Customize Your Journal

If you’re a person that likes to carry a journal with you, then you shouldn’t carry a boring, run-of-the-mill journal, should you?  Make your journal stand out with an easy upgrade.  Stick around and I’ll walk you through how I did it.

Watch the video for a full walk-through. Keep reading for more in-depth steps.

On the left is the journal fresh off the shelf. Finished product is on the right.

Above, the journal on the left is how I started.  I got a few of these journals on sale from Michael’s shortly after the holidays (here’s a comparable version on Amazon).  I knew, based on a video from David Picciuto, that this was possible, I just hadn’t tried it yet (primarily because he uses a laser cutter, which I didn’t have until recently).  Fear not, I don’t use a laser in this guide.  While that does make it a lot quicker, that’s not a tool that everyone has access to.  Instead, you can complete this upgrade with just

  • A jigsaw,
  • A power drill,
  • A sander (depending on the wood you use, sanding by hand could be sufficient)

Selecting the material you’ll be using is the largest variable for how many steps will be involved for your specific journal.  If you don’t have access to a bandsaw, it’d be wise to start with material that is 1/8-inch thick.  Here’s some plywood I’ve used for multiple projects, which would work well with these journals.  If you want to use thicker stock, as I did, that’s perfectly fine, just keep in mind you’ll need some way to get it down to about 1/8-inch thickness.

Step 1 – Remove the old covers

Removing the covers. The rings should close on the backside of the journal, pry them apart slightly to remove the cover.

Before we can do much else, we need to remove the old covers from the journal.  We’ll use these as as a template to create our new covers, so don’t toss them out yet. 

This may vary slightly based on your specific journal, but for the most part, the rings that make up the binding on the journal should be able to spread apart pretty easily, just enough to slide the covers out.  Don’t pull them apart too far, or you could have difficulty keeping them in a nice round ring shape when closing them at the end of the project. 

Set the notepad section somewhere safe for now.

Step 2 – Create the template

Trace along the outside edge of the cover to make your template.

Grab one of those covers, and set it on your material.  Do your best to prevent the cover from shifting while you complete the template.  If possible, I suggest using masking tape to keep it securely in place. 

Trace along the outside edge of the cover, then mark out where the holes will be.  Rather than marking all the hole locations with the marker, I used a spring-loaded punch to create a divot, to be sure the drill bit doesn’t wander too far off track.  You don’t need a special punch to do this, just about anything that will leave a small indentation in the material will do.

Marking the hole locations.
Template traced, and hole locations punched.

Step 3 – Drill the holes

With the template traced, and the hole locations marked, we can now move on to actually making this material closely resemble the covers we removed. 

To start, we’ll drill out the holes.  My journal had 1/4-inch holes, be sure to measure yours!  When drilling these out, it’s best to have them on a surface that you can safely drill into (like a piece of scrap wood).  This, obviously, keeps you from drilling into something you don’t want holes in, but it also improves the look of your cover.  With no support behind it, the wood is prone to chip out around the drill bit as it exits the wood.

Without support, the backside of the wood blew out as the bit exited the wood.
While there is still some chip out, it is much better with the wood supported.

If you’re using thicker stock, as I did, and plan to re-saw it down to the right thickness, I recommend using a drill press for these holes.  That will ensure the holes are drilled perpendicular to the surface of the material, and will line up correctly after re-sawing. 

If you’re using thinner material to begin with, using a regular power drill is perfectly acceptable, just do your best to ensure you drill straight through the material, and not at an extreme angle.

Step 4 – Sanding & (possibly) Resawing

Sanding now ensures a smooth surface before re-sawing (if necessary).

Grab your dust mask!  It’s time to sand. 

  • If you started with thinner material, you’re in luck, as it is most likely already rather smooth.  Still, I’d recommend starting at 120 or 150 grit to clean up any slight imperfections.  Do be careful, though.  If you’re using a plywood or another veneered material, aggressive sanding can make that outer veneer disappear.  
  • If you’re working with a thicker piece, right now you just want to sand the surface smooth enough to be a good reference for you bandsaw when you re-saw it, so I wouldn’t go past 120-grit yet.  Once it’s smooth, set your fence it just a hair over 1/8-inch, and slice that bad boy up.  
Resawing the blank into 1/8″ boards.

Now, whether you just re-sawed a board or are working with your original, thin material, we want to keep sanding a bit.  You don’t need to sand it past 220-grit if you don’t want, but I like the extra smoothiness (that’s a word, right?) of a nice 320-grit finish.   Be sure to sand the edges of the boards as well, and quickly sand the corners to be sure they aren’t sharp enough to be annoying.

Step 5 – Applying a finish

My first instinct was to skip a finish on my journal.  I felt it’d be fine on its own, the wood wouldn’t be subjected to a lot of torture, as I don’t know how frequently I’ll be lugging this thing around.  But I decided that I should do something to give it some protection.  If I have it on a table, and there’s a spill, I’d regret pretty quickly that I skipped an easy step.

I went with a VERY simple finish for my journal. Paste wax. Wipe it on, rub it in, buff it out.

It’s up to you on the finish you’d like to use.  If you think your journal is going to see some hard times, then a hardy finish would be wise.  Wipe-on Poly is fairly simple to apply, and is easy to get from many stores.  I opted for a simple paste wax.  I used a blue shop towel, got some wax on there, and just rubbed it into the wood.  After it sat for about 15 minutes, I came back with a clean towel and wiped away the excess wax, and buffed out the surface.  It’s a nice finish that doesn’t take away from the natural beauty of the wood (especially that Paduak I used, I just love that stuff!)

An important thought on finish selection. If you’re looking into other options to finish your piece, I’d be vary wary of oil-based finishes for this particular project.  While those are great choices in a lot of situations, you could open your journal one day to find the pages near the front/back covers have oil spots on them. 

It’s hard to know when those oils have fully cured (temperature and humidity can affect this), and even if your cover feels like the oil has all soaked in to the wood, the paper spends a lot of time pressed right up against that wood, and has ample opportunities to grab some of that oil and just soak it in. 

I learned this the hard way with paper tags I had on cutting boards.  The cutting boards had been finished for well over a month, but I believe the temperature and humidity changes that come with Minnesota weather caused the oils to seep out close enough to the surface of the wood again that those paper tags started absorbing it.

Step 6 – Reassemble

With everything done, it’s just a matter of putting our new covers in their place.

Once your finish of choice has fully dried/cured/set up (follow the directions from the manufacturer), we can reassemble the journals into a workable item again. 

Grab the naked notepad we set aside earlier, the rings should still be separated enough to slide the covers on.  If you have a “front” and “back” cover, be mindful of their orientation as you put them on.  In my case, the front cover went on first. 

With that, you should have your very own, very custom, very awesome new journal.

That’s it! Upgraded journal is complete.

Step 7 – Brag about it

You just made a thing with your bare hands!  Be sure to show off to all your friends and family members, it is quite an accomplishment.  If you are boasting about your creation on social media, feel free to tag me on your post, I’d love to see it (@bearmaked on Instagram & Twitter, Bear Maked on Facebook).  This project is ripe for personalization, so show us all how you can put your own twist on it. 

Thanks so much for reading, happy making!

-Justin

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