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Upcycled leather - a step by step mini tutorial


by Benjamin Elbel, 7 April 2020

This step by step tutorial describes a method for creating textures and patterns onto suede leather, in order to use it as covering material for bindings, boxes, portfolios, etc.

INTRODUCTION

The development of this method goes back to the years 2011-2012. In those days, I was working in a London bindery. We had a splitting machine, which we used a lot, and used to throw away bags full of suede (the part that gets split off, considered a waste), I thought it was a shame, and wondered if anything could be done with it.

I am not fond of using suede as it is for covering as I find it too vulnerable to be placed on the outside of a binding. To use it as lining for boxes or endpapers is an option, but the suede that comes out of the splitting machine is not always right for that purpose in terms of texture, not to mention that it is rarely perfectly even in colour. So...what else do with all this 'waste'?

At this time I was (and still am) looking for non-traditional ways to decorate/design my bindings. From a French colleague, I had heard of a method consisting of applying tissue paper to leather, as a last resort option for salvaging a disappointing design binding (!) I was intrigued but also found the idea of messing around with leather, the king of bookbinding materials, quite shocking, a sin really! On the other hand, I didn't see any objections to potentially spoiling a material that would otherwise end up in the bin. And this is how this leather upcycling process, which satisfies both the desire to do something with waste, and the ambition to create original designs, came to be.

I call it upcycled to differenciate it from recycled leather, which is an entirely different process consisting of creating a new material which resembles leather, using leather pulp (similar to what MDF is compared to wood).

The upcycling process on the other hand does not try to imitate, or recreate leather, but produces a new material that has some of the original qualities of leather (the integrity of the suede is preserved), with entirely new looks. It is like creating a new hair side to a piece of suede, but not one that looks like leather.

I have identified 5 steps to the process, which I'll describe in detail, but first let's take a look at what is needed to create upcycled leather.

 

MATERIALS AND SUPPLIES

  • Suede leather: you want it fairly thick (at least 0.6mm), which will make it less prone to waving, and more resistant during the (at times violent!) process. You can always have it re-split to the desired thickness afterwards. It can be suede from any kind of animal (goat, calf, pig, etc) tanned in any kind of way (vegetable or chrome, doesn't matter). Use light rather than dark shades.
  • Tissue paper, various colours
  • PVA adhesive and a roller to apply it
  • Paste
  • Meshes, plates with holes, grids, things like that
  • Sheet material like Melinex, silicon release paper, wax paper
  • Sandpaper (100 - 120 grit) attached to sanding block
  • Masking tape
  • A nipping press
  • Brush (big, thick and round)
  • Card board (2 - 3mm thick)
  • Optional: Plastazote

STEP NO. 1:  PVA THE SUEDE

 

Tape the edges of your piece of suede to a slightly larger piece of cardboard. If the suede is a little wavy, or has areas that are softer or more flexible, stretch it and cut off the stretched out parts. You want to end up with a rectangular and flat piece of suede drummed to cardboard.
Next, apply the PVA. There is a variety of ways to do this, the most straightforward one being to simply paint the entire surface evenly with a roller. However, if you don't do it this way, well, that's when interesting things happen so I would recommend that you apply the PVA in a creative way rather than the neat way. This can be done by applying it through a mesh, or a stencil so it is only partially impregnated, or you could do it by stamping, picking up glue with the edge of a piece of corrugated card and applying it randomly (or not), or with a hand made stamping roller such as a tube with cord wrapped around, etc. Another idea is to apply the PVA evenly with a roller, and then to 'disturb' the glue layer by picking up the adhesive here and there with a brush, by scratching, drawing figures, etc.

 


STEP NO. 2: APPLY THE TISSUE PAPER

Here again, there are ways to force interesting things to happen. You can either neatly apply one piece over the whole thing, or you can apply several pieces of various colours, cut up in strips, torn, pleated, creased, screw punched, wrinkled, etc. The paper can cover the whole surface, or just parts of it, several strips can overlap, etc.
You might also consider newspaper instead of tissue, which can result in very interesting effects.

STEP NO. 3: PRESS

Now that you have glued your tissue to your suede, you need to press it. The best way to do this is to give it a 'nip' in a bookbinding press. Remember to put a sheet of non-stick paper (silicon release, baking paper, that kind of thing) against the tissue because the PVA will undoubtedly go through it.
Again, at this stage too are we presented with design opportunities. An even pressing of an evenly applied, evenly glued out piece of tissue will result in an even (read: boring) surface. On the other hand, uneven pressing, or pressing with textured items between the paper and the press (meshes, grids, paper snippets, etc) will inevitably result in visual effects, for better or for worse. Only a short amount of time (few seconds) in the press is needed (but leaving it longer won't hurt).


Photo by Vanessa Kappler

STEP NO. 4: SAND

Now begins the very messy part of this process, the one that will make you wish you never started. If you can, do this outside, and if not, be prepared for the consequences (I'm joking, it ain't that bad).
Essentially, what you want to do is remove as much of the tissue paper as you can. What ends up staying on the surface is more a mixture of PVA and dyes from the tissue paper. If you have used newspaper, what will remain is what is printed on it, but it will be mirrored.
I have tried doing this with power tools (electric sanding machine), but I did not find it to speed up, or facilitate the process in any way, strangely enough. I would recommend 100-120 grit sandpaper, attached to a sanding block, and some good old elbow grease.
Because we used PVA and not paste, we can proceed with this operation shortly after the pressing, let's say 20 minutes to be on the safe side. 
And that's the point when I start sounding like a broken record, are you ready?Once again, there are various ways to perform this operation. If regular sanding doesn't produce any exciting results, you might want to try creative sanding. To do this, you need to release the leather from the board, at least partially, so you are able to introduce a textured plate, mesh or grid (the same you may have used in steps 1 and 3) under the leather. This will create new textures, but be careful not to make any holes...




STEP NO. 5: SURFACE TREATMENTS

At this point, if you aren't satisfied with your piece, go back to step 1 and repeat until step 4. The good news is that you can do this as many times as you want! The only limit is that your piece will tend to become darker and darker, because it isn't really possible to lighten up a piece. This is also why I recommend using light coloured suedes as start up canvases, rather than dark ones.
When you are satisfied with your result, make sure you have sanded the surface all over, and that no loose bits of paper remain. If this is the case, you are ready for step 5. We can distinguish two purposes to this last step:

The first one is to flatten the surface, if it has become uneven through sanding or pressing. To achieve this, we proceed to a long (at least 24 hours) pressing with, against the 'hair' side of the leather, a hard and smooth surface, and against the suede side, a thick padding (e.g. Plastazote). Over time, the padding will force the leather against the hard material, and the unevenness of the hair side will be transferred to the suede side. You can then even the suede side out by sanding, or splitting the piece.

The second purpose of step 5 is to seal the surface, and give it a more desirable finish. This is achieved by paste washing the surface, and then plating. 

Paste washing is done by preparing 'paste water', a mixture with a lot of water and a tiny amount of paste. Apply it quickly, with a large brush over the entire piece. The colours will change, and some of the subtleties might temporarily disappear, but they should come back once the piece is dry again. Leave to dry for a few minutes, or at least until any pools of water have disappeared, but not until dry, then put in the press.
Instead of paste water, you can use PVA water, prepared in the same way. Generally speaking, paste will give a more matte and PVA a more glossy finish. To be convinced of that you can make the following experiment, made by one of my students once, by mistake: apply pure PVA instead of PVA water, and plate with Melinex: the result is extremely high gloss, similar to water proof table cloths, or what I believe is called patent leather. Striking, but not so appropriate for bookbinding, at least not in my opinion.

Plating consists of pressing the leather with a plating sheet against the hair side. I have found that doing this when the surface is still damp, and for a long period of time, allowing the leather to dry in this position, delivers the best results. Against the suede side, you can put Plastazote if you intend to flatten the surface as well; if not, greyboard, or a wooden board will do. Against the hair side, a smooth wooden board, and in between board and leather: the plating material. I have tried silicon release paper (or baking paper), Melinex, wax paper. You can experiment with other types of materials, as long as they are not likely to stick! You pick the material according to the effect you wish to obtain. My preferred option is silicon release paper which I have found to give a lovely matte finish, but some projects might benefit from a slightly more shiny look, which Melinex will enhance. As for wax paper, it will create a...waxy finish!
Take out of the press 24 hours later. Your piece of up cycled leather is finished!

            From the archive: some of my bindings with upcycled leather

 

Made by students during a workshop


CONCLUSIONS

 Some of the strong points of this technique are:

  • the possibility to create a new attractive material from waste
  • the low cost
  • being able to layer effects virtually indefinitely and the fact that almost nothing is irreversible: if you make a wrong move you can always reverse it, or cover it up with another effect
  • the beauty of the distressed look
  • allows beautiful forwarding, can be pared, corners can be as neat as with 'real' leather 

To end with, I would like to mention a detail that you might want to think about if you are going to use up cycled leather for bindings. Please note that although it is possible to use upcycled leather for tight hinges (traditional binding style), slightly unattractive pleats do tend to appear there. To avoid that, I would recommend choosing structures that have wider hinges (French grooves), or three-piece type bindings (dos rapporté, crisscross) where the material is not subject to movement.  

And finally, you might be wondering, what do we know about the longevity of this material? Unfortunately, I don't have any definitive answer to that, I can only tell you that I haven't observed any deterioration to the bindings I have made using this material, 9 years ago. So let's talk about this again in 50 years, shall we? In the meantime, I hope you'll have produced a lot of up cycled leather and created many bindings, boxes and portfolios with it.

Happy upcycling !






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