The Art and Craft of Vintage Leather Journals

There’s something adventurous about a vintage journal. Perhaps because it reminds us of the Captain of ship writing about the fascinating new lands explored on a voyage to the far corner of the earth. Or a keeper of royal secrets scribbling with a quill, tales of treachery, revenge, and adultery into a leather journal bound by lock and key that shall keep the secrets safe for ages to come.

Whatever be the reason, anyone who’s ever used a vintage journal would agree that the excitement of writing in an antique journal is something else. It’s just hard to go back to using a plain old journal after you’ve used a vintage journal.

The best vintage journals are made from high quality leather — most often buffalo leather — and have handmade paper inside them. Since handmade paper is acid free, this ensures that the writing in the journal stays intact for centuries. This is the reason why leather bound journals with handmade paper were used in ancient and medieval texts, and why so many of them survived down to this day in reasonably good condition.

In this post, we look at how vintage leather journals are made, and what makes them so special.

The Making of a Handmade Vintage Journal

The process of making a vintage leather journal varies depending on the specific techniques and materials used by the maker. However, here is a general overview of the process:

  1. First, the leather is cut to size and shaped. The leather may be treated with oils or other substances to soften it and make it more pliable.
  2. The spine of the journal is then created by folding the leather in half and gluing the spine edge.
  3. The pages of the journal are cut to size and sewn into the spine of the leather cover. This can be done by hand or with a sewing machine.
  4. The cover is then decorated or embossed with designs or text, if desired.
  5. Finally, the journal is finished with a protective coating or wax to help preserve the leather and give it a polished look.

This is a very basic overview of the process, and there may be many additional steps involved, depending on the complexity of the journal being made. 

We next turn to understanding the two things that make a vintage journal great — the leather and the handmade paper — and how you can choose the best of each.

Understanding Leather — Full Grain, Top Grain, Genuine

The leather used in an antique journal, or in any leather item for that matter, is one of the three types — full grain leather, top grain leather, and genuine leather. The difference lies in which part of the hide the leather comes from. Full grain is the best quality, coming from the outermost cut of the hide, and genuine, despite its name, is usually considered the most inferior of the three. Though this, by no means that genuine leather is not of good quality. Just that full grain is better.

Here is a brief overview of the differences between these three types of leather:

  1. Full grain leather: Full grain leather is made from the top layer of the hide, and it has not been sanded or buffed to remove any imperfections. As a result, full grain leather retains all of the natural characteristics of the hide, including any marks or scars. Full grain leather is the strongest and most durable type of leather, as it has not been altered in any way. It is also the most expensive type of leather.
  1. Top grain leather: Top grain leather is made from the second layer of the hide, which is the layer just below the full grain leather. It has been sanded and buffed to remove imperfections, and a polymer coating is applied to the surface to give it a uniform appearance. Top grain leather is less durable and less expensive than full grain leather, but it is still of good quality.
  1. Genuine leather: Genuine leather is made from the lower layers of the hide, which are not as strong or durable as the top layers. It is often made from scraps of leather that are ground up and bonded together with a polymer or other adhesive. Genuine leather is the least expensive and least durable type of leather. It is often used in low-quality or inexpensive leather goods.

It is worth noting that the term “genuine leather” can be misleading, as it suggests that the product is made from high-quality leather when this is not necessarily the case. “Genuine leather” is a broad term that can refer to any type of leather that is made from real animal hide, regardless of its quality.

Water Buffalo Leather — The Best Leather for Vintage Journals

The best quality vintage journals are made either from cowhide or water buffalo leather. Water buffalo leather especially tends to be favored for making vintage journals because of its durability and versatility. 

The Asiatic water buffalo is an animal that is mostly found in South and Southeast Asia. Nearly 60% of the world’s water buffalo population is concentrated in India, where it is the main milch cattle. This is also the reason why some of the best vintage leather journals are made in India.

Thailand, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are other countries with significant water buffalo populations. 

The reason buffalo leather is preferred over other kinds of leather in the making of vintage journals is because of its:

  1. Durability: Buffalo leather is known for its strength and durability, making it a good choice for products that are subjected to heavy use or wear and tear. It is resistant to tearing and scuffing, and it holds up well over time.
  2. Versatility: Buffalo leather is suitable for a wide range of applications, including furniture, clothing, and accessories. It can be dyed, embossed, or printed to create a variety of different looks and finishes.
  3. Natural look: Buffalo leather has a natural, rugged look that is often appreciated by those who prefer a more rustic or earthy aesthetic.
  4. Breathability: Buffalo leather is more breathable than other types of leather, making it a good choice for products that will be worn next to the skin. It is less prone to causing sweating or irritation.
  5. Value for money: Buffalo leather is generally more affordable than other types of high-quality leather, such as full grain cowhide leather, making it a good value for money. 

Handmade Paper for Vintage Journals

Handmade paper is paper that is made by hand using traditional papermaking techniques. IT uses recycled material such as cotton rag, rather than wood pulp. This in fact, was how paper was made for most of human history, until wood pulp based paper became popular in the 19th century. We’ve got a pretty detailed post on the history of handmade paper here, if you want to know more.

But if you’re short on time, here is a basic overview of how handmade paper is made:

  1. First, the papermaker collects fibers from a variety of sources, such as recycled paper, cotton rags, or plant fibers like flax or hemp. The fibers are then soaked in water to soften them and separate them from any dirt or impurities.
  2. Next, the fibers are beaten or ground into a pulp using a machine called a Hollander beater. The pulp is then mixed with water to create a slurry.
  3. The slurry is then poured onto a flat surface called a mold, which is covered with a screen or mesh. The screen helps to hold the fibers in place while the water is drained away, leaving a thin layer of fibers on the screen.
  4. The paper is then pressed to remove excess water, and it is allowed to air dry or is dried using a press or other method.
  5. Once the paper is dry, it can be cut to size and used in a variety of applications.

Making handmade paper is a labor-intensive process that requires skill and attention to detail. Which is why handmade paper is often made in small batches, which allows the papermaker to have more control over the final product and create papers with unique textures and characteristics. 

And this, in a nutshell, folks, is also the reason why your handmade vintage journal is so precious. It’s all the labor and all the love that goes into its making.

Great Vintage Journals and Where to Find Them

We’ll do another post on some of our favorite leather vintage journals. But if you’re someone who’s just looking to buy their first ever vintage leather journal, we’d recommend this one by Daachi.

Vintage Handmade Leather Journal With Deckle Edged Paper – Leather Bound Antique Sketch Book, Green, 7.5×5.5 inches

The reason we love this journal is well, because it is one of the most pocket friendly journals we’ve used. At less than $20, for a journal with 120 individual sheets of 150 GSM thickness, we feel it’s a steal. The paper used is handmade deckle-edged paper, and we love the little wrap around cord with a little brass compass attached to it at the end. A lovely journal that makes for a great gift, and is easy on the pocket too. 

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