Making a Leather Book Cover

One of the most requested leather craft projects is how to make a book cover. Luckily, it’s one of the easier projects to construct. This cover, strictly speaking, is not for a book, but for a memo-pad or journal. I take a lot of notes, and I find that cheap memo pads or note pads tend to get misplaced. However, put one in a nice leather binding and it suddenly becomes more valuable. (I think it even makes me take my own notes more seriously!)

To keep it simple, we’ll just call this a leather notebook cover. If you just landed on this page, you may wonder where I got the leather with that nice little design carved onto it. That design was the reason this cover took two days rather than one, and you can see an overview of that process in this leather carving tutorial for beginners.

So, for day 2, I finally got to put things together. The carving and painting was done, and I had a nice rectangular piece of carved leather that needed to become a book cover.

1- The first thing we did was to choose a liner. I chose a black leather with a bit of an oil sheen. We then used the existing cover as a template to cut it out. A margin of error of maybe 5cm was added to all sides. Easy enough to trim off the extra later.
2- It's true that the cattle being bred for Kobe beef get regular massages. So does this leather. We don't massage it all, just the part we want to be soft. Since a hard book cover is fine, we focus on the fold only.
3- We took the same leather that we were using for the lining, and cut out smaller bits to provide a backing where we have punched holes in the cover. This will give us a nice three dimensional look.
4- Four pieces all together, ready for glueing.
5- The edges only get the glue - at least as much as possible. We try to avoid getting glue on areas that will be viewable through the punched holes on the cover.
6- All four patches of lining leather have been glued on. Now we are ready for the liner.
7- This is how those pieces of leather will be viewed on the finished cover. You can't see it clearly in this picture, but some glue slipped into view and had to be cleaned up later.
8- Now we need to cut two pieces of cardboard to firm up the cover. We have allowed about 10cm for the foldable part, which of course will not be covered by cardboard.
9- Here's how one side fits over the cover leather. We have 2 of these, with a gap in the middle where the fold is.
10- The cardboard is glued and attached.
11- Now we take the full liner and glue that around the edges only.
12- Then we attach the liner to the cardboard sheets, leaving a gap for the fold. We attach it slowly, step by step rather than all at once. We do this to avoid wrinkles or bubbles.
13- Look closely and you'll see the second sheet of cardboard just under the last bit of leather liner being rolled on.
14- Here you see Tony taking astrip of liner leather and determining the length to cut for the two pockets. It is into these pockets that the notebook cover pages will fit, so the book will be held in.
15- The leather for the sleeves is cut, after confirming dimensions and angles with a triangle.
16- And here they are, ready to be glued on.
17- At this point, we also decided to cut out the pen holder tabs. We looked at a previously made notebook cover for rough guidance.
18- For a better idea about size, we wrapped the leather around a pen we might be using to see that it fit snuggly - but not too snuggly.
19- We ended up with these 2 tabs.
20- Back to the sleeves. To make them more attractive, we ran a crease up each sleeve.
21- After roughing up the surface to be glued with some sandpaper, we applied glue to the edges.
22- For just one of the sleeves, we cut a slot that allows a card or drivers license to be inserted inside the cover.
23- And now the sleeves have been attached, along with the slot cut for a card.
24- At this point, we cut the leather around the edges for the final time. This is where all the excess is cut off and we get a nice clean edge.
25- Now we rub CMC along the edges using a dolly made with a sponge gourd. This is followed by the application of black dye, also using a dolly (though you can also use a brush). You have to be especially careful when dying to avoid getting it on the surface of the cover. Better to err on the side of too little dye, rather than slopping on too much and having it leached onto the surface leather.
26- The tabs for the pen holder are attached one at a time with glue.
27- And a creaser is used to form a line around the edge of the leather cover to prepare for stitches. This needs to be done with a steady hand, and preferably with one motion. Some people heat the creaser, but you would have to be careful not to burn the leather (unless that's what you want).
28- Finally the book cover is stitched. A machine is fastest, though you may decide to hand stitch.

At this point the leather cover is essentially finished, as is this beginner’s leather craft project. Yet, there is still a a bit more. First, we run the triangle under the sleeves to make sure that the glue hasn’t closed them up to much. They need to open enough to accept the notebook pages.
Sleeve check

Then, we still need to cut off the extra bits of leather that we used for the tabs that hold the pen…
Cutting leather tab excess

And, after that, I used a toothpick to pick out the excess glue that you could see through the holes on the cover. It took a while, but finally the nice black liner leather showed through. The final picture of this leather craft cover can be seen below. With practice, this could be done in a couple hours. I repeat, “with practice.” As always, the first time is slow and we learn from our mistakes. Not too unhappy about the leather carving, though it more than doubled the time put in.

Leather book cover inside

Leather book cover side

Leather book cover back

Leather book cover front

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Advanced Leather Carving for a Hopeless Beginner

As far as leather crafting goes, I like to make things. However, I don’t like to carve. But when Tony Sugimoto decided to teach me how to make a leather book cover, we spent the first day doing something completely unexpected. I came in ready to have a simple cover with a frame type hole cut into the face. Within the frame, I had a couple of silk fabric swaths cut from neckties I would use for the design. Simple, right? But maybe too simple for Tony. He started showing me the variety of designs we could cut into the leather, where we would use the silk as a highlight to add depth. Maybe we could carve some waves, colored with blue silk. Except waves, led to other ideas, and we drifted over to Pinterest for inspiration. I was struck by an exuberant image of a fish done by an artist in Sao Paolo. Now, if you look at this image, you’re going to think there’s no way it could be carved on leather. I didn’t think it could be carved on leather – I was just pointing out that I liked it. Even if it could be carved, it certainly wasn’t something that could be done by the likes of me.

But Tony had other ideas.

Suddenly I found myself committed to carving this elaborate image, and I am in no sense an artist. I even screw up my own signature, and I’ve been signing that for 40 years.

First he had me print out the picture and do a black and white photocopy, reduced to a size that would fit on the book cover. To do that, of course, I had to draw the book cover and its dimensions.
Leather Book Cover Dimensions

That would be the easiest thing I had to do all day. The photocopy of the image looked like this:
Photocopy for tracing

Next up was to tape some tracing paper to the photocopy (and to the table to secure it). Here’s where I traced a rough version of the image. Note the jerky lines. I would have been fine on a simple image, but the especially fluid image I chose would require fluid pencil strokes.
Carp Tracing

After cutting out the leather, we are ready to go:
Cutting Leather for cover

Before doing any kind of carving, the leather needs to be cased. For this we use a sponge and some clean water. If the leather gets stiff during carving, it never hurts to add a little more water and case it again to soften it up.
Leather after casing

Next, the tracing paper went over the leather, with some weights on the corners to keep it in place.
Tracing paper to cased leather

And I was off to the races. Leather carving looked easy at this point. I used a fine stencil to simply go over the same lines I traced and impress them into the leather. This is often done as a precursor to using a swivel knife, so you will have lines to follow. In my case, i was sticking with the stencil lines. They are plenty clear, though they lack the depth and shading that a swivel knife would bring. Since I would be dangerous with a swivel knife at this point, we kept it simple. The picture below shows what it looks like while still half done:
Half finished trace carving on leather

Not very pretty, but maybe vaguely recognizable as a fish. I could have cased more, as the leather toughened up at points and made it hard to move the stencil fluidly. With practice, I’m sure I could develop more confident motions.

At this point, Tony took some black and brown paints, and mixed a couple shades to go over the lines and add depth:
Mixing Leather Paints

And we started drawing over my carving:
Start Leather Painting

Until it looked something like this:
More leather paint in brown

With the rough image in place, it was time to make some holes using a leather punch tool. We used basic round punches as well as teardrop punches.
Leather hole punch for water drops and eye

To help the image look more fish-like, the veiner tool was used to stamp gill-like features onto the fish:
Veiner stamp tool

With the holes punched, and the veiner tool, and another small stamping tool used to give texture, Tony used his swivel knife to highlight some of the lines that we wanted to be stronger. After that all was done, we had this:
Leather cover after stamping

I couldn’t stop Tony from adding a little white and a little copper color to the pattern. After this, we simply brushed on the leather dye with nice strokes that made a circular shape around the image:
Cover after dye

With some pink, blue and more copper, Tony added highlights, and you can now see the image that will be on the book cover. Come back next week to see what I had expected to finish today, the part where we cut leather and sew it together to make a book cover. We spent today making it a reasonably attractive book cover, something rather good for someone who simply does not draw. Tracing is not to be underestimated when preparing a leather carving. Now, we have a nice piece of leather to craft into a book cover.

Posted in Beginners, Instruction, Leather carving, Leather tooling, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Carving a Leaf

Leather carving rose petalWe have added a new leathercraft video series to showing how Tony carves 3 rose petals (and thorns). It’s a 5 video series, but each video is very short, and all together they only take up about 6 minutes. We start with the swivel knife to create the basic image, and then move on with a beveler, pear shader, veinier and a few other stamping tools to provide depth and shading. While these are rose petals, the general concepts can be used with leaves as well. You can view this leather carving video here.

Also, it’s worth noting that future videos will all go on the channel. Our first video, with over 400,000 views was posted under my name, and cannot be changed without losing the view count.

We’ll be posting more bits and pieces in the coming weeks.

We have also added a video for sale. More on that later.


Posted in Instruction, Leather carving | 4 Comments

Leather Stamping Tools

As promised, the picture below shows the tools used to make it, minus (of course) the all important swivel knife. Still the stamps and bevels are needed to make it a 3 dimensional picture. All are Craft Tools available at Tandy.

Leather stamps on leather carving

Again, the beveler is used before the stamps, to bring the image up off the flat surface. The stamps are shown below.

Pear shader P370 Pear Shader




background shaderA98 Background Shader




407-veiner-stampV407 Veiner Stamp




A104 background stampA104 Background Stamp




A102 Background StampA102 Background Stamp

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Carving Leather With What You’ve Got

Carved leather crossThis reprint shows what a leather artist named Cristi in Romania has been able to do with home-made tools. He can’t find proper tools where he is, and there’s not a Tandy tool in sight. No swivel knive, no stamps, no camouflage. This shows what can be done with a couple saw blades, some nails and some ingenuity.

Sometimes we get hung up on our leather working tools, our workspace, whatever excuse we can make to avoid actually digging into our work. And good tools are important, don’t get me wrong.

Cristi jumped into leather carving on his own, with no guidance, and with no tools at all. He made do with what he had, and sent me a photo of what he came up with. You’ll notice that among his tools are plain old nails.

What makes this amazing is that he also sent some pictures of his work. And while he, like all of us, could use some guidance, he is already producing stuff of beauty. With nails. Check out the pictures. Then take a look at his homemade leather carving tool set. Inspiring!





Two more of his works:Leather carving birds

Leather carving horse

Leather carving tools homemade

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Using the Camouflage Tool for Stamping

No sound on this one, but lots to learn by watching the use of this tool. Notice the timing of the taps, the gradation, and the subtle way it’s twisted.

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A Second Look at Two Leather Carving Samples

  1. Leather tooling comparison 2The camouflage tool is missing in “A” which means empty space and no definition for the seeder portion.
  2. Few seeds without a clear division detracts from the overall image.
  3. Decoration cuts with the swivel knife show a lack of practice. The swivel knife is the first and last tool to be used on the design (Where have we heard that before?? Well, repetition is the key to learning!) and will determine the fullness and volume of the flower, the petals and leaves. The final decoration cuts will make or break the whole project. Lots of scrap leather and 15~20 minutes a day practice will put you head and shoulders ahead of most other craftsmen.
  4. Mule foot shows no gradation and does not follow the design line.
  5. Rough gradation.
Posted in Instruction, Leather carving, Leather tooling | 1 Comment

Comparing Two Leather Working Samples

A reader sent a piece he has been working on and asked Tony’s opinion.  Since Tony has been working leather for over 40 years and is a perfectionist in the way traditional Japanese are, he  certainly has comments. The work is good, and this is where people run into trouble. It’s one thing to learn some basics and jump into leather carving. But how do you get the help to improve once you’ve gotten started?

So, this reader was kind enough to allow his critique to be made public. We welcome submissions, and want to do this regularly – so everybody can learn at the same time. Let’s get started, first with the submitted picture…

Student leather work

Looks pretty good to us. Lot’s of potential here, and he’s come a long way working on his own. However, this is where it gets tough to make progress without personal guidance.  Let’s look at Tony’s suggestions.

Master leather work sample

Tony’s comments:

The swivel knife is both the first and the last tool to be used. The initial cutting will determine the flow of the design, the symmetry of the curves and the body of the petals and other parts. Finally it will be used for the decorative cuts, though subtle, to bring out the definition that sets off the total presentation.

1. The Beveler (B702), as with any tool, should be smoothly and rhythmically used. This will minimize any clear marking as the beveler is tapped.

2. The Pear Shader (P212) should not be merely stamped but should be moved as it is tapped to lengthen the shading/effect and bring out the volumn.

3&4. The tools V707, V407, and C831 are all used the same way, as with many other tools. There should be a gradation of strength from strong to weak, or the reverse. This adds depth and body, creating a 3D effect rather than just a flat picture. Sometimes it can seem a bit daunting at first but just stick with it and practice.Eventually  your hands will hardly feel the tools, as the hand and the tools become almost one and the rhythm becomes natural.

5. V707 is used as a stopper. Again, a very minor tool but it works to build the design.

6. The mule foot is not simply tapped 3 times. Notice the gradation and the flow. These help create a design flow that is pleasing to the eye.

7. The camouflage tool (C831) is first used on the center of the blossom. Then the left foot is moved over and not turned, then the right foot is simply moved over and tapped without turning the tool. The placing of the left and right foot is important in maintaining the symmetry of the half circle. Turning the tool will change the shape. You will also notice that the seeds (S705) are placed close together as with a real blossom.

8. The decoration cuts and the balance is something that can only be gained over time. Keep all that scrap carving leather and use it to practice with the swivel knife. Eventually, you will be able to create smooth flowing lines.

Those who spend the time on honing the basic skills will quickly reach the stage of craftsman. As with any art, it all goes back to perfecting the basics. Be sure to constantly compare your work to the pros and masters to keep your goals in focus. Repetition of mistakes is a waste of time, and will create bad habits that might be hard to break. Focus on the lines and the balance. Continue to practice those things you do well so that you don’t slip back into bad habits.

OK. Any questions?

Posted in Instruction, Leather carving, Leather tooling, Lessons | 2 Comments