Shoemaking 102: Making Lasts

Maggie with STS sockWe really enjoyed making shoes on our honeymoon but we also enjoyed acquiring the skills and some of the tools it takes to be a shoemaker.  Glen helped us each make a pair of shoes and a pair of lasts.  Lasts are basically molds of your feet.  They are used in what is called the “lasting” process where the shoemaker forms the top of the shoe and attaches it to the sole.  It’s totally possible to do this process directly on the wearer’s feet but that means the person has to be there for several fittings and adjustments.

Commercial shoemakers have a selection of generic lasts that they use when making shoes.  So you could go out and buy a pair of Women’s Size 8 lasts if you wanted to make Women’s Size 8 shoes.  (There used to be a bunch available at American Science & Surplus but they seem to have disappeared.  I’m sure there are some on eBay.)

Maggie preparing for last-makingOf course, every pair of feet is a little different.  Commercial shoemakers try to accommodate by using a variety of lasts so they might have size 8, size 8.5, size 8 wide, size 8 narrow, etc.  Still, there are a lot of feet in the world that don’t fit in any of the standard sizes, or at least not terribly well.

Glen’s favorite clients are people with exceptionally unusual feet.  Often they have suffered from burns or severe circulation problems that cause their feet to take on extremely unusual shapes.  He loves helping them find a way to walk comfortably and one of his key tools is making lasts of their feet.  The advantage of using lasts is that the shoemaker can tinker around with the design and adjust as needed without having the client come back repeatedly for fittings.  They are also really handy for folks who want to make shoes for themselves; it’s a bit awkward to bend down and fit a shoe to your own foot.

Maggie foot formsGlen says he’s still searching for the perfect method of making a custom last but is pretty happy with his current method.   He uses STS casting socks, which were designed for making shoe lasts. Step number one is to tape a plastic straw and a metal band to the front of the foot.  (You’ll see why in a minute.)  Step number two is to cover the foot in a plastic bag.  Step number three is to pull on the fancy STS sock.  It has some sort of magical chemical in it that when you get it wet and rub it, it solidifies.  Pretty crazy feeling, let me tell you.

Once it’s nice and solid, you pull out the plastic straw and then slit the sock (the metal band is there to protect your foot) so you can step out of the mold.  Glen had us trim off the tops of our molds because we don’t really need to know what our feet are like above the high-top level.  (He was running low on socks so Will got to use sexy knee-highs that reminded him of his soccer days.)

filling forms with plasterI guess you could theoretically stop here and have a hollow model of your foot but Glen’s technique is to tape each mold shut (yay for duct tape!) and then fill it with plaster to create a solid mold.  After the plaster dried, he spent a little time cleaning them up by removing the tape and sanding them down to make him smoother.  He also cut them in half.  Can you guess why?

The big difference between a plaster mold of your foot and your actual foot is that a plaster mold doesn’t bend at the ankle.  The way you get around this is to cut the mold diagonally from the top front of the ankle to the back bottom of the heel.  Put both pieces in a piece of pantyhose to keep them together and then you can slide the toe piece into the shoe and place the ankle piece in second when you are testing the fit of a finished shoe.

Pretty cool, huh?  I think I need to make some more shoes… this!

16 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Luci said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 11:34 pm

    I am loving this series so far! Keep up the good work–I can’t even imagine how cool it would be to wear a pair of shoes that I had made myself.

  2. 2

    Genevieve Metropolis said,

    October 23, 2009 @ 4:33 pm

    I have been reading about shoemaking on the internet for the last three days, and your posts are some of the most comprehensive and accessible so far. Please please please continue! Can’t wait ti see more! Thank you.

  3. 3

    Cassandra Robbers said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 11:34 pm

    I have been wishing to take that shoemaking course for a long time, I enjoyed your posts, and would love to read more about your shoemaking adventures. I can see this is an old post, but I think it is time for shoemaking 103! Thanks for sharing!

  4. 4

    Denis said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 8:23 pm

    This was an interesting series. Too bad you didn’t finish it, there isn’t a lot of info on this stuff on the net. Regarding the casting, from the article, it seems like you only end up with a casting of your foot, not a last. Would of been interesting to hear how it’s completed.

  5. 5

    miguel hernandez said,

    September 18, 2010 @ 9:26 pm

    I am inquiring about the hardware in the last that allows it to bend. In other
    words the hinge mechanism that allows the last to be inserted and removed from the shoe.Thank you.

  6. 6

    Admin said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 10:32 pm

    There’s no hardware in the last. As described in the last paragraph, it’s sliced from the heel to the top of the foot so that it’s in two pieces, which makes it easier to maneuver into the shoe. To keep it together, we just put both pieces into a sock (which also helps make sure the shoe will accommodate your foot and sock).

  7. 7

    Dori said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 9:38 am

    I made a full torso mold of my daughter for sewing purposes. First we put an over sized t-shirt on her, then wrapped her in three layers of duct tape. (don’t try this on a hot day) This formed a rather firm shell which I cut down the back to remove. We filled it with recycled grocery bags and taped it back up. It works great for fittings. This method could be used for the foot last then filled with the plaster for those of us who don’t have the special socks.

  8. 8

    Healthy Handmade Shoes said,

    December 12, 2011 @ 8:44 pm

    Check out to purchase The Art of Shoemaking, a new 5 hour DVD set on how to make your own custom shoes.

  9. 9

    Richard Popovich said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 7:01 am

    Sirs: I just had molds made of my feet. I am post surgical and the person who made the molds used a fiberglass resin wrap. The foot was covered with a tube sock,and a plastic tube was also used to allow the non rotating saw to cut the finished cast of my foot. Good so far.

    The problem is that the tech wrapped the foot so tight that the imprint of the large toe’s nail was clearly outlined in the cast/mold. after the mold was removed.

    My surgery; done April 21, 2012; included straightening of hammer toes by removal of the knuckles and release of tendons and the straightening of the large toe (bunion) fusion of one of the joints, and inserting a steel plate with screws on the top of the bones in the large toe. The fusion has not yet filled in/fused completely.

    a. Is it possible that wrapping the foot too tightly with the fiberglass casting material, cause damage to the bones that were operated on?
    b. Does the fiberglass resin wrap shrink when it dries, making the mold tighter?
    c. The tech squeezed the foot with his hands with a force greater than the tech that worked at the orthopedists when my shoes were made prior to the new tech going to work there. The previous tech that made the molds for other shoes retired. This tech is brand new.
    d. This procedure was painful during the casting and now I have severe foot pain at the site where the surgery was performed, and the foot has swelling again like it was after the stitches were removed at six weeks following the surgery.

    I guess my concern is the pressure that can be applied during the casting to make the mold. Is there a likelihood that a post surgical foot of six months can be damaged following surgery. The pain started the next day and has gotten more severe every day since the casting.

    Is there a wrong way to perform a casting that can damage the foot?

    I appreciate your feedback on this issue.


    Richard Popovich

  10. 10

    Laura Quintans said,

    February 14, 2013 @ 1:01 pm

    Hi, very interested page. Can you inform me where can I buy shoes lasts all sizes. Not wood. I live in Uruguay and wood is too heavy to ship. I want to make felt boots. Please, help me.

  11. 11

    Marko said,

    March 24, 2013 @ 10:13 am

    Pleaaaseee continue your shoemaking series! very comprehendible and useful. A Amsterdam based product design student.

  12. 12

    Lucy Gibson said,

    April 4, 2013 @ 9:22 pm

    How do you form the shoe? I have taken a shoemaking course that involved nailing into the last, and pounding on it. A plaster last would break if those things were done. I can’t picture how you make the shoe on a plaster last, or directly on a foot.
    Thanks for any help you can give.

  13. 13

    Von Allen said,

    April 8, 2013 @ 5:22 pm

    Lasts are NOT basically molds of your feet. They are forms that describe the inside of a shoe. They are shaped so the shoes will be snugger in places (like the heel) and looser in places (like the toe). They are curved up in the front a certain amount (toe spring). They are angled in a way to accommodate the particular heel height of the shoe (which varies). And the shape around the ankle area is changed from a rounded-shaped to an ellipse. If you want uncomfortable shoes, perhaps you can use molds of your feet. But it’s fun to DIY. So have at it.

    Here are two great shoemaking blogs for those interested:

    There are lasts available on eBay.

    For those who have the money to buy new lasts, check out:
    In the U.S.
    In Mexico
    In Argentina
    In Spain
    In U.K

  14. 14

    Ian said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

    I would like to follow this from the beggining. This is :
    Shoemaking 102: Making Lasts

    But I can’t find Shoemaking 1:

    Can anyone help ?

  15. 15

    Amy said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 2:06 am

    Ian, I found it, its in Feb 2009 at the top.

  16. 16

    Ian said,

    December 15, 2013 @ 11:08 am

    Thank you so much Amy !
    I hope the elves bring something nice for you !

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