Leather Binding Fundamentals with Karen Hanmer – Day 4

Day four of my Leather Binding Fundamentals class at the Wells College Book Arts Summer Institute has come and gone. I can see the finish line – and there’s actual finishing there!

We started off the morning with Karen’s demonstration of how to cover our books in the leather we had prepared. There were many steps. Thankfully, the class would be split in half so that Karen could supervise the process – the first group would work with her before lunch and the rest of us would work post-chow.

Since I was in group two, I had time to work on my leather some more – now that I had rested, I was ready to give it another go.

Pared goat leather with Japanese tissue patches

Karen advised me to patch up my torn leather with pieces of Japanese tissue. I didn’t really care how the leather looked at this point – I just wanted to stabilize it so I could continue working. There was no way I was starting over.

Pared goat leather with Japanese tissue patch

Band-Aid #1

Pared goat leather with Japanese tissue patch

Band-Aid #2

I had a list of things to get done before I’d be ready to start covering my book. As I crossed these tasks off my list, I was reminded of how random it was that this Arches watermark ended up where it did on my inner cover lining. I showed it to Karen, who simply said no. This made sense – you don’t want to introduce anything to your cover that has variations in it. You want everything to be awesomely smooth.

Inside cover of leather book

Bad watermark!

Once I had all of my prep work done, I decided to tidy up my headbands. The ends of the headbands were very noticeable after having been trimmed, so I mixed up some acrylic paint and colored the ends.

Rolled leather headband

Hand-sewn headband

This is when I ate lunch. Then I came back. Time for the second group to get into some covering.

We started out by wetting down the hair side of the leather with a sponge – this helps prevent staining when pasting. We then flipped the skin over and pasted the entire surface with wheat paste. Once the paste on the leather was no longer shiny, we added a layer of paste to the book spine and one of the covers. Lastly, we added another later of paste to the leather.

Pared goat leather with brushed on wheat paste

We placed our books on our leather, making sure that the drawn guidelines matched up with the edges of the book cover. Paste was brushed onto the other cover. We then rolled the book over its spine until it landed on the leather. Again, we verified that the edges of the second cover matched up with the drawn guidelines on the leather.

Pared goat leather wrapped around hand bound text block

We rubbed the leather over the spine with the palms of our hands to help snug it up. I really enjoyed this process – it felt like I was giving my book a massage so it could work out all of the stress it had experienced during the week (dear book, I’m so sorry I cut you).

Next, we peeled back the leather on each cover, rolled it back down, and worked out the wrinkles out with our hands. Don’t use a bone folder. Using a bone folder mars the surface. There was repeated peeling back and reapplication of leather, followed by more smoothing. The paste stayed wet long enough to allow us to do this work.

Then came the series of steps that I messed up. Poo. I’m going to do my best to tell you how it was all supposed to go down, although I’m not convinced that my notes are accurate. Perhaps Karen will see this and let me know if any corrections are needed.

Inside the first cover, you trim the excess leather at the corners at a bevel. You then fold over the fore edge turn-ins. The head and tail turn-ins involve a bit of wizardry – you tuck them into the hollow at the spine. Those slits we cut in the hollow yesterday? They create the flexibility you need to finagle the leather behind the spine (very clever).

Where the turn-ins meet at the inside corner, you trim the leather as needed to create a 45 degree angle. The leather should overlap slightly with no visible gaps. You can press it with your bone folder once, but that’s it. No oversmushing, please.

Leather corner inside the book cover

Lastly, you do this cool pleating thing at the tips of the corners to neaten everything up.

Leather corner inside the book cover

Next you set your joints. Lay a piece of wood on top of the text block, against the joint. Gently push the fore edge of the cover towards you, into the board.

On to the forming of the headcaps, which is a nifty process. You start by pressing the tip of your bone folder into the joints at the head and tail, about 0.5″ up from the edge. It’s kinda like giving your joint a cleft chin. My book now has the Ben Affleck.

Karen made us a tool for working on the headcaps, but I’m saving details about that for another post. Anyway, the tool wrapped around the book, aligned with the joints. You hold it in place while manipulating the leather at the end of your book. The leather should partially cover the headband. You’re basically tucking in the headband (reading it a story is optional).

After the first headcap is done, you move on to the second cover and form your corners. At this point, you might be tempted to open up the first cover and check out your handiwork. Don’t do it. It can wreck all of the work you just did. And if Karen catches you, she’ll give you the stink eye.

The remaining headcap is formed last. Here’s what a headcap looks like when Karen helps you – it’s so very plump and juicy.

Handmade leather bound book

And here’s what a headcap looks like when you do it yourself for the first time:

Handmade leather bound book

You sir, are skinny and flat.

Now that the book is fully covered, it’s time to clean that baby! A gentle sponge bath does the trick quite nicely. You can also brush the surface of the leather with a silver polishing brush to clean up the grain.

Handmade leather bound book

Time to press and dry – make sure that the book is square first. Glue mylar to a piece of blotter paper and slide that sandwich (mmm…sandwich) into the joint with the mylar side down. Put the book in between two pieces of blotter and press boards, then put under weight. Swap out the blotters for dry ones every now and then to help the book dry more quickly.

Handmade leather bound book with inserted blotters

And that’s the end of day four. It feels so satisfying to have something that now looks like an actual book instead of a bunch of miscellaneous parts. Whee!

If you’re interested in a more detailed blow-by-blow account of the process (with more pictures), check out this blog post by Papercut Bindery. He pretty much nails it – we just didn’t do the string wrap at the joints.

Drum roll please…here are the quotes of the day:

You will all be mindless robots doing things my way.


That’s something I wouldn’t do, but you just saw me do it.


My work here is done. If you’ll excuse me.

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

By Karen Hanmer - 2 August 2016 Reply

Nice corner!

By Elissa - 2 August 2016 Reply

Karen –

That’s high praise coming from you! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to pat myself on the back and parade around the house with a tiara on my head.


By daria wilber - 2 August 2016 Reply

Elissa, And the quote of the day: “…I was giving my book a massage so it could work out all of the stress it had experienced during the week (dear book, I’m so sorry I cut you).” I love the visual imagery and emotional connection you convey in this sentence. daria

By Elissa - 2 August 2016 Reply

Daria –

Well, I do have training as a therapist, so that probably explains my finely-tuned book empathy.


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