The poor man’s Midori Traveler’s Notebook

by Steve

I don’t remember where I first saw the Midori notebook. But I remember thinking two things at the same time:

  1. Distressed leather is really cool.
  2. What an unusable size.

The leather finally won out and the other night as my mouse cursor hovered over the buy button on a vendor’s website, ready to send the better half of a c-note on a notebook and refills that smarter voice stopped me. “Surely you could make one!” The voice said. “Surely it would be cheaper!” The voice said.

So the next day I stopped by Tandy leather to pick up some leather. I’ve never worked with leather before, and I have to say its an enjoyable experience.

Of course, it comes in cow-shaped pieces, not nice rectangles:

I bought what was classed as 6/7 ounce vegetable tanned leather, which is about 4mm thick. Picking a nice piece is not easy. I can see why quality leather goods are so expensive. You really have to feel it, look at it, and bend it to see what it’s really like before you buy it.

But it was a simple matter to make a paper pattern, and use that to guide the knife around the leather. One of the reasons I made my own notebook was that the Midori size is just strange to me, and the half-letter size has a lot of convenience. I can see where the Midori would be a better fit (maybe) in an inside pocket, but I don’t wear jackets much.

So I made the pattern a simple rectangle 9.5″ x 12″. I think next time I would go to 12.5″, especially if I planned to use three books in the cover.

Once the piece was cut, I folded it to see how stiff the leather really was, and whether it would crease or not.

The lady at the leather store stopped me from buying anything but vegetable tanned leather because she said anything else wouldn’t take a fold. After trying, unsuccessfully to clarify whether it wouldn’t fold because it would crack, or whether it wouldn’t fold because it just wouldn’t take a crease, I decided to take her adamantly given advice and go with the veggie tanned leather. It took a crease just fine, and I probably didn’t even need to wet it, but did anyway. So, I wet the leather, matched corners, folded, and put a board and some weight on it for about an hour:

After letting it dry for a while, I used the crease as a guide to punch holes. About this time I realized I should have done things in a different order:

  1. Measure & cut leather
  2. Sand the rough side (this takes a much finer grade of sandpaper than you’d think. I used 220 grit and that was too coarse)
  3. Punch holes using a straight edge to ensure they end up in a straight line
  4. Fold the leather using the holes to position the crease
  5. Trim edges as necessary

Sanding the rough side of the leather to make it smooth was something I hadn’t even thought of until I noticed the back was really, really fuzzy. I used a random orbit sander and it took more time than I expected. I did it after I’d threaded the book with cord, so I couldn’t do the job properly, but it’s good enough.

Oh, well, this was a prototype anyway.

Then I took my elastic cord, purchased from the fabric store, and threaded it through the 4 holes, two at each end:

Five holes in the spine, four for the binding elastic, one for the band to hold it closed

The holes for the binding elastic were about 1/4" in from the end, and 1/2" apart

I made three trips through the holes, leaving three strands to use for notebooks. Then I used a square knot at one end. I’m not sure the knot’s going to hold.

For the band to hold the book shut, instead of a hole in the middle of the back cover (a very silly place to put it, in my mind) I put another hole in the middle of the spine. then I ran the cord through the hole, around the non-notebook holding strands, and back out. Another knot and Fin!

Well, not really. You see wet leather takes a really long time to dry. I learned that one should take some cheap paper, fold it, put it in the cover, then sandwich that between towels and put a bit of weight on it. Change paper every few hours or so. It takes a while, but until it’s really dry you’ll end up with soggy paper if you use it.

At first I left it completely unfinished, content to let the natural oils in my hands and the divine chaos of every day use to provide the desired patina. After a day or so of this I confronted the fact that I have no patience. I suppose I could have loaned it to some literary desperado to use during their adventures in the west, but desperados are hard to find, and riding in a Volvo doesn’t provide the kind of abuse that riding horseback used to.

I saddle soaped the cover, and then applied some beeswax finish I’d bought at the Walking Store. The the soap brought out a little character, and the wax darkened it a little. I can tell that getting the look I want will be a matter of time, but a lot of it.

Doing it yourself doesn’t save money

I spent about $60 at the leather store, but that included enough leather to make several covers and a 1/8″ punch.

Another $5 at Joann Fabrics getting elastic cord in black and some colors.

Last is the paper to go inside. I sewed some basic signatures out of Crane’s 24lb paper, and some Neenah Atlas bond in 20lb. My wonderful father has offered to make some books out of Strathmore Writing (my favorite paper). Moleskine Cahier notebooks in the large size fit just about right.

I spent $65 to get a $60 notebook, but for me this was preferable because I wanted the experience, the extra leather, and the ability to make it the size I wanted. Of course, answering the inevitable “What’s the leather for?” from my wife with “for your bustier. Where’s a bra I can use for a pattern?” was priceless, but I digress.

I love the feel of the book, and I like the idea of having multiple books in one cover. Not really thrilled with the size (a letter sheet folded in half) and that it doesn’t lay flat. But there’s a certain thingness to this sort of notebook, and I can see why people fork over $60 for one.

The thing about home made stuff for me is that there is a freedom to experiment. If I decide I’d rather use Midori inserts I can just cut the cover down to size. If I need page markers, I can add as many as I want, or change the bands, or do whatever. I can do the same with the Midori cover, but then I’d be ruining something that had a specific design in the first place, where the home made cover was never a specific intent. Using something I made provides some self-actualization, and this makes the book attractive to use even if it’s not the most convenient.

Potential Improvements

  • Using thinner leather and/or chrome tanned to see if not having the crease works better.
  • Making one in reporter’s orientation, with a double layer of leather on the back for writing on.
  • Using regular cord instead of elastic for the binding.


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