the closure where you want it to sit. It is also a good idea to have a pen or pencil in the holder so everything is as it will be on the finished book. When you are happy with how everything is lined up, press the press studs against the cover to mark where they line up.


Punch holes in the middle of these marks for fitting the press studs.


And then set the press studs.


With the press studs fitted clip the closure on. Have the insert in place and line up the closure at the back. I mark the position with a pencil.


And then again clamp in the stitching pony and stitch in position.


Starting to take shape now.



Time to stitch the thin leather on the inside of the covers now. I cut these bits of leather well oversized. No point in taking the risk of them being too small ;). Again clamp in the stitching pony and stitch like the wind :D


And a different viewpoint just for a bit of variation. Smile for the camera :)


One side all done. View of the inside.


I trim the excess away using tin snips but scissors will do, as will trimming with a knife.


Now time to stitch the other side. For this section you will need to rig up something to hold the closure out the way while you stitch the long edge.


All stitched and ready for the leather on the second side to be trimmed.


With the leather trimmed away from the second side we can fit the insert and the pen to see how it looks.


With this book I’ve managed to end up with pretty straight edges. If you have not then sanding with rough sandpaper can help straighten up edges. Either way i still give the edges a light sanding to loosen up fibres for finishing the edges.


I paint / soak the edges with tragacanth gum.


Then I buff the edge with some cotton or linen. You can get wooden edge finishing tools for this but again I have had no luck with them. I have friends who use an electric buffing wheel with great success but I do not have one so it is manual labour for me.


Still the result is worth it.


We are really on the home straight now. Get yourself some carnauba wax / creme. Rub it well into the leather. Front, back, under the thin leather on the inside and everywhere else.


I used way too much of the carnauba creme. Still it does not do any harm it is just wasteful.


Let it soak in and dry overnight or for a day then polish it. I use a soft buffing brush for this.


I find if I keep going back and polishing the book again every few hours or when I am passing for a few days it builds up a really deep shine.

You may find you need to use a rule or piece of stiff card to separate the thin leather from the thick leather inside the cover. I slide a rule up and down in here every so often over a day or so to loosen up the leather and get it ready for the insert to be fitted.

So there you are all done. Hopefully you now have something looking like this.









I hope this has helped. Any questions let me know. If you manage to make a book I’d love to see pictures of it on this book.


Making memories since '67
how much did it come to including tools?

That's a good question. To make the first one is expensive but the second is quite reasonable ;)

You will need the leather, dye, needles, thread, knife and stamping tools plus other bits and pieces. You can get by with stuff you already have for most things. Cutting with a Stanley knife for example. Marking stitching with an actual eating fork. Making the stitching holes with anything sharp and pointy, some people drill the stitching holes with a really fine drill. You can even use pre-dyed leather like I did in the early days, See my first leather journal tutorial.

I think all in including the most basic leather tools, leather some dye and an insert you would be somewhere between £50 and £100 depending on how much you bought and if you got a deal on some second hand tools, however, the second one you made would be £10 ;)


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