Shoemaking

Boat Shoes MKIII

I’ve gotta say that I really enjoy this whole “learn as you go” type of approach. Even if it means that I make tons of mistakes and I’m left with loads of unwearable or unattractive shoes, it’s absolutely worth it to learn so much from experience. Don’t get me wrong, formal instruction would be great, but doing it this way really does change the way that I look at every aspect of the shoes that I make. By doing so many things wrong and seeing how things turn out when they’re done wrong, I have a great appreciation for why things have to be done in a certain way in order to be done right.

That being said, there are about a dozen things that I would have done differently on my previous pair of boat shoes (e.g. put in a liner to keep them from being so floppy, positioned the eyelet flaps closer to the base of the instep, etc) and so now my goal is to try and fix/improve upon these parts in this next pair. I’m using a relatively cheap kind of leather that I picked up from the bargain bin at Tandy Leather Factory, which is nice to have when you’re starting off. I happened to really like the look of the suede pair that I’d made before, so I decided to make my next pair with the flesh side facing out rather than the grain side (i.e. suede).

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First, I measured out strips that are 27″ long (just long enough to wrap around my lasts with a little bit of overlap) and 3.5″ tall. I’d imagine that I could cut the height down by almost an inch if I made an actual detailed pattern, seeing as how I end up trimming off so much of the height by the time I’m finished. But I’m not that precise yet and 3.5″ gives me plenty of slack to work with.

20140923_210935 The uppers for these shoes are only made up of three different parts: the vamp (which is a really a vamp/quarter combo), the part that contains the eyelets and folds over the throat (which George referred to as “binding” so that’s what I’ll call it since I can’t figure out what it’s actually called), and the plug, which goes over the toe and instep of the vamp and gets stitched by hand. Here, I’m measuring out the lining leather to go on the binding while I wait for the glue to dry on the ends of the vamps.

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After I’d glued the ends of the vamps together (making a big loop) and sewed them, the next step was to attach the lining. Here’re both vamps with their corresponding linings; waiting for the contact cement to dry. I couldn’t think of a good way to apply glue to the whole vamp at once so I laid them flat and put glue on half, then flipped them and glued the rest. My goal here was to attach the lining in a way that would avoid having a seam at the heel, so that when you look inside the shoe you don’t see the heel seam in the vamp. This is partially aesthetic and partially practical, as having two seams on top of one another at the heel would almost certainly be uncomfortable.

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The vamps look pretty nice with the lining, I’ve gotta say. I’ve never made a lined shoe before, but it really adds a lot to the appearance as well as the structure.

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Speaking of structure, one of the things that I mentioned above was that I needed to make this pair a little bit more sturdy than the first pair (whose toes almost lost all shape after several days of wear) so I took a few pictures showing how the vamp sat on the last before and after it had the lining put in. You can see how most of the slack and the wrinkles go away once the vamp is lined, and hopefully this will translate to an overall sturdier shoe by the time I’m finished.

Lining v. No Lining

The next step was to last the bottom, cement it down, and shave off the excess material. This time I sanded the bottom smooth with my makeshift bench sander (a random orbit sander clamped to a table) in the hopes that eliminating all the little lumps would make the sole adhere better.

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Another change that I wanted to make had to do with the throat/quarters. The throats on my first two pairs of boat shoes were perfectly flat and parallel with the ground because… I never really gave any thought to the subject of throat slant. But this time around I spent a good while comparing my shoes to their professionally made counterparts (such as the Sperry, pictured here) and I noticed that, amongst a handful of other differences, the throat on the Sperry actually sloped down a bit from the heel. This made a lot of sense, as when I took my first few steps in my original pair I felt like my heel was about to pop out of the shoe. So I used a compass to measure the throat’s distance from the sole at various points around the Sperry and transferred those marks to my shoe in order to replicate the slope.

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Then I cut off the excess material all the way up to where the top stitch would go, resulting in an ugly looking slipper.

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Next I ran a thin bead of glue along the upper edge of the binding and another along the inner edge of the vamp and glued the two together. Once the glue had set, I went back and sewed the two together with a stitch that ran all around the upper edge (top stitch).

Boat Shoe MKIII (Top Stitch)

One of the tricks to getting this part right is to run the top stitch as close to the edge of the throat as possible (below, left). The reason for this becomes clear when you fold the binding over. The bottom right picture shows a cross section of the folded over binding and you can see that the top stitch ends up bending at a 90 degree angle and facing outward, beneath the folded binding. The further the top stitch is from the edge, the larger the lump in the binding will be. If this lump is too big, the shoes will rub your feet around the ankle and be uncomfortable to walk in.

(side note: it would be a good idea in the future to skive the edge of the binding where it attaches to the quarter at the top stitch. This would reduce the bulkiness of the binding and allow it to lay more naturally rather than resist being folded over, as it does now)

Boat Shoe MKIII (Binding)

And here’s what it looked like after I folded the binding over. I should say that, although I’m happy that I put a lining on the binding in order to reinforce the eyelet area and add some overall structure, the extra thickness that the lining added really made it a pain to fold over. It was so bulky and it really didn’t want to lay flat. But after a little while with a hammer I managed to level it out.

20140930_191741The next step was to glue the binding down to the vamp and run another stitch all the way around the bottom edge to secure it. With that done, I drove a few nails along the line that defines where the plug will go and started hand sewing the plug.

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So… the added thickness from the lining made sewing the plug look like one big jumbled mess. It’s kind of amazing that there’s an actual shoe under all that wadded leather. But, when you trim the excess and define the tongue…

Boat Shoe MKIII (uncut plug)

It looks a lot better!

One problem that I encountered at this point was what to do with that awkward white band on the top seam created by the lining. I knew beforehand that the lining would show here and honestly wasn’t quite sure that it would look bad. But, now that I see it, it does look bad.

Boat Shoe MKIII (final 3 no-eyelets) Boat Shoe MKIII (final 2 no-eyelets)

As it happens, I have some brown leather dye that’s not far off from the color of this leather, just a bit darker. So I figured that I’d mix it with some water to lighten it a bit and carefully apply it with a paint brush in order to avoid getting it all over the seam.
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And it came out better than I expected. While it definitely didn’t match the leather exactly, it was close enough not to be distracting. After that was done, I punched the eyelets and tied them up with twine to see how they’d look with laces. Definitely a huge improvement over the last pair. I really feel like all the lessons I learned from the first pair really came through and paid off with a much better looking MK III.
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UPDATE: Soles

I wasn’t very happy with the way I’d attached the soles on my first pair (i.e. cementing them straight onto the shoe) so I figured I’d hold off on soling these until I’d figured out a better way of doing it. Then, last night, when my wife and I were touring the hospital where she’ll be giving birth in about 2 weeks, I had an idea for the perfect way to cement the sole onto these shoes and wound up getting so preoccupied with sorting it all out in my head that I missed a good portion of what the tour guide said.

The problem, as I see it, was that the underside of the shoe is curved and therefore doesn’t provide a clearly defined mating surface for the sole to attach to. Especially around the waist, the shoe just slopes gently away from the sole resulting in a gradual decrease in adhesion where the mating surfaces separate (imagine gluing an egg to a paper towel. There would be a certain portion in the middle where they were clearly joined together, but all around the edges there would be areas where they were just barely joined) My solution was to create a kind of welt (something that I’ve been trying to figure out for a while now) by sewing a layer of leather under the shoe, with the seam running along the circumference of the insole, then gluing the sole to this layer. That way the stitch would provide a clear barrier so that the sole would not separate along the aforementioned curved areas, and the extra layer of leather would provide a flat, uniform surface for the sole to adhere to, resulting in a much stronger bond.

From left to right: shoe, makeshift welt/midsole, and outsole.

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Step 1 was to glue the midsole to the bottom of the shoe to hold them in place while I sewed them together.

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Unfortunately I could not sew all the way around the insole with the sewing machine, since the enclosed toe area of the shoe obviously wouldn’t accommodate the whole post & roller foot. This meant that I was only able to sew the waist area on the machine, which isn’t so bad since that’s really the area that I’m most concerned about. In order to sew the toe portion I had to reach my hand inside the shoe and sew it by hand… which was not as easy as I thought it would be.  I also couldn’t sew the heel on the machine because vamp made it hard to navigate such a tight turn. But that wasn’t a problem since I was going to be nailing the heel on later anyways, which would provide a much more secure connection.

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MKIII Midsole

After the midsole was sewn all around, I glued it to the outsole and trimmed them. I accidentally got a bit too close to the shoe while trimming, however, and so the sole barely ended up sticking out in certain places. I’m not sure that it looks all that bad, bit I am worried about whether or not your foot will feel like it’s spilling over the edges when you wear it.

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You can see how much secure this connection is compared to my first pair. The makeshift welt makes a huge difference.

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Then I attached the heel and stained the edge of the sole with shoe polish… which might have been a mistake. First of all, using bend leather for the sole makes anything look just a bit more formal, which doesn’t really work well with these sorts of shoes. Secondly, the polish on the edges really seems to reinforce this formal look. Third, I feel like the heel is just a bit too tall (2 lifts, i.e. 2 layers), which makes them look even more like formal shoes.

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I might play around with it a bit later on, maybe remove one of the heel lifts, but that’s it for now…

 

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