Bible Anatomy

There were moments during this past winter break when I ran out of things to do.  I decided to go through my desk drawers to see if they could use any further cleaning. While doing so, I came across my old Bible. It is–or rather, was, as you will soon see–an old NIV Student Bible, edited by Philip Yancey and published by Zondervan. I stopped using it because it underwent some pretty severe water damage and no longer became easy to handle. I have a bad habit of keeping things I don’t need or no longer use–I keep the tags from all my clothes, and for no good reason, since I already know all my sizes–and this Bible falls into that category.

As you can see, the water damage is pretty severe, so I no longer wanted to use it. (Also, the decommissioning allowed me to obtain my current Bible, the ESV Personal Size Reference. The translation is great and the layout is phenomenal.) My mom suggested that I donate it, but I wasn’t sure where I could donate it, or if they would even accept a Bible with water damage. My high school refused to accept textbooks at the end of the year if they had water damage, for fear that they would bear liability the following year if they gave a student a water damaged textbook with mold spores in it. Following that reasoning, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to donate a Bible with water damage. I decided that my Bible could teach me one last lesson before I retired it to be recycled: it would show me how a Bible is made.

Why take a Bible apart to study Bible anatomy and design and construction? Because it helps me learn about the way Bibles are made and what materials are used. It gives me a chance to see the workmanship and quality. It’s like knowing the difference between a cheap suit and a tailored suit: knowing those features helps you appreciate the quality all the more. You can use your new knowledge of materials and workmanship and technique to settle for nothing less, or you can try to find some of those features in less expensive products.

Or maybe, like me, you’re just curious.

The fact that some of the maps at the end of the Bible were already disconnecting from the rest of the book block made this a logical place to start disassembly. (Book block: the block of text in a book. See the picture below.) If you look closely (you can click on the image to view larger versions of the photo), you can see that in the gap between the map pages, there is a meshy material, called mull. (Mull: meshy material that holds the book block to the cover. I am guessing this from the fact that in my Bible, the mull holds the book block to the cover. I think I am right.)

You can see that the mull used to be attached to the spine of the book block, before I separated the two. Detaching them was not very difficult; I imagine that the water must have weakened the glue’s holding power. First I used the knife to separate the book block from the endpapers, then pulled the book block away from the mull. (Endpapers: the papers glued to the covers. One half of the endpaper is glued to the cover, the other half is glued to the first page of the book block. That connection is what I had to cut.) Notice here how the ribbon is attached to the book block: we’ll get to that in a bit.

Although in the above picture, the mull is all on the left side, you can see that it was once attached to the right (rear) cover. You can also tell that it was not attached at all to the spine portion of the cover. This is because when the book is opened, the spine of the book block needs to be able to come away from the spine of the cover. (Grab your Bible and take a look: when you open your Bible to the Psalms or Isaiah, you should notice that the book block comes away from the cover, and you can see through from end to end.) This needs to happen because otherwise, the Bible would not open all the way, or if it did, the pages would be pinched together at the fold and it would be difficult to read into the gutter. (Gutter: the center fold of a book block when it is opened.)

Things start to get interesting from here. Not that the previous stuff wasn’t, but here it’s interesting in a different way, because starting from here we start to see what separates cheaply made Bibles from more intensively constructed Bibles. I expected the headbands to be attached to the book block. (Headband: the decorative fabric placed at the top and bottom of a book block. In this picture it’s the black and white checkered sliver at the top of the image.) Instead, it’s attached to a piece of brown paper and tucked behind the mull. I thought that was rather strange. In fact, as I think about it, wouldn’t that be more effort than gluing it to the book block?

About the ribbon: in all the Bibles I’ve seen, the ribbon goes between the book block and the headband. You can see how that is the case here. If you wish to add a ribbon to your Bible, the best-looking way to do it would be to gently lift the headband portion off of the book block, glue a ribbon between the headband and the block, and then glue the headband back down. (It occurs to me that this would be much more simple with my Bible, since the headband is not glued to the book block. Could this have been Zondervan’s intent?)

With the endpapers removed-ish from the covers. It’s nice to know that the glue used is so effective. It did not go without a fight.

This is what the corners on my Bible look like when they are undone. This must have taken a lot of work, to cut and glue those individual strips of leather down, but I can’t say I’m a fan of how they did it. I much prefer what a blog post by Leonard’s Book Restoration calls “factory-produced, crimped corner[s].” (Visit the post to see a picture of what I’m talking about.) To me, the method used in this Bible produces a corner that is less attractive, both visually and texturally.

“Premium bonded leather?” you say? “What does that even mean?” you say? Let’s find out.

Two things here. The first is that we can see how leather covers are made: They take a large piece of leather, glue on a board that is just smaller than the leather (here, the board is the off-black paper seen at the fold in the leather on the center of the page), and then fold the edges of the leather over the board. (Board: a material added to a leather cover to add structure and support. This is what happens when you don’t have a board in the cover of your Bible.) You can also see that they use some pretty impressive glue to hold everything together–the endpaper itself tore when it was pulled up, and the bonded leather had less integrity than the glue holding the pieces of bonded leather together.

The second thing is that we can now tell what bonded leather is. The picture shows, particularly when viewed close up, that the texture of this leather is similar to particle board. It appears that this leather is indeed composed of real leather, but the real leather has been ground into tiny pieces and then adhered together. In fact, the Wikipedia articles for particle board and bonded leather show remarkably similar composition techniques for each. Particle board is cheaper than lumber because particle board can be made from scraps of lumber, fed through a woodchipper and then adhered together. It’s not as strong as lumber because it doesn’t have a grain, and it’s not one continuous product–there are many points where particle board can fail; namely, wherever two discrete particles have been bonded together. In the same way, bonded leather isn’t as expensive as real leather, but it’s also not as nice: no grain, and it’s often thinner and processed-looking. As with particle board, it’s also weaker; without the grain and natural integrity, it is easier for bonded leather to undergo wear and tear–and I use those terms here literally. (Here’s a video for proof.)

That’s all I’ve got! It was fun for me to learn about Bible anatomy and design and construction. After this process was done, I gently placed the book block in the recycling bin, after keeping the dedication page and giving the maps to my mom. I am indeed thankful to have learned one last lesson from this particular Bible.


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