Bill Minter on Cobden-Sanderson’s Bindings and the Taste of Leather. Additional Comments by Marianne Tidcombe

Bill Minter sent me some recollections about Cobden-Sanderson’s bindings, which raise several interesting questions.  Are bookbinders and book conservators—especially those in private practice—skewed in their appraisal of bindings since they generally deal with books that need to be fixed?  Could Cobden-Sanderson actually taste the quality of leather? Does Bill have a second wind since he took a straight job with a regular paycheck?

Before accepting the newly created position of Senior Book Conservator at The Pennsylvania State University Libraries (aka: Penn State), Bill was in private practice. While some may know of him as the developer of the ultrasonic welder for polyester film encapsulation, he has also dabbled with other ideas in book conservation. His email is: wdm14<at>psu<dot>edu

Bill is far too modest in this brief bio. Some of his “other ideas” include intact washing of water damaged books, a velcro based tying-up press, a video of how to maintain and adjust a board shear, the use of aluminum to lighten and make more rigid oversize drop spine boxes, and tips on how to quickly flatten rolled documents for digitizing. Most recently he has attempted to quantify some of the properties of teflon and bone folders. His poster should be in the poster area of the AIC website soon.




Bill writes (1):

I recently saw your blogpost about Cobden_Sanderson.

You wrote:  “…but his bindings are really beautiful. I’ve had the opportunity to see many of them and to work on a couple of them as well. They are quite refreshing from much of the trade work of the day. Unfortunately, many of the materials he used are often poor quality. The books I’ve been able to see the structure of have common late nineteenth century structural weaknesses: very thin slips, tissue thin leather jointed endsheets, and overly pared covering leather. Ironically…”

I would suggest that when you are in Chicago the next time that you try to see his bindings at the various libraries.

Many years ago, Marianne Tidcombe was to speak to The Caxton Club. She arrived days early to see C-S’s bindings, as well as research her next book on woman binders. I insisted that she stay with my family, so that I could be her chauffeur.

When she arrived on Saturday afternoon, I told her about my 3-volume set of signed C-S bindings in brown leather and blind tooled. After much discussion, she had me (almost) convinced that my books were not C-S, because “he never bound in brown leather”.  Upon going to my shop, indeed they were C-S. Until then, she had only seen rubbings of that particular binding.

(Teaser — the boards were detached as you might assume, but read on.)

Well, for two days we went to numerous libraries and, as I recall, every C-S binding was in excellent condition with the boards intact! AND, as I recall, there were no ‘brown’ leather bindings; most were either red, blue, green or other. After seeing maybe a dozen or more (20?) books, I asked the question, “you said that he did not bind in brown leather”. She explained that C-S knew that brown was not a good leather, for three specific reasons:  1) from working with the leather, 2) XXX?? (I do not recall the reason), and 3) (the best part) — that he could TASTE that the leather was TOO ACIDIC.

[Marianne Tidcombe writes:, “What I said in 1992 was not that C-S did not use brown leather for binding, but that he rarely used dyed pigskin – brown or any other colour – because it was acidic.  He had an instinct for judging leather, and could tell by handling, smelling, and (yes) tasting, if it was acid.  He chose goatskin, sealskin, and alum-tawed pigskin, all of exceptional quality, which is why his bindings have held up so remarkably well compared to many others bound in the same period. Your blind-tooled ‘Golden Legend’ bound at the Doves Bindery in about 1904(?) in brown dyed pigskin is an exception.  I suspect he risked using it in this case because it took the blind impressions rather better.”] (2)

Aside from him tasting that the leather was too acidic, how would he have known that that was a problem? At the same time: how did they test for acidity during that time — litmus paper?
ANYWAY:   To further enhance this story, the last stop was at the U Illinois — Chicago campus where there are approximately 19 bindings by Ellen Gates Starr of Hull House. Starr studied with C-S in the early 1900s. Her collection of bindings include, from my perspective:  one binding using C-S leather and tooled by C-S; one binding tooled by EGS on leather supplied by C-S, and the remainder were (shall I suggest) other leathers that have not survived as well as the C-S type —– again, from my perspective. The bindings using C-S leather were, as I recall, in much better condition than the others. At the same time, one would assume that all of the books have been held in the same, Chicago environment all these years.

I wish there were a way to determine whose leather C-S used and how that leather was tanned, especially compared to other tanners. AND, why is it that he rarely used brown leather? Perhaps a world-wide survey of the condition of all C-S bindings would be helpful? This story (information) is from the 1990s, though I did see the Starr bindings again in 2003.

Hope this raises some questions about the condition of Cobden-Sanderson bindings.

One other comment:   While you have done far more research than me, I would suggest that as conservators in private practice, we only see the failures and rarely get a chance to tour the stacks to examine a large number of bindings.

[Marianne Tidcombe writes: Re: Jeff Peachy, Cobden-Sanderson and leather, etc.  Some of what he says is of course true, but I’m afraid he generalizes, based on a couple of books bound at the Doves Bindery, which is rather unfair.  C-S had only a short period of training (with a trade binder), and his forwarder at the Doves Bindery was a tradesman.  However, C-S was a trailblazer in advocating sound methods and materials, and passed his ideas on to Douglas Cockerell, who in turn promoted conservation binding.  C-S had to find solutions to problems himself, and work out better methods as he went along.  See, for example, the structurally sound Kelmscott Chaucers he bound at the Doves Bindery, and the concertina sewing he devised for Doves Press books printed on vellum.”] (3)




Peachey responds: First, let me acknowledge I am basing my original observations on a handful of bindings brought to me for conservation work, so this may well be a self-selecting sample.  Secondly, Marianne Tidcombe, who is the world’s foremost expert on Cobden-Sanderson, and I am honored to have her comment here. She has written books on the The Doves Bindery, Cobden-Sanderson, and knows his bindings better than anyone. So in terms of the relative durability of his bindings to the general trade work of the day, I stand corrected. And I should have made it clear that I was only considering the books I have worked on, which were his tight-back tanned leather bindings.

However, another aspect to consider is the use or abuse that a book may have during its life. A high end signed Cobden-Sanderson binding likely was expensive, collected, used less, and therefore preserved better? Isn’t this also a self-selecting sample? And I would bet good money that any late nineteenth century tight-back tanned leather bindings (Cobden-Sanderson’s included) will not prove to be as durable as many other earlier bindings — both materially and structurally — though would like to learn what specifically Cobden-Sanderson did differently.

Are turn of the 20th century tight-back tanned leather bindings due a reappraisal?



  1. Email to Jeff Peachey from Bill Minter, 18 June 2016, 12:57 PM.
  2. Email to Bill Minter from Marianne Tidcombe, 22 June 2016, 2:05 PM.
  3. Email to Bill Minter from Marianne Tidcomve, 22 June 2016, 2:05 PM.

New Treatment for Red Rot

The Leather Conservation Centre (LCC) in Northhampton, UK released some details of a new treatment for red rot.  It reduces acidity and stabilizes the collagen molecules.  Given the crushing number of red rotted bookbindings, and current lack of treatment options beyond surface consolidation, this is promising news.   It will be interesting to keep an eye on this new product. At present, this treatment is only available at LCC and they are working out details of shipping, packaging, price, shelf life, and a name. The two products they currently sell for leather conservation are SC6000 and Selladerm.


Investigation of Acid-Deterioration in Leather Leading towards Finding a Suitable Product for Treatment

Author/s (*indicate author for correspondence): Y Fletcher*1, A Lama1 , A P M Antunes2, and J Guthrie-Strachan2


1 The Leather Conservation Centre

2 The University of Northampton

E-mail address lcc (at)


The purpose of the research was to carry out further investigation into acid-deterioration in leather in order to develop a product that can treat acid-deterioration with prolonged durability.

The two year research project into acid deterioration, with the aim of developing a new treatment, was carried out at The Leather Conservation Centre (the Centre) and the University of Northampton, both based in Northampton, UK. The University has an established leather technology degree programme. The project was a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) – a UK government backed scheme which links business and an academic institution enabling the business to access skills and expertise to help development of the business, in this case conservation of leather. Funded in part by the Centre and part by the UK’s Technology Strategy Board.

Acid-deterioration in leather, occurs in vegetable-tanned leathers that were predominantly manufactured from the mid-19 Century onward. Acid-deterioration has been observed in a variety of leathers such as bookbindings, gilt leather, screens, wall hangings, upholstery and luggage. The deteriorated leather shows a lower pH (≤3.0) and lower thermal stability. The visible changes usually include a powdery surface (often reddish/brownish, hence this particular deterioration is known as red-rot) and a complete or partial loss of the grain layer (the outer layer of leather); an acrid odour is also sometimes present.

However, care needs to be taken to ensure that a leather object does have acid deterioration and that the visible signs are not for other reasons.

For example, at the Centre we have been shown/given articles purporting to be suffering from “red rot” but which did not in fact have acid deterioration but had other deterioration mechanisms –

  • heavy wear and tear – which had worn away the grain surface
  • deliberate removal of grain surface – where much of the pigmented surface finish had cracked and flaked away, there had been a deliberate attempt to remove all the surface to give an even, though sueded, appearance to the leather surface
  • delamination of the grain surface – a common deterioration mechanism in sheepskin
  • suede and nubuck bookbindings – either a flesh split, or the surface had been deliberately abraded
  • over application of leather dressings – causing blackening of surface with consequent flaking

It has long been accepted that both changes in the leather manufacturing processes and environmental pollutants (such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide) are believed to be responsible for the acid-deterioration. There were considerable changes in leather manufacturing processes in the 19th Century to meet the increasing demand for leather; additionally, emission of sulfur due to the burning of coal gas at the time is also considered to be responsible for rapid deterioration.,

Conservation of acid-deteriorated historic leather has long been a concern due to the lack of suitable products for the treatment of acid-deterioration. The purpose of the research was to undertake further investigation into acid-deterioration in leather in order to develop a product that will delay the progress of the decay in acid-deteriorated historic leather.

For conservation purposes, it was decided that the ideal product should have collagen-stabilising properties, acid-buffering capacity, be capable of providing a long-term conservation effect to the acid-deteriorated leather, together with the fact that it would cause no damage to the leather or any other materials on a leather object with which it may come into contact. In addition any product should be safe for the conservators too (with correct use of any necessary PPE).

Materials and Methods

Desk-based research was conducted to review the products used in the past for the treatment of acid-deterioration. Based on the research and personal communication, various compounds were selected and trialled using new mimosa-tanned leather, artificially-aged mimosa-tanned leather and acid-deteriorated leather. Experiments were carried out using Mimosa-tanned leather (new and artificially-aged) and acid-deteriorated historic leather. Artificial ageing was carried out by exposing the leather samples to a concentration of sulfur dioxide (40-80ppm) and nitrogen dioxide (20-40ppm) at 40°C and 30% relative humidity for six and 12 weeks. Analyses were carried out at 2, 4 and 6 weeks for the six week trials, and at 3, 6, 9 and 12 weeks for the twelve week trials.

Differential Scanning Calorimetry (DSC) was used to determine shrinkage temperature (TS) which indicates changes in thermal stability of collagen and a pH test was used as an indication of acidity in the leather (new and artificially aged mimosa-tanned leather and acid-deteriorated historic leather) samples.

Reagents Trialled

The following chemicals were trialled –

  1. Aluminium diisopropoxide acetoacetate ester chelate (9.6% w/w Al) – the term aluminium alkoxide is used in this paper.
  2. 5-Ethyl-1-aza-3, 7-dioxabicyclo[3.3.0]octane – the term Organic Stabiliser is used in this paper.

A preliminary experiment was then carried out to determine the effects of the reagents on new mimosa-tanned leather. The products were then trialled on new mimosa-tanned leather that was previously artificially-aged for 6 weeks and on acid-deteriorated historic leather.

Shrinkage temperature (TS) and pH of the treated samples were determined. TS and pH of the corresponding untreated samples were also determined.


White sprit is a non-polar organic solvent and so reduces the probability of solubilising polar components (salts and water soluble tannins) in leather when applied. White spirit is proven to be a safer solvent option and has been used in cleaning of historic leathers and therefore was chosen as a diluent for the purpose of this study.

Determination of shrinkage temperature (TS)

The leather samples were cut into small pieces (≈3 mg), placed in deionised water for a minimum of 16 hours at 20±2°C. The following day the excess of water was removed using Whatman No.1 filter papers and 5-10mg were placed in aluminium crucibles (40µl). The samples were analysed using Differential Scanning Calorimetry (DSC) (DSC822e, Mettler-Toledo, Switzerland). The initial and final temperatures during the analysis were 0°C and 100-150°C respectively at a ramping rate of 5°C/minute. The onset temperature of the denaturation process was recorded as TS.

Determination of pH

The pH of aqueous extract was determined following a British standard method (British Standard Institution; BS1309, 1974). A leather sample, 0.25±0.002g was placed in 5ml deionised water (pH: 6-7; adjusted using diluted sodium hydroxide) and agitated mechanically for 24 hours using a shaker at 20±2°C and 65±2% relative humidity. The following day the pH of the aqueous extract was measured using a standard pH meter.

Results and Discussion

Aluminium diisopropoxide acetoacetate ester chelate (aluminium alkoxide) was first introduced by Calnan (1989) for the treatment of acid-deterioration and investigated further during the STEPand ENVIRONMENT Leather Project, and was recommended as a treatment for acid-deterioration in leather. However, the effectiveness and longevity of this treatment were in doubt and the mechanisms of aluminium alkoxide against acid-deterioration are not entirely clear.

Earlier trials carried out at the Centre showed that aluminium alkoxide both increased the TS and pH of the new mimosa-tanned leather, artificially-aged mimosa-tanned leather and acid-deteriorated historic leather. The increase in TS and pH of new mimosa-tanned leather following the application of aluminium alkoxide indicates that the product has a collagen stabilising effect and an acid buffering capacity.

Research carried out at The British Museum showed that treatment of acid-deteriorated leather using aluminium alkoxide increased the pH from 2.7-3.0 to 4.6. However, it was reported that the pH of the treated leather decreased from 4.6 to 3.0-3.4 after 11 years. No information was found on the thermal stability of the experimented leather. As metal alkoxides are moisture sensitive, the replacement of an alkoxy group (O-R; R=alkyl group) through chelation is usually undertaken to reduce the hydrolysis rate.,, Aluminium alkoxide, although chelated, may hydrolyse completely over a period of time and therefore be unable, when applied on its own, to provide long-term protection against acid-decay.

The research showed that the aluminium alkoxide has an acid-buffering capacity and collagen stabilising property, as it increased the TS and pH of new mimosa-tanned leather, artificially-aged mimosa-tanned leather and acid-deteriorated historic leather. Retanning vegetable-tanned leather with aluminium is known to increase the thermal stability of vegetable-tanned leather. In this study, it appears that the Organic Stabiliser in the formulation reacts with alkoxide to enhance formation of stabilising matrix. The formulation may be creating a similar effect to retanning vegetable-tanned leather with aluminium.

A stabilisation effect on the artificially-aged mimosa-tanned leather and acid-decayed leather was obtained regardless of whether the Organic Stabiliser was applied before, after or in combination with aluminium alkoxide. However, increase in TS was found to be the highest when the Organic Stabiliser was applied in combination with aluminium alkoxide on artificially-aged mimosa-tanned leather.

A formulation containing aluminium alkoxide and the Organic Stabiliser was found to be the optimal treatment for acid-deteriorated leathers. The study showed that the developed formulation not only buffers the acidity, but also increases the thermal stability. The stabilisation effect of the developed formulation on leather is higher than aluminium alkoxide when applied alone. Additionally, after artificial ageing in an acidic environment the artificially-aged mimosa-tanned leather and acid-deteriorated leather that were treated with the developed formulation exhibited a higher TS and pH than the respective untreated control samples (See Table 1).

The results of the trials, all carried out with the same method as given above showed that the new formulation reduced acidity (as evidenced by raised pH) and stabilised the collagen structure (as evidenced by raised TS) consistently.

During the study, it was observed that the higher the initial TS of leather, the higher the additive stabilisation effect conferred by the developed formulation. This suggests that treating acid-deteriorated leather at an early stage of deterioration could be beneficial.

It is expected that detailed results will be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

A change in appearance and firmness may occur due to the treatment. It was noted that on several samples the leather became darker and felt firmer/stiffer. Conservators will have to decide whether it is more important to retard the deterioration than to retain the colour and feel of the degraded leather. It should also be noted that acid-deteriorated leather is generally less firm and more flexible when compared to the new leather due to degradation, and the colour may also become lighter as a result of the decay. Therefore, it may be argued that the firmness and darkness observed after the application of the developed formulation may actually be bringing the leather closer to its original feel and appearance.

Humidification tests on a number of treated samples showed that the leather can be humidified after treatment to improve flexibility if required.

Any objects treated for acid deterioration with this new treatment will, almost certainly, need further remedial conservation treatment.


The benefits of the developed formulation are summarised as follows:

  • Increase in pH
  • Increase in thermal stability
  • Capable of providing long-term protection against artificial ageing
  • Once applied, further conservation treatments can be carried out.
  • If necessary the leather can be consolidated (Cellugel was used in trials) before or after the Organic Stabiliser is applied.

Yvette Fletcher BA (Hons), MA, ACR

Head of Conservation


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  2. Larsen, R. (1995) Fundamental aspects of the Deterioration of Vegetable Tanned Leather. The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts School of Conservation.
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  7. European Commission (1994) STEP Leather Project, Evaluation of the Correlation between Natural and Artificial Ageing of Vegetable-Tanned Leather and Determination of Parameters for Standardization of an Artificial Ageing Method. R. Larsen (editor), Protection and Conservation of European Culture Heritage. Research report no. 1.
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  9. Parker, J. (2003) Re-evaluation of the condition of a previously conserved Mexican saddle and anquera. (Am.913), FR2003/22, Department of Conservation and Scientific Research, British Museum (unpublished),
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  11. Arslan, O. Arpac, E & Sayılkan, H. (2010) Siliconcarbide Embedded Hybrid Nanocomposites as Abrasion Resistant Coating. Journal of Inorganic and Organometallic Polymers and Materials. 20 (2): 284-292.
  12. Lichtenberger, R. Puchberger, M. Baumann, S. O. & Schubert, U. (2009) Modification of Aluminum Alkoxides with β-Ketoesters: New Insights into Formation, Structure and Stability. Journal of Sol-Gel Science Technology, 50:130–140.
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