Cover to Cover: Two Good Bookbinding Methods ... and One Bad One

Ever wonder how your Bible's cover is attached to the book block? Have questions about the differences between traditional paste-off bindings and more exotic edge-lined bindings? With help from a variety of sources, I will attempt to shed light on the fascinating topic of cover construction and binding style. 

First the basics. A paste-off binding attaches book block to cover by means of adhesive applied to the endsheets, which are then pasted off -- i.e., glued down all along the length of the cover. Most Bibles are made this way, as are hardcover books. The process of attaching book block to cover is called "casing in," which is why another name for hardcover bindings is casebound. The "case" is the constructed cover. Edge-lined bindings work a little different, but we'll get to that in a second.

1. PASTE-OFF BINDING

This is what a paste-off cover looks like before casing in:

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Imagine the leather upside down on the work table, nice and flat. Two large pieces of bookboard are glued down to form the front and back covers, then a thin strip of bookboard is attached for the spine. The edges of the leather are folded over the bookboard and glued down. Because the corners are rounded, the leather has to be folded in a series of puckers to finish each corner. The example pictured above comes courtesy of Nicholas Gray at R. L. Allan. It's the split calf cover from the Brevier Clarendon wide margin

Here's another example, courtesy Bob Groser at Cambridge. It's split calf again, this time from the Clarion ESV:

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You could easily confuse the two, right? That's because they both originate in the same shop, Jongbloed. The covers are manufactured via a semi-automated process which Bob describes like this:

The leather will have been cut from the tanned hide and then pared around the edges to aid the 'turning in' of the outer cover. In the case of the paste-off it will be turned in and glued over pre-cut latex-impregnated cartridge paper (the liner). Cambridge liners have the channels along which the covers will 'hinge' cut out as 'voids' to aid the flexing of the covers.

To visualize the binding process, imagine the finished book block resting with its spine aligned along the spine of the cover, like this:

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The glue is applied to the white sheet you see above, which is the underside of the endsheet. Now imagine the endsheet descending onto the cover:

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And being pasted flat against the cover:

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The endsheet must overlap the turned-in edge of the leather. That, my friends, is how it's done. The endsheets are glued to the book block on one side and to the cover on the other. This holds the book together. Should you decide to have your Bible rebound, a bookbinder will take the binding apart using special tools that separate sheet and cover. Or, if he's a brute like me simply curious about how books are put together, he might run a razor down the hinge in the endsheet, severing the book block away from its cover. (Bad boy.)

For a better idea of how the paste-off binding is all put together, here's a cross section provided by Margie Haley of Leonard's Book Restoration, which does lovely rebinding work. This represents the standard cover Leonard's offers:

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From left to right, the first section is the underside of the leather cover. Next, the grayish section is the bookboard underneath. If you look along the bottom, you'll note that the leather turn-in, which is overlapped by the endsheet/liner. I am assured that no actual rebinding projects were injured in the course of this illustration!

2. EDGE-LINED BINDING

The second style of binding -- rarer, but quite prevalent in high-end editions -- is called an edge-lined binding. I'll admit, the first time I heard the term, I entirely misunderstood what edge-lining was all about, assuming it had something to do with the edge of the cover. Banish that thought. Instead, there are two key differences to keep in mind.

First, apart from the spine, an edge-lined binding does not use bookboard between the lining and the cover. The two layers are glued directly together, which is why edge-lined bindings are so incredibly limp. Personally, having experimented with the thinnest bookboard I could find, there is no board supple enough to rival having no board at all. 

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The photos above illustrates the second difference between edge-lined and paste-off covers. The edge-lined cover has its lining attached to the cover first, not the book block. Then, flaps are cut at the spine. The book block is glued to these flaps. The photo above shows the Brevier Clarendon wide margin's cover. This is the natural goatskin cover with a blue leather lining. The point where the book block attacheds to the flap looks something like this:

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As you can see, the flap extends under an attached endsheet like a tab fitting into a slot. Bob Groser describes the extra labor necessary for prepping book blocks for edge-lined binding like this:

A hand cut imitation leather or real leather 'topper' is positioned on top of the spine flap from the inside cover of the edge-lined case and connected to the endpaper by 'stiff leaving' a portion of the join to disguise the flap. Thus the endpaper is glued down about 1/4 to 1/3 of the width of the endpapers.

The amount of contact between endsheet and bookblock is actually quite similar to what you'd see in a paste-off binding, since only a strip of liner near the spine is actually glued to the endpaper. (This is why you'll often find that the stiff endsheet and the edge of your book block seem to be stuck together. They are.) Here's another edge-lined cover, this time from Cambridge's Clarion ESV. The black goatskin is lined with polyurethane, with the flaps cut in a similar fashion to what we saw above:

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The turn-in on Cambridge edge-lined Bibles is also sewn for extra reinforcement. Whether this is necessary or not is a good question. The only time I've ever experienced a popped up turn-in on this kind of binding was on a vintage Bible. I think it sat in the box so long that the glue dried up. While the stitching is probably redundant, it does contribute to the overall aesthetic. The Allan cover depicted above does not have this extra stitching. 

3. BOOK BINDING GONE WRONG

Our tour of binding styles wouldn't be complete without a little horror story, would it? This one comes courtesy of Leonard's. As you can imagine, given the number of rebinding projects they do every year, quite a few interesting covers cross Eric Haley's work bench. This one left him particularly ... let's say, perplexed. After all, the printing on the back of the cover declared it to be "deluxe," but what he found under the hood seemed anything but. 

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(Let me pause here to suggest that, on a quality Bible,
one ought not to find the leather grade and ISBN stamped
in gilded type on the outer cover.)

This edition was printed and bound in China. On the outside, the leather feels super soft. It reminds me of a pair of inexpensive gloves, except there's a certain thickness, a certain spongy heft to the cover. While the leather doesn't impress, the binding itself seems quite limp. Deluxe? It certainly looks the part at first glance. When Eric cracked it open, though, the story got interesting.

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So the white sheets above are the endsheets. Think of the tears as excavations. The black stuff that appears to be a lining Eric believes is actually some kind of latex paint. When you pull at it, the feeling is similar to yanking on a particularly fragile balloon. Underneath that layer, instead of the underside of some fine deluxe calfskin, we find that gray stuff, a woven fabric reminiscient of a cotton T-shirt. This is what gives the cover that soft, spongy feeling. 

The spine does not feel spongy like the covers, and that's because the black pigskin board is attached directly to the calfskin. The calf itself is thin -- again, think about the gloves on clearance at Wilson Leather or somewhere similar. 

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If you enlarge the photo, you can make out the notes -- including my favorite, which compares the mull used to back the spine to gauze from a First Aid kit. After picking the cover apart, the only way I can think to descibe it is this: a parody of edge-lining, with some fabric stuffed between the layers to give the impression of heft. 

Fortunately, that's not what you're getting when you buy a quality edge-lined edition from the likes of Cambridge or R. L. Allan. Whatever method of construction your Bible uses, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. Quality materials make for quality covers. Good construction is worth paying for. Hand bound products will show variation. And nothing lasts forever. If you buy good shoes, when the leather sole wears down, you can have a new one sewn on. In the same way, a well-constructed book block can outlast its cover, which can be both repaired and replaced.