Leather Binding: Caveat Emptor

      In the market for a leather binding? Let the buyer beware. All leather is not created equal. For those not familiar with leather, I offer this mini-lesson.
     There are a great variety of leathers and a wide range of quality. Any animal skin may be tanned and used as leather but they vary in their quality; strength, longevity, suitability for the purpose, etc. A good example is four of the most used leathers; cowhide, calfskin, goatskin and sheepskin. There are many types of leather used in bookbinding, but, for the sake of brevity, I will only deal with those mentioned above. All have their good and bad points. Cowhide is tough and reasonably durable, but in its natural state is not as attractive as calf or goatskin. It does have the distinct advantage of being much less expensive than either of these two leathers. It is also comes in very large skins and can accomodate even the largest of books. With cowhide in particular, and others to some extent, one must be sure that they are getting top grain rather than a split. Splits are very easy to pass off as top grain after they have been given a nice finish. More will be said on splits below.
     Goatskin is one of the most durable of leathers and perhaps the most beautiful. The most widely use goatskins are produced in Nigeria, where they are pre-tanned and sent to tanneries in Europe to be retanned. Nigerian goats are smallish animals and produce relatively small skins which will not accomodate very large books such as atlases or large folios. Natural grain Nigerian goat is both beautiful and pleasing to touch. It is, however, on the expensive side because of the small quantities produced, as opposed to cowhide, and the limited amount of material available in each skin for a book cover. There is often a tremendous amount of "off-cut;" left over material too small for practical use. Calfskin is smaller than cowhide, yet larger than goat and has a very nice feel and appearance. It shows off gold and other tooling to great advantage. The drawbacks to this leather is that its surface mars easily and it is less tough than either goatskin or cowhide. In older books that have begun to dry out, it often exhibits "hang-nails" that expose the inner layer of the leather.
     Sheepskin probably has the most delightful feel of any leather, but, there I have exhausted most of its good qualities. The aspect of sheepskin that gives it such a luxurious feel is also that which makes it so unsuitable for covering books. As with other skins it has three layers; the surface or hair-side, or in the case of sheep, the wool side, the inner portion or corium, and flesh side. In wool bearing animals, the corium consists of a mass of vertical hair-like fibers that are somewhat resiliant. These inner fibers give sheepskin its wonderful softness. These fibers are weak and do not hold fast to the surface layer. This allows damage to occur with amazing ease. There is little or no tear strength to sheepskin and the surface shows "hang-nails" almost immediately.
     Beside the nature of the skin, the quality of leather is also affected by the tanning method. There are myriad substances used to tan leather, all resulting in different characteristics. Vegetable tanned leather is preferred by most bookbinders because it is easily molded and takes tooling better than metal or mineral tanning. Certain vegetable tannins, while they still produce leather, render that leather short-lived. This is evident in the dry powdery condition known as "red rot" or "brown rot." Others result in leather of generally poor behavior. Metal tannage is usually incredibly strong, resiliant, and of great longevity. This leather, while durable does not tool well or give the fine craftsmanlike appearance seen in vegetable tanned leather.
     Poor tannage cannot be detected by looking at it. One has to rely on the tannery that manufactured the leather. A conscientious bookbinder will buy from a tannery that is well known for surpassing quality leather, one that has, over many years, established a good reputation.
     Today there is a new product on the scene that one looking for a leather binding should be particularly aware of; bonded leather. Bonded leather is made of approximately 99% leather fibers and thereby gets away with being passed off as genuine leather. Yet, it is no more leather than ground beef is steak. The only thing it has in common with genuine leather is its outer appearance. It has none of the desirable qualities of the genuine article. Some bookbinders and publishers are honest enough to say that they have used bonded leather, but many let the buyer believe they have purchased a high quality product when in fact they haven't. I personally consider, and tell my customers, that bonded leather is another variety of imitation leather.
     When seeking a quality leather binding, you should specify, cowhide, goatskin, or calfskin, not just leather.
     A fine leather binding can be a delight to have and behold, but when in the market, buyer beware!

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