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Limp leather bookbinding is a method of bookbinding that involves a book block sewn on tapes with a soft leather cover. One can enjoy the feel of the cover material far more than on a hardcover book, as it is not glued down to boards. Though the general theory is the same as limp bookbinding, the technique in practice is different enough to warrant a separate writeup. Still, I suggest you read that writeup before starting this project.

It began a couple weeks ago when evilrooster selected a group of bookbinding hides for my purchase at J. Hewit & Sons, in Edinburgh. While waiting for the hides to ship to the US, I pondered the possible uses of all this new leather - about ten hides, in all sorts of colors - four browns, natural, red, deep red, blue, green, and black. I wanted to begin working with it immediately, but I lacked the tools to pare the leather down, to do a normal hardcover book.

The first thing that came to mind was to use the leather for a limp bookbinding - it is a relatively simple, easy design, I was already working on a few books that I intended to give that sort of binding, and it is a style of bookbinding that I am already familar with. Limp leather bookbinding would give me a chance to experiment with and get used to the feel of the different leathers.

Presently, I have completed nine limp leather bookbindings with a variety of leathers. There is a considerable learning curve. They are not the same as regular limp bookbindings. The end product can be much more wonderful, but they require much more care in many respects. The following instructions should help you avoid many of my mistakes. It also helps considerably to make this exact design with a heavy paper first, and then use the paper as a pattern for the leather.

Materials

The following are what you will need for this exercise - the first item is my reccomendation, following it, things that will work reasonably, but not quite as well.

Sewing the Book Block

Sew the book block as described in sewing on tapes. Either method will work, mine is just the method I prefer. If this is to be an non-adhesive binding, each time the thread crosses the tape, pull it through the thread beneath it, to provide additional strength.

I like non-adhesive bookbindings because they less messy (if you are a messy person, like me), they can survive extreme humidity and water better, and because they are easier. A glued spine will be stronger - these are just my reasons - you make your call.

This group of nine limp leather bindings were sewn on recycled vellum tapes, because I had pre-cut a huge amount of them, and it was the first thing that came to mind. Vellum is a very strong, flexible support, stiff enough to pull through even a few layers of leather relatively easily. But it is also off-white. For a leather cover, one might try sewing on leather tapes, in a color that would go with or contrast the color of the cover. Or tapes of some other material might be used.

Whatever material is used, it is helpful if the tapes are 2.5 times the width of the book block on each side of the spine. (It is nice to be able to pull the tapes all the way throug the cover and back, and still have some extra to work with.) If they are vellum, it is easier to pull them through the cover if they are heavier vellum. If they are some other material, such as leather, notch the ends of the tapes and put a bit of PVA on them, to stiffen them, so that they can be pulled through the covers more easily.

The Leather

The designs that follow were attempted with a variety of calf and goat hides, without using any additional support in the covers. The thinner the leather, and the more leather used, the better the results, generally. Obviously, there is some limit to how thin the leather can be, but without tools to pare it down even thinner, it seems that average to thin goat is the perfect thickness.

The thinner the leather, the greater the amount that must be used! (One thick layers is as strong as a few thin layers.) The following is my basic pattern for the shape of the covers, not to scale, with the X's marking the places where the tapes are visible on the outside of the cover. You, of course, can put them in different places. Note that though this is the shape of the leather, it should not be cut to this shape until the folds have been made.


              **************       **************
              *            *       *            *
              *            *       *            * 
              *            *       *            *
              *            *       *            *
              *            *       *            *
              *            *       *            *
              *              *   *              *
             *                ---                *
            *_______________   _   _______________*
         ** |               | | | |               | **
*********   | X X   X   X X |X|s|X| X X   X   X X |   *********
*           |               | |p| |               |           *
*           |  back         | |i| |  front        |           *
*           |  cover        | |n| |  cover        |           *
*           | X X   X   X X |X|e|X| X X   X   X X |           *
*           |               | | | |               |           *
*           |               | | | |               |           *
*           |               | | | |               |           *
*********   | X X   X   X X |X| |X| X X   X   X X |   *********
         ** |_______________| |_| |_______________| **
            *                 ___                 *
             *               *   *               * 
              *            *       *            *
              *            *       *            *
              *            *       *            *
              *            *       *            *
              *            *       *            *
              *            *       *            *
              **************       **************

The preceeding figure implies the use of a lot of leather, about the most that could be used for this design. The bare minimum that can be used is shown in the following image - the leather folds over about 1 inch on each side.


              **************       **************
             *                ---                *
            *_______________   _   _______________*
         ** |               | | | |               | **
        *   | X X   X   X X |X| |X| X X   X   X X |   *
        *   |               | | | |               |   *
        *   |               | | | |               |   *
        *   |               | | | |               |   *
        *   | X X   X   X X |X| |X| X X   X   X X |   *
        *   |               | | | |               |   *
        *   |               | | | |               |   *
        *   |               | | | |               |   *
        *   | X X   X   X X |X| |X| X X   X   X X |   *
         ** |_______________| |_| |_______________| **
            *                 ___                 *
             *               *   *               * 
              **************       **************

More likely, you will choose a happy medium between the two, something that has the advantages of using more leather, without the expense of the top figure. The relatively wide flaps shown on the left and right sides are deliberately so - by folding these over last, the surface under the endpapers is relatively smooth.


              **************       **************
              *            *       *            *
              *              *   *              *
             *                ---                *
            *_______________   _   _______________*
         ** |               | | | |               | **
*********   | X X   X   X X |X| |X| X X   X   X X |   *********
*           |               | | | |               |           *
*           |               | | | |               |           *
*           |               | | | |               |           *
*           | X X   X   X X |X| |X| X X   X   X X |           *
*           |               | | | |               |           *
*           |               | | | |               |           *
*           |               | | | |               |           *
*********   | X X   X   X X |X| |X| X X   X   X X |   *********
         ** |_______________| |_| |_______________| **
            *                 ___                 *
             *               *   *               * 
              *            *       *            *
              *            *       *            *
              **************       **************

Making a limp leather bookbinding, my choice of cover materials would either be a thin leather used very generously or a thick leather used sparingly. A thin leather used generously will hang very well as a cover. It has the feel of a good wallet. It just looks, well, right - good materials crafted well. If one is so inclined, the thin leather can be rubbed a bit once the book block is attached, so that the tapes show, like raised bands.

Alternately, a thick leather, used very sparingly will show the texture of the leather and have a similar nice feel. A nice heavy calf with a bit of a gloss to it looks really nice. The surfaces of goat and calf are different, and there are many different textures available for each, so the exact texture will vary depending upon the leather chosen.

Glue generally does not improve the look with thin leathers. With thick leathers used sparingly, glue is necessary, along each of the far edges of the leather, to hold it down. I do not cover the whole surface, as that generally makes the leather lie too flat, losing some of the beauty in the texture of the leather.

Actually Cutting the Leather

Now comes the measuring! Each of the squares above should be the width of the book block, plus the thickness of the leather folded. Then a 5 mm of space, then the rectangle that is to be the spine, the exact width of the spine, then another 5mm, then another rectangle the same size as the first. Each rectangle should be 1/4 to 1/2 taller than the book block, to tase - this will be the square.

Draw all of these lines on the back of the leather before cutting. Measure it. Measure it again. Heck, measure it a third time! If you are really concerned about saving little bits of leather without fold marks on them, cut the leather down to the profile shown above. DO NOT CUT CLOSER THAN 3/4 OF AN INCH TO THE TOP OR BOTTOM OF THE SPINE. If you do, the leather will not sit right - it will wrinkle, and your backstrip will look funny. Otherwise, begin folding the leather.

Use a bone folder and the sharp edge of a straight-edge to fold the two folds noted by the lines of O's. The fold should be as sharp as it can be without cutting the leather. This fold makes the edges of the spine.


              **************  O O  **************
              *            *  O O  *            *
              *            *  O O  *            * 
              *            *  O O  *            *
              *            *  O O  *            *
              *            *  O O  *            *
              *            *  O O  *            *
              *              *O O*              *
             *                O-O                *
            *_______________  O_O  _______________*
         ** |               | O O |               | **
*********   | X X   X   X X |XO OX| X X   X   X X |   *********
*           |               | O O |               |           *
*           |               | O O |               |           *
*           |               | O O |               |           *
*           | X X   X   X X |XO OX| X X   X   X X |           *
*           |               | O O |               |           *
*           |               | O O |               |           *
*           |               | O O |               |           *
*********   | X X   X   X X |XO OX| X X   X   X X |   *********
         ** |_______________| O_O |_______________| **
            *                 O_O                 *
             *               *O O*               * 
              *            *  O O  *            *
              *            *  O O  *            *
              *            *  O O  *            *
              *            *  O O  *            *
              *            *  O O  *            *
              *            *  O O  *            *
              **************  O O  **************

Use a pin to make a mark at each end of the two lines directly adjecent to these, then flip the leather over to the outside and fold these in the opposite direction from the first, in the same manner. These folds are lines U, 5 mm. from the previous folds.


              **************U     U**************
              *             U     U             *
              *             U     U             * 
              *             U     U             *
              *             U     U             *
              *             U     U             *
              *             U     U             *
              *             U*   *U             *
             *              U --- U              *
            *_______________U  _  U_______________*
         ** |               U | | U               | **
*********   | X X   X   X X UX| |XU X X   X   X X |   *********
*           |               U | | U               |           *
*           |               U | | U               |           *
*           |               U | | U               |           *
*           | X X   X   X X UX| |XU X X   X   X X |           *
*           |               U | | U               |           *
*           |               U | | U               |           *
*           |               U | | U               |           *
*********   | X X   X   X X UX| |XU X X   X   X X |   *********
         ** |_______________U |_| U_______________| **
            *               U ___ U               *
             *              U*   *U              * 
              *             U     U             *
              *             U     U             *
              *             U     U             *
              *             U     U             *
              *             U     U             *
              *             U     U             *
              **************U     U**************

Now flip the leather over again, to the back. The four final folds, along the lines marked E are now folded, using the same method as above. If the leather is thin, make these folds using the sharp side of the straight-edge. If it is thick, use the thick side, and fold the leather around it. Again, score the fold with the bone folder as hard as possible without cutting the leather.


            E **************       ************** E
            E *            *       *            * E
            E *            *       *            * E 
            E *            *       *            * E
            E *            *       *            * E
            E *            *       *            * E
            E *            *       *            * E
            E *              *   *              * E
            E*                ---                *E
EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE
         ** E               | | | |               E **
*********   E X X   X   X X |X| |X| X X   X   X X E   *********
*           E               | | | |               E           *
*           E               | | | |               E           *
*           E               | | | |               E           *
*           E X X   X   X X |X| |X| X X   X   X X E           *
*           E               | | | |               E           *
*           E               | | | |               E           *
*           E               | | | |               E           *
*********   E X X   X   X X |X| |X| X X   X   X X E   *********
EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE
            E                 ___                 E
            E*               *   *               *E
            E *            *       *            * E
            E *            *       *            * E
            E *            *       *            * E
            E *            *       *            * E
            E *            *       *            * E
            E *            *       *            * E
            E **************       ************** E

If you have not already, cut out the marked circular areas. Again, DO NOT CUT CLOSER THAN 3/4 OF AN INCH TO THE TOP OR BOTTOM OF THE SPINE. If you do, the leather will not sit right - it will wrinkle, and your backstrip will look funny. Fold the top and bottom flaps over, then the ends. You now have a cover, suitable for attaching to a book block!

Cutting for the Tapes

Cutting the slits for tapes for limp leather bindings is different from other materials - leather is thick! Thus, either use a really sharp razor blade or something that can cut straight down. Upon experimenting now, an exacto blade is much much much better - but you have to replace them more often, and they are more expensive.

The big difference between cutting slits in leather and paper (or some other thin material) is the thickness. If a cut is made with a razor blade held at a 45 degree angle to the leahter, the cross section of the cut will look something like this: \____/. Note that it is narrower on the bottom than the top - if the slits are made to be just wide enough for the tapes, the tapes will not be able to go out the bottom. Either cut straight down, using an Exacto knife or a utility knife, or cut the slits wide enough that the exit hole will be big enough for the tapes.

The slits should be cut from the good side of the leather - passing any blade through three layers of leather (as you will do in places) has the tendency of making the exit cut less than straight. So it is better to have the uneven looking cut on the side where it will be covered by the endpapers.

Mark the places where the slits will be in the leather on the good side. Since I am making many books this exact size, I have a pattern with pinholes where the beginnings and endings of all the cuts will be. I use this and a needle to mark, with pin pricks, the starting and ending points of all the cuts. Then I remove the paper and make all the cuts. Since the width of the blade is about the same as the pin prick, the mark will not be visible at all when the binding is done. At this time, one can also cut the slits in the endpapers of the book, keeping in mind that the corner of the book block will line up with the edge of the spine, as shown here. There are no cuts at the spine, but otherwise, the cut pattern is the same.

   
              inside front cover                  inside back cover
             ________________________________    ________________________________
            |                                |  |                                | 
            |                                |  |                                | 
            |  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  | |  | |  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  |  
            |  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  | |  | |  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  |  
            |                                |  |                                | 
            |                                |  |                                | 
            |                                |  |                                | 
            |                                |  |                                | 
            |                                |  |                                | 
            |                                |  |                                | 
            |  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  | |  | |  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  |  
            |  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  | |  | |  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  |  
            |                                |  |                                | 
            |                                |  |                                | 
            |                                |  |                                | 
            |                                |  |                                | 
            |                                |  |                                | 
            |                                |  |                                | 
            |  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  | |  | |  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  |  
            |  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  | |  | |  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  |  
            |                                |  |                                | 
            |________________________________|  |________________________________| 
             

Most of the slits can be made with a straight cut. However, due to the structure of the spine, the slits on either side of the spine and hinges should be made at a 45 degree (aproximately) angle, as shown in the following picture. The |s represent vertical cuts and /s represent angled cuts, assuming that the tapes go through the cover at the same points as in the images above.


             ______________________________ _ __ _ ______________________________
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  /X\  /X\  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  |  
            |  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  /X\  /X\  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  |  
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  /X\  /X\  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  |  
            |  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  /X\  /X\  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  |  
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  /X\  /X\  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  |  
            |  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  /X\  /X\  ||  ||      ||      ||  ||  |  
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |______________________________|_|__|_|______________________________| 
             

Putting the Book Together

You have a cover and a book block - all that remains is putting them together.

It really helps if the ends of the tapes are cut at a point, to make it easer to pull them through the covers. If the book block is not glued, pull on the tapes so that there is aproximately the same lenght on each side of the book block. Start on one side of the book, pull all the three tapes on one side all the way through slit A, shown below. Assure that the corner of the book block is even with the corner of the cover. Then pull the tapes completely through slits B and the corresponding slits in the endpapers, again pulling them tight. Repeat, out C, in D, out E, in F, out G, in H, out I, in J, out K, in L. Then again pull the tapes taut. Repeat for the other side.


             ______________________________ _ __ _ ______________________________
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            | LXXKJXXI    HXXG    FXXEDXXC BXA  |X|  XX  XX      XX      XX  XX  |  
            | LXXKJXXI    HXXG    FXXEDXXC BXA  |X|  XX  XX      XX      XX  XX  |  
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            | LXXKJXXI    HXXG    FXXEDXXC BXA  |X|  XX  XX      XX      XX  XX  |  
            | LXXKJXXI    HXXG    FXXEDXXC BXA  |X|  XX  XX      XX      XX  XX  |  
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            | LXXKJXXI    HXXG    FXXEDXXC BXA  |X|  XX  XX      XX      XX  XX  |  
            | LXXKJXXI    HXXG    FXXEDXXC BXA  |X|  XX  XX      XX      XX  XX  |  
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |______________________________|_|__|_|______________________________| 
             

The cover will now look something like this, with the Xs showing where the tapes are visible:


             ______________________________ _ __ _ ______________________________
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
XXXXXXXXXXXX|  XX  XX      XX      XX  XX  |X|  |X|  XX  XX      XX      XX  XX  |XXXXXXXXXXXX  
XXXXXXXXXXXX|  XX  XX      XX      XX  XX  |X|  |X|  XX  XX      XX      XX  XX  |XXXXXXXXXXXX  
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
XXXXXXXXXXXX|  XX  XX      XX      XX  XX  |X|  |X|  XX  XX      XX      XX  XX  |XXXXXXXXXXXX  
XXXXXXXXXXXX|  XX  XX      XX      XX  XX  |X|  |X|  XX  XX      XX      XX  XX  |XXXXXXXXXXXX  
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
XXXXXXXXXXXX|  XX  XX      XX      XX  XX  |X|  |X|  XX  XX      XX      XX  XX  |XXXXXXXXXXXX  
XXXXXXXXXXXX|  XX  XX      XX      XX  XX  |X|  |X|  XX  XX      XX      XX  XX  |XXXXXXXXXXXX  
            |                              | |  | |                              | 
            |______________________________|_|__|_|______________________________| 
             

To keep the tapes from pulling out through the covers, a few things can be done. They can either be tied in knots, flush with the last slit on the cover. They can be glued down to the inside of the cover. The most visually pleasing way, if the leather is thin, is to loop the paper over and pull it back through the slits - out J, in I, out H, in G, etc, until the end of the tape is reached. This is very difficult if not impossible if the leather is thick.

Finishing

The book is essentially done. If a thin leather was used, rubbing a bone folder lightly on the spine will help to show the raised bands. Use in good heath, and with a little time, your notebook or book will feel, well, perfect.

I began with this design because it was an easy way to start working with leather. I am going to continue to make them because they are the perfect notebook - soft, flexible, stong, and absolutely gorgeous looking.

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