God likes it!
The first recorded instance of using leather for a covering was when God replaced Adam and Eve’s plant-based clothing with coverings made from animal skins. The plant-based clothing just didn’t do the job.
God also included leather in His plans for the Tabernacle – some of the coverings for His portable worship center were made of durable animal skins.
Today, real leather is the best way to cover God’s Word, the Bible. It is a by-product of the food industry, durable, moisture-resistant, and beautiful. It feels great in your hand and makes you want to open God’s Word again and again. At Leonard’s, we encourage that!
It’s also a great way to keep a treasured book looking great on your shelf. With proper care, it could last for centuries. Librarians who care for special collections need to periodically apply a conditioner to each of the books, but if you use your leather book often, the flexing and the natural oils in your hands will keep the fibers alive.
Over time, many different varieties of leather have been used for bookbinding. Early bookbinders often used wooden boards covered with a kind of leather called vellum, made from very young calfskin, lambskin, or kidskin. This worked well, because the vellum would stretch tightly over the boards and look very smooth and neat.
Later, kings desired to have their books highly decorated with fancy gold tooling. Since that didn’t work well on vellum, bookbinders started using regular goatskin and skived calfskin, both of which take gold tooling very well.
The most common genuine leathers used in covering books and Bibles these days are pigskin, cowhide, calfskin, and goatskin. These leathers are durable and practical for everyday use.
What Doesn’t Work
However, manufacturers, for many years, have been using substitutes for good leathers in order to keep the costs down. In the last two centuries, you would have seen the advent of the plain cloth hardcover, imitation leather cloth, and even imitation leather cardboard as substitutes. These plant-based materials easily break down over time. You know – you see the scuffing and tearing that happens to your cotton clothing.
The bonded leather that is so prominent today is a product made from as little as 70% ground leather scraps plus a bonding agent, and stamped with a texture to make it look like leather. It is not durable, and we never recommend it for covering God’s Word. Over time, it will crack and peel and disintegrate in your hands. It makes no difference whether it is “bonded leather” or “Spanish bonded leather” or “genuine bonded leather.” It is a product that falls apart if you use it.
The newer synthetic leathers look great through the plastic window in a new Bible box. But over time, the leather-like finish begins to melt and peel. It may meld to the inside of a vinyl zipper case. When all the finish peels off, though the material is still strong, it looks rather like cotton candy. We do use one of the variations of this for rebinding Bibles for prisoners who aren’t allowed to have leather.
As for paperbacks … well, they’re not made to be durable, so we shouldn’t expect them to be.
At Leonard’s, we buy animal hides. Because they are a natural product, you may see their “marks of originality” – a few spots and wrinkles that show they are real. Other leathers are impressed with a grain to make them look better. But all leathers undergo some degree of manipulation from their natural state when they are tanned. Those who make special leathers have achieved beautiful colors, finishes, tempers, and styles for our benefit.
At present, we aren’t using pigskin. Most pigskin has been stamped with a grain because natural pigskin has pores and resembles human skin. It is durable, but it’s generally a harder, stiffer leather type.
But we stock and use many variations of goatskin, calfskin, cowhide, and even kangaroo (a more exotic leather). You may not understand the differences between leathers that are vegetable tanned vs. chrome tanned, but the differences in our leathers, when you have them in your hand, have to do with their feel (softness), the flexibility (temper), the grain or texture (smooth or prominent), the finish, the thickness, whether it’s a tooling leather with more memory, and whether it’s hand-dyed here or colored at the factory.
Goatskins are from smaller animals and there is less usable surface on an average skin than on a cowhide. They’re a little stretchy and must be stabilized inside. Calfskins are from younger animals. They tend to be smoother and naturally thinner than cowhides, which are usually split so they can be usable. Kangaroo is smooth and very, very strong.
These leathers can be used for hardcovers, softcovers, or flex-covers. They can also be used for full bindings or for hardcover applications in half-leather or three-quarter leather in combination with cloth or marbled paper.
Other, less common leathers can be used to make a cover (and we’ve used them!), such as deerskin, bison, lambskin, sheepskin, ostrich, and alligator. We once even used capybera, a S. American rodent of unusual size! But some of these options have drawbacks – they may be a little too soft, too stiff, too thin, or too coarse; they may have too many natural markings; or they may cost much more than what is normally affordable. Some can’t be imprinted. So we don’t stock these, but if you want to pick up an ostrich hide and send it here, we can try it out on your Bible.
If you’d like to try a different kind of leather on your Bible or on your book, we have a “My Own Leather” option on our price list. You’d need to purchase a hide or a partial hide that is about 2 square feet, about 2 to 2-1/2 oz. in weight (about 1/32” or .8 to .1 mm in thickness), and a leather that has a soft temper. Click here for our standard price list for rebinding in genuine leather.