Some of you may recall that we enjoyed a rather unusual honeymoon in the mountains of Virginia. We learned how to make handcrafted shoes from a lovely shoemaker named Glen and his wife Peggy. It was an awesome experience and we each made a beautiful pair of shoes. We also took over 1,000 photographs of the process so we could write some well-illustrated posts. Of course, the challenge has been figuring out how to present all the information without being totally overwhelming. Welcome to the first part of an approximately 20-part series (depending on how in depth we go).
There are a lot of different kinds of shoes in the world but the first two basic decisions to make are what style of shoe and what size of shoe. Glen makes a number of different shoe styles but his favorite for beginners (and the one he wears most often himself) is a sort of boot that is actually rather similar to Converse All-Star sneakers. He likes them because they are easy to make, easy to customize, give natural support, and hold up well.
As far as size goes, most shoes are made using a generic foot model, called a “cast” that is assigned a number (e.g. Women’s Size Eight). Some shoe manufacturers will have a few different variations within each size (e.g. 8 wide versus 8 regular) but your foot still has to be pretty close to one of their generic models for you to end up with a good fit. The advantage of custom-made shoes is that they can be sized to the precise dimensions of your foot, which is what we did.
The type of shoe we made can be divided into two parts – the upper and the sole. Glen starts all his shoes with the soles so we started by circumscribing (tracing) each others’ feet on old manila folders. (It’s really hard to trace your own feet accurately.) We did one tracing with the pen pointed straight down to capture the broadest outline of the foot and then a second pass with the pen angled in to measure the arch of the foot. Once we had done each foot, Glen put them up to the lightbox to see if our feet matched or not. He says that for about 80% of people, their left foot and right foot are significantly different. Will’s feet were different enough that he made a pattern for each foot whereas my feet were pretty much mirror images of each other.
Once we had the tracings, we used those to draw patterns for the insole and midsole. To create a midsole pattern, we marked four points on our foot: 1/8″ out from the top of the tallest toe, 1/8″ out from the bump under the pinkie toe, 1/8″ out from the heel, and 1/8″ out from the bump under the big toe. Then we connected the dots in a pattern that looked aesthetically pleasing and left plenty of room for our feet. To create an insole pattern, we simply traced a line 1/4″ interior of the midsole, so the insole ends up actually being just slightly smaller than the foot.
Here are the layers of the sole (the bottom part of the shoe):
insole – soft leather that your foot stands on
plastizote – squishy but resilient foam that provides some cushion, same size as insole
midsole – tough oak-finished leather piece that is 1/4″ bigger all around than the insole, used to attach the uppers to the lowers
crepe – optional layer of firm cushioning, same size as midsole
outsole – the absolute bottom of the shoe that provides tread
We started by cutting out the two insole pieces and the midsole piece. They are all glued together, which is actually quite a process that builds some upper body strength. First we had to rough up the pieces that are going to be glued, to make sure the glue would stick properly. This was done by rubbing the leather or foam with a very dangerous-looking tool that is essentially little metal spikes on the end of a handle. Then we applied Barge’s all-purpose cement and allowed it to dry partially before actually sticking the pieces together. Finally (and this was a lot of fun) we would pound the freshly glued pieces with a mallet to make sure they were well stuck.
After all that, we had the very beginning of our shoes and were starting to see why handmade shoes are rather expensive…