What inspired you to become a bootmaker?
Upon discharge from the USAF, in 1971, I went to work in a shoe repair shop in the Central Coast of California. There was an unclaimed pair of Tony Lama boots in the corner of the shop that I was told I could have. I wore a size 12 and the boots were 13d. So, in my ignorance, I took them apart, cut the toe off, overlapped the edges and stitched it back together again. Terrible job, but it was exciting to see the possibilities. Cowboy boots became a favorite thing to work on.
In ’79 I went to work for a Western Boot Service (WBS) in Auburn CA., they were doing repair work for the big factories during the Urban Cowboy period. A lot of boots went through that shop and the fascination grew. During that time I was given a copy of Sharon Delano’s book, Texas Boots. There were two pair in the color photo section that particularly lit me up, a pair of black full cuts and a red and black pair with foxing. The inspiration was fed and grew.
Who were your teachers? What was it like to learn from them?
The manager of WBS, Rick Higgins, had just gotten back from 2 weeks with Sam Lucchese before he passed, working with him in the Tony Lama factory. While not a bootmaker himself, Rick had absorbed much rich information from Sam, and we made good use of it servicing the work sent to us by Western shops around the country.
In an issue of the Shoe Service Magazine during that time, was an offer for a book on Handmade Cowboy Boots by husband and wife team, Joe and Jeri Wise. With the help of a semi-retired shoemaker from Utah, Joe Henderson, who was working with us there at WBS, we were able to work my way through that first pair. The inspiration grew. Joe’s calm confidence and pragmatic manner at handling mishaps along the way made it fun to learn.
But raising a family kept me at the shoe repair bench for another 10 years. It wasn’t until I had my own shop in the early 90s that I was able to make my next two pairs, using the book, Cowboy Boots – An American Tradition by DW Frommer. His thorough coverage of “how and why” resonated with me. But not having any one-on-one experience with fitting, those two pairs were a rude awakening of how much more there was to making boots than meets the eye. I knew I would have to finish the job of raising my family before I could really give it the attention it would require to feel I really was a bootmaker.
When the child-rearing was done we moved to Prescott AZ and opened a custom leather and repair shop. Being asked to make boots, and feeling like the time was right, I kept DW’s book
open on my bench for the next 5 years making boots pretty steadily.
In ’06 was finally able to spend 3 weeks with him in his shop, making the two-piece boot aka the Full Wellington. It was really eye-opening to see the gaps in my making, and it moved me to the next level.
What were some of your early struggles and successes as a young bootmaker?
Without a doubt working alone for so many years with just my shoe repair experience as a background was limiting. Too many bad habits from shoe repair were hard to shake. Not sharing the work with anyone else has also been limiting. Looking back at the successes I can think of, I realized that all those years of shoe repair made it possible to perform some jobs that I would not have been able to conceive of as possible without that experience. There have been several requests where the customer had boots belonging to a loved one that they wanted resized to fit them. That kind of satisfaction of that is worth more than just the dollars.
What advice would you give to young bootmakers just starting out?
Work with someone. Bootmaking isn’t a simple matter of following steps. The technique and the way of carrying out each step can be different from time to time. Without someone to bounce it off of you will be limited. The body of information is huge and not all of it is on the internet.
Use good materials. Poor grades of leather will teach you little more than not to use poor grades of leather. It’s the same for tools.
Networking is also good advice.
I think another aspect of starting out and hanging in there through the ups and downs, is to realize that bootmaking is a journey. I know we hear that kind of thing often now, but it’s true. Bootmaking builds character, we learn more about ourselves as we go along.
The persevering through the discouragement you may have this week, is a valuable part of the next job you do that requires stamina. Some things have to be accepted, others will benefit from calm reflection.
And if you’re going to do bespoke work, you’re going to have to learn how to listen to people. It’s another skill to learn. Don’t be dismissive, acknowledge what the customer is asking for. Care to let them know you understand what they are asking for, and proceed from there with what you can do for them. Don’t come to hate the customer service part. It made a difference when I saw that I really needed to open my heart to each person who walked in the door. It helped me to be of service to them. Be honest in your dealings and do what you say.
What are your hopes and expectations for the future of the craft?
With the internet now we have access to leather and tools that were like “hens teeth” before. This is very hopeful. Bootmaking groups and affiliations are more easily in communication now with one another and that is also a good thing. There seems to be much more openness and willingness to share and help each other as well. I think that shows and competitions are a chance to not only see others work but also to get advice and suggestions. I find more and more makers are willing to share what they know. It was not always like that.
Cowboy boots are an American tradition, a there are sets of standards that are not found in other kinds of footwear. I think we need to be open to the ‘new’ while maintaining that traditional aspect. I’m encouraged by makers who see that the world values the uniqueness of what we do. And I believe there will be increased interest in the hand work trades