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Leather binding. Everything you need to know

Encuadernación en piel, ejemplo de libros.

Leather binding is closely related to the history of books and bookbinding, as since ancient times it has been one of the binding methods that has been used in the history of bookbinding

Leather bookbinding in the history of bookbinding

Leather has a long history in the Western bookbinding tradition. One of the oldest surviving leather-bound books in the world is the Nag Hammadi Library, which consists of 13 Coptic papyrus codices bound in leather, dating from the 3rd and 4th centuries.

The origins of leather binding as a method of holding the pages of a book together are probably to be found in practical reasons

In some of the earliest forms of Western bookbinding, a book consisted of loose pages covered by wooden boards. These boards served to protect the inside pages and the addition of a leather string hinge facilitated this arrangement

Over time, the leather hinges expanded to become a covering for the entire wooden surface. Leather surfaces naturally invited decoration, and eventually became the expression of the bookbinding craft we know today.

The main reason for the prevalence of leather binding is probably its practicality.

Properly prepared animal hide is enormously robust, withstanding changes in temperature, humidity and a host of insults that time and use can bring, remaining supple and intact long after other materials have succumbed to age and wear

To this day, the British Parliament records its laws on vellum, a traditional writing surface of fine animal hide. Despite the cost of this unfashionable practice, the British government has resisted cost-cutting proposals because of the durability of vellum

Acid-free archival paper lasts about 200 years, while vellum has an expected life of 5,000 years.

Aside from its durability, animal fur has remained an abundant material. Domestic animal husbandry produces a large quantity of fur, and the skin of any home-raised animal has been used at one time or another in leather binding.

Leather is not the only material that has been used in leather binding, but it is certainly one of the most common. However, within that common use, there is great variety in both the types of leather used and the methods of preparation and decoration.

Until the early 19th century, books were published with a binding provided by the bookseller or with temporary bindings that were later replaced by a professional bookbinder.

The final binding was dictated by the tastes of the book owner and the skill of the bookbinder. Thus, there is not necessarily a binding associated with an antique book.

While many historic bindings tend to share similar traits and motifs, a great deal of individual craftsmanship also comes into play

The most accomplished bookbinders would sign their work by adding a small stamp with their name, usually subtly added to the inside edge of the head of the spine. Signed bindings are often especially coveted in the collector’s market.

Types of leather used in leather binding

Leather binding. Everything you need to know
  • Vellum: Very fine parchment from a calf, kid or young lamb. Parchment has an extremely soft grain and can tend to shrink, allowing it to become a very tight and tight cover when stretched over cardboard covers.
  • Calfskin: Top grain leather from a calf. This material is one of the most common book covers, and one of the most disparate. Calfskin is smooth and light brown in color, but is often textured and dyed to create a very different end product.
  • Morocco: Goatskin that is characterized by a fine, pebbly grain and is prized for the way it shows gilding when applied. This form of leather originally comes from Morocco, hence its name.
  • Roan: Sheepskin dyed and textured to resemble that of Morocco as a cheaper substitute for that more desirable material.
  • Skiver: A relatively inexpensive form of outer-grain sheepskin (or possibly goatskin). Skiver is not usually valued as a binding material, but is often used for spine labels.
  • Bonded leather: This type of leather is hardly valuable. Bonded leather consists of leather fibers that are bonded to another material, such as polyurethane. Bonded leather is not a traditional binding method, but it has become a common practice to create the appearance of a leather binding inexpensively.

Types of leather binding

Leather binding. Everything you need to know
Example of leather binding types

Branch binding: Leather is usually stretched over hard boards (cardboard or wood), but can also be left flexible, covering the front, back and spine of the book. When stretched over the fore edge to protect the text block, it forms what is called a yapp-style binding.

Leather branch binding has its origins in medieval traditions, but more recently lame suede bindings were a hallmark of the Arts and Crafts movement bookbinder, Roycroft Press.

Leather-bound books may be either entirely bound, or combined with another covering material.

Quarter binding: The spine is covered with leather, but the front and back covers are covered with another material.

Half binding: The spine and corners of the front and back boards are covered with leather, while the rest of the front and back boards are covered with a different material.

Three-quarter binding: The spine and part of the front and back boards are covered with leather, as are the corners of the front and back boards. Similar to half binding, with more of the spine and corners bound in leather, resulting in approximately ¾ of the total exterior of the book being leather.

In all partial leather bindings, the leather is usually accompanied by a complementary material, such as a fine-grained cloth, or a contrasting decorative material, such as marbled paper.

Decorative techniques used in leather binding

Leather binding. Everything you need to know
Leather-bound books with gilt stamping

Leather is a perfect template for stamping and embossing. Bookbinders use many of the same techniques and tools as other leather workers, but bookbinding has a long tradition and a vocabulary of its own uses.

The following techniques used in leather binding allow for more luxurious and attractive finishes.

Blind engraving: Decorative engraving or carving that is left uncolored, matching the surrounding material.

Gold engraving: The application of gold paint to the carving and tooling.

Dentelle: Border running along the outer edges of a cover.

Stamped: Leather with a pattern that has been stamped on it.

Pebbled Leather: A pattern of small regular bumps pressed into smooth calfskin, possibly to emulate the appearance of Morocco.

Colors and patterns in leather binding

Leather can be dyed any color. Both calfskin and morocco are usually dyed. A special variant, sometimes called law, is a very lightly colored or uncolored leather, so called because it was often used to bind law books.

The following describes some of the methods used in leather binding to achieve different types of results on an aesthetic level

In addition to coloring the leather, other methods of changing its appearance emerged over time:

Marbled calf: An acid solution is flowed over the surface of the leather, creating the appearance of marble.

Mottled calfskin: An acid solution or dye is applied with a sponge or cloth over the leather, creating a varied pattern.

Tree Calf: Dates from about 1775 and is created when an acidic compound is dripped from the top and bottom edges of the front and back boards, creating the appearance of a tree trunk and branches.

Rough Calfskin: The inside face of the leather surface is turned outward.

Buffed Calfskin: Possibly the most common presentation of a calfskin binding, in which the leather is polished to a fine, smooth finish.

Other types of leather used in leather binding

Some unique, custom-made leather bindings have been made from exotic animals, such as leopard, lion and other skins. These ostentatious bindings are often combined with African exploration or hunting books.

Sealskin: In the mid to late 1960s, Thomas Nelson Publishers offered an exotic edition of its Scofield Study Bible, bound in sealskin. Copies of this rare edition sometimes appear on the used and rare book market.

Bibliopegia anthropodermica: This clinical Latin term hides an obscure tradition. These are books bound in human skin. It is, for obvious reasons, a very uncommon binding method, but one that achieved a certain degree of popularity in the 17th century

Most often this type of binding is found in 17th century anatomy texts, where the cover material was somewhat appropriate for the material it contained.


Richard H.

With a lifelong dedication to the printing industry, I have collaborated with various print houses, honing my expertise in pre-print design, material selection, and technical intricacies. As a seasoned professional, I bring to "The Color Blog" deep insights into materials and the world of printing, aiming to shed light on the craftsmanship and nuances behind each printed masterpiece.View Author posts

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