Category Archives: Book repair

A Bookbinder’s Guide to Bible-Buying

Posting this here may seem like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted – after all, many of the people who visit this site do so because their Bibles are in various states of disrepair. But, having seen some of the Bibles that have come for repair recently, I have been thinking that it may be worth giving some advice on things to consider when buying a new Bible. Although it may appear that bookbinders can work miracles in making an old book look like new, there are some things that even we can’t make right.

Whatever Else You Do, Buy a Sewn Bible
This is really the most important point. From a binding perspective, there are two basic categories of mass-produced contemporary books, the glued and the sewn. Glued books consist of single pages that are glued together along the spine. (This is also known as perfect binding). They are only held together by glue, albeit a very strong hot glue. But when they come apart, while one can re-glue individual pages, re-gluing the whole Bible is not going to produce a satisfactory result – partly because one is unlikely to have much margin to work with, and partly because the cold glue that most bookbinders work with today is not as strong as the original hot glue that was used in the factory.

This is a clear example of what a sewn book looks like, although the signatures are sometimes finer and less clear.

This is a clear example of what a sewn book looks like, although the signatures are sometimes finer and less clear.

Sewn books, on the other hand, are held together by both stitching and glue. They are printed in such a way that the book consists of a series of booklets called signatures. Each signature is folded over and is usually stitched through the fold. (This is sometimes called Smyth sewn). If you look at the top or bottom of the Bible, you should be able to see if it is made up of signatures (which vary in thickness) that indicate that it is sewn. (Leonard’s Books has some more advice on this here).

I cannot over-emphasise the importance of buying a stitched Bible rather than a glued one. Not only are stitched books far more durable that glued ones, but they also open far better and can lie flat, something that a glued book will not easily do. A glued book is all very well for a thesis or a whodunit that is not likely to be read again, but is totally unsuitable for a book that will be constantly re-read and cherished.

Bonded Leather is Not Leather
I have been horrified to see the prices that are asked for Bibles bound in bonded leather. It needs to be stated very clearly that bonded leather is not leather, but is rather recycled leather fibres that are held together by a substantial amount of a gluey substance. To call bonded leather leather is like calling chipboard wood – and using chipboard in place of wood is probably a better option than using bonded leather in place of leather, because wood does not need to be supple as leather does, and bonded leather is definitely not supple, nor does it last well.

The grey underside is a sure indication that this was bonded leather, despite the "Genuine Leather" stamp.

The grey underside is a sure indication that this was bonded leather, despite the “Genuine Leather” stamp.

Even more horrifying is the fact that it appears that some Bible manufacturers are passing bonded leather off as genuine leather. I recently had a Bible in for repair that I thought looked more like bonded leather than genuine leather, although it was stamped “Genuine Leather” on the back. I thought that I must be mistaken, but, when I opened it up, there was no mistaking the grey nylon underside of the bonded leather.

Consider Rebinding a New Bible
Instead of buying a glued Bible bound in bonded leather for a hefty price, you would be far better off buying a well-stitched book block with a cheap binding. Even a stitched paperback is preferable to a glued Bible, although a hard cover is preferable as it is likely to round more easily. You could then have it rebound in leather, either immediately, or when you can afford to do so. This option will also allow you to personalise the binding as you consider what sort of cover you want. While the leather available in this country is limited (and I don’t import leather as it would drive the prices up exponentially), it is nevertheless genuine leather, lasts well, and will protect your Bible for many years to come.


Rebinding of Altar Missal

I have recently been busy with rebinding some Roman Catholic altar missals. About a year ago the Catholic Church introduced a new English translation of the Mass, which of course necessitated that all English-speaking parishes get new books. However, the – very substantial – version of this text for use on the altar does not seem to have been well bound and I was approached by a priest who was concerned that his books were beginning to come apart. We decided to rebind them in a simple but sturdy leather binding.  Here are some before and after photos.

The original binding. They had used an elaborate foiling block, but on a very cheap synthetic material. The book block itself was well stitched and glued, but not well attached to the rather flimsy cover.

One of the back covers that was beginning to tear. When I took the book apart I discovered that this was not just due to the inferior material used . There was also very little mull used and it had not been well glued.

I rebound the books in dark brown leather, with substantial cover boards, beveled edges and a simple Cross debossed on the front cover.

As this is a very heavy book that will be used often, I strengthened the book block with an extra layer of mull, and added a hollow which helps to prevent the book block becoming detached from the cover.

Some recent Bibles

I haven’t been very good about posting on here recently, partly because of business and the pressures of moving and partly because I’ve often forgotten to take photos of my work. I hope that things will get more organised in the future.

In the last few months I’ve repaired and recovered a number of soft-covered Bibles, something that I hadn’t done much of before but which there seems to be a demand for. Personally I’ve been more inclined to prefer Bibles bound in hard covers, so soft-cover leather binding has been a new experience for me. Here are a few that I remembered to take photos of.

Book restoration

I recently completed a fairly extensive restoration of a book which was in pretty bad condition. The cover had come off, the spine was gone and quite a number of the pages were loose and torn.

Here are some photos of what it looked like “before”:

I took the book apart and carefully removed quite a lot of sellotape. This is one of a book restorer’s worst enemies and should never be used to repair books as it colours the paper and leaves a horrible gluey substance behind that has to be chemically dissolved and carefully scraped away.

I then washed the pages. I normally avoid chemical bleaching, but washing in ordinary water can help to not only clean the paper, but also to remove the acid that has built up in it.

The next step was mending the torn pages with Japanese paper. The outer pages of most of the signatures or sections of the book had torn in two and so these had to be reattached using Japanese paper if I was to be able to restitch the book.

The leaves were then refolded, arranged in their signatures and placed in the press before being restitched.

The book block was then given new end pages, glued,  given a hollow and a new spine was made. I realise now that I should have taken more photos at this point, but such is life.

The new spine was attached, the cover boards were mended as far as possible while keeping the look of the original book, and were attached and glued down.

Another family Bible restored

I have just restored another family Bible, this time a Swedish one. I’m afraid that I forgot to take photos of how it was before restoration – it was a case bound Bible (from the early twentieth century) with the book block basically intact except for a few tears to the paper. However, the cover was coming off and the spine was badly damaged. I gave it a new cover (quarter bound with leather and linen as the original had been) and reattached the leather from the spine and the linen from the front and back covers (which must have a name in English, but I can only think of the Dutch word!). I also gave it new end pages and headbands. Anyway, here is the final result:

Restoration of Family Bible

Here are some photos of my latest project, the restoration of a – rather huge – Dutch Statenbijbel. It was basically intact, except for a couple of loose signatures, but the cover was coming off and the leather was in quite bad condition. A number of the pages were also quite torn.

I mended the tears in the pages with Japanese paper and paste, reattached loose pages and signatures and gave the book block new end pages. Because the leather was very brittle, I gave the book a new leather spine and glued the remnants of the old spine onto the new leather. Here is the completed result.

Some more book repair

I’m afraid that I forgot to take “before” photos of these books. They all had pretty badly damaged covers that needed to be replaced, although the book blocks were all in a good condition. I replaced the end pages, reglued them and trimmed them and made new quarter bound covers with black leather and coated linnen. Here are the results: