Can this bible be saved?
Is my bible worth fixing?
An old bible, even a large ornate family bible, is not worth a fortune. You can almost always buy a new “standard” bible for less than it costs to repair yours. Older, well made-bibles are sometimes an exception. You probably can’t get one like that any more. A lavishly decorated cover, a deeply “carved” cover, good quality paper and sewing are just not to be had any more, and an older bible can often be repaired at a reasonable price.
The value of a bible, or any holy book, is in its personal value to you. If it saved you, you can return the favor - especially if you took lots of notes along the way. Family inscriptions are often irreplaceable: your grandmother’s handwriting, records of births, marriages, deaths ... an old family bible is often a unique record which simply cannot be duplicated.
Won’t it just fall apart again?
It should not. Usually, the repaired bible will be stronger than the original. We have better leather now, and acid-free paper. Of course, a bible which is handled, carried, read, written in, used ... is subjected to continued wear, and any material will fail when it’s worn out. A bible is a large book, and to keep the size and weight manageable the publishers often had them printed on very thin paper which tears easily. And to keep the cost down, most publishers switched to the “perfect bound” format which uses a glued spine, like a paperback book, instead of a sewn construction. Most sewn bibles can be repaired without complete resewing. But if the bible is made up of single pages glued together at the spine (perfect bound), it will eventually split into sections as the glue dries out and loses flexibility. Such bibles can be repaired using archival adhesive which retains flexibility. If the pages are completely separated into individual leaves, they can be rejoined using a “double fan fold” technique. This method of glueing is much stronger than the original adhesive binding. If a glued bible hasn’t separated too much, it can be reglued using “sunk cords” which provide a bit more reinforcement.
How do I know if my bible is sewn or perfect bound?
Hold your bible upright, so that when you look down at it you see the top of the text pages, not the cover. Look closely at the place where the pages meet the spine or headband. Sewn books are made up of multiple folded sections called “signatures”, and you can see these folds. The signatures are sewn together with thread, one to another. Sometimes if the bible was pressed very firmly when it was made, these folds are very flat and hard to see. To confirm, look inside the bible at the center of one of these folded sections, and see if you can find the thread at the back of each signature. If you see thread, you have a sewn binding. Adhesive or “perfect” bindings do not have any folded sections but consist of all single pages glued together into a block.
Sewn is better. It’s stronger, and easier to repair. I have an 1880 bible in my studio and the stitching is as strong as the day it was made, but I see countless adhesive-bound bibles which have fallen to pieces in as little as ten years.
Even the worst looking bibles can be brought back to life. You just need to have faith in your bookbinder.
My bible is in such bad shape, though. Can you really repair it?
Look at the photo above of personal bible with a badly damaged paper cover. The cover probably looked like leather when it was new, but in fact it thick paper embossed with a leather texture. Many of the pages are loose and the first few are torn along their outside edges because the cover no longer protected them from wear. I removed the old cover, mended the loose pages and reattached them, taking advantage of the chance to strengthen the old sewing while I was at it.
The bible didn’t have endbands or marker ribbons, so I added some. I also made new endpapers out of red marbled paper. The customer picked out the colors for the paper, the ribbons, and the leather.
Finally, the bible was given a new flexible covering of thick, soft leather with softly rounded edges and gold tooling on the front.
In this case, the owner did not care for the look of the old cover and preferred to have new black leather. It could just as easily have been rebound as above, saving part or all of the old paper cover and applying it to the new cover as an onlay. A decorated or antique binding is worth preserving, and such a repair combines the best of both worlds: new strong leather with the look of age.