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A mixture of 60% neats-foot oil and 40% anhydrous lanolin by volume is one of the safest dressings for most leather bindings. The mixture can be made by melting the lanolin in a double boiler and mixing in the proper amount of neat's-foot oil.
The lanolin is available from drug stores; and the neat's-foot oil, from hardware stores, shoes stores, saddlery shops and some drug stores. Be sure to buy pure neat's-foot oil, rather than a mixture.
Apply the dressing with a pad of cheesecloth or cotton using a patting motion; brushes are not satisfactory, as one has little control over the amount of dressing being applied. In patting on the dressing, one must use great care to avoid staining any paper or cloth parts of the cover or any pages of the text. Several thin coats, applied carefully and thoroughly to small areas at a time, are preferable to one heavy coat. Excessive dressing may bleed through the spine, staining the text and embrittling the pages as the oil oxidizes; a piece of waxed paper inserted between the covers and the text will reduce this as a possibility.
Before use, the treated books should allowed to absorb the dressing for a period of 12 to 24 hours. The treatment should be repeated every two to five years, depending upon storage conditions; when the leather begins to feel dried out and somewhat brittle, another treatment is necessary. Once leather has reached a powdery consistency, the treatment is not effective.
Polyvinyl acetate emulsions, lacquers and varnishes should never be used on leather bindings; they may cause bindings to stick together.
The above are general suggestions which should not be applied indiscriminately to all leather-bound books. If dealing with very valuable books, one should consult a professional conservator.