Thursday, June 26, 2014


Photo courtesy Flickr

So much of housekeeping is dedicated to keeping things clean and dry I tend to overlook one area where keeping things greasy and hydrated is the key to the mint- leather care. Editing the contents of the prime bookcase turned up a very old hymnal.

The art of the book is an art indeed. I know barely enough of it to know when to stay my clumsy hand. Sidney Cockerell's guide to binding and Edward Johnston's primer, "Writing and Illuminating and Lettering", known in the writing game simply as "Johnston", lay out the basics. I pretty much know what I've got, but a Special Collections librarian will have been trained in what to look for in a volume. Early books can look like little more than driftwood if their covers have been neglected. Incidentally, Johnston points out that a simple flexible vellum cover is a good way to protect a text, since it is not likely to attract thieves. The whole point of bookbinding is to protect the message.

A totalitarian housekeeper is likely to toss anything in less than bright and shiny condition. I took a second look at the hymnal after recovering from the neck-snapping whiff of sick paper it emitted. The leather half-binding looked nearly like construction paper. 

Forty years ago, when the general public was first hearing from English libraries about how to manage real books (as opposed to the ones known as bucks), the local academic book store began to carry binder’s dressing. It’s the most prudent product I know to apply to any leather. My first jar is only half gone. I should label it for posterity. Even the in-house riding jacket has been dosed with this product, as have all relevant shoes, belts, bags, and gloves. A disposable nitrile glove and a square of dead t-shirt made short and gratifying work of anointing the old cover. In two minutes it was dry enough to burnish and look new, but deeper.

Thirty years ago, I bit the bullet and had a couple of semi-ancient chairs recovered in leather. The decision was cost-effective-they still look very good. I credit that dressing. The chairs are due another dose, and I’ll calendar the chore for the Week It Gets Hot, in July. The leather is secured with rows of brass nails. When it’s time to start working, I’ll set up nitrile gloves, a small vacuum cleaner, a photographer’s equipment dusting brush (that looks like a shaving brush on steroids), a microfiber cloth for damp wiping, the jar of dressing with gooey applicator rag inside, a couple of very clean disposable wipers, and a fresh piece of soft wool for final polishing.

Holding the vacuum hose in one hand, I’ll brush the crevices around the brass fasteners, then wipe the leather and let it dry for a minute, paying particular attention to folds. Leather deteriorates in the areas that are hardest to maintain. One coat of the dressing should protect the chairs for another ten years. In a couple of minutes it will have dried enough to polish, and that will be that.

The key to doing this kind of maintenance effectively is to be well-rested.


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