I’ve always loved old antique books because there was so much story dripping out of every one. Not just the words on the paper, but the history surrounding the book, imagining the age of pages that were often older than my grandparents or even great grandparents, the history of where that book must have been over time, the aged look, that special smell that old books have.
If you love old books, you know the feeling, and you know what I mean by that last one. I’d argue that old book smell is one of the best in the world, though there is one thing that can make that even better: the smell of old leather. When you have an old vintage book that isn’t cloth bound but leather bound, then you really have something special put together.
However, leather bound books need to be properly cared for to avoid damage, falling into disrepair, not to mention just overall appearance.
The good news is that there are tools and practices that can help make even the oldest of leather books look fantastic. Let’s read on to learn more!
How to Clean Antique Leather Books
I hope I don’t have to say this but since I know I’ll have to let’s get this out of the way: Do not, I repeat do NOT use water on books. Water damage is permanent, it’s destructive, it’s just – there’s no good reason for it. Even if you found an old leather book in a decrepit box in an outdoor barn and it’s caked in hay and filth, don’t use water.
Any directions involving even “light use of soap and water then thorough drying” are straight out wrong. That’s like washing cast iron. You just don’t do it – that’s not how you take care of old leather books.
There are special oils, cleaners, and tools for helping to restore books to their previous glory. So keep the books away from the sink, as anyone who loves books or collects books understands the heartbreak of an otherwise amazing work that was done in by water damage.
So how do you clean antique leather books?
The first thing to look at is whether you are doing a light cleaning versus a deep cleaning.
- Pure bristle brushes (never nylon bristles), consider a shaving brush as a great option
- Thin cotton gloves (Butler gloves are ideal)
- Cotton balls
- Leather cleaning cream
- Piece of wax paper (if treating the border edges)
- Clean cloth
Light Cleaning Vs Deep Cleaning
Light cleaning is the ideal situation, where the leather book is generally in good condition and needs only a light touch over. If you’ve taken good care of your books over time or find that the leather is dry but in good condition otherwise, then some light cleaning and touching up can be enough, and that is the ideal situation.
In those cases light cleaning of leather covered books only require a light brush and some gloves to avoid touching the leather cover, because the oils from your fingers could react with the leather and that causes damage over time. Leather tends to interact and absorb, which is why it’s so important to be careful to avoid skin to leather contact when possible.
There is also the administration of using a small drop of leather clean, but that should generally not be done every week or few weeks, but should ONLY be done when the leather is actually dry. Leather is very absorbent and a small amount goes a long way.
However, the the leather has gold leaf, work around that. Never directly brush the gold leaf or put leather treatment on it. For an extreme recovery job you may want a professional to take a look at in-depth cleaning, especially if there is sticky stuff, tar, ground in dirt, other similar things. This is especially important because you don’t want to put a leather treatment over it since that can seal in the grime and crap.
In those situations where multiple gentle wiping passovers isn’t enough to get you down to the point where only the dryness of leather is the only issue, it might be time to do the surface wiping away that you can before contacting a professional.
Light Cleaning & Care for Antique Leather Books
These are the steps for taking care of antique leather books that only need a mild cleaning or maintenance level touch up. Light cleaning is the ideal situation, and to stay on top of things you want to care for antique leather books.
This involves a once a week process of the following step by step process for cleaning old leather books:
- Dust the outside lightly using a very soft brush, brush with the pages, not against them
- Make sure the books aren’t packed in tightly together as this can damage the binding over time
- Open the book partially, never stretching the binding by pulling it fully open
- Make visual inspection for signs of damage or problems
- If there is any sign of book worms, silverfish, or any pests, have the book fumigated to prevent permanent long-term damage
- If the leather looks like it is getting dry, avoid oils but dab the smallest about of leather lotion or dressing
Doing this once a week ideally or even once a month, can help make sure dust stays away, debris is off the pages and the covers, and that the leather stays in good condition. As long as this maintenance is continued and the in-room temperature is ideal for leather, the books should be in outstanding position to stay in good shape for many years to come.
The proper temperature is important to keep the leather in good shape. This is important because the interior temperature needs to be 16 to 19 degrees Celsius ideally (which is 60.8 to 66.2 degrees Fahrenheit) where colder the leather and pages can become brittle, warmer and they begin to dry out.
If the book requires a little bit more than a touch of book cream and clearly needs some additional care, it’s important to use a cotton ball and book binder’s leather care dressing. Nothing new or fancy, but you want one of the traditional treatments that is specifically made from the many centuries old mixtures that are generally derived from beeswax.
These treatments should emphasize how they are based from bees wax, come from a proven formula to protect leather, and do NOT darken leather. There are oils or treatments that “darken” leather and for a deeper look and if you’re treating leather for an aesthetic look like boots or shoes, those might be a good treatment.
However, this is damaging to leather books where the point is to keep the antique leather book in as good condition as possible…meaning as close to the original as possible.
Use a cotton ball to dab carefully, remember that a very little goes a long way and allows you to treat the leather of the outer cover. When you move to get the edges of the board (aka edges of the cover, make sure to hold it away from the pages. You don’t want the leather treatment to stain the pages of the book itself. This is considered damage to an antique book.
You should use your other hand to help make sure while you treat the edges that the cotton doesn’t hit the actual paper in the interior of the book. Going an extra step by having a piece of wax paper down on the cover page will further protect from accidents but if you’re worried about dripping…you’re using too much treatment, the wrong type, or both.
Wait, Doesn’t Oil or Cream Break Down Leather?
There is an elephant in the room when it comes to leather and that’s this: it’s not meant to last forever. Leather is outstanding. It is durable, it can live through a lot of even basic wear and tear, and when properly cared for it not only last decades but can even last centuries. However, there will be natural damage and breaking down over time.
So when someone says that leather oil or leather cream can damage leather – technically yes. It can. But not nearly as much as dry temperatures, direct sunlight, or letting leather go unmaintained or untreated for a long period of time.
Given enough time a leather book will need to go to a professional bookbinder who will know how to replace leather that is damaged beyond repair, be able to minimize or even help repair limited page damage using old Japanese techniques for “refreshing” paper, and rebind it in new leather to bring the book back up to par.
Leather Oil Versus Leather Cream
This is also a very important consideration that has to be made. Leather oil is popular with amateurs, and can restore leather from a dryness perspective, but it’s best used with books that aren’t antique or valuable. When looking at how to clean antique leather books it’s important to remember that the closer to the original condition, the better.
So going with oils or darkening agents, that’s okay for a book you want to give that darker look that isn’t monetarily valuable because it is an antique but maybe has sentimental value to the family, but going with proper leather cream treatment is important.
Especially for books that are valuable. Keep in mind that many leather treatments or oils that darken are meant for shoes, for leather used in a leather shop, or for other situations where the darker color is a benefit and not damaging because it’s transforming a leather cover from its original condition.
So make very sure to keep the two different types of leather treatments separate, especially when it comes to the proper cleaning and treatment of leather antique books.
How to Care for Antique Books – from the Bespoke Butler
What About Major Leather Book Cleaning or Maintenance?
We covered this a bit above, but every situation is different. Once you’re past the point where a light dusting and the smallest amount of leather cream treatment takes care of it, you’ve hit the point where it’s not longer a bit of maintenance but a more in-depth book cleaning. Multiple light brushings are a good start, but if there are things that are stuck to the cover, or there are other issues that can’t be fixed with that, then potential issues come up.
When it comes to how to clean leather books, the condition and situation of the book is a major part of it. However, the video below does a great job of showing what can accurately and efficiently be done by a non-professional.
The video below is from a long-time specialist in cleaning and restoring antique books, and his example of doing cleaning and upkeep to leather books focuses on both safety and keeping the book looking its best.
Full Out Repairing Old Leather Books to Look Like New
Here is an interesting video that is part of a long series on repairing and reconditioning truly damaged and hurt antique leather books. From finding this following video on YouTube you’ll be able to find the entire series (and the channel that it’s on) and go through it from start to finish to see more.
As a note: never practice this on a valuable book. Even if you follow step by step, professionals who have done this have years of training and often apprenticeship. This is not something to do on a whim, but it does show the process so you can understand it better.
Great Video on Cleaning, Reconditioning, & Repairing Old Leather Books
There are many processes that can be used to clean an old leather book. While it is a multi-step process, and it’s one that should be practiced on non-valuable books or old books so damage from water or other substances that there isn’t and value left to be hurt, they are skills that are very learnable.
So how do you clean old books without damaging them? The information in this post tells you a lot. From light cleaning of leather to more in-depth care of dried leather covers, to seeing when a book is so dirty it needs professional cleaning, you now have the knowledge you need to make an informed decision on which way to go with
Sometimes you find a book that would be valuable in theory, but the damage is extensive. Or the wear is just terrible. The right practices might not do miracles, but I’ve seen some pretty remarkable turnarounds when it comes to how a worn leather book looks beforehand versus after proper treatment and care. Leather is a resilient material. If treated properly it can last, if put in expert hands with the right tools it can look almost as beautiful as knew and hold up not just to years but even to many decades of aging.
There are few things more beautiful than an aged leather book, but time comes for us all and that’s just not people, that’s also dealing with books. Time can wear down leather, improper moving and storage, being exposed to light – but the good news is that there are many options that help to restore many of these books to their previous glory.
While it’s not always possible to clean an old leather book to make it look brand new, because some damage is permanent, but there are always ways to make a leather book look its best. In some extreme cases this might mean a full restoration of a leather book where it must be sent to a book binder but normally following these basic steps to clean and take care of leather books will give you the best looking books possible.
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