What inspired you to become a bootmaker?
The inspiration to become a boot maker came from a family history of leather craft. I am a fourth generation leather worker. Initially I wanted to be a saddle maker. In the late eighties/early nineties we didn’t have internet and access to all the information out there. I stumbled across custom boots by accident and ordered my first pair. After having Duck Menzies make that first pair for me, I became obsessed with the fit and design and wanted other makers as well as Duck to make me boots.
The problem was my finances would not allow it. I wondered if I could learn the craft and make boots for myself. Once the learning process began, I lost interest in making myself boots. I just knew that as long as I was making boots, I’d be happy.
Who were your teachers? What was it like to learn from them?
Duck Menzies was my only boot making teacher. I was inspired by three men, however. Duck, Lee Miller, and Tex Robin were the guys who I wanted to be like. Fast forward to today and I’ve realized that learning is an ongoing process. I still “learn” by asking advice from two men whom I consider to be at the top of the craft; Lee Miller and Mike Vaughn. I feel as if Duck started me, the other two are shaping me. Learning from Duck changed my life. He was so unique. He had a personality that made you want to be in the shop learning. He made you want to better your skills. You knew that if you were with Duck, you were one of the “cool kids”. What a great feeling!
What were some of your early struggles and successes as a young bootmaker?
My earliest struggle post-Duck was sole stitching. When Duck was alive he wouldn’t let ANYONE touch the sole stitcher. Including his student. I basically taught myself to stitch soles on customers boots. I replaced a LOT of welt in those early days without Duck. Another struggle at first was having another maker basically tell me that I didn’t have what it took. I turned that into a positive months later and considered myself a better maker today for it.
What advice would you give to bootmakers just starting out?
My advice to a maker just starting out would be to expect the worst, but persevere. The worse may come in forms of people discouraging you (as stated above), equipment that just doesn’t want to cooperate, injured hands, etc etc. But persevere. Don’t quit. Work through it. You’ll thank yourself later. Boot making is a very self-gratifying profession, however you have to go through a lot of lows to get to that point. It’s called “failing your way to the top”. I’d also tell a maker just starting out to not be afraid of approaching the masters. The masters were once where they are at now. In most cases they are willing to help.
What are your hopes and expectations for the future of the craft?
I want very much to be optimistic about our future. I see a lot of people who want to be boot makers, but I see very few who want to put in the time to learn it. Apprenticeship is very important. A two week crash course I believe just discourages people. They have high expectations of the two weeks, only to find out that they are more confused than before. I believe apprenticeship programs are going to be the saving grace of our craft. A young person in high school, or someone with a part time job who can devote the time to learning the craft are going to be far better off than someone who wants to be a maker at the end of a crash coarse. Off coarse there are always exceptions. I would not be where I am today without the patience of Duck. I put that poor man through hell. I think the craft will always have people buying our product, but as Tex Robin once told me… “only one in a hundred might make it and become a boot maker. I believe you have what it takes”. As craftspeople in a “dying” craft, it’s our obligation to “pass it on”, to find those willing to learn, and to teach them.
Duck’s Heritage Cowboy Boots • Dustin Lauw
The Cowboy Bootmakers. Memories and photos collected by Dana Perrotti, 2019.