Best method to care for leather bound books

The feel of a good leather bound book is something to behold, no pun intended.  Anybody who loves the feel of leather and appreciates books cannot help but love the feel of a leather bound book.  Some folks have a few leather books lying around, some have entire libraries of them, others still buy leather books with the sole intention of considering them an investment and have no plan to unpack or display them.  Whatever group you fall in to, there are some things to give consideration to when caring for leather bound books.  I’ll start with care of the leather itself but I feel I’d be remiss if I stopped there.  This article will talk about the entire book and things you can do to ensure it is well cared for.

The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read – Abraham Lincoln

The feeling of a leather bound book is something to be treasured. If you are a reader or just somebody who appreciates the finer things in life, nice leather bound books rate pretty high.  Taking care of leather bound books can be as simple as handling them carefully, with clean hands, or as complex as scheduling regular cleaning and conditioning cycles for them.

A lot of this depends on you.

There are those who value their leather bound books to the point where the lives can become centered on cleaning and conditioning the books, making sure no harm will ever befall them.  There are also those who believe they belong on a bookcase, within reach of those who would like to benefit from the stories or wisdom held within.  Myself, I fall into the latter group.  I do treasure my books – perhaps more than I should – but I also believe they exist to be read and therefore should not be placed on an unapproachable pedestal.  A rare book that is covered in leather is a bit of a treasure and, I believe, should be treated as such.

So how do you care for a leather bound book?  Much of the same instruction you’ll see elsewhere on this site applies.  Things like “don’t leave it in direct sunlight for prolonged periods” and “don’t let it stay dirty” are common approaches to caring for leather – nothing surprising there.  But there are some approaches that are a bit non-intuitive.

Handling leather bound books

When your hands are clean and dry, handling your books are good for them.  The oils from your skin will permeate the leather – reconditioning it a tiny bit at a time.  I don’t know about you but this thought satisfies me immensely.  The book gives me great joy and in return, by the simple act of reading it, I’m able to make it a little bit better as well.

Storing leather bound books

If you fall into the category I mentioned before…perhaps a person who buys books to invest in them or maybe you just have so many you have to put some in storage.  There are a few considerations here.  Most of these do not only apply to leather books, they are just good common sense approaches to caring for any books:

  • Books should not be stored in excessive heat, cold, dust or humidity.  The rules out most attics and basements.  You want to store your books in a climate controlled area that is as free of dust as possible.
  • Books should be stored long term the same way you display them on a shelf – standing up.  Laying them flat for prolonged periods will warp the covers and the spine.  If you need to ship books, it’s ok to ship them on their side as this will be a short term position.  But, if storing for a prolonged period, store them standing up.
  • You should aim for a dust free environment but no matter how careful you are, there will always be the possibility of dust.  Keep in mind that dust is abrasive and as the books move against other books, dust can cause small scratches that, over time, turn into more noticeable blemishes.  Books should be dusted regularly, based on how dusty the environment is.  It might be once a year, or once a month.  A clean rag or feather dusters, or perhaps a small gentle vacuum cleaner will work fine.
  • Never lay a book face down while open…any book for that matter, not just a book with a leather cover.  This will stretch, damage and degrade the book binding over time.

Plastic-Not-So-Fantastic

I know, you want to cover you beautiful book with mylar to protect it.  But keep in mind, leather is skin and it needs to breathe so covering books is not necessarily a good idea.  Also, mylar or any other kind of plastic covering can trap moisture, which you don’t want.  Better to leave your leather bound volumes exposed in the correct environment (no direct sunlight, no excessive heat or cold, no excessive humidity) and ensure you treat it regularly to a good dust-off and conditioning as needed.

Crowded?

On thing to consider with books that isn’t as important for, say, leather jackets or perhaps a leather saddle is how crowded the books are.  You don’t want them smushed up on a shelf together too tightly as this can damage the hinge and the spine of the book.  By the same token, if they are too loose then the covers of the books will sag, dragging down the pages and you can end up with a leather bound book that looks like it got drunk and passed out in a ditch.  So, not too tight, not too lose…give your leather friends the Goldilocks treatment here.  By the same token, you should display your books either laid flat (it’s ok to stack them a few high) or vertical…but not slanted to the left or the right.  Slanting is just as bad as having them too loose – it results in a poorly structured book.  It’s important to note that this is more for the book itself than the leather covering.  The leather will be ok regardless – it’s the structure of the book itself that is in danger here.

Windex?

Really…Windex?  Who’s idea was that?  There are many who will tell you it’s ok to use cleaners of different sorts on books.  Windex seems to be the most popular and I’m sure it’ll do a great job of cleaning the leather.  But, at what expense?  Most book makers…leather bound book makers…those who know…say only a light dusting should be needed on a regular basis and then possibly clean and condition with leather cleaner and conditioner thereafter.  I’ve never seen reference from a reputable source say it’s acceptable to use Windex to clean your leather bound books.  Just…don’t.

Leather conditioners?

There has been considerable back and forth on this.  Some folks say you should not condition leather bound books, others do.  We believe that helping your leather stay hydrated cannot be a bad thing.  All other leather that is well cared for receives cleaning and conditioning on a regular basis depending on the use and conditions…we don’t understand why leather bound books should be any different.  Conditioners are important as they will ensure the leather is protected and gives it the best chance for a long life.  You should become familiar with the different types of leather conditioners as there are quite a many have very subtle differences.  Regular conditioning of your leather bound books will help ensure a long life.

However, do you want to use the same conditioner on a valuable leather bound book that you use on your leather boots or perhaps your baseball mitt?  Most likely not. One thing to look out for is the presence of neatsfoot oil.  This is a common ingredient that is great to use on leather that moves.  Your jacket, your baseball mitt, a riding saddle, for example.  For items that don’t move much, such as a book covered in leather, neatsfoot oil can become crystalized and weaken the leather fibers.  So what leather conditioner is good for books? You can do far worse than following the guidance of a curator of leather books for a museum and many of these use products from Talas.  You can find them on the internet.

You should also tread carefully here in that many conditioners will darken the leather – is that what you want?  Use a small amount…a miniscule amount…on a clean rag to test it out.  Keep in mind that leather used on different books is, well, different.  You should not expect a conditioner treatment to be exactly same on different books – each will behave differently.

What about suede?

Books bound in suede have a special feel and that feel is called a “nap” of the leather.  When you see or feel this, you want to treat this book a bit differently.  The nap will react a bit differently to cleaners and conditioners and you can actually ruin the book cover if you aren’t careful.  Above all, the best approach for Suede bound books is a simple dusting and cleaning with a soft cloth.

We hope this has enlightened you a bit on considerations for caring for your leather bound books.  With good and thoughtful care, your leather books will last a lifetime or two.

What if your book already shows cracks in the leather?

Unfortunately, if the book is at the point where the leather is cracked, cleaning and conditioning will not help.  This is the point at which you should call in professional assistance. Google is your friend here.