How to Carefully Clean Old Leather Books
It isn’t uncommon to find valuable or earlier editions of books that have leather jackets (removable leather book covers) or leather bindings (standard leather book covers). However, caring for these leather-bound books isn’t the same as cleaning an ordinary journal or book.
When stored openly, leather-bound books can often accumulate dust and other impurities. Cleaning leather books requires extra care since leather is a sensitive material and requires proper care to prevent drying out or fading, especially when dealing with older books.
If leather book covers are not maintained regularly or correctly, the material may start peeling, cracking, or stiffening. The cleaning process of leather bookbindings is also more intricate compared to cleaning other leather items.
To carefully clean leather books, you’ll need to start by wiping off the dust, cleaning the leather bind, conditioning the exterior, and following the given best practices and cleaning methods that we provide below.
Important Notice: When handling prized or antique books bound in leather, you should always be extra cautious with them. Old leather is much more fragile, especially if it hasn’t been cleaned in a while or if it’s not in good condition. We highly recommend wearing thin cotton gloves while cleaning fragile books to avoid any potential damage.
1. Wipe Off Dust
The first step to cleaning your leather-bound books is to wipe them free of dust and dirt. You can use a small horsehair brush or a lint-free cloth to achieve this. Then, wipe away all superficial dust and dirt on your leather book cover.
If you are dealing with older books that are brittle, we highly recommend using a lint-free cloth over a fine brush, to avoid risking any damage to it. Use gentle pressure and straight direct motions to remove the dust off of the leather book cover.
Make sure that you wipe the front cover, spine, and back of the leather book. Removing dust and dirt will help you prepare it for the next step.
2. Clean the Leather Binding
This step will cover cleaning the leather book cover thoroughly of any dust, dirt, or other impurities remaining. You can use saddle soap or a dedicated leather cleaner for this step. Ensure that the leather cleaner is safe for use on leather and petroleum-based rather than silicon-based.
If your leather cover is excessively dry, powders at the slightest touch, or is riddled with cracks or flakes, its leather might be suffering from red rot. You can use a leather care product containing cellulose ethers to protect the leather and prevent any discoloration.
You only need a clean lint-free cloth and a leather-friendly cleaning product for this step. Both of these cleaning solutions have nourishing ingredients to cleanse leather without discoloring or drying it out.
Do not use any regular cleaning solutions that aren’t leather friendly, since they may have a pH difference compared to leather. Additionally, old books are fragile; therefore, you should only clean them using products that are natural and that are designed to be used on leather.
Use a small amount of saddle soap or leather cleaner on a slightly damp cloth. Rub the cleaner with the cloth on your leather cover in circular motions using light pressure. After covering the entire surface of the leather book, wipe away the cleaning product and leave it to dry.
Be extremely careful around the areas where the leather book cover is damaged. To avoid further damage, don’t clean the areas that are flaking. Instead, carefully clean around them.
3. Condition the Exterior
Conditioning the exterior of your leather book will help you nourish it with essential natural oils that are often removed over time or with exposure to direct sunlight, water, and moisture. Some people skip conditioning their leather-bound books, but we highly recommend it.
Conditioning leather bookbindings increases their durability, improves their texture, and protects them from future damage. Conditioning them can also make the future cleaning process easier since impurities can’t easily penetrate the leather when it has been conditioned.
To condition your leather book, you need a clean, lint-free cloth and a leather conditioning product. We recommend choosing a leather conditioner compatible with the type of leather the cover is made of.
Pour some leather conditioner on a dry clean cloth and use gentle circular motions to rub the product into the leather. Again, it’s important to stress that you’ll need to be extra careful when treating old leather books.
Best Practices When Cleaning Leather-Bound Books
Cleaning leather-bound books is different from cleaning other leather products such as boots, purses, wallets, or sofas. The leather found on old books often becomes fragile and brittle due to age.
Therefore, you need to handle them with care, to prevent any damage. To help you better understand this topic, we have compiled some of our best tried-and-true practices to keep your leather books in the best condition that will last for years.
- Handle Your Leather Books with Care – Keep your leather-bound books away from water, food, or other residue or impurities. We also suggest cleaning your hands before handling leather-bound books for extra caution.
- Use Only Leather-Friendly Products – Since leather-bound books are fragile, especially old ones, you should only use gentle leather-friendly products when cleaning them. Alcohol and other abrasive chemicals in non-leather-friendly cleaners can affect leather’s texture and color.
- Clean the Entire Binding – We recommend cleaning the full leather binding (even the inside flap, if it is made of leather) and not just parts of it. If you don’t clean the leather thoroughly and evenly, it might have an unattractive inconsistent look.
- Store Your Leather Books Correctly – You should always store your leather books out of sunlight to prevent color fading and brittleness. Any shelf you place your leather-bound books on must be well-ventilated and dry. Otherwise, leather can develop mold, due to harmful environmental conditions.
- Clean Your Leather-Bound Books Regularly – We recommend cleaning your leather books at least once or twice a year. However, you can condition them more frequently if you use them regularly.
- Wear Gloves If Required – If your leather-bound books are extremely sensitive, you should wear thin cotton gloves while handling them. This way, you’ll avoid damaging them during the cleaning process.
We hope that you enjoyed our guide on cleaning leather-bound books. While the process itself is straightforward, you should always remember to handle them with care and to only use leather-friendly products.
We’ve also created a comprehensive guide on how to care for leather-bound books, where we share more best practices, care tips, as well as the most important, do’s and don’ts.
Co-Founder, Researcher & Writer At Leatherskill
I’m a leather enthusiast who spends most of his free time crafting, researching, and writing about the many facets of this versatile material. Thanks for reading!