Leather Binding Fundamentals with Karen Hanmer – Day 5

I can’t believe that it’s the last day of my Leather Binding Fundamentals class at the Wells College Book Arts Summer Institute. This week just zipped by!

Wait…don’t do anything stupid! The first time you open up a freshly-covered leather book, you could tear the leather. To prevent this from happening, wet down the joint on the outside and open the book gently. When applying water, feather it out with your brush. Once the book is open, wet down the inside of the joint at the turn-ins. Gently flex the covers back and forth to work the joint.

With that taken care of, our first task of the day was to remove the thin 2-ply mat board spacers that were added to the spine edge of our cover boards. Before doing this, we built up a platform of wood boards and sheets of bookboard to support the opened cover.

Karen recommended that we use a microspatula for this procedure. Using a knife, for obvious reasons, is a really bad option. I can’t believe how much time I spent scraping off small bits of mat board and the many glue boogers that had formed. It was very satisfying, however, to see the book go from this…
Inside cover edge of handbound leather book

…to this. So much cleaner.

Inside cover edge of handbound leather book

We then took off the plastic wrap from our text blocks (gasp). This was followed by removal of the tipped in sheets of waste paper. My text block was feeling very vulnerable at this point.

Inside cover edge of handbound leather book

The cambric hinges were trimmed to accommodate the turn-ins on each cover. Those awesome strips of cambric help to smooth out the insides of the joints when glued down. You apply PVA to both the inside of the joint and the cambric, then work it over the joint using a bone folder.

Karen gave a demonstration of how to fill in the inside of our covers. In a nutshell, you trim the fill and turn-ins at the same time. This idea is super-genius

Karen Hanmer doing a bookbinding demonstration

You start by preparing the fill, using a material that is the same thickness as your turn-ins. We used Stonehenge paper for our fill. Take dividers and measure the narrowest part of your turn-ins. You want to trim off as little of the turn-ins as you can.

Lay the fill on top of the inside of your cover, making sure that it creates an even margin on all of the edges. You should also back off a smidge from the spine edge of the book – this allows for any stretching of the fill.

When you’re ready to start trimming, place your book (and its support) on a piece of felt or flannel to protect the leather. Move the whole shebang to a board and plop a weight on top of the fill to keep it from moving.

Transfer the turn-in measurement from your dividers to the fill. Trim the fill and the leather at the same time, cutting through both layers with a knife. Don’t force the knife in an attempt to get it done in one cut – taking several shallow passes is a better strategy. And don’t contort your body as you trim – simply rotate the board lazy Susan-style to work on each side of the book.

When you’re done with the cuts, remove the weight and the fill. Gently peel away the excess leather from the turn-ins, pulling towards the outside edges of the book. Voila! Perfect fill. Be sure to mark the fill so that you remember how it all fits together.

Open handbound leather book

We used PVA to attach the fill to counteract the pull of the leather on the covers. Place the fill starting at the outside corners – you can always sand off excess fill at the spine edge of the board. In fact, that’s what I need to do.

Open handbound leather book

All full!

So here’s what my book looks like now – it’s kinda sproingy and the covers clearly need to mellow:

Handmade leather bound book

And I still have to fix these problems:

Inside cover of handbound leather book

Tail end of a handbound leather book

I asked Karen what to do about these issues and here’s what she recommended:

  1. For the gouge on the inside cover, I can make spackle (leather shavings + PVA) and cram it in there. Afterwards, I can cover up the area with an onlay.
  2. The tear near the cover joint is probably in the world’s worst location. I can use an onlay to cover it, but I can’t let it interfere with the joint. The fact is that a bit of that hole is going to show. Poo.

Karen made some super-thin onlays for me, which was awesome. I’ll show you how it all turns out when I’m done playing book doctor.

That’s all the work we did on our books today, other than putting them under weight. Karen said that we needed to wait until our covers settled down before we could attach the end papers. It looks like I’ll have more work to do when I get home!

Hand-sewn leather-bound book under weight

By the way, I haven’t yet mentioned that the text block we bound included actual text – it was from The Art of Bookbinding: A Practical Treatise by Joseph William Zaehnsdorf. The book was originally published in 1890 and it’s now in the public domain.

Karen’s hubby printed copies of the text for us to bind – what a nice guy! If you’d like to do this yourself, you can download a copy of the book here.

Open handbound leather book with text

But the day wasn’t over yet – did I mention that there were plaquettes? We worked on these a bit earlier in the week, but there wasn’t much to talk about…until today. Today was Let Your Plaquette Have It Day.

Note: Our cover leather came to us pre-populated with an onlay that was not back-pared. I missed the whole story, but I did learn that this was due to the occurrence of the Leather-Spokeshave Incident of 2016. 

Karen showed us different decorative techniques for spicing up our plaquettes. The first technique I tried was inlaid lines. It all started with scoring a line in the leather using a bone folder. Easy enough.

Leather plaquette

Then you cut a super-thin strip of pared leather (0.3 mm thick) the same width as your scored line. Brush paste on the back of the strip.

Thin strip of leather

Brush some PVA on a piece of mylar and drag the leather strip through it, making sure to cover the back evenly. Lay the strip in the scored line and trim as needed. Cover the area with mylar and rub it down with a bone folder. If you get oozing PVA, just wipe it off with a wet sponge.

Leather plaquette

So nice, I did it twice.

Next, I decided to try a simple onlay. I had some wicked-thin leather scraps left over from another workshop, so I didn’t have to do any paring. I just cut out a small shape, pasted it out, then attached it to the cover with PVA.

Last came tooling, which is essentially a controlled scorching of leather. I was really worried about burning myself. I hadn’t yet cut myself during the week, so I figured that an injury was on its way. Thankfully, I escaped unscathed.

After heating up shaped metal tools, you apply the hot tips to the leather to create marks. Well look at that, I made another line.

Leather plaquette

And then a little swirl on my onlay. What a cutie!

Closeup of leather plaquette

And that’s the very last thing I did, so that brings this class to a close. Sadness.

Many thanks to you, my short-term worktable. You were good to me, with your large surface and storage below. I have no love for you, stool. You had no lower rungs where I could prop my feet. Boo.

Clean worktable

If you’re on the fence about taking one of Karen’s classes, don’t be. I’m a repeat customer for a reason – actually several reasons. Karen is a skilled, kind, and patient teacher. And damn funny.

And speaking of funny, I’m so very sad to report that today is the final day of Karen quotes. Enjoy these last nuggets:

I yakety-yak so much.


It’s not me. It’s the skin.


Another ship in the armada that has sailed.


I don’t know what I want and I’m not making good decisions.

4 Responses to “Leather Binding Fundamentals with Karen Hanmer – Day 5”

By Karen Hanmer - 5 August 2016 Reply

Thanks for mentioning the skilled before the funny! As always, a delight to have the time with you.

By Elissa - 5 August 2016 Reply

Karen –

Bwahaha! Good thing I didn’t offend you there.

Until next time…


By Anne Rita Taylor - 5 August 2016 Reply

Elissa, Thanks so much for the 5 days of leather binding! – I enjoyed your photos and explanations – plus learned how much to wet the leather. – Anne

By Elissa - 5 August 2016 Reply

Anne –

I’m so glad that you found the posts helpful. All credit goes to Karen for teaching such an awesome class.


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