Leather Smackdown: Goat vs. Calf

Q. Which is better, goatskin or calfskin?

It depends on which examples of goatskin and calfskin you're talking about. The Nelson calf is a soft, matte-finish calfskin, incredibly flexible. If you read my piece about the Nelson Signature KJV, you'll get more of my thoughts on that. Cambridge calfskin back in the 90s was a very different animal, something supple, sometimes stiff, but never matte and never soft. It had a more structured, traditional look than the dressed down Nelson approach. 

A lot depends on whether the leather has a stamped grain. The stamping process apparently uses heat, which results in a stiffer leather, which is why a mid-grain goatskin cover from R. L. Allan's isn't as limp as the highland goatskin (which has natural grain). Allan's bindings will have a more traditional, put-together appearance than the Nelson look.

In terms of longevity, I'm not sure whether there's an advantage choosing calf over goat or vice versa. The differences are probably more in the realm of aesthetics. Because goatskin tends to cost more, people think of it as a step up from calfskin, but I've seen calfskin covers I've preferred to goatskin (and vice versa). There are more factors in play, in other words, than just the type of leather.

I'm not even going to mention the so-called exotics.

Having said this, I'm the first to admit I'm no expert on leather. Also, I'm not a leather snob. Goatskin, calfskin, pigskin — I like them all. I only turn my nose up at mystery leather, the stuff that doesn't specify its origin. So I have no use for "genuine leather" as a label.

I'd be interested in what other people think about the hierarchy of leather. What do you prefer and why? Have you experienced differences in longevity with one over the others? 

26 Comments on “Leather Smackdown: Goat vs. Calf

  1. I’m certainly no expert on leather either, but my understanding of genuine leather is that it is the leather that is left after the top grain is removed for those leathers labled as “top grain.” As such it can be either from a cow or a pig. Having said that, I began to use a wide-margin Oxford KJV bound in top grain cow hide beginning in 1982 at seminary and still use it today as my main study Bible. The leather is as nice as ever showing only minimal wear at the top and bottom of the spine which is probably from how I’ve handled more than from any fault in the leather. I try to condition it every few years to keep it supple as well. I also have a Cambridge Pitt Minion KJV bound in in black Berkshire from the late 80’s (Berkshire as I understand it is the same as top grain pigskin)which is very soft and supple and I like the feel of more than the burgundy Cambridge Pitt Minion NIV bound in goatskin which I recently bought. I also have the brown goatskin Cambridge KJV Pitt Minion which is wonderful but I don’t think compares to the older black Berkshire. The edges are smoother, the front edge is concaved rather than sliced flat, and the leather is actually a little thicker and softer on the Berkshire than on the goatskin although the goatskin is supposed to be a superior leather. I also have many more bound in various other finishes and leathers and colors but none that I like more than the black Berkshire. So if I had to list a personal hierarchy, I would have to say–Berkshire, then goatskin, then Cambridge’s water buffalo calf, then top grain cowhide, then Morocco, then French Morocco, then genuine leather.

  2. I will also chime in about Cambridge’s earlier Berkshire leather. I have a text only NASB Pitt-Minion in Berkshire that is absolutely luxurious, and keeps getting better.
    As to Goatskin, some are better than others, even from the same publisher. My Cambridge Pitt-Minion NASB reference Bible in black goatskin is very, very nice. The recently acquired Cambridge Pitt-Minion ESV reference in brown goatskin is a bit disappointing. I am thinking that the Allen’s highland goatskin would have been a better choice. The brown goatskin isn’t bad, but it isn’t anywhere as nice as either the NASB Bibles in goatskin and Berkshire.

  3. As an expert in leather (not an expert in modern bookbinding though), I’ll tell you that the strongest, thinnest, most durable leather on the planet is Kangaroo. It has very fine pores and you really can’t see any grain / marbling / texture at all. Some custom bookbinders are now using it and it is well worth the money for durability, even if it is kinda plain compared to the textures of water buffalo, nigerian goat, elephant, croc and other exotic leathers.

  4. Speaking of “Genuine Leather”, how about the TNIV Study Bible that comes in “European Leather”? Sounds snobby.

  5. I stay away from pigskin. Why would I want to cover my Bible with the skin of one of the filthiest creatures on the planet? It’s really more symbolic than anything else.
    Nothing feels better in my hands than the soft calfskins that come out of Mexico. However, the Allan highland goatskin isn’t as soft, but it looks nice and is seemingly more durable in that it won’t scuff as easy, and would naturally repel moisture rather than absorb it like the Mexican hides. Of course, that all has to do with the tanning process.
    So go with the Mexican calfskin for something soft and luxurious, but realize it requires more careful use, and the highland goatskin for something fairly supple and durable.
    God Bless,

  6. I work in a warehouse where we issue gloves by the hundreds to factory workers, and wear them ourselves. Cowhide gloves are generally thicker, stiffer, and protect our hands better from sharp and rough surfaces. Get them wet, and they dry hard-stiff, and have to be broken in all over again. We think of cowhide gloves as “throw aways”- use them on dirty, nasty jobs, then toss them.
    Goatskin gloves in the same design are in high demand because they are softer and thinner and don’t need to be broken in, and you can feel what you’re doing with them. Get them wet, and they dry just as soft as when they were new. They cost about 50% more than the cowhide, but the goatskin sure feels better on our hands. The goatskin gloves last forever; I’ve torn a few pairs, but I’ve never worn one out.
    Having said that, I sure love the feel and appearance of my Crossway Calfskin ESV. The dull texture reminds me of the elephant-skin wallets we carried as young soldiers in Viet Nam. Whenever I pick up my ESV, before I open it I caress it and remember those days, and how our Saviour carried me though the horrors of combat.
    Praise be to Jesus Christ now and forever.
    Blessings to all from the Great Plains.

  7. Hi, I have a Nelson NKJV Study Bible that is calfskin. I cannot say I have felt anyhting better. I am however think of purchasing the NASB Cambridge Updated Wide-Margin Reference Bible, Black Goatskin Leather 746:XRM and was wondering if I should expect the same? Any comments?

  8. one of my favorites is a sealskin cambridge from the 70s. it’s impossibly smooth and soft but without that “dresed-down” look you speak of in the nelson. unfortunately (or i guess fortunate for the formerly clubbed baby seals!) procurring sealskin is illegal … or at least looked down upon. if you can ever get your hands on one, it is a true treasure.

  9. I have purchased two calfskin Bibles from leatherbibles.com and the Binding on both is as good as any goatskin Bible I own. (That includes Cambridge and Allan goatskin Bibles)

  10. I have purchased two calfskin Bibles from leatherbibles.com and the Binding on both is as good as any goatskin Bible I own. (That includes Cambridge and Allan goatskin Bibles)

  11. I’d like to hear what people have to say about the various middle-of-the-road “genuine” leather Bibles by various publishers. I understand why Mark has expressed his preference for either top (“luxury” leather) or bottom (duo-tone and hardback) level Bibles. On the whole, I tend to agree, but, for various reasons I, myself, am interested in occasionally purchasing a middle of the road Bible. It would be awesome to be able to see what experiences people have had with the longevity of their various genuine leather Bibles from various publishers. While I’m far from an expert in leather, I know from experience that all “genuine” leather is not created equally. For example, my Kirkbride TCR NASB, on the one hand, is sturdy and fairly flexible, I’d say just a tad below the quality of Cambridge’s French Morocco. My Crossway ESV, on the other hand, is absolute garbage, and probably ought to be more honestly listed as bonded leather.
    Something I’m specifically interested in hearing about: There are some Lockman Foundation NASB’s I’m thinking of purchasing, and I don’t have the money to get them rebound just now–it would be nice to hear what experiences people have had with their Lockman Foundation Bibles, both “genuine” and “bonded” leather (as some of their compacts, unfortunately, only come in bonded leather).

  12. My experiences with ‘genuine leather’ have been interesting. I bought two of almost the exact same bible (one with apocrypha and one without) from oxford. one is a nice leather, that is flexible and durable. the natural pigskin grain is still very visible. the other was a cheap feeling plasticy stiff junk. i realized the the nicer one was done in the early 90’s and bad one was done in the early 00’s. the same could be said for zondervan bibles. the older stuff is not bad, newer stuff is a mess. although zondervan’s ‘top-grain cowhide’ (the topside of split cow-hides) is thinner and more flexible than their regular genuine leather. all in all though, as i have seen it, with genuine leather older is better.

  13. btw, i just had a bible rebound by leonards in genuine deerskin, and for the cost (about $70), it is at least as nice as any calf or goat i have ever handled.

  14. dear sirs,
    can you please send me a bible that i can easily read and understand?
    joey lim
    1419 metrica st.
    sampaloc, manila
    philippines 1008

  15. What is the signifacant difference betwee Highland Goatskin and Genuine Morrocco? G. M. is goatskin isn’t it?

  16. As far as Animal skins on Bibles go, I would have to agree with one of the prior posts here in regard to pigskins. Why would you ever want to put pigskin on your Bible? What an Abomination when the Bible itself says not even to touch their dead carcasses! Leviticus 11:7,8. Not even old brother Noah would ever offer such an unclean and filthy animal before God. See Genesis 7:1,2; 8:20. And that was a long time before the Jews or Moses ever came around! Clearly, these animals were filthy from the beginning and were never intended for food or for a holy purpose. They are scavengers and cleaners of the earth-pigs’ll eat almost anything. They don’t even have sweat glands. Their bodies and skin are often filled with all sorts of perisites. Anyway, Christ Jesus died on the cross to cleanse sinners, of whom we are chief, not pigs! How dare we wrap God’s Holy book in such a filthy creature, when even Noah himself wouldn’t offer such a dirty beast to God. Sounds like far too many have gone the way of Old Israel and lost their spiritual sensibilities. Ezekiel 22:26.

  17. ben,
    not to get into a theological debate, but Acts 10 seems to indicate that this issue is somewhat significant. in 10.15 the Lord declares that he has made what was formerly unclean clean. He commands that Peter no longer regard formerly unclean things as unclean. Then in Acts 10.28 Peter interprets what the Lord said about animals to apply to people! Cornelius is analogous to those “unclean” animals. The point Peter draws is clearly stated in 10.34-35. My point is saying this is that unless you are a Jew by birth, it is only in God declaring the unclean things to be clean that we are all accepted by grace alone through faith alone, in Christ alone. I appreciate your concern for holiness, and for taking all of Scripture seriously. I think in this specific regard, however, your zeal is misguided. In the words of the Lord himself, “What God has made clean, do not call common.”

  18. Speaking of unclean animal covers (while I enjoy my pork sausage) what ever happened to snakeskin and the other weird animals like ostrich, alligator, water buffalo, etc? Some of these may be endangered and their use highly regulated but certainly not all.
    In the old days of just a single (KJV) translation, I guess the market (and warehousing, distribution etc) could support a multiplicity of bindings. Now, with the multiplicity of translations to support, market forces reduce our binding options.

  19. Have a Cambridge KJV wide margin water buffalo calfskin brown from Xmas 1980 (my Dads last preaching Bible). Cover is still 90% but liner seems to be a cheap plastic like material. It has cracks at the binding. Is this a super premium cover worth a facelift? What type of better liner should be used? This Bible has scores of sermon outlines in it and will be kept regardless. P.S. Who would be best for this project?

  20. PSte: Particularly if it has family (sentimental) value, I’d hold off rebinding it and instead concentrate on preservatives for the cover. I think any of the binders posted here can use superior liner materials (leather!) to what you have and give you an absolutely gorgeous rebind, and certainly preserve the textblock and the notations therein, but it can’t help but change its appearance somewhat, and I think you might miss that to some degree.
    So I’d use it as is (the way your dad used it) until the cover is literally separated. If it has cracks in the binding (I assume you mean cracks in the covers at the spine) it’s probably only going to give you another couple years of regular service anyway.
    But if it has cracks in the textblock binding, then the threads might be giving way and you’ll want to take care of that right away before pages come loose. In that case, make sure you get a re-binder that re-sews textblocks…they don’t all do that.

  21. j.mark bertrand: i have an old cambridge bible with a blue genuine leather cover, but the lining is marked “leathertex”. what is that? and how can i find out when it was printed/published?finally, years ago someone almost spilled coffee on one of my bibles at a crowded bible study. hypothetically, if this actually happened, what would be the proper course of action to minimize the damage, if possible?

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