The poor man’s Midori Traveler’s Notebook

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.


24 thoughts on “The poor man’s Midori Traveler’s Notebook

  1. I had the same thoughts as you except that I already purchased the Midori Traveller notebook. I didn’t like the size either so I ordered a large piece of leather to mine one of my own. I’ve had the leather for awhile not and haven’t gotten around to do anything with it. Thank you for being the Guinea pig ;o) BTW: you didn’t include a picture of the finished notebook. Can you add one? I’m curious.


    1. Hi Julie,

      Thanks for the comment, and I can NOT believe I didn’t include a shot of the completed book. I’ve added one, it’s at the bottom of the post.

      Today I picked up some more leather to make a pocket sized book. It gets addicting 🙂


      1. Actually I like it. I have the brown regular size Midori, BUT it is too big sometimes so i wanted to get the passport size, BUT (yet again, lol) I want the Camel Midori since it’s a sandy color. Could you make something of the sort?


  2. Looks really good! Seemed like quite a bit of work but interesting to see how you do it all. The experience will help for sure! Thanks for showing us your hard work. Hope you will show us your next one too! 😀 Again, great job!


    1. Thanks for the comment!

      I made two small covers on Saturday, but I tried to be too smart and both ended up too small. Sunday I made a new small and large, both out of the thinner leather. They’re drying now,

      Typical do it yourself project – try to save money and end up spending twice as much. 😎


      1. “Typical do it yourself project – try to save money and end up spending twice as much.”

        haha so true! But I also really don’t like the midori sizes, so I am planning to follow the lead of another blogger I found that took a moleskine-style notebook and punched holes in the spine to thread the elastic.


  3. I’ve had a similar idea, but haven’t gotten the leather to do it from scratch. But Tandy also has a journal kit that is a front and back cover that is stitched and then there is a lace that you can slide a book behind. I made one for myself and one for my daughter.

    You can also get dyes that can add both a little to a lot different color to the leather and makes it a bit less susceptible to staining.

    I really like what you’ve done


    1. Hi Ted,

      Many thanks for the kind words!

      I’ll have to check out their journal kits. I almost bought some dye when I picked up the second hunk of leather, but when the lady started explaining that a sealer was involved, I decided to do a little more research before trying it. I do want to get some though, in a medium dark brown.


  4. Chrome tanned leather will take a fold but the area over the fold will be lighter than the rest of the leather. You can find heavy weight leather on eBay for not too much money. I found I needed a piece of leather 9×12.75 to cover my sketchbooks best, plus hold the random folded in half sheets of paper. I made my own but instead of stacking the holes on the spine like the Midori TN I put them side by side. I used 4oz leather I got on ebay for about $20 for a quarter side.

    You can color leather with watered down acrylic paint, I used a mix of burnt umber and raw sienna to get the color I liked. I rubbed it on, then rubbed most off. After it dried I used an iron to heat wax into the leather. I put a ton of extra wax on the leather and had to scrape a lot off. after it was to the level I wanted I buffed it to a nice sheen with an old t-shirt.

    I have pics on my blog. I should probably do a tutorial on the process, it’s easy and looks awesome.


  5. LOVE the tutorial!! I bought leather in December to try this out and never got around to it. Thank you for helping re-energize me! What dimensions did you use for the smaller version?



    1. Hi Susan,

      Here’s what I’ve found works best.

      Find the filler notebooks you’re going to use. Then cut a piece of leather much larger than needed, wet it, and fold it. When it’s dry insert the filler notebook and mark the end holes. I put them about 1/8″ past the end of the notebook, but it doesn’t seem to be critical. Then punch those holes, and punch a set about 1/2″ inside those. Punching after the folding makes it much, much easier to make sure the holes end up on the crease (punch from inside out) than punching and then folding.


  6. It cost you more to make because you had no idea where to get the leather from. You could have ordered a bag a scraps/remnants from any leather supplier for $10 to $20 which would have given you enough material to make at least 4+ notebooks among other things. I made this notebook and although they claim it is veg tan leather, It feels more like oil tanned leather so that is what I made mine out of. If you place the two next to one another, the only difference in the two is the clasps they have at the top. I could not find that so I used a wooden bead. Looks great and all of the Midori accessories fit perfectly.


  7. I have made a couple of these for my own use, but didn’t spend big bucks on the leather. I found leather squares at Michael’s that were almost the perfect size and only had to cut one edge to make it work. I spent $12 on the leather and the rest of the stuff, I had lying around, or salvaged from some useless piece of odds ‘n ends.


    1. Hi Susan – Thanks for the comment!

      I’ve made them in the Midori width, and wide enough to fit a booklet made by folding a letter sheet in half. The larger width would also take a Moleskine Cahier notebook. I use the Midori sized one – kind of a love/hate relationship. Love the feel, the idea, and the monthly grid planner as a log. I hate the size, and cramped writing.

      How many journals you want to fit in depends on how you put the cord in, and how many you want but I think 4 is a practical limit. I’ve got two in mine, and I would hesitate to add a third. It can be done, but it means shifting the books around as you change from writing on the left-hand page to the right-hand.


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