The Jongbloed Hinge, Omega Goatskin Variations, and A Tote-To-Church Bible

It’s time to answer more reader questions. Two of them hinge on binding (if you’ll pardon the pun) while the third centers on compact Bibles. There’s also a tip below for people who find the nearly-ten-year’s worth of information on Bible Design Blog a bit … overwhelming. Check it out:

John Felson wants to make the best of things: “I just got a Bible with the stiff Jongbloed hinge,” he writes. “Do you have any advice on breaking it in, and how to make it not so stiff?”

First, let’s take a closer look at the phenomenon. Jongbloed is a high end outfit in the Netherlands that does excellent printing and binding for, among others, Cambridge, Crossway, Schuyler and R. L. Allan. One downside I’ve noticed in some of their recent edge-lined editions, though, is the use of some very stiff, inflexible “mull” to attach the book block to the cover. Mull is a sort of netted fabric glued to the back of the spine of a block to create side wings for attaching the outer cover. (If you want to dig deeper into bookbinding, here’s an explanation of how edge-lined bindings work, and an example of some primitive rebinding of my own which includes photos of some limp, flexible mull.)


An example of the stiff hinge, courtesy of Crossway’s Heirloom Thinline ESV in black goatskin. The mull (3), attached to the book block, is sandwiched between the endpaper (1) and an overlapping tab (2) of the cover’s inner lining. The culprit here is the black mull.

There are two issues related to the black mull (#3 in the photo above): first, its extraordinary stiffness prevents the book from opening flat, a nuisance with thick book blocks like the Schuyler Quentel and a downright menace with lean ones like the Heirloom Thinline pictured above; second, if you pinch the spine along the length of the cover, you may hear a high-pitched squeak pitched somewhere between the creak of a bridle harness and the sound of blue jeans sliding on vinyl upholstery. If you use pressure to force the mull flat — it really wants to retain its clamshell curve at all costs, so pressure will be required — the fabric retains the new shape. When you close your Bible, the cover bows out like a sail in a light breeze.

The limpness of an edge-lined cover calls extra attention to the stiff hinge. It is the nature of these bindings to languish and swoon in your hands like a aesthete overcome by the sight of some unexpected beauty. The stiffness of the mull slips a starched shirt over the aesthete’s head. He can still swoon, but there’s a crick in his back.

Is the stiff hinge a necessary evil, as some have speculated? Bindings need strong reinforcement, especially when the book block is heavy. The seam between book block and cover is a traditional failure point, and while these bindings may not open flat, their sturdy construction suggests they’ll never fall apart, either. I’ve heard that argument. There’s just one problem: strong hinges don’t have to be stiff. It looks to me that the same benefit could be had with a more flexible material. In addition, if you’re thinking extra strength is the rationale behind the stiff hinge, how do we explain a svelte featherweight like the Heirloom Thinline getting one, too?

Printing can be a slow business, with editions in the works for months or longer. I suspect that, in time, now that the issue has been raised, a solution is just around the corner. In the meantime, there’s John’s question. Is there any way to alleviate the stiffness?

Whether we’re talking about stiff covers as a result of thick book board under the leather or stiff hinges as a result of inflexible mull — whether it’s the material itself or its interaction with glue that makes it so rigid — my standard advice is the same. The solution is … use.

In this case, a lot of use.

The Heirloom Legacy has seen a lot of use from me since I first reviewed it last year. That’s the post where I first went in-depth on the stiff hinge. There I made some suggestions about how the hinge might be tamed.

My first attempt involved isolating the hinge and working it back and forth gently to try and loosen it up. I did this by pinching the endpaper on either side, then followed up by running my finger down the gutter to open the hinge up. The results weren’t very impressive: mostly this just made the hinge stick out more, bowing the cover. My second method seems to work better: I opened the Bible as flat as it would go, then applied gentle pressure to the highest point either side of the gutter, pressing them flatter. Repeating this process every 200-300 pages or so, I worked from the front of the Bible to the back. While this didn’t fix the problem, it did result in a marked improvement.

That remains good advice, but I have to tell you, the improvements I experienced following my second method are about as good as it’s gotten so far. Admittedly, I switch back and forth between Bibles a lot more than the average person. Someone using only the Heirloom Legacy since October might have seen the hinge chill out a bit more. (If so, I’d love to hear about your results in the comments.) My experience so far suggests that it’s a long road, and the thinner your book block the more conscious you’ll be of how much progress you’re not making. I hardly notice when I’m flipping through the Quentel, but in the Heirloom Legacy I still find myself flattening the book by hand in a fit of mild frustration. The Heirloom Thinline? Let’s not go there.

Remember what I wrote just above about the join between book block and cover being a common failure point on bindings? Tranwei Yu had precisely this problem with Crossway’s Omega Thinline — the first Crossway x Jongbloed collaboration, which I wrote about in August 2013 (a review that noted the stiff hinge, by the way). Problem is, when the replacement copy arrived, the grain on the cover looked totally different. Along with the photo below, I received this question: “Is it just a difference in natural grains or have the new ones been pressed/stamped? And is there any quality difference in being stamped vs. natural?”


The replacement Omega (left) compared to the original (right).

I’m a novelist by trade, not a tanner, so keep in mind that my observations on leather are coming from an enthusiast rather than a professional. I try to be objective, but my own tastes and preferences can’t help coloring my judgment. That said, let’s take the questions in reverse order.

Are stamped grain leathers inherently inferior to natural grain ones? Not necessarily. If we were talking about corrected grain leather used to make shoes, I would tell you to stay away from that stuff, which is stiff and likely to crease rather than flex. But bookbinding is a different world. There are some beautiful high end leathers with stamped grain — for example, the River Grain goatskin Leonard’s Book Restoration used to rebind my original Crossway Legacy. The effect there was so subtle and the cover so limp that I wouldn’t have believed the grain had been manipulated if Margie Haley hadn’t told me. I’m also a huge fan of the Water Buffalo grain covers you see on some vintage Cambridge Bibles from the 1970s. It’s true that stamped grain can make a leather stiffer than its natural grain cousin, but it doesn’t have to, apparently.

Now to the main point. In the photo above, are we looking at one natural grain cover (right) side-by-side with a stamped cover? I’m not sure. Grain can be tight and regular-looking and still be natural. The variation of grain on a leather hide has to do with what part of the animal the skin covered. Roll out a full hide and you’ll see rough, uneven grain with the long furrows notable in the right-hand cover located toward the edge of the hide, with the smoother, tighter grain toward the center. That’s why certain high-end makers of leather goods do not use certain portions of the hide — the rougher grain doesn’t lend itself to a polished bag. I believe there are also some concerns about strength when it comes to load-bearing products (not relevant to this discussion). So it’s conceivable for two covers cut from the same hide to look very different, one quite irregular and rustic, the other smooth and regular.

That said, the Crossway Heirloom covers I have personally handled seem pretty consistent, and since they haven’t been promoted as natural grain goatskin I assume that they aren’t. It possible the Omega on the left, from a recent cache that turned up at Crossway, were bound later in the same goatskin as the Heirlooms, which would account for the different look. [Update: Beth Rhodes comes to the rescue, assuring me that both the Heirloom and the Omega use natural grain goatskin.] From an aesthetic standpoint, I prefer the look of the cover on the left — but I realize there are a lot of you who love the deep, rough grain and irregularity characteristic of some natural skins.

Jahmah stumbled across Bible Design Blog in search of a large print ESV, but that’s not all she’s looking for. “I still want a compact Bible I can tote to Church,” she writes. “I could probably spend days lugging around your blog so I thought If you had time if you wouldn’t mind throwing a few suggestions my way?”

Okay, so let’s get one thing straight. I want you to spend days lugging around my blog! Please, I beg you. I can’t stress enough how much I want you to wander around and spend hours luxuriating in my prose. What can I say? I’m a writer.

Here’s what I’m going to do, though: first, I’ll provide a tip for people trying to narrow the search down, and then I will save Jamah days of lugging Bible Design Blog around by making a couple of compact ESV suggestions.

Here’s the tip: Use the drop-down menu in the upper right corner of the blog to navigate through topics. You can select by translation, by publisher, by layout, and even by the type of leather used in the binding. If the volume of information on the site is daunting — and I suppose it is, given how long I’ve been doing this — that drop-down is your best friend.

Now for the recommendations. The Deluxe Compact ESV would be the obvious choice, even though it’s not available in a fine binding. I had one rebound by Leonard’s in tan pigskin, easy to slip into a jacket pocket and go. R. L. Allan did some lovely ones, too, though they’re now out of print and command nice prices.

When I’m looking for a pocket-sized ESV, though, my usual choice these days is the genuine leather ESV Pocket New Testament. I can’t tell you how much I love this affordable single-column NT (with Psalms and Proverbs). Enough to take a chance on having to rely on the pew Bible should I want to look something up in the Old Testament.

The Single Column Heritage ESV would be a fine choice, too, though my preference is for the Cambridge Clarion (either the brown calfskin or the one I had rebound by Leonard’s as a brown hardcover).

If you need a full Bible and both the Heritage and Clarion don’t seem compact enough, I would strongly recommend my former stand-by, the Cambridge Pitt Minion. Small and thin, it gets the job done, if you have eyes to see … the tiny type, I mean.


The Effect of Reader-Friendly Design Choices

“I’ve read what you said about Bibles being designed like dictionaries,” writes Bradford Taliaferro. “Now that I have this Bible — I get it! Reading the Bible doesn’t seem like work anymore.”

Bradford’s reaction echoes sentiments I hear all the time. People accustomed to the old dictionary-style layout of Scripture are surprised what a big difference seemingly minor changes like paragraphed text and a single-column layout make to the reading experience. The Bible that revolutionized Bradford’s reading wasn’t the radically sparse ESV Reader’s Bible. No, it was the Cambridge Clarion NASB. The Clarion is still a reference edition with chapter-and-verse numbers and cross references, and while the proportions are elegantly balanced, no one is going to mistake it for a large print Bible. Still, the single-column, paragraphed design transformed the experience: Reading the Bible doesn’t seem like work anymore.

Mark Strobel shared a similar story with me. His eleven-year-old son Max started using a single column Crossway Legacy ESV in his Christian Studies class. One night, with the Legacy still at school, Max had to do some reading in a double column thinline. Without any prompting from Dad, he volunteered these observations: “I like my new Bible [the Legacy] because it’s more like reading a book and there’s nothing that gets in the way of what I’m reading. I also like the paper better than this one. It’s thicker.”

“For Max, this is all about reader intuition,” Mark explained. “We haven’t had any conversations about book design and, as far as I know, he isn’t reading your blog under his pillow at night.”


The debate is far from new, as these mid-20th century examples show. The Oxford NEB (left) is a single-column, paragraphed edition, while the Eyre & Spottiswoode Royal Sovereign KJV is as old school as its name suggests.

Of course, for all the benefits of reader-friendly design, the fact is, there people who end up preferring the traditional two-column approach. Jason Engel, whose kindness facilitated our glimpse at the St. John’s Bible, was surprised when his time with the ESV Reader’s Bible didn’t end as expected:

I was really excited to try the ESV Readers Edition, and committed to a month to give it a work-out. About 2 weeks in, I wanted to give up on it, but felt constrained by my personal commitment. At the end of the month, I put it away and haven’t touched it since. It felt really uncomfortable reading from it. I was so relieved to get back into a double-column Bible with chapter/verse numbers and footnotes. Honestly, that response really surprised me.

Jason wasn’t skeptical about reader-friendly design. He was excited to try it. Unlike Bradford and Max, though, the experience didn’t pan out.

The thing is, reader-friendly design doesn’t begin and end with setting text in a single column. Setting text in one column doesn’t automatically make it reader-friendly, and choosing two columns doesn’t ensure unreadability, either. Two-column settings can be reader friendly. Just look at the Schuyler Quentel: by moving the cross-references to the bottom of the page and working hard to find a good ratio between column width and the number of words per line, the team at 2K/Denmark has delivered a very readable two-column reference edition. The text setting of the NIV Proclamation Bible (which I’ll be writing about soon), a favorite layout of mine over the years executed by Blue Heron Bookcraft, is a little more traditional but still congenial for reading. I wouldn’t describe either of these as “reader’s editions” in the purest sense, but they balance the twin objectives of reading and reference in a way that prevents the latter from undermining the former.

Design is a complex process where many different variables must be balanced. There is as much art to it as there is science, and with art you can break all the rules and succeed, just as you can keep them all and fail. At the simplest level, I believe that by designing Bibles to look like the kind of books we read rather than the ones we look things up in, the net effect will be a better reading experience. The intuitive response of readers like Max convinces me this is so. That’s why I’m passionate about the need for pure reader’s editions. We have only scratched the surface where such Bibles are concerned.

But reading isn’t a specialist pursuit. Every book must be as readable as possible, which means traditional reference Bibles can become much more conducive to immersive reading without sacrificing their reference function. The point is, if you’re looking for encouraging signs on the readability front, you can’t limit yourself only to novel-like text editions (as much as I love them). We are actually seeing gains in a variety of formats, single and double column, and while we have a long way to go before the prevailing culture shifts, the effect of reader-friendly design choices is being felt across the board.

Compact Hardcovers, Confessions, and the Curious Practice of Embossing Names on Bible Covers

It’s time to answer more questions from readers. Some of these go way back, others are recent. If you have questions, do get in touch and I will answer them as I’m able.

Max Vitullo can’t find what he’s looking for: “I am looking for a hardcover, single column, black letter, compact Bible. Do you happen to know if this exists anywhere?”

This would have been an easy question to answer if not for the final detail: compact. If you’re looking for a single-column black letter hardcover, look no further than the ESV Reader’s Bible (reviewed here). Does it qualify as compact? Not so much. While the Reader’s Bible isn’t exactly hefty, describing the thing as compact would be a stretch: it measures 8” x 5.5” and runs about 1.5” inches thick. (The Clarion is slightly trimmer, but not available in hardcover.)

A compact, single column edition of THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV? No problem (right). Of the Bible? Well, sort of.

A compact, single column edition of THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV? No problem (right). Of the Bible? Well, sort of.

Even so, I think the Reader’s Bible is as close as you’re going to get for now. Setting the text in two columns allows the use of much smaller type, which is why every truly compact edition of the whole Bible I can think of is double-columned. A compact single column would be wonderful. Until someone takes the risk, though, the Reader’s Bible is your best bet.

Justin Bond wants a Bible with the London Baptist Confession of 1689 in the back. That’s not all he wants, though. I’ll let him explain: “I am on the hunt for a good ESV bible that includes the London Baptist Confession of faith. Do you know of any options available? I know that there is the Schuyler ESV that includes the creeds and confessions (LBCF) but I am not a fan of having ‘Holy Bible’ printed on the front. Is there an option to leave the cover blank?”

I wish I could refer you to a half dozen other editions, but to be honest, the fact that there’s even one is quite a coup. After floating this idea with publishers for years, Schuyler was the only one to take an interest. I’m grateful they did. The Schuyler ESV with Confessions (reviewed here) is what you should get.

As far as I know, Schuyler doesn’t have plans to reprint the edition with an unembossed cover. Presumably they would if there was sufficient demand. (You can always ask.) That leaves you with two options. Both are expensive, but one is more expensive than the other.

The really expensive option is to buy the Schuyler ESV with Confessions and have it rebound to your specifications. The expensive option is to buy the Schuyler ESV with Confessions and don’t have it rebound. Instead, reflect on the fact that, as the theologian Mick Jagger once said, you can’t always get what you want. Getting this close isn’t half bad.

Steve Allen asks: “What do you think about embossing names on the front an expensive gift bible such as a Schuyler. Great idea? Or just stick with writing something on the presentation page?”

This will probably make me as popular with the all-powerful embossing industry as the Apostle Paul was in Ephesus, but my advice is to skip the emboss and make use of the presentation page. I’ve never seen the point of embossing names on Bible covers—though it’s a curious practice and I’d love to know how far back it goes and how it got started.

I’m pretty sure every Bible in my possession before the age of twenty had my name stamped in the lower right-hand corner of the cover. The one pictured below in a Nelson KJV in bonded leather given to me after my high school graduation. There should be a J. at the beginning—perhaps that omission is what turned me against the practice.

Why the cursive font? That's what I want to know.

Why the cursive font? That’s what I want to know.

Maybe I’d feel differently if the embossing where done in a more attractive, non-scripty typeface.

Following up on last week’s question about standing desks, I figured it would be helpful to illustrate why I like them so much. The killer combination, for me, is having a slanted work surface at just the right height for writing by hand. I snapped this photo while working on a sermon I gave yesterday. You can see my current journal open (lower left) to display notes I’d made while thinking through the text, and a Cambridge Clarion just above for reference. On the right is a spiral notebook I used for developing a clean copy of the outline, and propped in back are a number of random things, some relevant to the work and others not.

Sure, it looks messy, but by my standards this is ridiculously tidy.

Sure, it looks messy, but by my standards this is ridiculously tidy.

As I worked, I wandered away for awhile, then returned, pacing the room as I ordered the flow of words in my mind. That ability to leave and return throughout the process is one of the advantages I’ve found. When I sit to work, the drive to finish seems to take over — which is a virtue when there’s a deadline to meet, but that race to the finish doesn’t lend itself as easily to a more meditative task (at least not for me).

Leatherbound Church Fathers, the Allan Ruby, and Standing Desks

Boy, do I get questions. My inbox is flooded, and it’s impossible to stay on top of everything. One of my resolutions for the year is to do a better job at providing answers. So here’s a new feature: from time to time (sometimes weekly, sometimes less frequently) I’m going to take common questions in groups of three. I will bundle some of the off-topic questions I frequently get with Bible-related ones so there’s something for everyone. Okay, here goes:

Brandon Coffey asks: “I am trying to find if anyone out there produces nice, leather-bound editions of any of the early church writings. Specifically the Apostolic Fathers, or the rest of the Ante-Nicene writings.”

I’m starting with this because it’s a great example of the most common type of question I get: the kind I can’t answer. The sad fact is, I don’t know of any nice, leather-bound editions of the church fathers. The set on my shelf is the familiar hardcover range sold by CBD. The Loeb Classical Library is another source, and has the advantage of offering side-by-side Greek or Latin and English. You could have either of these rebound in leather. Does anyone know of other options?


Church Fathers: The ubiquitous hardcover set and the Loeb Classical Library (inset). I don’t know of any leather-bound options. Do you?

Charles Jackson asks: “I was wondering if you have any information on the upcoming Ruby’s from Allan. I am trying to decide whether to buy one of the older versions I see on some of the sites or hold out for the new batch coming out later.”

The best way to get information on upcoming editions from R. L. Allan is to reach out to them via their Facebook page. Insider info comes my way occasionally, but you’re always better off going to the source.

Having said that, here’s my advice for people struggling with variations on the “should I buy now or wait and see?” theme (which is a very common dilemma). Personally, I’d rather have the edition available today than the one that’s coming later. If the new version is so awesome I simply must have it, I deal with that problem as it arises. With tech products it makes sense to wait and see, giving developers an opportunity to the get the bugs out. Early adopters are often unwitting beta testers. That’s not usually the case with print Bibles. While popular editions often make incremental improvements when they are re-issued, they don’t typically improve so dramatically that people who have the older version feel like rushing out to upgrade. The exception? Those of us who have the collecting bug, and feel compelled to have the latest and/or best iteration.

Mark Levine asks: “Ever since college I have been fascinated with standing desks, and thus yours particularly jumped off the screen when I saw the picture of your desk in your office. Would you mind sharing where you got it? Was it purchased? specially made perhaps? It’s a beautiful piece.”

It’s a question I get a lot. Rich Chel asked, too: “On your site you have a great looking piece of furniture. I need something like that as a sort of nightstand for night reading. It is a slanted stand/corner bed table. It looks like you could put a large dictionary or Bible on the slanted part.  Do you know where I can get something similar?”

The standing desk you’ve seen pictured on Bible Design Blog is usually the Franklin Library Desk Stand from Levenger. It’s basically a lectern with a nifty magnifying glass on the shelf and a drawer underneath. For some reason they don’t seem to sell them anymore. I also use Levenger’s Editor’s Desk, a sloped surface with a shelf on top, which has the advantage of being portable — you can convert any surface into a sloped standing desk simply by placing the Editor’s Desk on top. Of course, they don’t seem to sell this one anymore, either. I bought mine on eBay.


On the left, my homemade standing desk. Levenger’s Editor’s Desk is on the desktop next to the window. At right, the Franklin Library Stand, also from Levenger — at least, it used to be. Why aren’t they selling these things any more?

Last summer, knowing my love for sloped book stands, Scott Kay, an old friend who pastors in Georgia and reads the blog, gave me a swivel stand from Brodart, which I now use on top of a vintage library desk (the kind with shelves built into the sides). Once people figure out you’re a writer, they start giving you stuff like this. I love that.

A designer friend, Tim Murray, helped me build a proper standing desk for my office, scaled precisely for my height. (When I say “helped me build,” I mean that he did all the work while I stood by trying to look busy.) We used plywood and two-by-fours from the hardward store to keep costs down. This standing desk hovers above an old-fashioned heater in my office, allowing me to exercise dominion over what was previously wasted space. The Editor’s Desk sits on one side for working by hand, while my computers sit on the other (the laptop on the desk, the iMac at eye level).

This arrangement helps with my Bible Design Blog workflow, because I can lift the Editor’s Desk and use the end of my desk near the window to shoot photos in beautiful natural light. When I’m done, I put the Editor’s Desk back in place.


A closer look at the Editor’s Desk. The nice thing about this is, you can put it on top of a bookshelf and convert any shelf into a standing desk.

My wife Laurie found a workmanlike bookcase with a sloped top at a local antique store for about twenty bucks. It’s not quite tall enough for me to use as a standing desk, but it’s a great place to display books I want to consult. The lesson is, check eBay and keep watch at your local antique stores and thrift shops. Art supply houses are a good bet, too. If you’re at all handy, building your own is well within reach.


Laurie’s antique store find. It’s not really an antique — it’s not that old — but it certainly comes in handy when you want to consult some books on typography!

Why Bible Typography Matters

Here’s a treat for a Friday afternoon: check out Mark Ward, Jr.’s video “Why Bible Typography Matters”! Mark shares our concern for good design, and has put together a wonderful step-by-step explanation of how the typographical choices we make influence the way the text is experienced.

Keep your eyes peeled around the thirty-minute mark and you’ll recognize an image from Bible Design Blog. If you enjoy the video, be sure to check out Mark’s blog, and his Bible Typography Manifesto.

The Perfect Format

The Effect of Reader-Friendly Design Choices

Monday, February 23, 2015

“I’ve read what you said about Bibles being designed like dictionaries,” writes Bradford Taliaferro. “Now that I have this Bible — I get it! Reading the Bible doesn’t…

Why Bible Typography Matters

Friday, February 6, 2015

Here’s a treat for a Friday afternoon: check out Mark Ward, Jr.’s video “Why Bible Typography Matters”! Mark shares our concern for good design, and has put together a…

Are reader-friendly Bibles just marketing hype?

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

I’d like to highlight a comment from earlier today, because Steve Atherton’s experience with the ESV Reader’s Bible echoes my own: “I have had a few days now…

Bibliotheca, the ESV Reader’s Bible, and the Future of Printed Bibles

Monday, July 7, 2014

The release of the ESV Reader’s Bible and the launch of Bibliotheca have made the past couple of weeks rather exciting for those of us eager for well-designed,…