Ever since creating the PhotoMemo Film Photographer's Notebook, I've wanted to create a custom leather cover for it. I was lucky enough to partner with Cory Miller of Left Hand Leatherworks in Columbus, OH, who is not only a highly skilled craftsman, but also a photographer and film shooter just like me (and you!) to create the PhotoMemo Leather Cover, which is made entirely by hand and finally available and shipping now in very limited quantites.
I'm going to let Cory tell you about this process from start to finish. All photographs below are by Cory Miller, shot with Ilford HP5+ pushed to 1600 and developed in XTOL. Camera was a Nikon FM3a with 35mm f/2 lens.
When creating a new product the success or failure always hinges on design. I am a big believer in simple and elegant designs that are practical and easy to use while still being aesthetically pleasing. There are many variables that must be accounted for when designing leather products: the thickness of the leather itself, where the stitching will lie, the amount of volume the PhotoMemo book will take up when placed in a pocket, etc. Mike and I spent a lot of time finalizing the design and decided on a cover that accommodates two books and has a cardholder pocket to hold extra items.
After the design is completed and templates are made the next decision is the material itself. When making quality leather goods I strongly believe in using the absolute best materials available and the PhotoMemo Cover is no different. We used vegetable tanned leather from the Hermann Oak tannery. Hermann Oak is one of the few remaining producers of leather in the United States and they have been in business since 1881. Their leather is widely regarded as the finest available. The term vegetable tanned describes the process by which the cowhide is turned into leather. Less than 5% of all leather produced in the world today is vegetable tanned due to the added time and expense. Vegetable tanning generally takes at least thirty days whereas the more common chrome tanning can be completed in just one day. Vegetable tanning is much more environmentally-friendly since the tannins are supplied via natural materials like tree bark as opposed to chrome salts that can be harmful if not properly disposed of. Other benefits to vegetable tanned leather include a firmer temper that will age and patina beautifully over time as well as the ability to burnish the edges to a smooth, glassy shine that is attractive and durable (more on this later).
Now that the design is complete and the material has been selected the time has come to actually start cutting out pieces. The laying out of pieces is a balance of minimizing waste as well as avoiding flaws in the leather. Another benefit to using Hermann Oak leather is that they only select hides with very few flaws; cheaper leather often has many scars or bug bites on the surface that must be avoided. After the layout is completed the individual parts of the book cover are cut out by hand. I prefer to use the fixed-blade Stanley knives and I strop the razor blades to attain the highest level of sharpness. Hand-cutting leather requires a steady hand and lots of concentration. One slip of the knife and the piece ends up in the scrap pile.
After the parts are cut out the next stage is dyeing and preliminary conditioning. This run of PhotoMemo Covers are a nice medium brown color. I use professional water-based dye for several reasons: much like leather, the quality of the finished product depends largely upon the quality of dye used. I prefer water-based dyes over alcohol or oil-based dyes because the alcohol-based dyes tend to leave an uneven finish and oil-based dyes can bleed out of the leather and onto the user. The dyed pieces of leather are allowed to dry for at least 24 hours. The dyeing process tends to dry out the leather and the pieces become quite stiff. I apply a coat of pure neatsfoot oil to the flesh side of the leather to condition it.
The time has come for assembly! Before the pieces can be stitched permanently into place I use an adhesive called Barge Cement to hold the parts in place. This is the same product shoemakers use to attach soles to the uppers of shoes and boots. After the glue has had a few hours to cure it is time to mark where the stitching will go. I use a set of wing dividers to scribe a straight line a consistent distance from the edge. Next I use a set of diamond-shaped chisels to evenly space and punch the holes through the pieces of leather.
Hand-stitching leather is a process that requires a lot of practice to get proficient at, but there is no substitute. The type of stitch used is called the saddle stitch and it is the strongest form of stitching out there. No machine can duplicate a true saddle stitch because it utilizes two needles on each end of the thread. The needles pass through the same hole from opposite side of the leather and cross in the middle. This results in an incredibly durable stitch. Even if one stitch is cut, the rest will not pull out because the friction of the two threads twisted together in between the two pieces of leather holds them in place. The combination of diamond chisels, consistent thread tension, and thousands of practice stitches are what results in the nice diagonal stitching of the finished product.
Before the left interior pocket can be attached, the outside of the PhotoMemo Cover receives its logo. This is accomplished by heating a custom made brass stamp with a torch until it reaches a specific temperature and using a one-ton arbor press to permanently form the impression in the leather. After both pockets are stitched in place, the assembly is complete!
With the PhotoMemo Cover assembled, I now move onto the process of edge finishing. This is an area that is often skipped on commercially produced or lesser quality items because of the time involved. It is a multi-step process of trimming edges flush, beveling, sanding through many grits, and burnishing. Burnishing is the process of wetting the edges and rubbing them with a wooden slicker. The heat produced from the friction seals and hardens the edges making them attractive and durable.
Care and Feeding: from time to time your PhotoMemo cover will need to be conditioned. The leather will appear dry and it will become less flexible. Just about any leather conditioner will do, but stay away from “waterproofing” products and mink oil. Products that I use and like include: Venetian Shoe Cream, Chamberlain’s Leather Milk, and Aussie Leather Conditioner. If you’re in a pinch or don’t want to purchase a bottle of leather conditioner, coconut oil does a good job too. The key to remember with all leather products is a little goes a long way! Don’t overdo it. Apply a thin coat to the leather and give it a few minutes to soak in. Finish by buffing the leather with a soft towel or horsehair brush. If the PhotoMemo Cover gets wet, remove the books and allow the cover to dry flat. After it is dry apply a coat of the conditioner of your choice. I hope you enjoy your PhotoMemo Cover and I’m confident it will give you many years of reliable service!
The final step is finishing. I use a combination of leather conditioners that give the PhotoMemo Cover a finished appearance and provide some protection from the elements. The finish is buffed with a horsehair brush and the PhotoMemo Cover gets shipped to Mike and then to you, the customer!