Leather Hogwarts: A History How-To

Let’s say you want to show off your Harry Potter street cred with the world’s coolest coffee-table book. Or you want a super-geeky guestbook or photo album for your wedding. Or you just can’t resist a really awesome craft project. How about one of these?

Hogwarts: A History Finished Book Cover(Full size picture at the end of the post.)

Now, this is by no means the fanciest book cover out there. This is, in fact, an easy beginner’s project. If you want fancier inspiration, try over here. But let me tell you, this baby looks, feels, and smells like something out of an old-school library, and it works great on a coffeetable or book case. It’s got a three-dimensional design on the front, and it is 100% unique in the world, which just feels damned cool.

[To the HP fans out there who’ve done the mandatory double-take: Remember that whole “custom” thing? Yeah. This is actually a fan art prop for a live-action Harry Potter roleplaying game I wrote, where some of the players created a fifth house. Works just as well with the normal seal, though!]

This tutorial was originally written for a wedding forum; I’ve tried to clean up most of the references, but if I’ve missed some, I apologize in advance.

You’ll Need:

[Note: I am including links to Tandy Leather pages with example products on them. Please do not take this as a brand endorsement or any such thing; I’ve had a good experience with my local Tandy store in the past, but I haven’t done any kind of price checking even within the Tandy pages to find you the cheapest option, and in some cases I’m linking to a known ridiculously-expensive version because it has a better photo. This is just as a convenience so people who haven’t worked with leather before can visualize what I’m talking about.]

– The book you want to cover. You will want to make sure this book has a heavy inside-cover-sheet (whatever those are called) if you want to actually *oil* the cover as I did, rather than applying a stain; the oil can leak through normal paper and damage the book over time.

– A sheet of thin (I like 2-3 oz) tooling leather that’s as tall as your book, and about four to six inches longer than the distance around the cover of your closed book. (That flexible excess is what will fold around on the inside; you can decorate that too, if you’re so inclined.) Note that this is the biggest expense of the project, not because the leather you need for this project is so expensive (at current prices, the book above was probably $12-18) but because unless you get lucky and find a perfectly-sized piece of scrap at your local leather store, or have a friend with a leather supply on hand willing to sell you chunks (if you’re in Boston, feel free to get in touch) you’re likely to need to buy a much larger piece than you need. On the bright side, that excess can turn into other projects; more books, awesome luggage tags, leather masks, wallets, you name it.

– A swivel knife, beveler (for making edges stand out; I like to use a very tiny one, but it really depends on the intricacy of your design; the larger you get, the faster the work goes, but the harder it is to get tiny corners), and pear shader (for making indented backgrounds and letters; there are hundreds of other shaders out there if you want, say, nubbly background instead of my generic one. Again, smaller tools mean more work but more control.)

– A mallet, for applying the beveler and shader above

– A stylus, for tracing the design into the leather

Tracing film (thin, translucent plastic that you can write on then press a stylus into leather through without punching holes) or a very steady hand (probably combined with a projector) for transferring the design onto the leather

– A spray-bottle filled with water, or a clean sponge and a dish of water.

– Paint or stain for decorative color. I used Eco-Flo Cova Color paint for my wide color variety, but this varies a *lot*; if you want monotone (the classic tooled leather look, with a base color and vividly darker shadows) you can get all-in-one stains and antiques, or you can do what I did and get color paints. You can also use plain old acrylic paint on leather, although I have never tested the lifespan; the leather paints I have are acrylic with some extra binding medium, I think. Cost will of course depend on number of colors, type of paint, etc. If using things that are not advertised as all-in-one, you will probably also want a finish.

Neatsfoot oil, if you want the dark oiled-leather look you see above.

– I also used gum tragacanth, rubbed with a piece of smooth plastic, to make the cut edges of the leather look neater; whether you want this or not really depends on how perfectionist you’re feeling. Skipping it will just give you a more rustic look.

So, is this the cheapest project out there? It does require an initial investment in a handful of leatherworking tools and supplies. I spent about $80 on my first set, getting most of the stamps as a set; you can go cheaper if you get the bare minimum you need for your project, or pretty arbitrarily high if you want fancy effects. And you probably have leftover leather. So– it’s very cheap if you’re likely do to other leatherworking, and expensive if this is the only project you’ll ever do. Up to you. You may have a local leather store that’s happy to help you give it a try, though.

Skills Required:

– A steady hand

– Patience

– You may also find it handy to watch some of the basic leather tooling how-to videos you can find on YouTube, so you have a better idea of what’s going on. But honestly, I managed pretty well for my first project without it!

So without further ado, let’s get started!


First, you’ll want to transfer your design to the tracing film. I recommend tracing the entire outline of your cover so that you can fold it over and see how it falls on the book and so you have a consistent alignment. You may want to test this on paper first, since my first attempt had the design well off to one side of where I’d expected it to be based on my first sketch. You’ll want to leave a little space around the sides so you can tape the leather and the film together. I’ve used masking tape, painter’s tape, and scotch tape successfully; you just may need to scrap residue off of the leather afterwards.

You’ll see in these pictures that I actually traced the entire design before cutting the leather out of the main piece; that’s just so it was easier to anchor the tracing film. It will work in either order. I only wanted a front cover design here, but you can see where I would have put, say, spine lettering. Front-only makes alignment mistakes less visible, though!

Next up, transferring the design to the leather! Lay out your leather and use the spray bottle or sponge to get the leather thoroughly but evenly damp, then let it sit just long enough for it to return to a pale brown close to the original color. Put the tracing film over the top, attach it, and use the stylus to trace the design through the film into the leather. You should need to press, but not *too* hard; if you start getting a lot of resistance, you may need to wet the leather down again. Make sure to give it time to soak in, and it helps to keep one side of your tracing film attached during this process so that you don’t have to worry about slight misalignments in the design. The picture below is partially traced, and you can see that I’ve just rewet it; the darker spots still need time to soak in.

Here’s the traced design. I’ve dampened the entire cover, waited for it to soak in, then folded it around the book. When the leather is damp like this, it will maintain a shape; this is how I can create a slipcover that doesn’t actually slip off, and fits the book perfectly. It helps to check the alignment at this stage, but I recommend that you don’t be as impatient as I was to see how cool it will look; the leather is easier to tool if it’s perfectly flat, I promise.

Next, we use the swivel knive to shallowly cut along each of the lines in the design. This will allow us to use the bevellers to create very crisp edges and make the design really pop. See the difference? Here, the letters (including the central H) and the snake have not been cut, while the other animals and the seal outline have.

If you’ve never used a swivel knife before, take a piece of scrap leather and practice a bit before starting. I find that they work best held at a slight angle to the leather, with my index finger in the saddle-thing and my thumb and middle finger turning the blade, but really, do whatever works best for you. You can, in theory, do this exact same thing with another knife, like an x-acto blade, but be *very* careful not to cut all the way through the leather.

Once we’ve cut out the outline of the design, we use our bevellers. The edge beveller should be placed with the deeper edge along one of your cut lines, in the place you want to be the “outside” or lower area; then hit it briskly with the mallet, move the beveller slightly to the side, hit again, repeat until your animal looks raised or letter looks indented. Then you can use the pear shader or other background tool to indent the rest of the lowered area, if you want to create a more intense contrast. I like the mottled look one gets from a pear shader used to get an imperfectly flat background, myself:

Hopefully you can see here that the animals look noticably raised, and the entire seal looks nicely three-dimensional. After this, I did use the beveller to go around the outside of the seal as well, and make the little curled-over bits look more in the background by using the beveller just along the edge where a shadow would be. Playing with these effects is half of the fun of tooling, but it’s hard to give you exact directions without knowing your design. In this case, other good places to lightly bevel are where you’d expect shadows in a 3d model; next to the beaver’s tail, the badger’s arm, or the inside of the eagle’s wing, for example. After all that is done, it looks about like this:

Next, we apply paint to the design. Handily, those edges make it a lot easier to make the paint go only where you want! I do recommend that if you have an intricate design, you acquire small paintbrushes, though. It really helps. Keep in mind that you will want multiple coats of light colors like yellow, especially if they’re adjacent to areas that will be oiled; the oil dramatically darkens the leather, and you *will* see your brushstrokes if it’s thin.

Once we’ve finished with the paint, we let it dry thoroughly, then apply a finish as needed. In particular, I was planning to antique this, and didn’t want the dark antique gel to completely eliminate my colors; the finish acts as a light resist, allowing me to easily wipe away excess stain. I used a satin finish on this, not a high-gloss, since I wanted it to look fairly matte and antiqued. You can’t really see that here, but hey.

If you haven’t already damped your leather and shaped it to your book, now is an excellent time to do so. Remember, you do *not* want the leather to be wet to the touch; it should feel cool and heavy, but not leave your fingers moist. If you wait until it has returned to a pale brown color after thorough dampening, it should still be quite flexible to the touch without getting your book wet at all. Once it’s onto the book, smooth it flat and let it sit until completely dry, and it will retain its shape.

Next, apply oil generously to the cover. I found applying oil on both the inside and outside of the leather worked very well. Be aware that if you oil behind your paints, the colors *will* darken! Heavily tooled areas, like my letters, will take on a noticably darker color once oiled than the base leather, giving you an easy way to produce an antiqued look with zero effort. The oil will take some time to soak in, and seep into adjacent areas so I recommend brushing it on generously without worrying too much about small missed spots, and then coming back for a second or third coat in a couple of hours. When it’s been fully oiled, it *will* feel very greasy; let it sit overnight or better yet for a couple of days until the leather has fully absorbed it, and then wipe off the excess. From experience, I would make sure not to put the cover onto the book until it’s had a few days to absorb and been wiped down, or you may get oil stains. (Whoops.)

Finally (although you could just as easily have done this any time after the finish is 100% dry), apply the antique. Leather antiques are designed to highlight your tooling and make there be high contrast between the shadows and raised areas in your design; YouTube can tell you allll about them. In short, you want to daub them onto your design, then wipe them gently off so they’re left in cracks and shallow areas. For this particular piece, I only wanted a very light antiquing, to look like the book had been weathered through age. It’s a little hard to see with the glare here (sorry), but the beaver looks a lot less like a squirrel now, the eyes on the various animals are clearer, and there’s a bit more visible texture to the backgrounds, particularly Hufflepuff. This is a black antique, if it’s not clear.

Finally, I applied tiny amounts of gum tragacanth (clear and slightly sticky, and appears to dramatically enhance the effects of friction) and rubbed vigorously along the edges of the leather to leave them smooth rather than slightly fuzzy.

And thus, our final product:

The coolest slipcover for a LARP compendium ever. If you wanted this to be a more permanent cover (rather than this, which is currently living on Deathly Hallows and will migrate once I learn enough bookbinding and LaTeX page-size-hacking to actually produce that compendium) it’s easy to do. Punch a series of holes in the top and bottom of the cover, and a matched set on the folded-over section and do a round stitch with either artificial sinew (for a thready look) or leather lace (for a rustic look). Tandy sells punches for either of these, and it’s really quite easy. Slip the book in, sew the cover on, and voila!

And since it’s a FAQ: I do intend to sell more standard versions of these on Etsy at some point in the near future. If you want one, feel free to let me know and I’ll raise that higher in the priority queue.

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