leather treatment – opinion roundup

[for those who may remember this is something i dug up from my personal archives – you may be seeing retreads pop up now and then, i have a wider maw to feed now. ed.]


In my booklife I have seen books repaired with book tape, duct tape, ‘lectric tape & masking tape. I have seen rubber cement, white glue, airplane glue, super glue and hot glue. I have seen them priced with stickers, ink, crayon, marker, and lipstick. And dear hearts, I have been asked to remove every bit of it. Some of these mutilations were done by people I know and respect in the field. I have even done a few myself, I did library type repairs on books in high school and have been paying penance ever since.

I know a bookbinder who sells bottles of furniture polish & neatsfoot oil for a handsome price & calls it ‘book creme’. I know another who buys saddlery polish & relabels it as ‘leather book treatment’. I have had the world’s foremost bookbinding deity dictate verbatim the British Museum Recipe to me. Every book dealer I have ever met has proudly shown me their personal teeny tiny secret method for spiffing up new acquisitions. Whatever it is, I just smile a bit and nod a bit and scream blue bloody murder on the inside.

Where once I would have given a 40 minute lecture on the evils of non-archival procedure, I now say what they hell [actually I would say something more colorful but this is a PG-rated post] . . . it’s not my book. It’s THEIR BOOK, for the moment anyway. If they want to fix it with bottle caps and bailing wire. . . it’s not my business. People are gonna do whatever they hell they want.

And beyond it all. . . [I may burn for this] not every book deserves archival quality treatment. That 7.50 copy of Mary Lasswell’s HIGH TIMES without a dust jacket deserves a spiffy new outlook on life, but not to the extent of spending an hour of my life dry cleaning & redyeing it.

If you have 30 bucks into a 100 dollar book, you don’t want to spend $75 on a full-boat restoration when a 25 buck reback will do. It’s your book, it’s your money. Do what your conscience dictates. If you care what happens to a book you sold 40 years down the road, when you are wheeling around in a home counting your ill gotten gains, you will take the time to learn which books not to harm.

As with all TYPES of people there are TWO TYPES of book arts people. There are the traditional BOOKBINDERS: who do things the way they do because that’s how it’s always been done and for the last 400 years things have been pretty swell. [I’d like to see what a CD-ROM looks like in 400 years.] And then there are the WHITE COATS, the lab mice who point at anything organic and make that Invasion of the Body Snatcher wail. These are two camps who have agreed to disagree. Would you believe that leather is not coinsidered archival quality material?

As with anything in this universe there are no hard and fast rules, and nothing is ever carved in stone. Opinions are like anal orafices, everybody has one, especially book people, ’cause we get to put ours on paper. I own about 40 books on binding and repair – each and every author dead sure in the knowledge that their word is gospel and everyone else is going to burn in the 10th layer of hell reserved for biblio-crimes.

Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the diverse territory on JUST leather treatments that lies out there:

Greenfield, Jane. CARE OF FINE BOOKS. 1988: – LEATHER:‘Leather bindings can be cleaned, of course with saddle soap, but moisture can cause blackening & cracking of some deteriorated leathers‘ – OILING:‘The leather dressing recommended is made of 40% anhydrous lanolin & 60% neatsfoot oils, per the NYPL & USDA.‘ –

Johnson, Arthur. W. THAMES & HUDSON MANUAL OF BOOKBINDING. 1979. ‘British Museum recipe 200 grams of lanolin, 300 milliliters of cedarwood oil, 15 grams beeswax & 310 milliliters of hexane or petroleum ether.’

1992. ‘Chemical treatment for cleaning & preserving books & documents is constantly reviewed. Chemists & conservators fail to agree on the efficacy & safety of some methods, even those that have been accepted for years. These necessary revisions are confusing to the restorer who has to carry out the wishes of the customer.‘ – LEATHER DRESSING: ‘Periodic dressings of a fatty nature are a valuable contribution to the life & usefulness of a binding ….Dry, brittle leather requires feeding to enable the working parts of the binding to be supple & functional & to protect the covers from bruising due to indiscriminate handling.’ – CLEANING AGENTS:‘Potassium methyl cyclohexyl oleate. Commercial named ‘Vulpex’, this liquid soap is soluble in water & white spirit and can be used with confidence for washing leather covered books.‘ [chapters go heavily into unpronounceable chemicals to do all types of wonderful things..breathe deeply kiddies.]

Lydenberg, Harry Miller & John Archer. CARE & REPAIR OF BOOKS.
1931. ‘Take 4 parts lanolin the consistency of lard, to this add 6 parts neatsfoot oil, mixing the two thoroughly. If more polish is required apply a small quantity of castor oil & rub with a chamois.’ LEATHER DRESSING: [USDA 1962] 3% castile soap, 25% Neatsfoot oil, 10% tallow, 12% turpentine, 50% rainwater.’ LEATHER DRESSING: [1929 LOC] 50%Lanolin, 20% japan wax, 5 % sodium stearate, 25% sperm oil. [book also contains 6 other variations, seems every expert has their own recipe, will wonders never cease…]

Middleton, Bernard. RESTORATION OF LEATHER BINDINGS. 1972. Potassium Lactate & British Museum recipe. [Big time, and why not? he invented it.]

Morrow, Carolyn. PRESERVATION CHALLENGE. 1983. ‘one popular treatment, however, involves saturation of the leather with a 7% solution of Potassium Lactate followed by lubrication with 60/40 mixture of neatsfoot oil & lanolin. Potassium lactate, a buffering salt, will in ‘theory’ replace the protective salts washed out of the leather during the tanning process and serve as a buffer against acid attach from polluted atmospheres. Leather dressing o
r lubrication with animal fats such as neatsfoot oil & lanolin supposedly restores suppleness & durability to leather that has become dessicated by exposure to light & heat or by oxidation of the natural oils over time. However leather in an advanced state of deterioration accrues no benefits from treatment of any kind, and the unsightly powder is transferred during handling into the leaves and onto other books.’

Morrow, Carolyn. CONSERVATION TREATMENT PROCEDURES. 1982. ‘Potassium Lactate solution: 7% Potassium Lactate, .25% paranitrophenol, 92.75% Distilled water.’ LEATHER DRESSING: neatsfoot oil 60%, lanolin 40%.

Shep, Robert L. CLEANING, REPAIRING & CARING FOR OLD BOOKS. 1991. ‘Potassium lactate is recommended to clean & preserve leather. The British Museum has a famous dressing . . . Another famous basic formula often mentioned is 50% Neatsfoot oil & 50% castor oil.’

Vaughan, Alex. J. MODERN BOOKBINDING. 1996. – ‘Much of the deterioration of leather & especially with russia & unpolished calf is due to drying out. This can be counteracted to a certain extent by the application of animal fat to those bindings that are likely to remain untouched for years-remarkably enough books that are frequently handled derive this from the hands that come into contact with them.’ [also recommends water stains for redyeing]

Young. Laura S. BOOKBINDING & CONSERVATION BY HAND. 1995. ‘Leather, cloth & paper can all be successfully dyed with the same type of dye. There are 2 types of powdered aniline dyes available:those that are soluble in water & those that are soluble in alcohol.’….’The final step is to oil & polish the volume. The best dressing for this -according to present thinking conservators- is a 60/40 combination of neats foot oil & lanolin.’

For every one book I have that says one thing I am sure there are an equal number of lab reports somewhere that says that says the converse is true. You say potato, I say stuffing.

Thumb rules for repair:

If you don’t know the book’s true value. STOP
If you think you may harm it. STOP.
If you aren’t sure what it’s gonna look like later. STOP.
If you can sell it as is. STOP.
If you can’t afford to throw it away after you have ruined it. STOP.

Basically, it all comes down to the fact that I don’t care if you use shoe creme, whip cream or brill creme just don’t expect a binder to undo it later.

yours truly,

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