The Sincerest Form of Flattery: The New Imitation Leather

StackQ. You've written about how impressed you are with the new generation of imitation leathers. What is this stuff made of and what makes it so good? A. Here's the deal with the new imitation leathers -- the stuff the publishers call TruTone, TuTone, NuTone and what have you. They overturn the traditional thinking. Used to be, imitation leathers were at the bottom of the value pyramid, followed in ascending order by bonded leather, genuine leather, various varieties of calfskin, and goatskin. These days, an imitation leather cover is more flexible out of the box than pretty much all the bonded and genuine leather options available. That means the most affordable cover is also the the most practical, especially at a time when the quality of affordable leather seems to be on a downward spiral. As a result of all this, I'm fond of saying that the best values in the Bible market are at the extremes: at the low end and the high end, you get your money's worth -- in the middle there are no guarantees.

OpenflatThe first time I noticed one of these new bindings was when I picked up a black-cover, silver-edged Compact Edition of the New Living Translation. I was impressed that it opened flat out of the box, and that the imitation leather cover was so incredibly supple and flexible.

Bent_2It wasn't an immediate epiphany. I passed by the display of NLTs again and again to handle them, but didn't put down the $20 to take one home. After all, it was imitation leather, and I was the guy complaining that the genuine leather didn't feel genuine anymore. Wouldn't imitation leather -- pleather! -- be a huge step down? I spent more time agonizing over that purchase than I have over spending five times the money or more, because it just seemed ... wrong ... that imitation leather could feel so good.

Well, it does. Since then, I've become a convert. You won't get my goatskin away unless you pry it from my cold, dead fingers (or something like that), but there is now a place in my heart for the humble, affordable imitators. The question is, what is this stuff? People have asked, and I've always claimed ignorance. I assumed it was some sort of PVC or plastic, a high-tech synthetic, but really, that was just a guess. Finally, I decided to find out. I asked the folks at Tyndale for help, and they got in touch with the supplier in Italy for a definitive description. Here it is:

Our synthetic leathers are coagulated PU's (polyurethane) on a non-woven support (made out of viscose). The advantages of this kind of products are the thermo effect, the smooth hand and feel, and the possibility of providing a large range of colours and finishings.

Compared to regular leathers, PU's are studied to perform with all kind of glues as well as stamping foils, and to be converted on both automatic and semi-automatic case makers. Additionally, PU's are coagulated and produced under a set of very strict regulations in the European Union, so you can be sure that they do not contain or generate during production harmful emissions, plasticizers, PVC's, lead (or any metals), cadmium, or azo dyes.

My contact at Tyndale explained that the "thermo effect" refers to the material's ability to be heat-burnished (i.e., to darken when hit with a hot die).

TutoneHow's that for a science lesson? To sum it all up, the polyurethane covers provide a leather-like feel that's actually superior to a lot of bonded and genuine leather, and at a surprisingly affordable price. The Bible Design and Binding Blog tends to focus on the expensive stuff, but who says good design has to be expensive? In most cases, the difference between good and bad design comes down to care, not cost. I'm excited to see what designers will do with polyurethane covers in the future. In the meantime, I'm just happy to finally know what they're made of!

In the first photo, the stack of Bibles featured, from top to bottom, are: (1) Tyndale's Compact Edition of the NLT in Black Imitation Leather; (2) Tyndale's handsome second edition NLT in LeatherLike Brown/Tan, complete with concordance and maps; (3) the Harper Colllins NRSV Go-Anywhere Bible, reviewed here; (4) Crossway's Portfolio Thinline ESV, reviewed here; (5) Crossway's Portfolio Classic Reference ESV. The second and third photos show the Compact Edition NLT open flat and curled in the hand. (I've bunched it up I don't know how many times over the years, and it still looks great.) Finally, a better shot of Tyndale's Brown/Tan NLT. Hopefully you can see the richness of the dark brown in the expanded photo. It's quite nice.