This really is like going back to square one; a leather hide was undoubtedly the first floor covering in prehistory, and used in all of the better caves. As the saying goes, "What goes around comes around," and here we are putting leather on the floor once again. It's been in all the design publications, seen on "This Old House," and the word is beginning to spread - leather floors and walls are being specified more and more by decorators, designers and architects. One of the things that's slowed the growth of leather flooring has been the lack of installers with the knowledge, the coaching, the confidence and the willingness to be a pioneer.

It's not a big deal to install leather - anyone who has installed cork and vinyl and has done "better work," will have no problem at all with leather. The installation is slow - so it's expensive; we'll get back to that.

A lot of the time the installer will be selected by the designer or decorator, before giving you the job to install a floor that has cost the client about $8,000 for a 15-by-20-foot room, they want to be sure that you understand the nature of the product you're installing and they will ask you a lot of questions; a lot of the time it's because they don't know the answers. In order to install leather successfully, you really do have to understand the product. Depending on what part of the country you're in and the degree of difficulty of the installation, the price to install leather floor tile ranges from $5 per square foot to $25 per square foot with the average being $7.50 to $8.50 per square foot including adhesive. Waxing the tile upon completion is $1 to $1.50 per square foot; that's with the client's wax; if you buy the wax add it on.

Leather Floor Tile 101

At this time there are four or five companies that are aggressively selling leather floor tile. Installation specifications may vary, and you should, follow the manufacturer's recommendations - all leather is not created equal.

90 percent of all leather flooring is cowhide or steerhide; there are some buffalo hide tiles and there's someone out there who sells recycled leather tile. Top-quality leather floor tile is made from vegetable-tanned, aniline -dyed hides, which have been drum dyed so that the color goes all the way through the leather.

Sometimes tiles are top-sprayed and poly-coated to make custom colors.

Most leather floor tiles are about 1/8-inch thick (about 9-11 ounces per square foot) flexible but not limp. Leather floor tiles could have a textured surface that comes from embossing, or it could have a very smooth sensual feel to the surface. The back of the tile is generally slightly sueded to aid in gripping the adhesive. Leather floor tiles are die cut and available in lots of sizes from 3-by-3 inches up to 24-by-24 inches, with 12-by-12 and 18-by-18 inches being the most popular.

Tiles can be installed in a checker- board pattern, on the diagonal or straight, with or without a border, with or without inserts, in a herringbone pattern or any other custom layout. It cuts very easily and cleanly using a high-grade utility knife and a straightedge.

I can hear everyone thinking, "How can you walk on leather? Doesn't it scratch?" Leather floors (real leather floor tiles) scratch, dent, scuff and stain - That's the up side! That's the way leather gets beautiful. "Patina", a word that's often used when talking about leather, the dictionary says: "Patina: A natural material that grows more beautiful with age and use." Age and use; that's it! Leather is a natural product that's meant to be used. Put some wax on it and it takes on a warm glow and a unique character all its own. Think about an old leather briefcase or your grandmother's leather chair or your favorite old pair of leather boots. And then again, there are people that put a leather floor in the master bedroom and never wear shoes because walking barefoot on leather (skin to skin) makes everyone smile. They wax it once a month and it looks like it did when installed, except better, because real leather over time, develops a beautiful patina. A "real" leather floor will last for 50 plus years and look better every year. About 40 percent of all leather tile is sold for commercial use in expensive offices, conference rooms, desk tops and on stairs.

Leather tile should arrive at the job site very well packaged with special attention to protecting the corners of the tile; if they are crunched a small wrinkle will form at the corner of the tile on the face of the leather and it will never go away. The leather is unpacked, unwrapped, opened and allowed to acclimate in the space it will be installed for three to five days, at the average temperature and humidity that the space will be maintained at. This aids in preventing shrinkage after the tile is installed. The larger the tile, the longer it takes to acclimate.

Leather tile can be glued to any uncoated, unpainted, oil free, clean, dry, wood or concrete surface. Painted or treated floors must be sanded so the adhesive has a good gripping surface and floors should also be free of all treatments, old adhesive or other contaminants that might act as a bond breaker.

Plywood and wood floors: Prior to installation, if required, the floor surface must be sanded, leveled, repaired and all holes and fill crevices with wood filler (than sand smooth). Any and all protrusions, nails, screw heads and the like must be below the floor level and patched. If you're installing a plywood floor, do not use Luann it has microscopic fibers on the surface that inhibit the glue from grabbing.

Concrete floors: Must be leveled and patched using a Portland-based patching material.

On grade or below grade concrete floor must be checked for moisture and alkaline salts. Contact the tile manufacturer for specifics on there product.

NOTE: I'm sure you all know this but all floor tiles of a resilient nature i.e. leather, vinyl, cork, rubber, etc. will "telescope" the surface under them. That is, a grain of sand under the tile will look the size of a green pea. Do not get suckered into installing leather on a poor surface; when it looks bad, you're the one they will point the finger at. Use caution when installing leather on radiant heated floors; contact the manufacturer for specifics on their product.

Next, I think it wise to suggest, especially in large open areas, that the installer dry lay the leather before gluing to allow the tiles to be repositioned (by the designer or end user) to compensate for possible, normal, desirable, fat wrinkles and color variations.

Center and align tile in the space as you would any other tile. Install using water based premium, non-flammable contact cement, applied with a brush or roller to coat both the back of the tile and the floor with one even, full spread of adhesive. Avoid getting adhesive on the face of the tile; it will be difficult and probably impossible to remove adhesive from the face of a tile without leaving it damaged - take care - go slow! Do not install the tile until the adhesive is completely dry to the touch. If you have worked with dry contact before, you know that you get only one chance to get it right. The reason we recommend contact is because real leather tile, more that any other product, wants to shrink, curl, dish and rip itself off the floor. It must be stuck tightly. Make sure to apply enough pressure to the tile to get full adhesion. Do not use a metal floor roller; a small smooth hand roller may be used.

Most leather tile should be waxed following installation. It will protect the tile and fill some of the seams. Again, contact the tile manufacturer for specifics on their product, some recommend wax others do not. If you wax a big job, you may want to invest in a small hand buffer with a terrycloth bonnet like those used for cars; Sears has one, so does Turtle Wax and they're inexpensive. Oh, be careful if you're asked to put Butchers Bowling Alley Wax on a dark color leather tile. Butchers Wax (as does most wax) has an ingredient called Carnauba. Carnauba is a derivative of the Palm plant and it's in the wax as microscopic white dots that when applied to a dark leather tile may leave a white film on the surface that's difficult or impossible to remove.

Leather wall tile: Why not install tile on the wall? It's easy, fast and profitable and you're not on your knees. Every manufacturer has a different leather wall tile, so it's hard to give specifics, but in general, if you put floor tile (10-11 oz.) on a wall, you have to use contact cement; if you use contact, you have to have a plywood or concrete wall; you cannot put contact on sheetrock or plaster. Contact adhesive is a very invasive product; it will eat the sheetrock, shrink the tiles and you will have one major problem. Some manufacturers do make a lighter weight wall tile that can be installed on sheetrock with the company's exclusive adhesive. The tile can be installed while the adhesive is wet. Leather wall tile, like floor tile, must be acclimated on site. But unlike floor tile, wall tile should not be waxed unless specified by the manufacturer.

Leather Wall Panels: The easiest of all to install; they go up with basic hardware store panel adhesive. A wall panel is, in most instances, a 1/4-inch plywood panel wrapped with leather, with or without padding.

Get into the wall tile business - wallpaper installers really don't know how to put tile on a wall; this is hi-profit, easy to do and yet everyone backs away from it because it looks risky; it's not. You just have to be careful to examine the product that the customer is planning to use and talk to the company that makes it. Become the expert - help them to decide if it's right - be smart and knowledgeable enough to speak with authority because, bottom line, the responsibility of a successful installation is yours.

There are also leather moldings being made. Wood moldings wrapped in leather that look like crocodile, lizard, grain buffalo, elephant, and a whole array of patterns; moldings for floors; base board, saddles, reducers and chair rails, crown molding and corner beads for wall installations. Each molding and the different coverings call for their own way of being installed. You can find them at Leather is happening. Be ready.