I’m excited that I finally get to post this article! The work was done at the same time I was making the Batwoman and Green Lantern costumes but I’ve had delays finishing it. Anytime my articles are picture intensive it takes me a lot longer to get them ready to post.
Melanie and I have had our current Bibles for at least 15 years and they were really starting to show their age.
We had taken years of notes in them from church lessons and BSF (the best Bible study we’ve ever been in – free and available worldwide) so we were reluctant to replace them. I knew that recovering a Bible is more expensive than buying a new one. Based on prices I found online I knew that I would want to try doing it myself before I turned it over to someone else.
Some of you may wonder why I didn’t go with a quicker and easier solution. I knew we didn’t want to get one of those zippered sleeves. What a hassle! I don’t like the way they look either. I’ve tried using an iPad, a smartphone, and websites like www.biblegateway.com. They are great secondary references but I always come back to reading the printed word as my first choice. I even notice a difference reading Melanie’s Bible so it’s really reading my printed Bible that I prefer. It also gave me the opportunity to choose a durable and beautiful leather in the finish that I wanted and customize the look to my specs. Most of all, it seemed like something fun and useful to do.
Here is what I did:
STEP ONE – Determine if the Bible is Worth Saving
Glued Pages = Replace, Stitched Pages = Save
All of the Bibles I’ve seen come in one of two basic styles of page attachment: glued in place or stitched in place. I know it gets much more detailed than this but anything I’ve read or experienced with my own books tells me that glued pages just are not going to last if you use your Bible regularly. Unless you really want to keep that Bible, I don’t know if the work and expense of recovering is worthwhile on a glued-page version.
It is pretty easy to tell if your pages are stitched in. Simply open the Bible and carefully inspect the area where the pages attach to the spine. You should see some tiny threads going through from one page to the next. On our Bibles this is not obvious on every page so you may have to try looking at several different pages.
A NOTE ABOUT REBINDING: This is a guide on recovering a Bible not rebinding one. Recovering is replacing the cover. Rebinding is reattaching pages that have come loose. You can find all kinds of guides on rebinding books online and at your library. Never having rebound a book, I don’t know how likely it is that you will make the book hard to open or hard to read if you do that work incorrectly. If you are at the point of replacing your stitched-page Bible, why not experiment with rebinding first in case you can save it?
STEP TWO – Collect Supplies
Bible to be recovered
Leather for cover
Acid-free backer board to stiffen cover
2 Pieces of acid-free endpaper
Cloth and/or ribbon for spine reinforcement (optional)
Bookmark ribbon (optional)
PVA glue – Elmer’s, Sobo, Aleene’s, etc.
Glue spreader – popsicle sticks, cardboard, etc.
2 Pieces of flat smooth wood for clamping
4 or more clamps
Heavy square objects (several hardcover books)
Paper to make corner patterns
STEP THREE – Remove Old Cover
A Bible is made up of three basic components: the text block (all the groups of pages joined together in one unit), the endpapers (that join the text block to the cover), and the cover. Most (all?) of the time there is a strip of thin cloth that runs from the spine of the text block to the endpaper and cover to help strengthen the connection of the text block to the cover.
Measure how much the cover overhangs the text block. You’ll use this information when attaching the new cover later.
Cut the endpapers to free the text block from the cover. Try to do it without destroying the cloth strip on the spine otherwise you’ll have to replace this part too.
For my Bible I attempted to peel the cover off the endpapers. It took a while and I ended up tearing the endpaper. For Melanie’s Bible, I just cut it free as detailed above.
STEP FOUR – Apply Waterproofing to the Leather
The leather may change shape and shrink a little so it is important to do this step now before you cut it to size. Test your sealant on a scrap first to make sure it doesn’t adversely react with the finish or discolor the leather in an objectionable way. Next, apply the sealant to the leather following the manufacturer’s instructions and let it dry completely.
For the sealant I used, I squirted a paper towel liberally, wiped it on the leather, wiped off the excess, and let it sit overnight. It may have made the leather slightly more glossy but it did not affect the feel of it.
NOTES ABOUT LEATHER
GENUINE VS. BONDED – If you read nothing else about leather, read this: DO NOT USE BONDED LEATHER EVER. It is the equivalent of particle board. Leather bits are ground up and glued together. This is probably what was used on your original Bible cover and is the reason it is falling apart now.
GRAIN – There is a lot of information on leather grain available online and not all of it is in agreement. I’m not an expert but from what I’ve been able to learn, you want either a full grain or top grain leather. It seems that everyone agrees that full grain is the strongest and longest lasting. It may be that it cannot be found thin enough to be used for a book cover. Top grain has had at least some of its imperfections sanded out and has been split to make it thinner than full grain. Bottom line: Be sure to see the leather in person before buying it. Touch it, try to scratch it, crumple it, pull it. As long as it seems good and is either full or top grain you should be just fine, but full grain is better leather.
WEIGHT – Refers to the thickness of the hide. I won’t get into how many ounces you want and all that. Basically you need to find something that bends easily and is thin enough to be folded over on itself for the edge of the cover. The stuff I used I’m told is pretty thick for book binding (~1/16” thick) but it worked great.
Cowhide – Durable, affordable, loaded with character and texture – This is what I picked for my Bibles.
Calfskin – same as cowhide but from a younger animal – smoother finish
Deerskin – almost as durable as cow and soft as butter
Pigskin – soft, almost as durable as cow and super thin – Apparently this is the most used leather for book covers.
Lambskin – almost as durable as cow and soft as butter – If I could have found an affordable piece of this, it is what I would have used. A delight to touch.
Kangaroo – super thin, smooth, kind of stiff, ultra strong, expensive – Supposedly the highest tensile strength of any leather. They make whips out of it. I tried to tear a sample of it about the thickness of a piece of paper and it just laughed at me.
WHERE TO BUY?
Tandy Leather – They have any type or finish but they are expensive because you are literally buying a cow’s worth of leather. Check their remnant section though.
Upholstery Shop – Check for remnants.
Thrift Stores – The absolute cheapest and possibly highest quality. If you can find an old backpack, leather jacket, or purse, you may have something beautiful, soft and super durable for almost nothing. I found a large purse that almost worked (it had pockets that I didn’t want). It would have been enough leather for both Bibles and it was only $2.00!
HOW MUCH DO I NEED? Open your Bible flat and take note of the cover’s overall dimensions. Get a piece that is at least 2” larger in both dimensions (1” overhang on each side of the existing cover).
STEP FIVE – Cut new Backer Board
Using the existing cover as a guide, lay out a new backer board for the Bible and cut it out. Take note of the thickness of your old cover and the thickness of the material you plan to use for the new cover. Adjust the dimensions accordingly. For example, the new leather I used for both of the Bibles I recovered was substantially thicker than their original covers so I decreased the dimensions of the backer board by 1/16” inch so that the new covers would have the same finished dimensions as the originals.
STEP SIX – Glue Backer Board to Cover Material with PVA Glue
Place the backer board on the front side of the leather and determine what part of the leather will make the best looking cover. Should that brand be centered? If you shift it a little will you be able to cut off that scar? NOTE: Be sure to have at least ½” of leather overhanging each side of the backer board, but an inch would be even better.
Prepare a clamping station by laying out two pieces of smooth flat wood slightly larger than the size of the cover. Lay a piece of wax paper on each. Place the leather face down on one of the pieces of wax paper. Open the clamps so they are ready to use.
Working quickly, coat one side of the backer board with PVA glue and press the backer board on the backside of the leather. I found that using a scrap of the backer board as a paddle made spreading an even coat much easier. The glue skins over quickly so work fast.
A NOTE ABOUT PVA GLUE: PVA glue comes in many brands and varies wildly in quality. Elmer’s glue, that you probably used in grade school, is the thinnest and most likely to make pages wavy due to all the water in it. Aleene’s and Sobo are much thicker. I’ve used both on many architectural models and prefer Sobo. They both are incredibly strong but are probably not as easy to spread as you’d like for bookbinding. I recommend getting the PVA glue made specifically for book binding (pictured above). It isn’t super expensive and is available online and at art supply stores.
Wipe off any glue squeeze out. Lay remaining piece of wax paper on top of backer board then remaining piece of wood. Clamp pieces of wood together. Be sure to clamp lightly. You only need enough force to flatten everything out. Too much pressure will crush the grain.
Let the cover cure overnight.
I over-clamped this corner. Sometimes shapes/depressions can be pressed into leather but they will rise back/heal over time. In this case, I think the depressions I made are permanent. It has been three months and they have not disappeared.
STEP SEVEN – Cut Endpaper to Size and Attach to Text Block with Fabric Strip
Cut both pieces of endpaper to match the size of the originals.
I wish I could have gotten a smoother paper for mine (easier to keep clean) but my Bible is large enough that art paper was the only thing that I could find big enough.
Place a layer of wax paper between the text block and endpaper on both sides of the Bible.
If the cloth strip on the spine is still in good shape, you can simply glue the new endpapers to the text block and to the cloth strip the way the originals were attached. If not, you’ll need to use a new strip of cloth that is glued to the spine and overlaps about an inch onto the back of the endpapers.
For my Bible I saved the old endpapers and glued in new ones to cover the old ones. I wouldn’t do it this way again.
For Melanie’s Bible, the cloth and some of the glue on the spine was in bad shape but usable. I took three strips of about 1” ribbon and glued them over the cloth strip to strengthen the connection of the spine to the end papers.
Once everything is glued up, place the Bible spine down on a smooth flat surface that has a layer of wax paper. The weight of the Bible will be enough pressure on the spine. Open the endpapers and place several heavy books on top of them to provide pressure on the cloth and optional ribbon attachments that are now underneath the open endpapers.
STEP EIGHT – Finish Constructing Cover
Unwrapping the corner of the old cover revealed its construction. This pattern worked well on both of our Bibles. Use it to make your own pattern in paper or use the one off your existing cover.
Next, cut off the excess leather leaving ½” on all sides.
Then tape the corner pattern on each corner and cut it out.
Get the clamping station set up with boards, wax paper and clamps just as you did in Step Six.
Working quickly, glue each of the corners folding the flaps over onto the backer board in the correct order. Pinch them with fingers and hold until the glue grabs.
Run a bead of glue along the backer board and cover seam. Spread the glue on the ½” leather flap with a paddle. Turn the leather over the edge of the backer board and press in place working from the middle out to the corners.
Place the cover in the clamping station between the boards and the wax paper and re-clamp as in Step Six. Once again, use the lightest pressure that will hold the piece flat or you may crush the leather.
Let dry overnight.
STEP NINE – Attach Cover to Endpapers using PVA Glue
It is useful to have an assistant for this step.
Remove the cover from the clamping station and mark the amount of cover overhang from the edge of the cover on the inside/backside. You measured this dimension back in Step Three. These marks will allow you to align the endpapers so the cover overhangs the text block the proper amount. It seems that ¼” is the standard amount of cover overhang.
Prepare the clamping station once again.
Apply PVA glue with a paddle to the back of one of the endpapers. Line it up with the marks on one side of the cover and press it in place being very careful to smooth the paper as it is glued down. Do not glue the cover to the spine. Having someone else hold the text block is very helpful during this phase.
Place the assembly in the clamping station with wax paper as before and clamp lightly. Let dry overnight.
You will now repeat the process for the other side of the cover.
Remove the cover/text block assembly from the clamping station. You will notice if you wrap the cover around the spine tightly and place the loose endpaper against the loose part of the cover that the cover appears to be too long. This is not a mistake. Both of our Bibles had 1/8” extra length of cover. This is what gives the spine of the cover its rounded edge.
Prepare the clamping station and get an assistant if possible.
Glue the endpaper to the other side of the cover lining up the ¼” marks with the edges of the endpaper just as you did before. The trick here is to make certain that the extra 1/8” of cover is pushed back into the spine area. Again, do not glue the cover to the spine.
Place the Bible back in the clamping station using wax paper and lightly clamping as before. Let dry overnight.
STEP TEN – Use Your New Bible and Make Accessories
Remove your Bible from the clamping station. Read and enjoy.
For our Bibles I chose to make removable bookmark ribbons so they would be color coordinated with the new covers and so we could mark more than one location.
First, find a ribbon(s) you like.
Make an insert from some of the scrap backer board (the one shown is made from endpaper but I later remade it from backer board). It should fit snugly in the gap between the spine and the cover.
Make pairs of slits in the backer board wide enough for the ribbon to pass through. Loop the ribbon through those slits a couple of times and glue in place. Be sure to get glue on the cut end of the ribbon to prevent fraying. Let dry.
Slide the insert into the spine gap and run the ribbon through the pages of the Bible (as if it is marking a page). Determine how much extra ribbon you want extending from the bottom of the Bible (~3-4”) and cut the ribbon to length.
Very carefully dip the ends of the ribbon in PVA glue and allow to dry.
Now you have a set of bookmark ribbons that are fully functional yet removable should you want to replace or modify them.