What Led Me to Making Shoes
I am one of those odd people who would rather spend hours taking apart a phone than using one to talk, text, take pictures, or skim social media. I’m not even particularly interested in technology or electronics. What interests me is how such a device is capable of doing everything that it does.
I feel a need to understand it. A curiosity, and in fact, I have taken apart several phones. What interests me is how things work. How they are made. Where they come from. And why they are important to us.
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by how things are made. I made my first bike when I was 6. I collected bike parts from the dumpsters until I had everything I needed. I used my dad’s tools (which I did in secret) to attach the tires, the brakes, the seat, and the handlebars. I spent quite some time wrestling with getting the tires onto the rims.
When the Frankenstein’s monster was finished I took it out for a spin. It was doing really well so naturally, as boys do, I took the street with the steepest hill. I knew there was some broken up concrete filled in with gravel at the bottom but I wanted to test the bike by going straight through it at top speed. As soon as I hit that patch, to my surprise, the front tire bounced out of place, the front end of the bike plowed into the gravel, and my hands and face were painted onto the concrete. A sharp rock went about half an inch into my hand.
Needless to say I sat the rest of the day out. Later, when my dad heard the story, the thing he was most upset about was the fact that I used his tools without permission. I learned two things that day. Tools are treasure, not toys. And, it was okay for me to try something and make mistakes.
I spent the next several years building and taking apart anything I could. I made 18 treehouses. I made underground forts with elaborate tunnel systems “borrowing” pot-pourri candles from my mom to light them. I took apart remote-control cars and figured out how to attach the motors to Lego helicopters and cars I had made. I completed every beginning woodworker’s project: made a work bench, a bird house, a toolbox. And my bike building got better.
Eventually, thanks to my grandfather who bought me my first carving knives, I discovered wood carving. It was then that my creativity exploded. Every boy loves knives, and when I saw that you could carve faces into pieces of wood I was hooked. I spent hour after hour doing that. I even sold my carvings to schoolmates. Santas at Christmas, Roses at Valentine’s.
Eventually, after years of re-sharpening the knives, they wore out. My 18 year old self began to try to shop for more, but when I discovered how much they cost I realized I couldn’t afford any. I decided to make them instead. I found some scrap metal around the garage, cut it into the shape of knives using a Dremel, and started filing the edges down by hand. It was a lengthy process. It wore me out mentally because I didn’t know if I’d ever finish.
When I finally did finish them, I was so proud of them (because no one had given me the idea, and I didn’t use a book to guide me) that I wanted to have sheaths to put them in.
Making sheaths for my knives was my first experience working with leather. It was blast! My wood carving even slowed quite a bit while I spent time making wallets and knife sheaths and such. At that time I told myself that I would eventually make a pair of shoes for myself, cause, you know, the curiosity thing.
As my life began to change (moving into my own place, going to college, working more, etc…), both wood carving and leatherwork slowed. I had other priorities. I was also getting more interested in music, and becoming a good musician. In that time I restored an old drumset (which I still have), made some skateboards (which I still have), and did just a little wood carving.
Eventually I moved to Hollywood to attend a music school and put all my eggs into the music basket. I practiced 8+ hours a day and did very little of anything else. As close as Hollywood is to the beach I didn’t even see it until I had been there a year. It was great when I finally did.
Sometime later, when music wasn’t paying any more than it did when I first started making money at it and I had another job to supplement the bills, I rekindled my love of wood and leather. It was during this time that I finally had the means to make myself a pair of shoes. I tried and failed. I took apart a pair of boots the same way I would an engine, so that I could methodically understand all of the parts. I tried again, and failed. I began surfing Youtube but found very little. People were making moccasins, or other flimsy pieces of footwear. I found some promo videos of Gucci’s shoe factory, but they were using giant machines and going very fast.
I searched amazon for how-to books. I found one originally printed in 1885, by, John Bedford Leno, entitled The Art of Boot and Shoe Making: A Practical Guide. Since it was written so long ago much of the terminology was foreign to me. Also, many of the pages were missing when they reprinted it. I learned a few things but still tried, and failed. The idea of making a shoe by hand was becoming a more mysterious and elusive thing and all the more alluring for it.
Finally, I found a school Jerome, AZ that could teach me in an allotted time that I could afford to be there. I took two classes, one on pattern making and the other was making a shoe by hand. The tuition was just what I had in the bank at the time, so I said, alright, it’s now or never.
I had to camp in a nearby state park because I couldn’t afford $80/night for a hotel, and no one was offering a lease as short as I needed. Luckily, I like to camp, but my instructor thought it was a bit extreme.
After I completed the courses I walked away with my first pair of shoes! I couldn’t believe how challenging shoemaking was, even after I made my first pair. I was hooked. It had been a while since something had challenged me as much. I returned home, began purchasing the tools I lacked and went to work developing and honing my skills.
At this point I knew that I wanted to make shoes for a living. I didn’t just want to make handmade shoes though. Most of what I had seen in the custom shoe world was by and large the same. There were wing tips, cap toes, broguing, etc… I wanted to create unique, artful designs with an emphasis on function and wearablity. So they had to be long-lasting, comfortable, and fit well. The idea was to be progressive in design, but traditional in construction.
I spent a year developing my first product. I made it and remade it utilizing different construction techniques until I had the results I wanted. I blended Italian techniques with English techniques, as well as American boot making techniques. In doing so I figured out how I could offer custom/bespoke quality and fit at a more attractive price.
The Premiere Oxford and Standard Handmade were born. I began measuring people’s feet and selling immediately. The product continued to improve as did my skills. Those first customers still get the red carpet treatment.
I encourage you, if there is something you feel you need to do, do it. It took me 10 years to finally make a pair of shoes from the time I had the desire. I couldn’t have known then that it would be such a good fit for me.
(Photo credit: @TheDGTL_Prophet)
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