"Opaque, Lightweight and Writeable?": Putting an Allan Brevier to the Test

Nicholas at R. L. Allan kindly provided me with a set of unbound signatures for the recent Allan Wide Margin Edition of Oxford's Brevier Clarendon KJV. I'll have more to say about the new Breviers shortly, but first I want to talk about the paper. The product description refers to "opaque, lightweight writeable India paper," and since we're sticklers for paper around here, I thought I'd put these words to the test. 


First, a teaching moment. In the photo above, you see the unbound signatures stacked up. This is what your Bible looks like inside, before it's stiched together, trimmed, gilded, and the cover is glued on. A signature is a folded booklet. In this case, there are eighteen sheets folded over. Each is printed with two pages on front and two on back, so that's a total of 72 pages. There are twenty-two signatures in the stack, for a total of 1,584 pages (not counting the map insert in back). There are 1,158 numbered pages in the OT and 348 in the NT -- 1,506 total -- plus front matter, back matter, and some blank note pages which we'll get to in a moment.

In typical book manufacture, you'll see signatures ranging in size from 16 to 32 pages. Paper thickness is the limiting factor. If you include too many sheets in the signature, it will be too fat and the fold will distort the way the print impressions overlap on successive pages. Thin Bible paper allows more pages to be folded over without bulk, so it's not uncommon to see signatures containing page counts in the 90s. 

The Brevier text blocks (both the wide margin and standard editions) were printed in the Netherlands by Jongbloed, where they were also bound, with upgraded cover specs. I don't know what type of paper this is, or its listed weight. But there's one surefire way to test a wide margin, and that's to write in it and see how the paper stands up to ink. For a really grueling test, nice, wet fountain pen ink is preferred.

File this under "do not attempt at home." Despite the fact that most of the Bibles you see here are review copies kindly provided by publishers, I am still reluctant to do any damage to them or mark them up in any way. Sure, it would be fun to know whether the goatskin cover on your Allan Bible could withstand a gunshot or a flamethrower (and naturally I do have a flamethrower handy next to my desk), and I could conduct these tests without harm to my bottom line ... but don't hold your breath. I prefer non-destructive methods of evaluation.

In this case, however, we're talking about an unbound text block. The liklihood that it will ever become a proper book is nil. Plus, there are pages in back marked NOTES, so I had an opportunity to do some testing without even scribbing on pages devoted to actual Scripture. With that in mind, I pulled out the pens.

Here's what happened:


From top to bottom, here's what you see. First we have the much-vaunted Pigma Micron pen -- unfortunately the one I had handy is orange, which didn't show up very well in the photo. Next is a fine-point rollerball and a ballpoint, which represent the sort of pens most people are likely to have handy. Then a series of fountain pens with nibs in various sizes: Extra Fine, Fine, Medium, a Flex, another Fine, another Flex and then a Broad. The respective inks were Montblanc Irish Green, Noodler's La Reine Mauve, Noodler's Ottoman Azure, Noodler's Nikita Red, Noodler's Bad Belted Kingfisher, Noodler's Black Swan in Australian Roses, and finally De Antramentis Plum (a scented ink; I'll let you guess the aroma). 

Convention wisdom would be, don't write in your Bible with a fountain pen. If you do, use a dry-writing EF or F nib (not too sharp, though). I'm no ink expert, but the two things that typically frustrate fountain pen users are "feathering," where the ink gets kind of runny and veiny as it spreads onto the paper, and "bleedthrough," where the ink actually soaks through the page and mars the other side. 

[A brief aside: When I first started writing about Bible paper, a lot of people used "bleedthrough" to describe the phenomenon where the words printed on one side of the sheet are clearly visible on the other, giving the page a gray five-o'clock-shadow appearance. I started using the word "ghosting" to describe this, since the problem wasn't that ink was bleeding through, just that the page wasn't sufficiently opaque to block the reverse image's visibility. I'm not sure where I picked up the term -- somewhere in my print/design journey. It's not original to me, at any rate.]

With all the inks I tested, I don't see any feathering on the page. The paper takes the ink well, and the lines look crisp. Now let's turn the page over and see whether anything has bled through:


None at all. You can clearly see the writing -- what I call "ghosting" above -- but that's actually quite common with thin papers, even the ones that take ink very well. For example, if you take a look at the enthralled fans of Tomoe River paper, which is used in the handmade Design.Y notebooks from Japan, at the same time they rave about the paper's phenomenon fountain pen performance, they concede that there's ghosting or "show-through," and that it's a fact of life with thin papers. (For the record, count me as an enthralled fan, too. A Design.Y LP Record notebook is on my birthday list, along with the Single Column Journaling Bible.)

The only exception I can think of to the "thin papers show through" rule is Smythson's blue featherweight paper, which has an almost miraculous ability to be both thin and opaque. Because fountain pen nibs don't need to dig into the paper like ballpoints, you won't even see the impression of the point on the reverse side. Of course, this paper comes at a high premium -- and even Smythson doesn't print the Bibles it occasionally offers on the blue stuff!

All this to say, the Allan Wide Margin Edition of the Brevier lives up to the description. The paper is lightweight and opaque, and it is also writeable. There is some ghosting, as you would expect, but it is not nearly as pronounced as you'll find in the typical Bible. I'd say this bodes well for the edition. We'll take a closer look in a coming post.