Bible Review: R.L. Allan ESV1 Classic Reference in Black Highland Goatskin

The last time I reviewed a Bible, I said that most Bibles on the markets are Toyotas or Fords. Solid performers, to be sure, but not particularly excellent in any area; built for economy and the average consumer. This is not a sleight against consumer cars or Bibles: they do what they are meant to do and some people absolutely love them. The Bible up for review today is an R.L. Allan ESV1 Classic Reference in black highland goatskin. I don’t know very much about cars, so I am going to stop talking about specific makers before I get into too much trouble. But the Allan is most decidedly akin to a luxury car. Art-gilt edges, highland goatskin cover, leather lining, semi-yapp cover. I dare say that the Allan ESV1 is a work of art.

Which is why I am extremely surprised to be reviewing it. When I originally contacted R.L. Allan about reviewing one of their Bibles, I asked if I could review the ESV3, which is like the ESV1 but with fewer features. In response, Nicholas Gray sent me an email saying that Allan is ending their production of the ESV3s–would I like an ESV1 to review instead? I am incredibly thankful for Allan and Mr. Gray’s generosity. This review would not be happening without them. Without further ado, the R.L. Allan ESV1 Classic! (I’ll be objective, I promise.) 

One of the things that first stands out about this Bible is how nicely it is bound. The highland goatskin is a wonder to hold. The grain is fantastic–as it should be! Highland goatskin is a leather that has not been stamped or embossed with a foreign pattern (Leonard’s). The grain of the leather is exactly what the goat’s skin was naturally. Because it hasn’t been stamped to simulate the grain of a different leather, it is very flexible–and to me, aesthetic. This also means that each Allan Bible bound in highland goatskin will not have a different grain depending on the various conditions surrounding leather production. As you can see, the highland goatskin leather is very flexible. I don’t have any other Bibles that can do this:

How flexible is the binding? Very flexible. (Again, reference the picture above. That one still gets me.) None of the other Bibles I own can come close to holding the pose below so easily. And believe me, I’ve tried. Neither the Cambridge Pitt Minion or the Crossway Personal Size Reference comes close to this level of limpness in the cover. Admittedly, part of this is due to the size–the ESV1 is a larger Bible than either, which means that the weight of the pages has more effect on bending the cover. That idea and the picture below should give you a sense of what it is like to hold the Bible open in your hands or on your lap. (And look at those ribbons sparkle!)

To be fair, this isn’t only due to the highland goatskin. According to Mark Bertrand, “[A]n edge-lined binding does not use bookboard between the lining and the cover” (“Cover vs. Cover”). So the Allan ESV1 cover is so flexible in part due to its absence of cardboard-like material in between the goatskin and the lining. Speaking of which, the lining is leather, which is an extremely nice touch. On the inside of the front cover, the words “Highland Goatskin” are stamped in gold; on the inside of the rear cover, it says “Allan Binding.”

By now you may have noticed the interesting choice of color scheme on this Bible: black cover with art-gilt pages (or “red-under-gold”), and navy blue ribbons. The navy blue is unorthodox, but it has grown on me. I’ll admit that I wasn’t such a fan when I first received the Bible. In my mind–and in the mind of sartorialists everywhere–navy blue and black don’t go together. One of the things that changed my mind is the endpaper, which is also navy blue. The below picture gives a sense of the effect: the paper matches the ribbons and helps bring the color scheme together. It’s a thoughtful touch by Allan, one that is representative of their attention to detail. (Another such detail: the gold line that runs on the inside of the cover. It’s visible when the book block is open.) I also love the paper that they used–it’s a beautifully textured, heavy weight paper.

A friend of mine teases me about how, in my review of the Cambridge Pitt Minion NLT, I remarked on how aesthetic the corners are. (I stand by that comment. They are particularly aesthetic.) The corners on the Allan are just as nice. In a way, they’re more impressive than those on the Pitt Minion because they are very even and symmetric–all the more impressive when one considers that the covers are made by hand. Here’s a photo:

The ESV1 also comes in brown, tan, and crimson. The brown comes with brown, purple, and green ribbons with brown endpapers. The tan comes with brown ribbons and a brown endpapers. The crimson comes with red ribbons, and, I suspect, red endpapers. I decided that I am not bold enough to carry either the tan or the crimson around with me, so I decided not to request either of those colors; I left the choice between brown and black to Mr. Gray and he sent me one in black. I am not in the least disappointed with my–well, his–decision.

Taking a look inside the cover, we find the Allan business model. R.L. Allan isn’t a publisher, they are a bookbindery. (EDIT: Mr. Gray has corrected me: R.L. Allan is not a bookbindery; other companies print and bind the text for them. What I meant to say was that they take a bound but uncovered book block and cover them in various leathers.) This means that they don’t typeset and print their own book blocks; they order them from a publisher–in this case Collins in the UK–and bind it however they choose. This text is Collins’s “ESV Classic Reference Bible, Anglicized Edition,” rebound by R.L. Allan in highland goatskin.

This textblock is Anglicized, which means that it is in British English. Most notably, words like “favor and “honor” are spelled “favour” and “honour.” That’s about all I’ve noticed in terms of Anglicization. It isn’t all that distracting, because such changes happen so infrequently in the text. Moreover, it’s not like we haven’t seen Anglicized spellings before. I actually like it, because the UK English adds a level of formality that American English sometimes lacks.

The layout of the ESV1 is fairly standard: double-column with center references. The double column means that in poetry sections, lines will be spaced oddly, with some lines that have just one or two words. It does bother me a little, especially if I read a double-column Bible after reading my single-column Crossway Personal Size Reference, but having grown up reading a double-column Bible, I don’t find it to be such a big deal. I don’t have anything against a good double-column Bible, but I prefer single-column if given the chance.

I have read elsewhere that people are frustrated with the amount of “ghosting” or “bleedthrough” apparent in the Collins text block. (Both words refer to when the words on the other side of the page are visible through the paper.) I don’t find it to be any worse than other text blocks, so I’m perfectly fine with it. I do find that the ghosting gets more pronounced in poor lighting, so having good light helps. I do most of my private reading with a desk lamp, and I think that helps mitigate the ghosting. It could also be that I’m young. In any case, I haven’t found it to be a so severe that it distracts me from reading.

One of the nicest things about the ESV1 is that the text is set in 9.5pt font (Allan). This is a full 2pts larger than the Crossway PSR or the Cambridge Pitt Minion. It makes going back to those Bibles a little difficult–I remember taking the Pitt Minion with me to small group after a week of carrying the ESV1, and the font seemed much smaller than I remembered. There is an ease of reading the ESV1 that is brought by the generous font size. If you have difficulty reading small print, the ESV1 gives you a nice font size. I wouldn’t say that it’s large print, but it is noticeably larger than either of the two Bibles I mentioned above. It makes for a very pleasant reading experience.

A comparison against the Crossway PSR. The font on the Allan ESV1 is noticeably larger. It makes a surprising difference when reading.

Prose and poetry text layouts.

Other Features
The R.L. Allan ESV1 also contains maps and lined paper. The maps are made by Collins and are fairly standard, with maps of Jerusalem, the Exodus, the kingdoms, and–shown below–the Roman Empire with Paul’s missionary journeys overlaid. (EDIT: Again, I stand corrected by Mr. Gray. Though the book block is by Collins, the maps are actually from Oxford.) They are interesting because their style is different. The maps in most of the Bibles I’ve seen are colorful and almost illustrative in style. These are more “real,” with earth tones and strong emphases on topography.

When rebound by Allan, the ESV1 comes with 32 pages of lined paper. I find this to be another thoughtful touch by R.L. Allan. It allows one to have important verses or sermon notes or creeds and confessions at all times. The lines are fairly narrow, which was unexpected; as you can see below, each line is just over half the height of a college ruled line. This is something that I would love to see in every Bible–at least a few pages of notepaper so that we can have with us things that we want for quick reference. For example, in my “carry everywhere” Bible I might put verses and passages I’ve found helpful in evangelism.

One thing you can note from the above picture is that the red dye on my ESV1 bleeds onto the edge of the page. Actually, that’s an issue with my particular copy. Allan sent this copy to me for review since, I surmise, they deemed it inferior. A note sent with my Bible says that this review copy “has excessive red dye.” All of the pages in my particular ESV1 have red borders due to the overdying.

But here’s the thing: I actually enjoy it, and very much so! It gives the art-gilt edges a fascinating depth when the Bible is closed because the red is so prominent. It is a vivid red with a touch of purple that one of my friends likened to wine, and I think that is an apt comparison. When open, the page edges are more red than pink, and I love that, as well. (Other photos in this review show the lovely red of the pages when the Bible is open.) After reviewing the Cambridge Pitt Minion NLT in black goatskin with red ribbons, I’m becoming a fan of having some color to Bibles bound in black. The accidental prominence of red, and the navy blue ribbons, works for me. (If you feel the same way, perhaps you could ask Allan if they would intentionally overdye your pages, too.)

The ESV1 comes with three ribbons, and they are nice ribbons indeed. They are a satiny navy blue–and they are wider than normal. The ribbons on my PSR are 1/4″, and these are more like 3/8″. Proportionally they fit the Bible better, their high quality matches that of the rest of the Bible. I am enjoying having more than one ribbon because it allows me to mark where I am in my personal Bible reading, where the Sunday sermon is being preached, and where the Friday sermon is being preached. Even if you don’t use them all, it’s nice to have the option. In this case, it’s probably better to have and not need than need and not have. They are cut at a nice angle and the ends have been melted lightly to prevent fraying. As you can see, the cut on the PSR is not quite as nice. It’s the small touches that put the Allan in a league of its own.

Let’s talk about semi-yapp. “Yapp” is when the cover of the Bible is significantly bigger than the size of the book block. Full yapp is when the edges of the covers are so long that they touch each other; semi-yapp is longer edges than normal, but not as long as full yapp. As you can see in the picture above, the semi-yapp edges protrude over the pages and curl slightly over the book block to form a molded, clamshell look. It’s not something that I find particularly compelling. There are people who are very enthusiastic about yapp, I’m just not one of them. It is, however, a nice touch.

Size Comparisons

In my opinion, the ESV1 is a big Bible. It measures 8.5 x 5.25 inches, which for me is fairly large because I’m used to the Crossway PSR. Here is the Allan ESV1 compared against the PSR:

Compared to the Crossway Deluxe Compact, the ESV1 feels even bigger (sorry the first photo is slightly off in focus and exposure):

The size of the ESV1 makes it difficult for me to commit to carry it around. Usually what I carry to church is a Bible and a notebook for taking notes on the sermon. I have relatively small hands, so carrying a Bible with this thickness plus the notebook is a little too much to comfortably fit in my palm. Also, with added size comes added weight. Where this Bible fits into my life is as a study/desk Bible. I enjoy having the option to pull out a bigger-than-“usual” Bible and use it for my daily reading of Scripture. It may be too big for me to enjoy carrying it around, but its size makes it very comfortable for periods of extended study. And should I ever have the privilege to teach from a pulpit, this is probably the Bible I will use because of its font size. With the 9.5pt font, I am confident that I won’t lose where I am on the page with the ESV1. I love the ESV1, just not for carrying.

Closing Comments

The R.L. Allan ESV1 Classic is a quality Bible, with excellent craftsmanship and an impressive number of thoughtful touches. So be forewarned that such a quality Bible does not come at a low price. If the price and size is right for you, I heartily recommend the ESV1! This is a Bible that I have no doubt can last your lifetime. Thinking about it that way, the upfront cost of acquisition shouldn’t seem too steep. You are paying for a very high level of quality, and you are definitely getting what you pay for. I also think it would make a spectacular gift–perhaps you could collect money from a few friends and buy it as a gift for your pastor.

It is worth mentioning that the production of the ESV1 Classic will soon come to an end. According to the Allan website, the ESV1 New Classic will be released in June of this year. According to Nicholas Gray, the ESV1 New Classic will be in “a 10% larger page format than the current ESV1 Classic,” feature a “new typesetting which is exclusive to Allan,” and “have US spellings and be printed at Europe’s foremost manufacturer, Jongbloed, in Holland.” Perhaps preemptively addressing concerns about paper quality, Mr. Gray says that “[t]he paper is particularly good with high opacity.” If these things interest you, you may want to hold off for the ESV1 New Classic. If they’re not particularly important to you, R.L. Allan is having a sale on the ESV1 Classics for £89.

I recommend that you buy the Allan ESV1 directly from Allan at The customer service is excellent! My deep thanks to Nicholas Gray for the review copy and for emailing me a couple of corrections to my review.

(This Bible was provided free for review by R.L. Allan at, but the opinions contained herein are solely my own.)


3 responses to “Bible Review: R.L. Allan ESV1 Classic Reference in Black Highland Goatskin

  1. I’m getting an ESV1BR – just ordered it a couple days ago from EvangelicalBible. I’m so excited! I’ve never gotten an Allan Bible before. Actually, I’ve never had a Bible worth more than $100, and I just want something I can be happy with and last me years. I think I’ll definitely review mine on my blog when it comes.

    • Reilly,

      Very exciting! It’s a great Bible and I’m sure you will be pleased with it. The binding is spectacular, and I’m sure the craftsmanship will last you many years. Keep an eye out for the new ESVNC series! Those should be real stunners. Please do post back when you have a review–I’d love to hear your thoughts on the brown highland goatskin!


  2. Oh man, I totally forgot to do a review on it! I found that the columns were really narrow, and the paper had quite a bit of bleedthrough. But other than that, it was a super good Bible. And the brown goatskin… OH MY. I have never seen such good leather in my life. I plan on using it next week when I share my testimony at my youth group!

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