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: THE JONGBLOED HINGE 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.)

Hinge

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.

OMEGA GOATSKIN VARIATION 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?"

OmegaCovers

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.

A TOTE-TO-CHURCH BIBLE 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.