An Artist’s Approach to Emboss­ing Leather for Books with Bon­nie Stahlecker – Day 3

I started the morning by working on my embossed leather. You can use shoe polish to add color – we used Meltonian Boot & Shoe Cream Polish. You rub it on with a rag and gently wipe off the excess – this leaves color in/next to your lines. When the polish is dry, you buff it to a shine with a rag. I used three different layers of color before I was happy with my piece.


The shoe polish has an added benefit of protecting the leather. Other ways to protect the surface is by adding a layer of Renaissance wax or a paste wash.

You can also use acrylic paint to color leather. You use a 50/50 mix of paint and methyl cellulose. Build up the color in layers and blot it off with a towel. You can thin the paint down with water if you want to use washes of color. Application can be done with either a brush or a rag. I didn’t use any paint on my book.

Once my leather was dry, I began the process of creating the book wrapper. If the leather is stiff, it helps to massage it to relax it. You roll the leather in all directions with the flesh side up.

We used map board for our covers because Bonnie wanted the binding to be semi-limp. We started by marking off the spine width, then pared the leather at the spine head and tail. The spine width measurement was the width of our text block plus 1/8″ for the book joints. The boards were glued down after marking off the corners on the leather in pencil.

After gluing down the boards, we trimmed the turn-ins to 3/4″ wide and cut the corners. We sanded down our turn-ins to help reduce the thickness of the leather.


This is when I messed up (again) – I mixed up the order of two steps, but Bonnie told me how to fix it. I glued down the turn-ins, starting with the head and the tail. Bonnie advised us to use two layers of glue on the turn-ins because the leather soaks up a lot of the moisture.

Lightly round the corners of the covers with a bone folder. Next, I infilled the covers with chip board to level out the inside surface. I lined the spine with a strip of Cave Paper and cut two additional pieces of paper to use for the paste-downs. You dry the covers under weight for 40-60 minutes.

While my cover dried, I worked on my headbands. We started by trimming off the edge of our leather headband. Next, we measured the width of our text block and transferred the measurement to the headband using a divider. After cutting off the two pieces of headband, we glued them to the head and tail of the book.


Our next task was oversewing the headbands using waxed linen thread. You reopen the kettle stitches on all of the signatures, not including the endpapers, using an awl at a 45 degree angle. We used doll making needles, which are longer than regular needles. Sew from the inside of the first signature, leaving a 3″ tail, and come out through the spine. Pull the tail over the top of the headband and tie a half hitch knot at the hole on the outside of the spine.


Next, you come over the top of the headband with your needle and go into the kettle stitch hole in the second signature. Come out at the spine, go over the headband and enter the kettle stitch hole in the third signature. Repeat this procedure until you get to the last hole and tie a half hitch knot at the last hole. Squash the knot and the ends of your thread with a bone folder to reduce the bulk.


After the headbands were completed, it was time to work on the stays for the secondary tackets. The stays were made of Tyvek which I dyed with some brown acrylic paint.


You cut the Tyvek into four strips that are folded in half lengthwise. Holes are punched into them, matching the 1st and 3rd holes of the signatures. Needles were threaded onto both ends of a piece of waxed linen thread. Using one thread per stay, one needle goes through each hole of the stay.


Once the stays are ready, you have to prep the wrapper. You take the wrapper and bend each cover to establish the hinge folds. Make sure that the edges stay parallel to each other. Push down on the joint with your fingers first, then follow that with a bone folder. You have to be careful with the bone folder if you used shoe polish because you can rub off some of the color.

The next step is to punch holes in the cover – this filled me with a lot of anxiety. You poke through the 1st and 3rd holes of your endpapers, match it up to the spine, and poke through the spine joints of your book. After you’ve poked holes on one side, you can use them as a guide to poke holes in the other joint.

Insert the stays in the endpaper sections and sew through those holes, then through the holes in the spine joints. Create secondary tackets on the outside by looping the threads around each other four or five times. Tie a slip knot on the outside, then bring the threads back to the inside of the signatures and trim them.


Here’s a picture of my finished book:

Embossed leather journal

Front side

Embossed leather journal

Back side

After finishing my first leather journal, I felt a bit of a let down. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it, but it was more that I was bummed that I was done with it – it was so much fun to work on. I still had to think about the second journal (yes, we made two of them). I sat for a long time, trying to come up with a concept for my book.

Finally, I decided to work with the modeling paste. I slathered a bunch of paste on a piece of bookboard and drew a bunch of waves in it with a popsicle stick. Done. I have to let it dry overnight, so we’ll see how it embosses tomorrow!


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

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