L for Leather

Leather has been employed for writing surfaces on furniture since the seventeenth-century to provide a tactile surface on which to write. It’s not only kinder on both paper and nib pens than a hard polished wood surface, but is also gentler on the writer’s wrists. The types of leather most commonly used were hide (ox and cow), skiver (sheep), and less commonly, morocco (goat).

Hides can vary from firm and smooth textured to soft and grainy, depending on the tanning process and are generally tough and hard wearing. Skivers are the split outer grain layer of the skins of sheep which are softer and somewhat more fragile than hides. Hides are available in fairly large dimensions and sheep being smaller animals, obviously produce smaller skins, however, both hides and skivers can be joined to cover the likes of expansive partners’ desks etc. – the joins usually being disguised by tooling (embossing) over them.

Leather is measured in ounces per square foot; one ounce being approximately 1/64″ (0.4mm) thick. A single hide or skiver can vary slightly in thickness so leather weights are normally bracketed e.g. ‘2oz. to 3oz.’ etc. The most common thickness used for writing surfaces is 4oz. to 5oz. (1/16″ to 5/64″ or 1.6mm to 2mm).

Some thicker hides (5oz. to 6oz. – 5/64″ to 3/32″ or 2mm to 2.5mm) may require the writing surface recess to be fielded around its perimeter, which, in conjunction with the thickness of the veneer/crossbanding, provides the necessary depth to prevent the edge of the hide being an obstacle. If replacing an antique leather, the old leather should be removed prior to purchasing a replacement to ascertain if the recess is indeed fielded and thus, the type and thickness of leather required.

Old leathers can usually be pulled off whole with care, beginning at a corner and slowly peeling upwards. If the leather was laid traditionally (with paste) then cleaning up is a simple matter of swabbing the surface with a cloth and hot water and scraping any stubborn areas. If, on the other hand, the leather was laid using a modern woodwork adhesive or contact cement, I would highly recommend hand-balling the task to someone else! Modern non-soluble adhesives are a bear to remove other than by mechanical means which can jeopardise the surrounding woodwork.

New leathers

I used to purchase unfinished hides (cow, buffalo and their respective calves) and then hand dye, distress and finish them to compliment the furniture they were being laid on. However, hides and skivers are available vat-dyed and ‘antiqued’ or, when expertly done, can be hand dyed to impart a convincing degree of wear.

It’s traditional to tool the perimeter of leathers with a combination of blind and gold decorative lines and corner motifs (a narrow blind line usually defines the extent of the fitted leather), but with embossing wheels costing anywhere between $150 and $400 each, it’s unlikely the average person would possess much of a selection of tooling.

Narrow eighteenth-century embossing wheel.

Tooling for embossing corners.

Blind- and gold-tooled hide.

In the absence of professional embossing equipment, it’s probably more salient to purchase ready finished and tooled loose leathers. Assuming one is purchasing a pre-tooled loose leather (sometimes called an ‘inlay’), carefully measure the recess in which your chosen variety of leather will be inserted, noting any deviations of ‘straight’ edges and out-of-squareness. The new loose leather will be somewhat oversized to allow for slight inaccuracies in the recess.

Oversize loose leather.

If it turns out that the recess which the new leather is to be laid in is in fact out of true, then it’s advisable to lay the entire oversized leather before trimming it so that the tooling remains straight irrespective of fluctuations in the shape of the recess. If the loose leather were pre-cut and the recess edges wandered in and out, then the leather would have to be stretched one way or another to meet the edges with the result the tooling would be maligned.

On the other hand, if the recess is perfectly straight and accurate, then the leather can be pre-cut along all four edges prior to laying it.

Preparing the recess

The ground must be smooth and free of any splits or divots otherwise they will likely telegraph through the thin leather. Stabilise any splits and fill any voids with plaster filler and then sand the entire recess with coarse sandpaper. Finally remove all traces of sanding debris and dust with a stiff dry brush or a vacuum cleaner.

Preparing the paste

Animal glue is often considered the peerless period medium for sticking down loose leathers, however, even by adding a retardant to the glue, it sets far too rapidly for all but the smallest leathers such as those found on candle boards etc. Animal glue can, in conjunction with a warm iron, be used for laying baize (though it’s still far from ideal) but one shouldn’t attempt ironing leather!

Quick grabbing adhesives and quick setting glues should be avoided when laying loose leathers: What’s required is a viscous, slippery, slow setting adhesive that allows plenty of time to position the leather without fuss or panic.

The adhesive that answers this call – and one that’s been around for thousands of years – is flour paste. When mixed with water, the gluten in flour forms a translucent white paste that sets hard and yet is reversible with water should the need ever arise. The paste can be made up cold, but a superior paste results from cooking the flour and water. Modern cellulose wallpaper paste is the successor to cooked flour paste and is a perfectly good substitute, but as most households have plain flour in the kitchen and it takes but a moment to prepare…

To make more than enough flour paste to stick down a large loose leather, heat 300ml (10oz) of water in a saucepan (a few drops of food colouring or water-based stain added to the water acts as a trace that helps to avoid missing any areas when brushing it onto the furniture). Sift 30g (1oz) of flour into 200ml (7oz) of tepid water and when the consistency is smooth; slowly stir the mixture into the saucepan of hot water. Bring the mixture to the boil, stirring continuously and simmer for a few minutes until it thickens (the viscosity will further increase upon cooling). Allow the paste to cool completely before use.

Laying a new loose leather

Apply a heavy coat of paste to the ground with a stiff brush; first brushing lengthways and then crossways to ensure full coverage. Don’t worry about paste flowing onto surrounding polished surfaces; it will only be for a brief period and can be wiped off afterwards with a damp cloth. Some of the paste’s moisture will be absorbed into the raw wood creating uneven coverage, so allow the paste to stand for a minute before brushing the area lengthways again, replenishing the paste where necessary so a good heavy coat remains.

With the finished side of the leather uppermost, loosely fold one end of it over the other – roughly in two – with the bottom fold extending three or four inches beyond the top fold.  Supporting the leather above the pasted recess, lightly press one corner of the bottom fold into one corner of the recess. Smooth the leather down lightly with the fingers along the short side until the adjacent corners align. Begin laying the leather along the length of the recess, but resist the temptation to smooth it down yet. In the case of a pre-cut leather, ensure the edges of the leather meet the edges of the recess.

If it’s necessary to adjust the leather’s position, it will be found to slide quite easily on the layer of paste. Moistening the palms of the hands (spit on them and rub them together) affords a better grip for manoeuvring the leather. Once the leather lines up; smooth it down – initially with dry hands and then, using more force, with a folded dry cloth – beginning in the centre and gently squeegeeing any air pockets and surplus glue out to the perimeter. If the recess was straight and square, the tooled lines will have self-aligned.

If laying an oversized loose leather into an irregular recess, sight along the tooled lines and adjust the leather as necessary until the lines are true. Crease the leather into the edges of the recess with a bone folder or the rounded end of a steel ruler and then carefully trim the surplus leather off with a sharp chisel held about 10° off the vertical.

Run a thumb nail along the edge of the leather to tuck it down so its raw edge doesn’t present an obstacle – in much the same way carpet fitters tuck the edges of fitted carpet along the skirting board. Wipe the surrounding polished woodwork with a damp cloth to remove any traces of paste. The paste will be dry within four to six hours.

When giving the piece of furniture its final wax, wax the leather too.

Some suppliers of loose leathers (no affiliations):

Antique Leathers (UK)
Essex Galleries (UK)
Desk Leathers (US)

Jack Plane

About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
This entry was posted in Techniques and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to L for Leather

  1. Federico Mena Quintero says:

    Excellent description! Thank you, sir, this will come in quite handy.


  2. Pingback: O for Crying Out Loud | Pegs and 'Tails

  3. Pingback: A George II Walnut Serpentine Chest – Part Seven | Pegs and 'Tails

  4. Pingback: Sticking with Original Recipes | Pegs and 'Tails

I welcome your comments

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s