I Made Shoes! | Beginner Shoemaking Tips and Tools
Updated: Nov 2, 2021
I was about 8 months pregnant when I started making my own shoes. I knew it was crazy, but I love making my own clothes, and why not footwear? So, I took the plunge. However, in this case, ‘taking the plunge’ wasn’t as straightforward a process as it sounds. It felt like reinventing the wheel - trying to research what tools I would need, what kinds of leather, and, of course, how on earth to make a pair of shoes! If you are in my position of a few months ago, this blog post is for you!
Types of Shoe Construction
At the time of this writing, there are two types of shoe construction methods which I am familiar with (and will slightly influence what tools you need to buy). These two types are:
1. Welted Construction (what I used)
Welted construction, also known as Goodyear welting, is an old-fashioned, solid construction method, and will produce long-lasting, durable shoes. This is because the shoe uppers are held to the soles using both glue and stitches. The disadvantage? It is a much trickier construction method for a beginner, and requires some extra tools and know-how (or in my case, a lot of learning on the job). Another advantage for me was not needing to use conventional contact cement, which is extremely toxic and “fumey”. I completed my welted shoes using only water-based contact cement.
2. Cemented Construction
Cemented construction is a more modern, quicker way of constructing shoes, and is very suitable for a beginner. It requires minimal tools (minimal is relative term, of course). The disadvantages? Shoes made in this way will likely be less durable and not last as long as welted shoes. Also, in order to properly attach the soles, one would probably need to use conventional contact cement rather than the water-based alternative. I could be wrong on that, though.
Tools You Will Need as a Beginner
Let’s get into tools. Keep in mind that there are thousands of leather and shoemaking tools out there that are very specialized, but as a beginner, you really don’t need all that. In fact, the only way to find out what tools you actually want to invest in, is by first completing a pair of shoes with very basic tools. From that point, you will have a better idea of what would be helpful for you, next time.
Basic Shoemaking Tools and Supplies
Shoemaking Lasts - I bought mine vintage on Etsy. You will first need to decide what style of shoes you want to create, as there are many types of lasts out there. The main things to decide are: Are you making sandals, boots, or shoes? What shape of toe? Flat shoes, or heeled? What height of heels, if any? If you are interested in creating historical shoes, most of the time an ‘almond’ or pointed toe shape will work best. Rounded toes produce more casual shoes. There are also lasts with a partial or complete plate of metal covering the bottom, which has to do with certain construction methods using nails. I’m not too knowledgable about that part.
Leather - I used vegetable-tanned leather for every facet of my shoes, and can’t recommend it enough. I used a thick saddle-making leather for the soles, and a 2mm shoulder leather for my shoe uppers and linings. For my next pair of shoes, I will use the same leather for the uppers, but a thin calfskin for the lining. I will likely also use a type of leather dedicated for shoe soles (aka. sole bends) next time. I also used the shoulder leather for my shoe stiffeners, rather than buying synthetic ones. This was perfect for me, to keep the specialized supplies to a minimum! I bought all my leather from Tandy Leather. (see resources list below)
Utility Knife and Craft Knife - I got these on Amazon. Used in almost every stage of the shoemaking process.
Shoemaking Pliers - These are used in the process of pulling the upper leather down over the insole before attaching it in place with lasting nails. These pliers also have a handy knob at the bottom for hammering the nails down.
Shoemaking Hammer- This came in handy for hammering the leather down when it was being glued in place. You could probably use a regular hammer, but this type has a rounded head which won’t mark your leather.
Safety Skiver, or other skiving knife - If you aren’t familiar with leather work, as I wasn’t, skiving is a process of shaving down the edges of leather in order to create seams and overlaps without excess bulkiness. There is a lot of skiving that happens in shoemaking.
Contact Cement, conventional or water-based - I used water-based, in order to minimize toxin exposure. If you are going to use conventional I would recommend wearing a fume mask.
Leather Sewing Supplies - Awl, thick needles, and strong waxed thread
Optional Supplies that I Used
Shoemaking rasp - A type of metal file. You could probably get away with plain sandpaper
Leather paint or dye - Comes in handy if you are using naturally coloured veg-tanned leather
A Dremel drill - This comes in handy for sanding and shaping the edges of shoe soles and of stacked leather heels. I used this to carve the feather on my insoles for welted shoes.
Speedy Stitcher, or other sewing awl - This speeds the process of sewing leather, as it creates a lock-stitch, and combines an awl and sewing needle in one.
Curved awls (or Speedy Stitcher with strong curved needle) and curved needles, if creating welted shoes
Wooden pegs and strong pegging awl, if creating traditional/welted shoes
Dust/fume mask - Mine looks like a literal gas mask. Definitely recommended if you are using conventional contact cement, or other ‘fumey’ products. I was pregnant/breastfeeding at the time of making these shoes, and am already sensitive to toxin exposure to begin with. It feels silly, but better safe than sorry!
Basic Process of Shoemaking (Very Simplified)
Create pattern by covering last in masking tape, drawing it on, and cutting off the pieces with a utility knife. Add seam and lasting allowances
Cut out leather pieces for shoe uppers. Skive edges, paint or dye.
Glue upper pieces together along seams, then sew.
Create insoles out of sole leather, nail to shoe lasts and trim edges as needed with a knife. If using welted construction, insoles must have a “feather” carved into the bottom.
Using lasting pliers, “last” shoe uppers and nail to bottom of insole. If using veg-tanned leather, you can wet-mould at this point.
Carefully remove nails, glue edges of shoe uppers to insoles, and then re-nail so it can stay in place.
Remove lasting nails. Shave bottom of uppers with a knife so it is as flush as possible with the insoles.
If welting shoes, now you would add a strip of welting leather around the insole and sew it to the upper and “feather” of the insole
Cut out an outsole, glue in place and trim edges with a knife.
If using welted construction, sew outsoles to shoe uppers using the welting strip.
Add heels, if using
This was very simplified, but I hope it gives you an idea of what is involved!
How Did My Shoes Turn Out?
They turned out great! So great, in fact, that I can’t wait to get making more shoes, and boots too. The fit surprisingly well, although they are a little long in the toe. I think they will last me a long time!
Resources for Learning Shoemaking (Non-Exhaustive!)
“Andrew Wrigley” - Perfect for beginners. Has an extremely detailed shoemaking video playlist. Step by step instructions. Traditional, welted shoes
“Harry Rogers” - Ditto
“Sveta Kletina” - Beginner tips. Also offers paid courses on her website
“Vicky D’Incecco” - My original inspiration
“I Can Make Shoes” - All about shoemaking for beginners. Offers paid courses and kits on their website.
An old-fashioned shoemaking book:
“The Art of Boot and Shoemaking” by John Bedford Leno
Buying Supplies and Tools
"Blackbird Nails and Tacks" on Etsy
Have you ever tried shoemaking? Do you want to? Let me know in the comments below!
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org