Animal skins have been used to cover books since ancient times both for protection as well as decoration. In the Middle Ages Egyptian papyri were wrapped in goat or sheep skins. They were later arranged as books with written pages placed between thin wooden boards which were then covered with leather.  

Leather Bookbinding

Medieval religious codes particularly stand out as they were carefully decorated with expensive materials such as precious stones, ivory and gold. However covers of books that were intended for everyday use remained relatively unadorned and, although they were occasionally influenced by more expensive designs, they were not always relevant to the book contents.

In the Carolingian medieval period, books were generally covered in suede and, from the 12th Century onwards, in cowhide. During the Renaissance the art of leather mosaics was developed.

Since the mid to late 19th Century, leather book covers have gradually declined and only appear on highly symbolic or valuable works. 

There have been cases where human skin has been used for the outer covers of books and documents. In England in the first half of the 19th Century, for example, the skin of an executed murderer was used to cover the documents submitted about his sentence.

                                    Hallmarking tools     Leather book cover workshop

Design on leather book covers

Embossing has been used for a long time in the design of book covers. There are different types of designs that can be achieved through different methods of embossing the leather:

  • Blind embossing, blind printing or blind pressure - the leather is embossed so the image or pattern is raised without the use of added colour
  • Hand gilding - this technique comes from Islamic culture and probably dates back to the 11th Century. Gold leaf is embossed into the leather with the help of some special tools.
  • Gold print - motifs are pre-punched before the gold leaf was pressed onto the leather with a heated tool.
  • Press gilding - long sheets of gold foil are used by machines to gold-plate the leather.
  • Colour imprints or colour registered embossing - the transmission of colour and pattern by embossing coloured films.
  • Hallmarking - leather can also be embossed by hand with a tool or hallmark.
  • Paint printing - leather already coloured will take longer for colour embossing. These types of leathers usually require complete dyeing, printing or painting.
  • Leather mosaics - they are a form of artistic decoration of book covers which was found particularly in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Tailored leather pieces of the same thickness, but in different colours, were arranged and fixed with adhesives producing a decorative motif. Historically, leather mosaics were formed from both simple geometric shapes and figures of nature and everyday life. Nowadays, this intricate type of book decoration is rarely practiced.
  • Leather inlays - when images cut in leather pieces are removed and replaced by a different coloured leather.
  • Printed leather - in this method, images and designs are printed on coloured leather.
  • Leather deformations - leather is a mouldable material that can be shaped into artistic patterns or forms for decorative or practical reasons.

                                           Leather Blind Embossing     Leather book hallmarking

                                           Deformed Decorative leather     Painted book leather

Preservation of book bindings

The care and preservation of historically significant books is very important in order to restore them and protect them against decay and mould growth. Some bookbinders have additional qualifications so they can become professional book restorers. Depending on the particular problem, the restorers have various techniques.

                                             Leather Book Worm     Leather Book cover repair

Recommended products

  • Depends on the type of leather. Please get in touch with us if you need help with anything particular. COLOURLOCK Elephant Leather Preserver works well as it makes old leather soft and supple unless the leather is extremely porous and sensitive.

Top tips!

  • Leather that is not used at all (as might be in case of old books) does not need much care as long as it is stored away from heat sources and humidity.
  • If it is a leather cover for your daily journal, it would be best to clean and protect it more often.