This tutorial is for a minimalistic leather journal cover. The dimensions I’ll be using are for the excellent and affordable Barnes & Noble Basic Black Lined Journal (5″x 8″). However, with only minor modifications, this pattern can easily be adapted to any book or journal cover of your choice, such as the Moleskine line of products, Bibles, etc..
Making the Pattern
The B&N Basic Black 5×8 journal measures approximately 5.25″w X 8.25″h X 7/8″d (Width, Height, Depth or thickness). If you’re making a cover for this particular journal, you’ll use approximatly 9″ X 16.5″ of leather.
Pattern – Width Measurements
If you’re making a pattern from scratch, you’ll want to start with a a piece of relatively heavy paper or poster-board that’s considerably larger than the book or journal you’ll be working with. If you don’t have access to anything this wide, simply take two smaller pieces of paper and tape them together on the back side to make a wider piece.
Draw a line down the center of the paper, then place the spine of the book on the paper – centered on the line. Using a pen or pencil, scribe a line down either side of the spine.
Lay the book on its side, then align the edge of the book with the line you just drew.
The pocket fold location (the place you slide the book cover into to keep the cover on the book) is an inexact science. The actual location is affected by the thickness of the leather – the thicker the leather, the more allowance you need to provide because the leather doesn’t fold as easily. For example, fabric needs almost no extra clearance, while 4-5oz (about 1/16″ thick) leather like I’m using needs about 1/4″ clearance. A book with a paper cover needs less clearance than a book with a really thick cover. However, you’re still restricted by the thickness of the leather and its resulting difficulty to fold over itself, so just because you’re making a cover for a paper-backed book, don’t assume you can get away with a zero offset! It’s best to use too much of an offset, then adjust the pattern as necessary after you’ve made your first cover.
As you can see in the photo below, my fold line (the red line) is about 1/4″ away from the edge of my book. The brown journal on top shows the resulting fit – there is very little slop in the cover. When closed, there is probably less than 1/8″ of a gap at the edge of the cover, but it’s not noticeable at all. If you make the cover too tight, it will damage the crease between the cover and the spine by forcing the cover towards the spine.
The depth of the pocket can vary, but I’d recommend no less than 1/3 the width of the book, and no more than 1/2. If you make it too deep, it can A) make the book more difficult to close completely, and B) make it more difficult to insert the book into the cover without opening the cover unnecessarily far, possibly damaging the spine. This pattern is about 2 1/4″ from the fold line.
An alternative method to determining your left-to-right pattern marks may be a little easier, and may also arguably be more accurate. Basically, take a strip of leather the same thickness as what you’ll be making your cover from, then wrap it around your book to simulate a cover. Using a marker, place marks on the edge of the leather to indicate your fold points and pocket depth. Be sure not to stretch the strap, or your pattern will end up too narrow – the larger piece of cover leather will not stretch anything like this thin, narrow strip of leather.
Transfer those marks to your pattern paper. I suggest you use the indicator marks on the half of the strip that is laying against the table. As you can see in the photo above, the other half has much more slop in it.
Pattern – Height Measurements
The height of the cover needs to allow for two things – A) the thickness of the book, and B) the stitch offset. I usually use 3/16″ for my stitch offset, but this can vary depending on the thickness of the thread. If you’re using a relatively thin thread (I’m using 277 on this cover), you can get away with less of an offset since your needle is smaller. To make sure your book easily slides into your cover, you also need to add an additional offset equal to, or slightly greater than the thickness of your cover. This B&N Basic Black journal’s hard cover is around 1/8″ thick, so I’m using an additional offset of 3/16″ just to be safe. That being said, the height of my pattern is 3/4″ taller than the overall height of the book itself.
3/16″ stitch offset X 2 = 3/8″ overall stitch offset (SO)
3/16″ thickness offset X 2 = 3/8″ overall thickness offset (TO)
3/8″SO + 3/8″TO = 3/4″ overall offset (O)
H (Height of book) + O (Offset) = Cover’s Overall Height
Was that confusing enough….?
Making the Journal Cover
- (Premium) Vegetable Tanned Leather – generally speaking, I recommend 4-5 ounce leather, or you can use pre-dyed leather of other types, like Chrome Tanned, etc.)
- Round knife (to cut out your leather – can also use box cutters, exacto, rotary cutter, etc.)
- Scratch awl or pen (to transfer pattern)
- #2 edger (for easing edges)
- Groover (for cutting stitch grooves and fold relief cuts)
- Straight edge (ruler, etc.)
- Burnisher (for smoothing and rounding edges)
- Bone Folder
- Dye (whatever color you prefer – I prefer Fiebing’s Pro Oil dyes, but Angelus is very popular, and Tandy’s Pro Waterstains are extremely easy to apply)
- Dye applicator (I use an airbrush, but you can also dip-dye – quickly – if you prefer, and Tandy’s Pro Waterstains are applied with a sponge)
- Contact cement (Barge contact cement is quite popular – lately I’ve been using Tandy’s EcoWeld water based contact cement)
- Sander (for sanding edges – I use a sanding drum mounted in my drill press)
- Beeswax or paraffin
- Pure Neetsfoot Oil or Lexol Leather Conditioner
- Smooth-faced hammer (for mating glue surfaces and for hammering stitching closed)
- Mallet – Light weight (for tooling)
- Tooling stamps and related tools (these will vary, depending on what you’re actually doing)
- Sponge and bowl (for dampening leather with water)
- Gum Tragacanth (for smoothing the edges and/or interior)
- Small and large daubers (for applying dye and/or gum tragacanth)
- Finish (I use either Angelus 600 or Fiebing’s Resolene – both cut 50/50 with water)
- 1″ Sponge paint brush (For applying oil)
If you’re hand-stitching, I will refer you to an essential book you owe it to yourself to purchase – The Art of Hand Sewing Leather by Al Stohlman, as well as the following website – THE WRTC METHOD OF STITCHING A LEATHER KNIFE SHEATH.
Cutting the Leather
To begin making your journal cover, transfer the pattern to your piece of leather, then carefully cut out the leather using a straight edge if necessary. Be sure to make clean, perpendicular cuts. A sharp blade is also very important and will make cutting much safer and easier.
If you plan to hand sew your cover, I refer you to the following image so you can see where to cut your stitch grooves. I recommend at least 1/8″ stitch inset – I prefer about 3/16″ for the thread and needle combination I use.
If you plan to tool your cover, now is the time to tool it.
Dying the Leather
I prefer to apply my dye using an airbrush. Quite frankly, it’s the only method I’ve had any success with. I’m currently using Fiebing’s Pro Oil Dyes for most of my colors, with the exception of “Red” – I’ve been using Tandy’s Professional Water Stain which is applied quite easily with a sponge. The actual application method will vary depending on the type of dye you’re using. You should always work with adequate ventilation if the product requires it, especially when airbrushing.
If you’re lining the cover, it’s okay if you get a little dye on the flesh side of the leather. Otherwise, avoid getting dye on the exposed flesh side of the leather. It’s best if you handle the leather from the edges where the pockets will be – that way if you get a little dye on your fingers and it transfers to the flesh side, it will be concealed inside the folds.
Here’s a video you might find helpful from Ian Atkinson on YouTube discussing the various types and application methods.
Oiling the Leather
(If your cover is made with Vegetable Tanned Leather) Using a 1″ sponge paint brush, apply oil to the grain (smooth) side of the leather. Be careful not to over-apply the oil. Simply brush it on, being careful not to go back over your work too much. I apply Neetsfoot oil because I like the richness it adds to the coloring. If you’re opposed to darkening the coloring, try using Lexol Leather Conditioner. If you use Neetsfoot, don’t be alarmed if the leather is extremely dark – once it soaks in and distributes through the leather, it will lighten considerably (though it will still be much darker than it was before applying the oil).
Transferring the Pattern Marks
Lay your paper pattern of the flesh side of the leather, then transfer the following marks:
- Fold line
- Pocket starting point
- Spine edges
Groove Fold Relief Cuts
Using your free-hand groover and a straight edge, groove the lines where the leather will be folded on the flesh side at the following locations:
- Spine edges
- Pocket Folds
Ease the Edges
With a wet sponge, dampen the edges of the leather as indicated in the following pattern image, then use your edge beveler to knock off the sharp corners on the front and back edges of the leather. That being said, the leather is quite thin and you may find it difficult to bevel and burnish the edge of the leather. Don’t be afraid to leave the edges alone if you’re not confident in your skills and abilities. Most of the journals at the book store probably don’t have beveled & burnished edges.
Apply Contact Cement
Prior to folding the leather to create the pockets, apply contact cement in the following locations, then let it dry according to the product instructions:
Form the Pockets
Using a sponge, dampen the grooves along the pocket fold lines.
Using the bone folder, crease and fold the edges to form the pockets. Be careful not to fold the pockets too tight, or you can crack the grain side of the leather. Dampening the leather on the grain side with a little water will help to minimize, or even eliminate the chances of cracking the grain side, but it can also darken the leather in the areas that were wet (water spots). If you choose to dampen the leather on the grain side, I suggest you dampen the entire front of the cover so ALL of the grain side gets darker, not just the folded areas. Be advised – if you do this, you will need to let the leather dry completely before proceeding to the next step. Likewise, avoid dampening the grooves on the flesh side with too much water, or it can soak all the way through to the grain, causing splotches/darkening along the fold line.
Sew the Pockets
I prefer to sew with a machine simply because it’s faster. However, hand sewing is generally said to be stronger. One thing’s for certain – it definitely looks nicer! If you’re planning to hand sew, I refer you to the previously mentioned Al Stohlman book – The Art of Hand Sewing Leather by Al Stohlman, as well as the following website – THE WRTC METHOD OF STITCHING A LEATHER KNIFE SHEATH. Machine stitching generally doesn’t look that great on the back side – particularly where it’s over-stitched (also called back-tacked).
Burnish the Edges
Edge burnishing is an artform all its own, and there’s many ways to go about it. If you’d like to take a moment to read an excellent guide written by Bob Park and shared over at Leatherworker.net, click here. I do some of the same things as Bob, though slightly condensed. It goes pretty much like so:
- Dampen & Ease the edges with an edger (in this case, we’ve already done this in an earlier step).
- With the edges still dampened, sand the edges smooth with 220 grit sandpaper. Sand in the same direction – not “back & forth”. If you did not use an edge beveler to round the edges, you may not even need to sand the edges.
- Dye the edges. For sharp edges, I like using a large-tipped permanent marker because it’s extremely easy to control. Dye applied with a dauber works great too, but make sure the edges are completely dry before applying dye or it can be prone to bleeding.
- Rub paraffin wax over the edges. If the edges are dry (no longer cool to the touch), it helps to dampen the edges with water again.
- Using a burnisher, briskly rub over the edges to smooth them out and melt the wax into the edges.
- Buff the edges with a small piece of canvas to remove excess dye and polish the edge. This will also darken the edge slightly if you build up enough friction.
- If the edge is still a little rough, slightly dampen the edge again, repeat from step 2 again until you’re satisfied with the edge.
I like to apply my finish with an airbrush when doing large surfaces like journal covers, and I usually use acrylic sealers. For holsters, I usually use a 1″ sponge paint brush, though this method is more prone to streaking with large, flat surfaces. Note that acrylic sealers tend to leave the leather feeling a little like “plastic”. If you want to avoid this, you might try one of the wax-based products like Montana Pitch Blend’s “Leather Dressing”, Sno-Seal, or perhaps your own homemade solution (but use a double-boiler since it’s a whole lot safer than what that guy did…)! Please note that the wax-based finishes will likely darken the leather notably.