Shoemaking

I spent a week at a handmade boot shop

A few months back someone sent me a link to this video in response to a post on reddit, and ensuing e-mail exchange, about my interest in making shoes. Initially thinking that it was an offer for some sort of internship or apprenticing opportunity I called the number displayed at the end of the video and spoke with George, asking if I could come out there to learn from him. As it turned out he was only interested in selling his business and didn’t really want anyone coming out and apprenticing. Since I wasn’t in the market to buy a business I thanked him for his time and figured that was that.

Long story short, a few months went by and I couldn’t stop thinking about how great it would be to make boots for a living. Eventually I decided “what the hell, might as well try” and went about seeing what it would actually take to buy George’s business. That was around the beginning of March. Last week I flew out to Pendleton, Oregon to meet him, learn more about how the business is run, and collect all of the relevant financial and business information. The process is of course still ongoing but, as of now, it looks like I’ve come to something of a dead end. Unfortunately, there’s no real basis for a loan and I can’t quite figure out a way to get a Kickstarter campaign to work out in such a way that doesn’t result in my working for a year without pay to fulfill incentive orders whose proceeds would have been entirely spent on paying George for the business. Regardless, it was still an excellent and worthwhile experience and I learned a tremendous lot.

My first glimpse of the shop.

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Let me start by saying that George was an eccentric, slightly crotchety, but extremely endearing old man whose personality alone would have been worth the trip. I first met him early on a Monday morning; at 7:00 when he opens his shop. I told him who I was and reminded him of our phone conversation in which I said I’d be coming out. He looked me up and down, mumbled something, and led me out of the cold and into the store. We walked over to his work bench where we stood for about a half hour as he squinted at me and told me that no one knows how to make shoes the right way. After a while, he went and put on a pot of coffee and got to work. George doesn’t talk much in general, and barely at all while he works. He doesn’t believe in computers, cell phones, T.V.s, or radios so the shop was dead silent for most of the day, save for the sounds of machines running. Every now and then he’d look up at me and go on for a while about how important a certain step in the process was, then he’d twirl his toothpick around in his mouth and get back to work. Over my time there I managed to get pictures of several of the steps in the process, of which he says there’s exactly 72.

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I had seen plenty of pictures and videos of people cutting out leather patterns (clicking) for shoes and they’d use a regular straight knife; sort of like an X-Acto. But George uses a rotary cutting wheel. I’ve gotta say that, after trying both ways, the rotary wheel definitely has its merits. It is a lot easier to make straight cuts and it doesn’t crimp the leather as much as it goes along.

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George went on and on about how important it is to cut “in your comfort zone.” He explained that most people use their arms to put pressure on the blade and that uses a lot of energy and makes you cut crooked. Instead, George would tuck his elbow up against his ribs and use his body weight to make the cut.

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Here’s a couple of pairs that have been cut out and are in the middle of being assembled. He explained how tricky it can be to attach the vamp to the quarter (which is what he’s doing here) because you have to force a straight piece of leather to follow a curve. If you put a different amount of pressure on one side than you do on the other then the shoe will turn out crooked.

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The corner of this workbench was made of metal, which he’d use like a little anvil to hammer the leather smooth.

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After he’d completed an upper, George would let it soak for several hours in a bucket of water; a process called “casing.” When they were ready, he’d take them out and last them while they were wet. Allowing the wet leather to dry on the last causes it to almost mold to that shape. This is especially important in his case because all of his boots are made using a stitchdown construction, which can not be done while the upper is still lasted. If the boots weren’t cased, they’d loose their shape when he pulled the lasting tacks out before he got a chance to sew the stitchdown.

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More lasting. Here he’d just going around all the edges, trying to pull all of the slack out of the uppers and get them tacked into the last.

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After sitting on the last for a few days, and the moisture level in the shoe has returned to normal, you can pull out the tacks. Here, George is pulling the tacks out from the lining, which is lasted separately. He then applies a coat of glue to the insole and the underside of the lining and sets it to dry.

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Glue drying. You can see spots where the wet leather caused the nails to stain the insole.

I should say that I was at first a little surprised and disappointed by how much George relied on glue, but I quickly had my mind changed. First of all, even though this is reminiscent of a concrete construction, it’s most definitely not. This part is just done in order to secure the insole and does not effect the structural quality of the shoe. Secondly, George really stood by how much better glue had gotten over the years and, after making boots for the last quarter century, had never received a complaint about any glue-related problems or failures.

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After the glue dried, he’d fold it back over the last and hammer out the wrinkles. Then, with a very sharp knife, he went back and trimmed all of the excess away, leaving the sole flat.

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A close-up of that process.

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Then George would put another layer of glue around the edge of the lining as well as the corresponding portion of the upper, so that when he rolled the upper back down over the last, it would adhere to the lining all around the edges. This allows him to flare out the excess and sew it to the midsole (i.e. stitchdown construction)

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In order for the midsole to lie flat against the bottom of the shoe, the upper has to be glued all the way down to the edge of the last, but not under it. However, inevitably some of the glue would seep out during the previous step and glue parts of the upper to the bottom. So after the glue had dried, he went around the edges with a blunt knife and freed up any stuck edges then hammered everything to ensure that it was flat.

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At one point I saw George grab two huge nails and head to the back of the shop with a hammer. There, he had about a 2 foot long section of a train rail that he used as an anvil as he hammered the heads of the nails flat. Then he went back to his chair and placed one of the nails on the bottom of the shoe and hammered it until it took on the shape of the shoe’s arch. It turns out, George makes his own shanks with gigantic nails.

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Next came the midsole. Pretty straightforward, really. He just glued up the bottom of the midsole and the bottom of the shoe and hammered the two together.

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Here he is sewing the midsole to the upper. Again, the glue really just holds everything in place. This stitch is really what holds everything together.

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Then, another coat of glue on the midsole and the outsole was ready to be put on. Every one of his boots has two rows of stitchdown stitches; one attaching the midsole and another attaching the outsole.

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George emphasized, possibly more than anything else, that the heel was the most important part of the whole shoe. It has to be perfectly flat, both have to be exactly the same height, and if you screw it up you can injure someone pretty seriously.

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The rubber heels that went on last had little nail holes in the bottom of them, which didn’t seem to be all that complicated. As it turns out, each hole has a washer in it just below the surface and once you’ve hammered the nails flush with the heel you have to go back with a punch and hammer the nails down until their heads crimp the washers. When the washer contorts it fixes the nail in place and keeps it from working its way loose.

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Then on to the finisher to even out the edges, and that’s mostly it. I’ve gotta say that making boots involves much more sanding than I would have expected but it’s really crucial for making everything look smooth and even.

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Here’s one of the boots that he finished while I was there. The crooked stitching kind of got on my nerves at first but I have to say that all the little imperfections have a way of becoming endearing over time. A crooked stitch doesn’t compromise the quality of the shoe at all, but it’s just kind of a reminder that it was sewn by hand, by an artisan who’s involved in construction of the entire shoe. One who doesn’t sit at the sewing machine, sewing the same stitch with mechanical precision for 8 hours a day.

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The pieces of paper between the shoes is his “file” on this particular customer. Almost all of his shoes are custom measured, which is why you can see part of a pattern poking up in the middle. Every customer’s file includes a unique pattern as well as carefully measured and dated information about their feet and any irregularities or conditions.

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That’s the long and short of it anyways.

George and I parted ways with quite a bit of optimism about the whole situation. He said that he’d be glad to sell me his business and that he really hopes it works out for me. Of course I feel the same way and we’ll just have to see where things go from here. As I mentioned at the beginning, there have already been some pretty significant roadblocks but I suppose it’s not over ’till it’s over.

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5 thoughts on “I spent a week at a handmade boot shop

  1. Pingback: Boat Shoes MKIII | lordpoint boot & leather

  2. I hope it works out for you! I was there during round up, bought a leather bag. Don’t know who made it but traditional & seems good quality. Nice store & with your internet & marketing skills – who knows? Years ago you would have lived in the store that first year 😉 good luck!

  3. Heard about this from a friend who had met George 3 years ago while he was still trying to sell it/train someone in…

    Is he offering to train you?

    Can you do owner financing over time?

    I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned from owners buyouts over time if you want to reach out.

    Reply back in this comment thread with your email and I’ll message you.

  4. Pingback: Sarah Green of CORD Shoes | lordpoint boot & leather

  5. Hey Dan… I saw your post and I actually met with George. I would love to talk to you about this post and George’s search.
    Thanks.

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