The art of shoe making

Last January 2017, I spent 2 awesome days crafting my own shoes. I’ve always been a shoes aficionado, and I like to make things, so I decided I’d try to combine both passions. I looked online and quickly found a place where I could learn the craft of shoemaking, and find all the necessary tools and materials. Brooklyn shoe space is a fabulous shoemaker workspace in Williamsburg. The class was taught by Aaron Osborn, who has his own shoe brand with beautiful design, and a shoe factory in Guatemala. Here is a 3D scan of the shoes I made:

My hand-made shoe by alban on Sketchfab

So here are the main steps I went through, a large portion of it is common for most shoes, I believe.

Picking your last

The shoe last is the central piece of equipment you need. It’s basically a replica of your foot, and you craft the shoe around it. Old lasts were made of wood, but now they are mostly done in plastic, more durable. We used Serena lasts, from Mexico. I went for a 10D (the letter defining width). Side note that when you want to make a full shoe line, you usually initially try to cover 12 sizes, and thus need 12 lasts. As some people noted, it could have been amazing to 3D scan my foot, and make a 3D print of it in order to have a bespoke last with perfect dimensions. But this was a bit out of scope for my first pair :)

Making the pattern

All shoes start from a pattern, as most wearables do. We started by covering the last with paper tape, we then draw the pattern on the tape. Pattern making is a craft in itself. We went for a rather straightforward pattern of a chukka boot (pretty close to a clarks desert boot design). Once it was drawn on the last, we removed the tape and paste it on a sheet of paper. We then cut around the pattern.

Picking and cutting the leather

We had a variety of options for leather color and types. I went for a thick brown. Turned out to be a leather meant for belt making, very thick, probably buffalo. We initially thought it would be too hard/thick, but eventually decided to give it a go. Next step was to draw the pattern on the leather, for each shoe. We then cut the leather with a blade. I had to make sure to hold the blade as vertical as I could, to avoid any bevel on the leather hedge. It’s important as the back is stitched hedge to hedge.

Stitching the leather

The pattern we went for required stitching in 3 places: each side of the shoe, and on the back. First thing we had to do was piercing the holes where we would stitch. We used a hole punch, which looks like a fork, and hammered it on the leather to make the holes, 5 mm from the hedge. I picked a red waxed thread for the stitch. We used 2 needles for the stitching. The stitching in the back was very long, because it’s double, but the result is a very nice and geometrical stitch. The side stitches are pretty straightforward. Side note that in order to make sure the front pattern will match with the back one, we pierced a small registration hole on each piece. On the sides, we glued the leather before stitching it. Stitching takes a long time, so I had to take some homework and finished it at home :) I broke 2 needles during the process. We also had to pierce holes for the laces, using a leather puncher.

Making the insole

We made the insole in the same material as the rest of the shoe. We just had to draw a new pattern on the sole side of the last, and cut a leather piece from that. We then nailed the insole to the last.

Lasting the shoe

It is the most critical part of the process. It’s when you match the leather to the last. In order to be able to do that, given the leather thickness, we soaked it in water for about half an hour. We then positioned the shoe on top of the last, making sure it was aligned with the middle of the last. We then put a first nail on the top of the heel, and a second one on the bottom. We then reversed the shoe, and did our best to pull the leather as tightly as possible using pliers, and nailed the front of the leather to the front of the last, on the sole side. We then nailed the sides, and finally all around the sole. The leather was so thick that we had to cut small triangles at the front end of the shoe to be able to close it over the last and nail it. We also hammered the top of the shoe to form it around the last.

Shoe lasting by alban on Sketchfab

Gluing and closing the shoe

Once the shoe was lasted, we glued all around, between the sole and the upper leather. We then pressed the upper to the sole, starting with the largest portions, then removing the nails to be able to access the smaller parts. The front part turned out to be very difficult, given the thickness of the leather. Once we had glued, we hammered the sole as strong as we could, to stick it hard. We then filled the middle gap with cork, hammered again, and then sanded the entire sole, along the hedge of the shoe.

Day #25: Shoe Lasting WIP by alban on Sketchfab

Making the sole

The sole has 3 components: the welt (which acts as a junction between the outer sole and the shoe), the outer sole, and the heel. We first glued the welt to the shoe. Then we traced the new wider shape on the sole material (an even thicker leather), and cut the sole. We then glued the sole, sanded it, cut the heel, glued it, and hammered the entire sole. We then sanded the hedge of the sole, to make it even, and polished it with wood to give it some shine.

And there you are, a finished pair of shoes! It was quite hard to remove the last. I was also very worried about size: I have a track record of getting shoes which are too small for me, so I made sure it would be ok here, and in the end they feel a tad big, but I added an extra inner sole.

I have made a lot of things in my life, but making my own shoes is probably one of the most rewarding things I have ever made. I was expecting them to look ok but not great. They look great, and really feel like actual shoes you’d buy in a store. I almost want to just keep them as a piece of artwork in my living room instead of wearing them :) At the same time, I kind of want to only wear shoes I made myself from now on.

Big thanks to Aaron and Brooklyn Shoe Space, I really had a blast. I got to discover the fabulous world of shoe makers, and can’t wait for my next project. I really want to make sneakers, to be continued…