A Pitt Minion Rebound in Horween’s #8 Shell Cordovan

"After reading you for about a month and looking at your photos," wrote a reader named Kate earlier this week, "I've concluded … You are simply a leather freak. You love leather. Period." Guilty as charged. While I wouldn't say I only love leather, there's no question that it's near the top of my list. If we judge love based on action and not mere sentiment, however, there is one man whose love I can't compete with in any way, shape, or form. 

Vincent Ramirez has gone where no man has gone before, and he's taken his Cambridge Pitt Minion with him. Where? To world-famous Horween Leather in Chicago, perhaps the most exalted name in the tanning business. Horween has provided leather for top-drawer shoes, bags, and even footballs. But as far as I know, they've never provided the leather for a Bible binding.

Now they have.

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And it's not just any leather, either. Vincent's Pitt Minion was rebound by Mechling Books using Horween's coveted #8 shell cordovan. For a certain type of leather lover, shell cordovan is the holy grail of hides. It comes from the "fibrous flat muscle (or shell) beneath the hide on the rump of the horse" (thanks, Wikipedia!) and "is prized for its toughness, longevity, and protective qualities." The way I've always heard it explained, shell's dense, smooth grain makes it very hard-wearing. Thanks to the way it takes dye — somewhat unevenly — you see fascinating color variation in shell cordovan as it ages.

There are various shades of shell. The exotic colors — with names like whiskey, cigar, and ravello — command the highest prices. As in Bible publishing, however, the standard colors are black and burgundy (i.e., #8). It's worth pausing to note that the word "cordovan" is often used as a synonym for burgundy. I don't know whether this is because so many shell cordovan shoes come in that shade or not. 

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The process of creating a shell cordovan-bound Bible went something like this. Vincent visited Horween, which sells cordovan in various grades which run anywhere from 1 to 2.75 square feet in size, with price tags ranging from $62.90 all the way up to $255. He bought a square foot of #8 shell and was out the door for about $77.

Then he sent his Pitt Minion (which was already bound in brown goatskin) to Al Mechling, along with the leather. Here, he ran into a problem. In some applications, thick leather is a virtue. Not in bookbinding, where the edges must be thin enough to fold over and paste down. Shell cordovan is not a leather traditionally used in bookbinding. Before the work could be done, the leather would have to be "split" — i.e., appropriately thinned for use in bookbinding. That would add $100 to the cost of rebinding.

Vincent was making history. He didn't expect it to come cheap. After some soul searching, he approved the expense and the work went forward. Total cost of the rebinding (not including the leather): $276.

I'm quoting these numbers to sober those of you thinking, "Hey, I need me a shell cordovan Bible!" Not counting the cost of the Pitt Minion, the price tag on this puppy was something like $353. Expensive materials requiring extra labor can the bill up fast.

Here's the result:

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Mechling did a wonderful job transforming the shell cordovan into a refined cover. The raised bands on the spine, the line running around the edge of the cover, even the imprinting combine for an elegantly restrained aesthetic. Two broad, gold ribbons were added, as well. Everyone knows I'm no fan of burgundy, but there's enough color variation in the #8 to intrigue me. (And if you Google "aged #8 shell cordovan" you'll see that with use and exposure to sun, the results are even more interesting.)

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Shell cordovan looks smooth from a distance. Up close, you can sometimes see the closely huddled pores. It's a smooth, shiny, reflective leather, quite pliable in the hand. Unfortunately, Vincent didn't ask me to perform any abusive testing to determine how well the new cover will hold up to wear. Judging from my experience with shell shoes and the stories others have told, I imagine it will prove incredibly durable. 

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Vincent's choice to have the Horween stamp visible on the inside cover is a form of homage. Some manufacturers will leave the stamp visible when making, for example, unlined shoes, to demonstrate that the leather is indeed genuine Horween shell. One result, though, is that the usual lining that would be pasted down over the corner folds isn't there:

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I have to say, I quite like this. The effect is similar to having an unlined sport coat or a demonstrator fountain pen. You get to see what's usually concealed under the lining. As you can see above, the cover is now thinned sufficiently to fold the leather over. The cover is nice and flexible. (The photo also confirms that, if I've been lax in posting recently, it's not because I was getting a manicure.)

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If there is one downside to the project, it's this: the Pitt Minion no longer has its typical "spring-open" bond between text block and cover. As you can see in the photo below, the book block arches out from the spine without laying flat against the cover. I'm not sure why this is, but hopefully with use the two will become one again. 

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I have to say, I'm very impressed with the work Mechling did on this rebind. It cost plenty, but the end result is extraordinarily attractive. Would I go and do likewise? Good question. I'm hoping to drop in on Horween over the summer, so never say never. On the other hand, I'm slow and plodding when it comes to rebinding projects. Takes me forever to decide what I want, and another forever to go forward on the project. I have to say, I love the idea of hand-selecting the leather of your choice before commissioning the project. 

In the past, Bibles were bound in a wide variety of skins — everything from seal to ostrich — but I don't recall shell cordovan ever being used. As I said before, I think this could be a first. In my book, it's worth doing for that reason alone. I'm grateful to Vincent for taking the journey for us, and sharing the results!

22 Comments on “A Pitt Minion Rebound in Horween’s #8 Shell Cordovan

  1. Nice, but…
    …I am thinking that my brown goatskin ESV Pitt Minion is already going to last longer than I will need it, and probably outlast the grandsons as well.

  2. WE ARE NOT WORTHY!!! That is SO cool. I love the shell cordovan and have watched the videos many times (video show process of tanning the shell).
    have to say at that price point I would say the shell deserves a premium book block (ie with good art gilt)…like the pitt minion. It is hard for me to imagine slapping that shell cordovan on a book block with the regular spray on gold edges.

  3. Originally I was going to rebind my 3 year old daily driver Pitt, but I decided that it was pretty beat up to put such and elegant new binding. Thanks to BDB follower John C. I was able to pick up a mint copy for the project at an affordable price!

  4. Wow! What a cool project, and a fascinating review by Mark!
    From the Google photos of #8 shell cordovan it looks like it will age wonderfully, and last several lifetimes as Jerry mentioned in his comment!.
    I don’t know what fonts were used in the ESV Pitt off hand, but have always admired it’s typography.
    Enjoy it Vincent, it really came out great!

  5. Now that’s a gorgeous finish that looks brown, burgundy, or even a little reddish depending on the light. I also like how the cordovan captures the reflection of Mark’s fingertips. When do you release the hostage, Mark? : > )

  6. In your own google image search linked up there, one of your photos is now number two on the second page.

  7. It would be difficult for me to justify the expense, but I’m sure glad somebody can so I get to drool over the pictures!

  8. I have no money for rebinding projects right now. I’m using nearly exclusively Cambridge’s KJV Concord Reference and KJV Concord Wide Margin Bibles. From 2012 on Cambridge doesn’t offer French Morocco bindings anymore of which I am a fan of: good price, nice grain, nice gloss, good durability, the perfect Puritan stiffness.
    So right now I’m buying all KJV Concord and KJV Wide Margin copies I can get my hands on. Evangelicalbibles already is out of them and offers only the new Cambridge Calf Split binding in the new dark blue Cambridge boxes, which looks ugly like the Dollaro Calfskin that RL Allan offers for their new Oxford Wide Margin. So I’m stocking up for a lifetime!
    Also there are coming more distressing news from Cambridge University Press! They plan to get rid of all the classic KJV type-settings like Cameo, Concord, Pitt Minion, Wide Margin, Large Print, Presentation, Pocket Edition in favour of new ones, maybe under the same classic names, but highly likely in this new and ugly Lexicon No. 1 typeface, like the other translations.
    But more disturbingly they want to “improve” the KJV text. A scholar named David Norton is commissioned to write the new KJV text “how the translators in 1611 the KJV really intended it”. This new text is said to become the new standard KJV text printed by Cambridge for all new settings.
    So my pile of the good old Cambridge settings of the KJV is already tall. The bad thing is, that in my opinion the Concord setting is the best KJV available: beautiful and classic. I’m not such a fan of Allan’s Oxford settings, although the quality of Allan is light-years above Cambridge.
    Also sad: The Trinitarian Bible Society is also getting rid of the old settings and is starting to print their own settings, like the Windsor or Westminster. They bought their book blocks usually from Cambridge and also offered a Concord with or without Metrical Psalms. The new TBS settings are in this ugly, narrow Minion Pro font. On the other hand I think we can be sure TBS won’t change or “improve” the KJV text.
    Instead of rebinding projects I’ll need to look elsewhere for Bibles. Good alternatives are in the U.S. There is Local Church Bible Publishers who offer old Cambridge settings in superb quality and craftsmanship. And there is a Pure Cambridge Bible setting from David Hoffman’s Baptist church available. And for the Bible Baptists there is the Ruckman’s KJV Study Bible. Also NPC (National Publishing Company) in Philadelphia is offering only KJV’s in good text quality, although mostly Bonded leather.
    One day I might rebind one of my Cambridge Concord Bibles in Cordovan, so it might show up in a TV documentary about the 1000th anniversary of the King James Bible in the year 2611.

  9. I know this sounds stupid on this site, and I really like good quality bibles and have several with another on the way, but do you really go through so many bibles that you need several of each SETTING, all of the same translation?
    Also, the split calf is about the same stiffness as the French Morocco and it is a higher quality leather. I see the split calf as a sign that Cambridge is moving up in the binding quality.

  10. I think that this is quite ridiculous. I have two pairs of cordovan shoes: vintage Bostonian, and vintage Florsheim Imperials, but for a Bible binding? Where does it end! Good stewart….anyone? What a waste of capital.

  11. Beautiful. On a side note, I’ve been searching for a bit for that (what appears to be) Brown Highland BCP by Cambridge, and am coming up short. Help?

  12. @ Justin: The problem of Cambridge is never the leather quality. Other parts are falling apart before. All my many Cambridge Bibles I have came with quality problems. They are surely not handmade quality Bibles like R.L. Allan’s. I cannot say to be satisfied with a single one of my Cambridge Bible in the area of quality and craftsmanship. But they have the best settings, the best sizes, so I stick with them. Calfsplit might be a tad better quality leather, but its grain looks hideous. Like elephant skin. Large pebbles like the Dollaro leather of R.L. Allan’s cheaper edition of their Wide-Margin. By the way: The Trinitarian Bible Society offers the Cambridge Concord in Calfskin, and I hate its feel and the non-gloss. There is Local Church Bible Publishers in the U.S. They offer nice Cowhide Bibles (Cambridge text). But since they only accept a certain way of payment I cannot buy there and test their products. However I’m looking forward to receive my Cowhide Ruckman’s KJV Study Bible soon in the mail. Maybe the 2nd edition of it is of better construction quality.
    Why I need so many Bibles? Well, if you read the Bible day and night and not only collect them in a vault, they simply fall apart even with careful use. So I need to stockpile them when my main publisher is changing –in my opinion– to a “lower grade” leather or is making a new typesetting in an “improved” (i.e. corrupted) typesetting. I want to read the word of God in its best translation (without missing verses and without uninspired and dead text like modern versions) until I die. Another reason for stockpiling Bibles can be for every Christian the coming open persecution of Christians. Now it’s just a little, but the Christ-haters become more and more strong. Godless people stockpiling canned food and guns and build bunkers. Christians stockpile in Bibles (before the Bible is outlawed as “hate speech”) and in prayers.

  13. I have several Cambridge bibles and they have none of these quality issues, my dad has been using his Cambridge bible since the late 70′s and while it has had coffee spilled on it, been dropped, abused, ect it is still in great shape. I have a low quality Foundation NASB that I have been using for 5+ years as my carry bible and it is still in great shape, and I haven’t been particularly careful with it. In fact, it is better now that it was new, as the leather has broken in nicely. Sorry for questioning you, but I just don’t understand how people have well made bibles that fall apart with careful use.

  14. Excellent review Mark. Personally, I love the unfinished leather with the “Horween” stamp. Mechling did a marvelous job. Congrats Mr. Ramirez and thanks for sharing. I am anxious to see some post-usage photos.

  15. Terse,
    Just a brief follow-up to your comment: In my opinion, Jimmy Stewart was a good one, but my favorite Stewart was Rod. Not sure I know any other good stewarts. Hope this helps.

  16. Wette,
    The text you’re referring to here:
    “A scholar named David Norton is commissioned to write the new KJV text ‘how the translators in 1611 the KJV really intended it’”
    This is the Cambridge New Paragraph Bible project, which has already been released (and it’s pretty sweet), and is a somewhat specialized edition. I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s not going to become the “standard” text for Cambridge. In fact, Cambridge just updated the Cameo’s plates with the new release of the line a couple of years ago, so I don’t think they’re looking to phase out the traditional, verse-by-verse settings any time soon.

  17. Kyle, In an effort to help our friend “Terse,” you left out domestic diva Martha Stewart and vampire muse Kristin Stewart. As for the waste of capital, instead of Florsheims, I buy outlet-priced Sketchers so that I can put quality Goatskin on a Bible I plan to pass down to my grandkids.

  18. My 8-year old son just reminded me of another good Stewart…Stuart Little.

  19. @Wette Faces – Try this link:
    Hurt Cambridge Bibles
    http://72.3.251.74/ME2/dirmod.asp?sid=2349C7A2A5D340B09D1768324E4CE655&nm=&type=PubCom2&mod=PubCom2ProductCatalog&mid=522244F133C74B7B926ADBECAFFE5E87&tier=2&TierId=7A0438B9B56C4DD49871CF34CB494F73
    This is Baker’s “second’s” page. They have a few Concords you may be interested in. I ordered one from them last month. Their site was not working, so if it doesn’t work for you, just shoot them an email and they can take your order over the phone.

  20. Great review Mark! I’m also a devoted fan of special leather bindings. I’d love to see a bible bound with Horween leather. I’m thinking of having Norris Book Binding make an interleaf bible for me, bound in Horween Chromexcel leather. (I would need to supply the leather.) With respect to the Cambridge quality “debate” I’ve witnessed both sides of this issue. I’ve seen excellently bound Cambridge KJV bibles and I’ve seen Cambridge KJV bibles where the cover split and separated from the spine.

  21. I recently ran across a quote from pioneering Christian educator Henrietta Mears (1890-1963). Taken out of context, her words are encouragement for projects just like this:

    “We need more Bibles today bound in shoe leather!”

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