I want to start with a disclaimer that I’m not a leather worker, so I can’t guarantee that this is all technically correct or good advice, but my custom discbound notebook has been a project of mine for a few years. I’ve tried all kinds of covers, both homemade and store-purchased, but none of them ever felt special or personal. Making a leather cover had been in the back of my mind for quite a while, but I never dived into actually making one because it was daunting and expensive.
While I can’t say it wasn’t expensive, I would say it was worth it to me. If not for the final product, then for the learning experience, and the pride of making something tangible myself. It took three attempts and many weeks of trial and error, tests, and practice, but I finally got something I’m happy with.
While I’m going to focus on my final design and how I made it, I’m also going to point out where I went wrong, and share some other tips I learned during the process. Let’s get started.
What we’ll be making #
This will be a leather notebook cover for an A5 discbound notebook with half-inch discs. It will wrap completely around the notebook, instead of being two separate covers punched to use the rings. We’ll attach it to the notebook with two sleeve pockets for the notebook’s plastic cover to fit into. We’ll also have an elastic pen loop attachment and an elastic band to keep the book closed.
If you have a different notebook size, you’ll need to alter the template and measurements to fit your notebook.
What you’ll need (a lot) #
Discbound supplies #
- Firm but thin plastic covers (I like the ones on the cheapest TUL notebooks)
Leather supplies #
- Wax thread
- Needles (at least 2)
- 2 prong cross stitch punch
- Leather hole punch, or slot punch
- A wooden or rubber mallet
- Leather cement (or any leather glue that forms a strong permanent bond)
- A lighter
- X-Acto knife
- spare blades
- something safe to cut on
- a safe container for blade disposal
- Double sided tape
- Cork backed metal ruler
- A large piece of chipboard (often used as the back covers of sketchbooks)
- Elastic (If you want the pen loop or elastic band)
- A piece of scrap wood
Printing Materials (If printing at home) #
- Printer capable of printing 11 x 17
- 11 x 17 cardstock
Making a template #
The first step is designing and making a template. The best way I know of to do this is to open Illustrator and use the shape tool to make the design. Here are some things to keep in mind when making the design:
- Measure the notebook’s dimensions
- Don’t forget to account for the notebook’s thickness
- Add about a half-inch, to account for stitching
- Add a little extra on the outside edges to account for trimming, finishing, etc.
- Add more space to the left and right edges if you want to have an interior pen loop.
- To protect the paper, add a little more to account for trimming, sanding, finishing, etc (and a larger gap on the left and right edges if you want a pen loop)
My notebook uses A5 paper and half inch discs, and the final dimensions of the design ended up at 14.5 x 9 inches.
I also added marks for holes that the discs would slot into and two slots for an elastic band to go through. On another artboard, I made a template for the inside panels (not shown in screenshot).
You can download my template if you’re making the same size notebook as I am.
Print these, cut them out using an X-Acto knife, and staple around the edges where the stitching will be. Then fit it on the notebook to make sure the measurements are good (a bit larger than they need to be). Then print out a new copy on cardstock. Make adjustments as needed and make another mock until you get a template that fits. It’s much cheaper to waste cardstock than it is to waste leather.
The plastic notebook cover #
The plastic cover attached to the notebook will need to be trimmed down, or a new one might even need to be made, depending on your design. I ballpark the size to be the same height as the paper and leave the width a bit longer. You’ll have to trim it again as the last step to make sure it all fits.
This is one of the most nerve wracking parts - actually cutting the leather. A wrong cut can mean wasted material, which can become costly. This is where the cork backed ruler comes in handy, since it doesn’t slip as easily.
First, we’re going to cut out our template. Leave the inside holes and slots; we’ll cut those out later. Next, prepare your chipboard. If you are like me and had a large sketchbook laying around, cut the back cover off and into a manageable size. Use double sided tape to affix the INSIDE template panels to the chipboard, then line up the ruler with the edge of the template and cut out the chipboard panels.
It will take a few cuts with an X-Acto knife on every edge, just keep going over it until you get a nice, clean cut. Don’t rush. Replace the X-Acto blade often, maybe after every panel. Chipboard will dull the blade quite quickly.
Dull blades are much more dangerous than sharp ones. They make it more difficult to cut through the material, and create less clean cuts. I should also mention that you should always be mindful of the direction you are cutting and the position of your fingers. Safety glasses are also probably a good idea. (Thanks for coming to my TED talk on safety.)
At this point, you should have the following:
- A template for the outside cover, and the two inside panels.
- A left and a right inside panel made of chipboard
Next, we’ll do the same thing for the leather. Use double sided tape to affix the cardstock templates to the leather. Pay attention to what the leather looks like, as you may want to avoid creases or blemishes.
Place your templates close together and in a way that minimizes the amount of material waste. Keep all of your leather scraps to do practices and tests with.
Place the ruler along the edge of the template, and cut along the edge to make the leather cover and inside panels. Don’t cut out the slots or holes in the outside cover just yet, we’ll cover that next.
Do, however, cut out the space for the pen loop. Notice we didn’t do this for the other layers, only the inside leather panel gets this cut taken out. This cut helps the pen loop lay flush with the inside of the notebook.
Punching holes #
Before you remove the cardstock template from the back cover, it’s time to punch the slots for the discs to go through.
You can buy a slot punch, but I wasn’t able to get one the width or length I needed. Instead, we’re going to cheat just a little. First, place the cover leather side up on the scrap wood. Then, punch a hole on either end of the slot using the punch and a mallet. You’ll notice I left circles on the template as a guide. Next, take your ruler and cut from the outside edge of one circle to the other, more or less following the lines on the template.
Here’s a video of this technique if you need help visualizing it.
To be clear, you should be cutting through both the cardstock template and the leather cover underneath it. The double sided tape will make sure everything lines up.
With all the slots punched for the discs to fit into, you can cut out the small holes for the elastic band. I’ve just free-handed this section since they’re so small.
Dry fit and prep #
This is where I like to put everything together to make sure the measurements are right. There’s not a lot you can do if they’re wrong, other than not waste time building the rest of it.
Once the edges are lined up, you’ll notice that they probably don’t match up perfectly. That’s ok, as long as they’re close. This is why we made the templates a little larger than they needed to be. Use clamps to secure the edges. You should now have a decent idea of how the cover will feel when it’s done.
Inside panels #
The next major part is putting the inside panels together. First, use the leather cement to glue the layers together. We’re not doing the outside cover yet because it would get in the way.
The type of glue I’m using says to apply the glue to both sides, and to let it dry before pressing them together, so make sure you read the instructions for your specific brand of glue. This is very important.
The type of glue I used was much like rubber cement which means that I was able to remove the excess glue from any spills or accidents with a rubber cement eraser - just remember to be careful and gentle with the leather, as it can easily get damaged if you’re too rough or rub the eraser too fast.
When all layers have been glued together, cut some strips of chipboard, or use some folded cardstock or something to go between the clamp and the leather. This will protect the leather from the clamp by distributing pressure. Last, clamp the layers together and let it dry overnight.
The next day, unclamp the inside panels. Identify the inside edge of the panels and use a ruler and the X-Acto knife to cut off a sliver of the edge. This will make sure all layers are flush and aligned perfectly.
Use a ruler and the back side of the X-Acto knife to make a small score along the inside edge of the panels. The score should be about a quarter inch in.
Now place the panel on the scrap wood and use the cross stitch punches and rubber mallet to punch holes for the stitches.
The plastic backing is to help give the chipboard strength during this step, as the process of punching the holes causes some damage to the chipboard. This punching causes its fibers to separate or tear apart from one another. I’m unsure how big of a problem this is long term, but so far, it seems to hold up alright with the added plastic backing.
Next, thread your needles and cross stitch the inside seam. This was extremely difficult and frustrating for me, so be patient. Explaining how to cross stitch is probably outside the scope of this tutorial (I gotta draw the line somewhere) so here’s the saddle stitch video I used to learn how.
Pen holder #
After the stitching is done, measure a length of elastic that will securely hold your favorite pen. This takes some trial and error, but by using a pen as a reference point for size, and a clamp to hold the elastic in place, you should be able to get a length that works for you.
Glue the edges together flat, then glue the elastic band to the outside edge of the inside flap where we made the cutout earlier.
Outside cover #
With the inside panels completely glued together and the inside seam stitched, we can move on to attaching the inside panels to the outside cover.
Glue the outside edges of the inside panels to the outside edges of the back cover. Clamp these layers together and let dry overnight. The next morning, cut off a sliver of the outside edges to make them flush.
Next, you can round the corners if you want. Find something with a rounded corner to use as a reference, and cut around the edge with the X-Acto knife. Again, this will take some time due to the thickness of the layers.
Score a guide for the stitching holes, then punch the holes just as we did before. Stitch the edges to complete the look.
Fit the cover to the notebook again to ensure the stitches are good. You might need to trim down the plastic covers on the notebook again to make sure they slide in the pockets.
Finishing touches #
Measure a length of elastic that will fit around the notebook and guide it through the holes we made in the outside cover. Glue the ends together to create the elastic band.
Fit the cover back onto the notebook and enjoy!
If I ever decide to try this again or need to make another one for whatever reason, I’ll probably try going for thicker leather instead of adding a chipboard layer for structure. I’m also interested in the idea of adding pockets to the inside of the front cover. For now though, I’m content with the work I’ve done.