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Re: [BKARTS] Leather conditioning

I can confirm Number 2 below.  In a discussion with Don Etherington in the
last year or so about dressings--I was looking for a good one to use on a
binding--, he said that while at the LoC, he and others had studied the
subject of leather dressings extensively and found they had no beneficial
use, and were sometimes damaging.


-----Original Message-----
From: Book_Arts-L [mailto:BOOK_ARTS-L@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx]On Behalf Of
Huttner, Sidney F
Sent: Thursday, May 26, 2005 2:06 PM
To: BOOK_ARTS-L@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Subject: Re: Leather conditioning

Richard Minsky asked:

>>> Many people have said that using leather dressing is harmful, but
someone please explain why, if it is done properly?

There are surely many (many!) people far better qualified to respond to
this than I am, but, heedlessly plunging in nonetheless:

1. 30-odd years ago at the University of Chicago we started a fairly
serious round of oiling leather bindings, using a formula close to the
British Museum dressing. All seemed fine for quite a number of months,
and then we began to notice "sticky" bindings all over the place.
Investigation seemed to indicate that masses of bindings -- particularly
19th century English and French bindings -- were routinely shellacked
after finishing (as, often, were earlier books that passed through
binderies for refurbishing in this period).

The dressing seems initially to migrate into the leather, and with the
bit of wax in it, the books "shined up" quite nicely. Over a period of
time, however, the shellac rejected portions of the dressing, leaving a
quite unpleasant, tacky, damaging residue on the leather that could only
be removed with potassium lactate (itself not the most pleasant stuff to

We never found a way to determine visually before dressing whether a
particular book was or was not shellacked. But we cleaned that tacky
gunk off a lot of bindings.

We also noticed a _lot_ of books that had been dressed in earlier years.
Those that had weak or failing hinges or evident beginnings of red rot
had clearly been too heavily dressed, probably just because they were
weak, and substantial amounts of oil had wicked into spines, endsheets,
and other visible paper.

2. I seem to recall that LC investigated dressings extensively about
15-20 years ago and came to the conclusion that dressing was of no value
in stopping or reversing deterioration due to poor tannage or acid
environment, that the problem of oil migration to paper was a serious
one, and that therefore, in essence, the only leathers that might
benefit from dressing were those that did not seem to need it (which may
include the group Minsky has been keeping healthy for lo these many
years).  I have not seen copies for some years, but I think these
conclusions were addressed in one of the pamphlets the Conservation
Office published at one time.

I haven't myself used milk for white leather, but milk was, at an
earlier period, a favored way of cleaning vellum bindings, sometimes
using balls of squeezed bread dipped in it.  I again seem to recall this
was found by study to have distinct disadvantages.  Residues that
attracted insects, perhaps? Or did it lead to cockling if overdone?

Cordially ---------- Sid Huttner
Sidney F. Huttner, Head, Special Collections
100 Main Library, The University of Iowa
Iowa City, IA 52242-1420
PHONE: 319-335-5921 FAX: 319-335-5900
The LUCILE Project: http://sdrc.lib.uiowa.edu/lucile

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             For all your subscription questions, go to the
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