An Artist’s Approach to Emboss­ing Leather for Books with Bon­nie Stahlecker – Day 1

Today was my first day with Bon­nie Stahlecker for my session two class of PBI – Impress Me: An Artist’s Approach to Emboss­ing Leather for Books. Session two classes last all day and this day was full.

Bonnie had all of her tools arranged neatly on her worktable, along with three talismans – the Goddesses of Gluing, Measuring, and Cutting. They were fabulous.

Godesses of Gluing, Measuring, and Cutting

We were told that what we were going to be doing was actually a combination of embossing and debossing – embossing is raised up and debossing is when something is pressed into the leather. For our work, we used goat leather.

Here are the basics of using embossing plates. An etching press is preferred because you have more control over the pressure. You can also check your plate after pressing and send it through again if it didn’t emboss well. Start with less pressure than you want and add pressure as you go – do tests when possible. Bonnie recommended going down three to four turns at a time.

Dampen your leather with water on both sides so it soaks into the core. You don’t want it sopping wet. Adding water to the leather makes it more pliable. Place your leather, hair side down, on your plate in the middle of the press. Lay three pieces of felt on top of it.

Guide the stack into the press with your hand until the roller catches it, then use consistent speed to send it the rest of the way through the press. You can peel back your leather at the corner to check the impression before removing it from the plate. Wipe down the roller to remove any moisture that may have transferred from the leather.

We started with linoleum carving. She gave us unmounted Battleship Linoleum, which she likes because she finds it easier to cut, carve, and heat up. When you use linoleum with leather, the surface of the leather will be calendared – this means that the grain of the leather will be smoothed out wherever the linoleum is in direct contact with it.

For our carving, we used micro-cutting tools for wood carvers – I ordered mine from The Carving Glove Guy. V-gouges have tips with a 90 degree angle. The 1.5 V-gouge was recommended for thin lines. Bonnie said that she doesn’t like using Speedball cutters with linoleum because they tend to create jagged marks.

Some tips for linoleum carving:

  • Use rubber shelf liner under your linoleum while carving to keep it from slipping.
  • Don’t carve lines too thin or they won’t emboss.
  • Turn the linoleum as you work.
  • Heat up the linoleum with a blow dryer to make it easier to carve.
  • If your tool feels dull, then it’s because your linoleum cooled down – heat it up again.

Here’s my linoleum plate…

Carved linoleum

…and here’s how it came out of the press:

Embossed leather

Next, we used puff paint on linen (it has a tight weave). The puff paint is the stuff that you find in the kid’s aisle at your local craft store – when it’s dry and you heat it up, it gets all puffy. For our purposes, we used it straight – no heating. When working with puff paint, be sure to pop any air bubbles. Let the paint dry overnight before putting it through the press.

Here’s my puff paint plate (I won’t be able to emboss it until tomorrow):

Puff paint stars on fabric

The next plate was made from modeling paste mixed with some gritty stuff – I didn’t catch the name of it, but we were told that sand would work just fine. You spread the paste on bookboard like frosting with a popsicle stick or a palette knife. You want to have some high and low areas so you can get contrast. For details, you can carve into the paste with the back end of a paint brush.

We had to wait for four hours for the paste to dry. After that, we had to seal the plate with varnish to make it waterproof. Then we waited another 30 minutes for that to dry.

Here’s my modeling paste plate…

Modeling paste with sand spread on bookboard

…and here’s how it came out of the press (the leather is still wet in the photo):

Embossed leather

Lastly, we made found object plates. Mine was pretty basic – a fabric patch and some string.

Bookboard, string, and poodle fabric patch

Here’s how it came out of the press:

Embossed leather

I was surprised by how much of the patch detail came through from pressing. I loved the texture and crispness of the string.

After that, I played around with the linoleum some more, making random marks with different size gouges.

Carved linoleum

Embossed leather

I don’t have any notable quotes for you today, but I do have a funny story. When we were talking about the different found objects we could use for our plates, Bonnie made us raise our right hand and repeat after her – “I will not send anything metal through the press.”

10 Responses to “An Artist’s Approach to Emboss­ing Leather for Books with Bon­nie Stahlecker – Day 1”

By Louise Edwards - 18 May 2014 Reply

wow, what a great conference.
the leather work has me drooling and dreaming

By Elissa - 22 May 2014 Reply

Louise –

If you ever have the chance to go to PBI, I highly recommend it.


By Velma Bolyard - 18 May 2014 Reply

so many ways to make lovely shapes in/on leather. i’m at pbi vicariously, you know–

By Elissa - 22 May 2014 Reply

Velma –

It’s amazing what you can do with leather – so much I never considered before.


By Janet - 19 May 2014 Reply

This is a fabulous post (as always). I want to work more with leather and this post gave me some great ideas – until I can get to a workshop like this. Thanks – the information and photos you shared were great.

By Elissa - 22 May 2014 Reply

Janet –

If you have a chance to take a workshop with Bonnie, I highly recommend it. Blog posts just don’t do her justice – she’s fabulous.


By Carol - 19 May 2014 Reply

A great post Elissa! Fascinating, the different effects you got. I really like the string which seems very easy but very effective. Lots to play with here!

By Elissa - 22 May 2014 Reply

Carol –

Thanks! You can really see the texture of the string in the leather.


By martin - 16 August 2016 Reply

Hello guys, can you please advice how the engraving method is made by those lads.
I wish engraving -Personalization to achieve same look. As far as I know they use letterpress types. Can someone familiar with process confirm.

By Elissa - 17 August 2016 Reply

Martin –

That type of work is usually done with a Kwikprint. It’s a hot-stamping machine that can used with or without foil.


So what do you think? I'd love to know!

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