Leather Binding Fundamentals with Karen Hanmer – Day 3

Welcome to the third day of class at the Wells College Book Arts Summer Institute’s Leather Binding Fundamentals. So far, I’ve written a total of 13.5 pages of notes to date. Yeah, I take lots of notes.

Here’s what my book looked like at the start of the day.

Tapes laced into the cover boards and secured with Japanese tissue

The first item on our agenda – sanding. Lots of it. And when you sand, you need to go into the basement or as Karen affectionately called it, the Hellmouth. As a longstanding fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I approved of her name choice.

We had to sand down any bumps that could be felt through the inner board linings.

Sanding down bumps on the inside of the front cover

Next we had to sand even, gradual bevels on the outside of the covers at the fore edge, head, and tail. The bevels started approximately 0.5″ away from the edges of the board. After the sanding was complete (with masks on, of course), we escaped the Hellmouth and returned to our classroom.

We cut back corners next. I totally can’t remember if I’ve done this before. If I’ve taken other workshops with Karen, then I probably have done this before. Anyway, this involved cutting a thin sliver off the inside of the covers at the spine edge, approximately 0.75″ high and a 1/2 board thickness deep. I don’t know why, but I found this task very satisfying.

Cutting the back corners of the covers

Hollow time! Yes folks, it’s time to fold up a tube of paper that gets stuck on the spine of the text block – this assists with the opening of the book and allows for the addition of tooling. When you make a hollow, you want to use a paper that doesn’t cockle when it gets wet – we used Arches text weight paper.

We cut 1″ slits along the top and bottom sides of the hollow to give us space to tuck in our leather headcaps (you’ll learn more about that tomorrow).

Hollow for the spine

Here’s the hollow stuck onto the spine of the text block. It looks rather happy there.

Hollow attached to the spine

Since the inner board lining was so much fun, of course we did the same to the outside of the boards. The paper used for the outer lining is based on the thickness of your shoulder – you want the board and spine surfaces to have a smooth transition (no ridges). We used PVA to glue on the linings instead of paste so that it wouldn’t exert a strong pull.

I’d like to mention that at this point in the day, Karen told me that I don’t have a beefy shoulder. Poor, wimpy shoulder. 🙁

Book with outer board lining applied

Once the lining was dry, we sanded down any bumps, just like we did with the inner board linings.

Here begins the leather portion of our program.

Things got demo heavy as Karen showed us how to prepare our leather for binding. We started by boarding our leather. What’s boarding? Well, if your leather is stiff, then you need to soften it up before working with it – this process is called boarding. You roll the skin back and forth in each direction so that it becomes more flexible. I found it very relaxing.

Next, we created paper templates to mark off how far our turn-ins would extend beyond the edges of our book covers. We were basically creating a map for leather paring. Notice how I kept getting confused about which end was up.

Paper template for covering leather

Once the template was done, we transferred the lines on to our skins. It’s getting real now.

Marked up cover leather

Then we got to watch a series of three paring demonstrations. Yes, three. We would be using three different tools for paring – a Schärf-Fix, a spokeshave, and a paring knife.

The Schärf-Fix would be used to pare down the leather on the outside edges of the skin (turn-ins). The spokeshave would be used to pare the leather at the spine of the book. Lastly, a paring knife would be used to pare the leather at both the headcaps (just above/below the ends of the spine) and the corners of the skin.

Karen showed us how it was done and of course, she made it look easy. It was not easy.

Karen Hanmer doing a paring demonstration

This is a Schärf-Fix:

Paring leather on the Scharf-fix

It scares the crap out of me. I cut myself on one once and I bled like crazy. In addition, I have a history as a leather shredder. To say that I was anxious using it is an understatement.

Paring leather on the Scharf-fix

But you know what? It was totally fine. It took a while for me to get the hang of it, but you know what they say about slow and steady. A few things I realized while using it:

  1. If your blade gets caught, slide the leather out and reposition it. Pretty much every time I did this, I was able to continue with no further issues.
  2. I had the greatest control when I pulled a little bit of the leather through, then repositioned my grip on it. I also found that the leather stretched less when I frequently moved my grip.
  3. Seriously, don’t be lazy. Just change the dang blade.
Micrometer measuring leather thickness

…and this thickness was just right.

Spokeshave time! I had never used one of these before. Start off by securing your leather on a stone with blue tape to keep it from shifting (and creating problems). Gently push the device forward over the surface of the leather to shave off little bits. Remove the tape, rotate your leather, and repeat the process in the other direction. When the blade gets dull, run it over a strop.

Paring leather with a spokeshave

No, I have not changed my name to Amy.

I found using the spokeshave to be very relaxing. And I thought I was doing a pretty good job until I removed my tape and found this in one spot…

Torn leather

…and this in another. Didn’t I say something about problems?

Torn leather

It seems that I rolled the spokeshave over the tape, which bunched up – that’s when the leather got cut. Boo. It looks like I have some consultation with Karen in my future.

At this point I was feeling discouraged, but I pressed on – I used a paring knife to work on the headcaps and the corners. Thankfully, there was no drama there.

Pared goat leather

And that’s when I called it quits for the evening. It was after 9:00 p.m., which is my witching hour. It’s my gluing cut-off time and it definitely wouldn’t be any good for bladey things. To better understand where I’m coming from, please refer to Ted Mosby’s Nothing Good Happens After 2:00 a.m.

And now, what you’ve all been waiting for – Bits of Wisdom with Karen Hanmer:

Scrapey, scrapey, scrapey.


You’re damn lucky you’re studying with me.


So this kinda blows.

4 Responses to “Leather Binding Fundamentals with Karen Hanmer – Day 3”

By Karen Esteves - 2 August 2016 Reply

Yep, that SharFix was brutal.

By Elissa - 2 August 2016 Reply

Karen –

It’s so nice to see you here! 🙂

I think I’ve made friends with the Schärf-Fix, but the spokeshave and I have some talking to do.


By Karen Esteves - 2 August 2016 Reply

Thanks so much for posting these pics. They will help me as I attempt to re-build another second book. The first was stolen out of the classroom. (Yeah… What was I thinking!)

By Elissa - 2 August 2016 Reply

Your book was stolen? Yikes – that sucks!

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