What’s So Good About Leather?
Did you know that when you keep your special books on a shelf and never touch them (or worse, in the attic in a box), the leather could deteriorate in just a few years? That’s why it’s been said that binding books in leather is a bad idea. But at Leonard’s we know that leather just needs oil to keep it strong. That’s why librarians used to go through their collections and rub each book with a special oil. Museums still do that today.
If you use your book often, the natural oils in your hands will keep the fibers alive. Leather books that are gently handled or treated with conditioners can last for hundreds of years.
In that case, reading your Bible daily isn’t only good for you, but good for your Bible, too.
Leather Bookbinding Through the Years
Over the centuries, many different varieties of leather have been used for bookbinding. At first, bookbinders used wooden boards covered with a kind of leather called vellum, made from very young calfskin, lambskin, or kidskin. This worked very well, because the vellum would shrink tightly over the boards and look very smooth and neat.
Later, kings started wanting their books decorated with fancy gold stamping. Gold stamping didn’t work well on vellum, so the bookbinders started using regular goatskin and shaved calfskin, which takes gold stamping very well.
Nowadays, since good goatskin can be expensive, and calfskin is hard to find in weights light enough to work with, many publishers are using different types of leather, as well as imitation and synthetic leather, for bookbinding.
Leather Bookbinding at Leonard’s
At Leonard’s Book Restoration Station, we use genuine leather, never bonded leather. (OK, we do carry an imitation leather for those who would rather not use animal hide.)
One of the leathers we use most often at Leonard’s is pigskin, because it’s very strong, but still affordable. Natural pigskin looks a lot like human skin, but once it’s dyed, it really looks much better. New Bibles that are marked “genuine leather” are generally pigskin.
Most often, we use pigskin that has been artificially grained to give it a more attractive look. For example, it can be impressed to look like goatskin, since real goatskin is more expensive. Artificially grained leathers are not as soft as a natural grain because they have been embossed, but they look very nice and are stronger and easy to use. The impressed grain hides any natural flaws or scars in the leather.
Other leathers we can use for bookbinding are sheepskin, lambskin, and deerskin. These leathers used to be considered inferior for bookbinding because they are a little more fragile and could snag, but they are soft, pretty, and easy to work with. Sheepskin works well for small books and keepsakes, and can be used to recreate an old calfskin lawbook look. If you take care of your book bound in sheepskin, it will last a long time. Lambskin and deerskin make super soft and flexible smaller Bibles.
There are a few other leathers we may use. Much of the unfinished calfskin available these days, as we mentioned earlier, is generally too thick to work with on a Bible, but when we can get it in a lighter weight, we can hand-dye it and use it for Hebrew Bibles, study Bibles, or on early 19th century books. We have several pre-dyed calfskins that are soft and work very well. Cowhide comes from an older animal, so it’s thicker. In order to use it for bookbinding, it needs to be split. The bottom part is sold as suede and the top part can be used, in a lighter weight, as “top grain leather.”
Today’s goatskin has a very nice grain and a beautiful texture, and most of it comes from Africa. When it’s unembossed, it’s very soft and flexible. Some goatskins are named after the manufacturers, such as “Harmatan goatskin,” which is beautifully grained and highly polished.
Another leather we really enjoy using is kangaroo skin. It is more expensive because it comes from the Australian government’s culling programs and it’s imported from Down Under, but it’s very strong and fun to use. It has a nice smooth surface and smells great, and we can easily blind-stamp design work into it.
Many different types of leathers work very well for bookbinding, as long as you take care of the book and handle it often. Genuine leather is good because whatever leather you use, whether pigskin, sheepskin, deerskin, calfskin, goatskin, or kangaroo skin, if you take care of the book and handle it often, it will last for many years, maybe centuries to come!
Find out about morocco grains and other hard-to-understand grain terms on our blog.