Introduction: 6 Things I Learnt From My First Pair of Shoes

There is something romantic about learning from a craftsman through apprenticeship. Something like the difference between reading a cooking book and following grandma around the kitchen. I had the opportunity to follow 10-year shoe maker veteran Alex Reed ( around the Pier 9 workshop, and learn to make my first pair of leather shoes.

We had a book at hand called "pattern Cutting, Step-by-step patterns for footwear", and I'm not going to repeat the techniques. What I'm sharing, are some moments of learning for a first timer.

Step 1: Last Comes First

A last is a mechanical form you build your shoes around. It represents your foot, and your foot is not a flat 'size 40'. It has curvy profile lines all around.

Getting the Last perfect took half of my apprenticeship. Think about the last time you went to buy shoes. Size not right? Toes too tight? Try another pair. When making shoes, 'trying another pair' means that you go back to the last, add more volume or shave some down, cut more fabric, build another shoe, leave it on last to form over 24 hours, then try it on again. As a beginner, each iteration took me days. I got the shoes to feel right when I came to the 9th.

How many shoes did you try, till you bought your last pair of shoes?

Shown in the images above are two ways to deal with tightness in toe area.

Option 1. Add more length to the shoe, so the toes are not pushed against the front as much.

Option 2. Raise up the toe line to allow more room.

If you're using a physical last, the modification could be done with layers of leather. Multiple pieces could be layered up, glued together, and sanded down around edge for a smooth transition.

In a digital file (shown as in Autodesk Crispin here), you can modify the profile and fabricate again. We 3D-print ours in PC-10, and it works really well. I also tried Ultem, but it turns out to be really hard to nail into. For full report on experiments with 3D printed lasts, visit Alex at

Step 2: Every Beast Is Different

So you looked up the local leather store, and you're ready to pick up some leather.

The first thing that shocked me was that, it is not fabric that comes square and rolled up. It comes with a shape, which remotely resemble a road kill. When you look closer, the hair pores aren't unlike human skins. Somehow that gave me a sense of respect for these hides and skins. They once were beasts roaming around.

Keep that in mind, because it helps you cut pattern out of the hide later. Alex introduced me to the idea of 'the Stretchiness & Tightness' These once living beasts have parts that moves a lot (arm pits, neck) and parts that don't (back). You want to save the back area for the shoe pattern, with tighter lines aligned along the shoe length. You can do first experiments, or cut sock lining with the parts that are closer to the edge (as shown in the first image above).

But before we get ahead of ourselves, you're there in the store. The beasts come in different sizes and colors and surface finishes. What should you get? Some things to consider:

  • Color. Color is a really personal preference. Black and dark leather makes it easier for beginners; accidental cuts and abrasion can be glued or covered with a marker.
  • Size. One simple court shoe in my size (US8 EU38) takes about 16''x16". If that's too much thinking to do, one full sheep skin worked well for a first pair. You can afford to make one wrong, and still make a pair, and have some extra for sock lining.
  • Thickness. The first thing I went after in the store was some gorgeous patent leather. I was told not to. They're really tough to bent without wrinkling. Start with something softer would make lasting (putting leather around last) a lot easier.
  • Quality. Inspect a piece. Spread it out flat over a table. Look for bumps, cuts, holes, discoloring. Flip over, and check again. I got leather that has thinner patches in the back that I didn't notice, and when you stretch it over a last it'd tear. Sad.
  • Lining. Most things above apply to the top layer of the shoes. Get some soft and thin lining leather too. It's usually pig or lamb. I like using either black or a popping contrasting color.

Step 3: Work Holding

You will cut/hammer/pinch or your finger making shoes. Holding the shoes properly helps, though.

When hammering on the bottom, rest the foot top curve against your thigh. It helps stabilize the piece, so it takes the force better, and is less likely to slip. Never just put the shoe down on a table and hammer it (like I did), it'd bruise the leather. Game over.

Does it hurt your thigh when you hammer against it? Yes.

Step 4: Nail It, in the Right Sequence

Lasting takes trial and error. You have to feel what the leather is willing to do. One way that works for one piece of the leather may not work for another piece. Different cuts from one piece may also differ. Here is some basics I was taught.

  • Start at the toe. Nail down the tip so that it holds the center line down
  • Nudge the heel so that the sewing seam is along along the center.
  • Nail the heel with three nails close to each other, so that they can't move anymore.
  • Go back to toe and start pulling & nailing the edges down.
  • Pull from toe to heel, always.

Step 5: Errors Accumulate

The hardware world of undo and redo takes a lot of time. Gluing one shoe in the wrong way, tear them apart, and gluing it again takes a lot longer than gluing a pair. But if you think 'well it's a bit off but it'd be alright' and continues with the next step, the errors would add up and be impossible to fix.

The last doesn't feel right? Stop making more shoes! Go back and fix it, before moving on to the next step.

Shown in the image is the consequence of not sanding the leather enough - the glue applied few steps later would not stick and form a week bounding between the sole and the top.

Step 6: Embrace the Errors

-"Master I f****d up again!"

-"Great! Learn from it. It's your first pair."

This is the conversation Alex and I repeat everyday. There are right ways to cut, nail, pull, hammer, and glue, and there are wrong ways. All these learning moments come from doing something wrong, and having an aha moment of 'oh so that's why I was told to do it that way'.

So get some instructions, buy your tools and leather, get started with your first pair of shoes, and learn from the errors!