Book Collecting Guide

How to clean, repair and protect leather books

In the world of books, is there anything as sumptuous as a leather binding? That leather derives from living creatures should make us ever more eager to care for it. Herewith, Leather 101.

First, what is leather? In this age of perfect fakes (to the eye and often to the hand, too) and respectable leather substitutes, it may be useful to start with definitions. The dictionary tells us that leather is any skin dressed for use (“leather” is also the flap of a dog’s ear; a useful reminder not to dog-ear book pages!).

Like dogs, leathers vary. How a skin is dressed and, in books, how the resulting leather is presented affects its care: is it decorated? embossed? stamped or otherwise altered or added to? Few of us know (or can translate, when details are provided) the contents of commercial cleaning and restoring products, so it’s impossible to predict how any given leather binding will react to the use of a specific product. Some leathers, for example, will darken with application of most cleaning and/or restoring substance. Always avoid solvents and abrasives when working on leather.

Products intended for leather-bound books are usually silicon or petroleum based; we prefer the latter, and use Fredelka Formula Leather Preservative/Restorer, which we get, in eight-ounce containers, from Brodart. We’ve seen leathers lap up this chemically neutral cream that we serve in the smallest portions possible (use sparingly is an understatement), which is hard to do because it’s so pleasant to use (a little like playing with buttery mashed potatoes). Fredelka restores leather, almost as if it had pumped the natural oils back into the skin.

Do we recommended for book care any of the leather-care products marketed for shoes and handbags and other personal goods? We’ve asked ourselves this question, without answering it because we’ve never had a leather binding we wanted to experiment on.

Always remember that a book bound in suede is a special case. Its napped surface is best cared for only with a soft, clean cloth.

For simple cleaning of surface dirt, try that same cloth or something as soft as a hairbrush sold as baby’s first.

Excessively dry leather that feels brittle to your fingers, is riddled with cracks, or flakes or powders at the slightest touch may be suffering from red rot. Conservationist friends tell us they use a product called Cellugel to treat this degenerative condition in leather bindings. Cellugel’s cellulose ethers are absorbed deep within the leather, stabilizing it without discoloration.

Handling a leather binding may be one of the nicer things you can do for it. You’ll wash your hands first (not to be fusspots, but please keep food and other residues of daily life away from leather bindings). Your clean, dry hands will impart natural oils to the binding, a contribution that you might say unites you with literature in a way that bodes well for the future of the books you’ve handled.

A note on vellum: Be extra wary when you contemplate cleaning what you believe is a vellum-bound book. This hide is often beautifully faked for book use, and we’ve heard horror stories from professionals about the irreparable damage done when treatment appropriate to the real thing is applied to false vellum. Leave “vell” enough alone might be the best approach.

Windex anyone? We’ve heard that people are using Windex and similar products to clean dust jackets and clear plastic book jacket covers. Our recommendation: don’t do it! The manufacturer of Windex advises against its use on paper, and dust jackets - no matter how sleek and shiny of surface they may appear - ought to be treated as paper (and protected with a clear cover). Windex and its competitors are usually fine on plastic, but when using them on book jacket covers, it’s wise to dilute (half glass cleaner, half water) and apply on a clean cloth rather than by spraying. Better yet, save all your glass cleaner for your windows, and the pleasure of reading by natural light.

A parting word on plastic: One of the many advantages of covering books, with or without dust jackets, in clear plastic is that the covers are so easy to keep clean. Rubbing alcohol on a clean, lint-free cloth is one way to go. Among the commercial products, there is a new one from Brodart called Brodex that has been getting favorable reviews from libraries.

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  1. In Quebec City

    Great information for Clean and Preserve Leather Bound Books.I am also agreed with your thought that Always remember that a book bound in suede is a special case. Its napped surface is best cared for only with a soft, clean cloth.

  2. Daniel Morrow

    I purchased an 1863 leather bound pocket bible and wounder if vaseline is ok to put on the leather cover to preserve it ?

  3. Dale Dalrymple

    Great information. I love my leather bound books and really needed this gentle push to get back to them for another treatment.