Upholstery Basics

upholstery basics: leather bookshelf

by Amanda Brown

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it seems this has been a record-breaking year for good design books. From The Perfectly Imperfect Home: How to Decorate and Live Well by Deborah Needleman (my newest arrival) to Design*Sponge at Home, my bedside table has become a literary Leaning Tower of Pisa. It’s so hard to find bookshelves that hold their own in a well-designed room, so I decided to create my own with this bargain find ($15), one leather hide and a box of brass tacks. — Amanda

Read the full how-to after the jump!


  • goggles
  • pliers
  • staple remover
  • scissors
  • air compressor
  • stapler
  • 1/2” long staples
  • chalk
  • measuring tape
  • yard stick
  • square
  • 1–2 leather hides (55–110 square feet)
  • sewing machine
  • cardboard tack strip
  • curve ease
  • regulator
  • small piece of cardboard
  • dustcover
  • plastic nail glides
  • tack hammer with wax tip
  • brass tacks

Don’t forget to check out Upholstery Basics: Tool Time to learn more about the tools we’re using today.

1. When choosing a shelf, the simpler, the better, and make sure it’s made out of wood so you can staple into it. It also needs to be pretty sturdy, since we’ll be moving it around a lot, stapling into it and hammering on it. Before we start, we’ll sand all the edges to get them smooth and splinter-free.

2. We’ll cover the top and side boards with leather, so measure the distance around the sides and top and measure the depth of the shelf to determine how big our leather piece(s) need to be. We should have enough to wrap around the boards and staple to the inside of the shelf, so add a few extra inches to the measurements for pulling and stapling.

3. If you have an extra large hide (55+ square feet), you may be able cover the outside of the shelf with one continuous piece of leather. If not, you can sew the sides to the top* like I did. Using chalk, draw out your pieces on the back side of the leather and cut them out. Avoid any holes, scars or imperfections you don’t want to show.

*Measure the length of the top and add 1″ for seam allowance. The side pieces need to be a few inches longer for pulling and stapling to the bottom of the shelf. Attach one side to each end with the sewing machine.

4. After the pieces are sewn together, line up the seams (if applicable) with the top corners of the shelf  and center the leather so it can wrap around both sides.

5. Being careful to keep the seam lined up with the corner, pull one side tightly and staple it to the bottom of the shelf. Repeat on the other side.

6. Smooth the leather around the sides of the shelf and staple to the inside.

7. When we get to interior shelves and the bottom shelf, we’ll make release cuts so the leather will lay flat around them.

8. Continue stapling along the inside of the shelf.

9. In the top corners, cut out any excess bulk, fold the leather under at a diagonal and staple to the inside.

10. Finish stapling all the way around to the inside of shelf. Phase one complete!

11. Next, we’ll cover the underside of the top shelf. Let’s lay the shelf on its side, so it’s easier to work on. Cut out a piece of leather that is large enough to cover the underside of the shelf with a few extra inches for pulling and stapling. Staple about 1″ of leather along the length of the shelf. Be sure to staple on the back side of the leather.

12. At the corners, make a release cut so the leather will lay flat.

13. Attach the cardboard tack strip on top of the leather we just stapled to reinforce the connection. Because we stapled on the back side of the leather, these staples will be hidden when we pull the leather to the other side. This is called a blind tack.

14. On the opposite side, staple curve ease 1/8″ to 1/4″ away from the edge. The teeth should open to the outside of the shelf.

15. After the curve ease is attached, press the teeth down firmly.

16. Pull the leather tightly over the edge and draw a line with chalk on the edge of the curve ease.

17. Cut 1/2″ beyond the mark, leaving 1/2″ to tuck into the curve ease.

18. Using the flat side of the regulator, pull the leather tightly and tuck the excess into the teeth of the curve ease. To tuck in little bits that won’t go in all the way, run the pointy side of the regulator inside the teeth from one end to the other until all of the excess is hidden.

19. Using the tack hammer, tightly close the curve ease to make a clean edge. The small piece of cardboard protects the leather from the hammer.

20. Then staple the excess leather on the ends to the sides of the shelf.

21. Our next step is upholstering the small sides of the shelf. Blind tack a piece of leather on top of the end we just stapled in Step 20.

22. On the sides, attach a strip of curve ease. The curve ease should start right after the cardboard tack strip.

23. Once we’ve blind tacked the top and attached the curve ease to the right and left sides, pull the leather down and staple to the bottom of the shelf. Then tuck the right and left sides into the curve ease and hammer. Use a piece of cardboard tack strip to reinforce the staples on the bottom. Repeat Steps 21–23 for the other side.

24. Now that we’ve upholstered the sides and the top of this shelf, we’ll move on to the bottom. Cut a piece of leather long enough to cover the bottom shelf with a few extra inches for pulling and stapling. This piece also needs to be wide enough to go around the sides and staple to the underside. Blind tack one of the short sides on top of the piece we just stapled in Step 23.

25. Pull the leather tightly to the opposite side, fold under the excess and staple the leather to the underside of the shelf. Attach again on the opposite side to hold this end tightly in place. Since we’re only attaching the leather underneath, it’s really important that it’s pulled very tightly across this end so it doesn’t flap open.

26. Once our final end is tightly stretched and stapled, continue pulling and stapling the leather to the underside of the shelf.

27. Repeat Steps 13–26 for all remaining shelves.

28. Follow Steps 13–15 from Dining Chair Do-Over to attach dustcover to the bottom of the shelf. I’ve also added some plastic nail glides to keep the bottom from getting scuffed when I move it around. If you’re happy with your shelf as-is, you are now finished! If you want to add a little pizazz to your project, move on to Step 29 for nail-head trim.

29. This is the fun part! Draw out any design your heart desires in chalk on your bookshelf and attach your nail head with a wax-tip tack hammer. I chose a 5/8″ diameter French Natural nail to complete my shelf. Click HERE for a vast selection of tacks in every shape, size and color.

To keep your shelf looking clean, polished and scratch-free, I recommend a regular dose of leather conditioner. My favorite is Howard’s!

Meet me back here next month for Upholstery Basics as we tackle a brand new project!

Thanks, fellow Sprucettes, for all your help with this project: Meredith (tacking design); Frank (construction brainstorming); Katherine (photos & tack selection); and Clar (comic relief!)

Suggested For You


  • Where do you get your leather hides? I’ve been having a terrible time tracking down a good source of leather.

  • Sorry guy but I am really not a fan of this project. It seems like a real waste of leather, a very precious resource. Don”t get me wrong I think leather is wonderful in upholstery and bags , but it seems rather superficial in a product that is already structural sound and fit for purpose.

  • Brad, we get most of our hides from a company called Universal Leather. A great source for hair-in hides is Saddleman’s of Sante Fe. We carry both brands at Spruce if you need help sourcing leather.

  • this project is fantastic! I love the outcome it looks like it was bought in a very expensive shop

  • I can’t believe this doesn’t have a a hundred more comments! It’s amazing, you make it look so simple. On a side note I also love your rings!

  • I super love this tutorial! Even if not upholstering a shelf, this can be so useful for other types of furniture too. The end result is beautiful.

  • stunning and so useful! I will copy this one– one can never have too many bookcases even with an ipad!

  • This looks great and congratulations for you and your expertise in such a great project.

  • I must second Miss B:yes, this should have at least a million more comments, it’s that fantastic (I can’t believe I could make this!) and I too, noticed your beautiful rings. Very unique. Is it a wedding band?

  • Not only did you finish with a stunning piece, your instructions and photos are a model of clarity! Thank you so much for sharing. I just got some vintage end tables last night and wondered what I’d do with them – I think I’ll try this treatment with leather-look fabric now.

  • You didn’t mention any technique for applying the nailheads. How do you ensure they will come out evenly and neatly?

  • This was disgusting. All I could picture was the poor animal that probably suffered a horrible death in the slaughterhouse, first of all, and that was just your first offense. This was no typical DIY as this requires many expensive tools. And frankly, the end result was really not impressive nor practical.

  • Oh! This is wonderful. It can used to put books. The leather definitely increases the value of this piece. It is well polished and clean. If you will put it on your home, it will definitely increase the beauty of your home.

  • I love leather and am not opposed to this project on moral grounds, but I dont really care for this project. Mainly because I have worked with nail heads and it’s hard to get them like that. Second the cost on this is not DIY friendly. Third I just don’t think that overtime the leather will be good for the wear and tear of dragging books in and out, plus the weight of those items on the leather. Great idea…but not for me.

  • Don’t forget that you can use leather look vinyl! a much more moral and cheaper choice! there are some great vinyl’s that look like leather..

  • The finish product looks great, although it does look flimsy due to the nature of the wooden bookcase. Not really sure if the money, time, effort is well spent on a bookshelf that is $15.00. I agree with the comment that using genuine leather is a waste of resource on a diy project that will scratch, discolour, and become unfashionable quickly.

  • Thanks for the idea. I have an old shelving system from Ikea (Journalist) and really would like to re-purpose it for additional storage. I think covering the shelves in a leather-look vinyl might be the solution. Now what to do with side posts….Thanks for sharing

  • Jennifer and Annie – The nailhead trim is really no more complicated than holding the tack with one hand and using a wax tip hammer to hammer it in. For a project like this, I would suggest using larger tacks or spacing them if you are a beginner. This will produce a straighter line much easier than the smaller, continuous nailhead. Also, make sure whatever you are tacking is resting on a solid surface. Otherwise the vibration of the piece will make it very difficult to apply the nailhead.

    Betsy and Jessica – I appreciate your concern for using leather. There are many faux leathers/vinyls that are very beautiful and leather-like, though in my experience are not quite as durable and not always less expensive. It is definitely a great alternative if you have moral issues with using animal products.

    Betsy, Annie, and Jonathan – As far as the impracticality of this project as a DIY, I do not agree. The tools used are all necessary to complete the upholstery projects as part of this series, and the total cost of the shelf and leather were $165 total and one day of time, a much more economical choice than other leather-covered shelves I’ve seen for $1000+. Also, the leather is incredibly durable and can be rejuvenated to its original luster by using a leather conditioner, just as one would do for shoes or leather furniture which get as much or more wear and tear and last for years.

    I do agree that the effort is best spent on a sturdy, wooden shelf that is not flimsy (as stated in step 1), and I spent some time searching for one that had hard, heavy wood to complete this project. The cost of the shelf was certainly not an indication of its structural integrity, though it was not the most beautiful when I purchased it. :)

    I appreciate all of the feedback, especially the positive! :) Thanks!

  • Absolutely gorgeous! I love leather and I can’t wait to try this with a bookshelf I have been waiting for inspiration for! Thanks.

  • really love your work and instruction and picture,can’t wait to see more. Thank you

  • This is so cool! I have a shinny bookcase that is messing up my wanting a steampunk living room. will not work for the bookcase but I am going to try it on a little table. thanks! danny

  • A very classy finished furniture piece. Can’t wait to utilize your tutorial and make one of my own!!
    Thanks you!!