Introduction: Wide-toe Leather Shoes Built on a Casting

About: I can build pretty much anything I set my mind to building.

Almost nobody sells good wide shoes anymore. My feet, which somehow ended up on my body despite being more suitable for a duck or a harbor seal, have gotten wider and wider over the years, finally developing a bunion after the widest shoes I could find began to constrict my toes. Bunions occur when the metatarsal bone spreads, but the toe has no room to spread in tight shows, and starts to turn in. It can be a crippling deformity and is almost unknown in populations that only wear sandals or go barefoot.

This instructable follows the principals laid out by this well-respected podiatrist Dr. McLanahan. I have to wear some special toe spreaders in order to prevent my bunion from deteriorating, and thus my feet are now too wide for any commercial shoes I have tried (Yes I've tried a lot of brands.)

In this instructable we'll make a plaster cast of our feet, use it as a last, then mold a very simple pair of completely comfortable custom fit leather shoes over it. Even if you've got feet the envy of Daffy Duck, you'll still be able to have shoes that fit.

Some important specs:

  • Shoes must fit!
  • Shoes must be flat. No heel. No "toe ramp" where your toes point up in the air. Podiatrists say these features weaken the muscles in the foot and stretch them into the wrong shape.
  • Widest point of the shoe at the toes, not at the ball of the foot.
  • Built-in padding using commercial shoe insole material.
  • Appearance is, well, we aren't expecting much. I've built sandals and moccasins before, this is my first actual shoe. Hopefully, it will look better than Frankenstein's Number Nines.



Leather. There are all kinds, thicknesses, tanning techniques, and I do not claim to know very much about them. I bought a hide of vegetable tanned elk hide. This is one of the most durable common leathers, soft, relatively thick (4-5 ounce). It isn't as cheap as cowhide, which may be best for many folks' needs. Many shoes are made of thinner leather - 3-4 ounce, and harder leather for stiffness. I want shoes as soft as moccasins that last a long time. Ask your leather dealer to learn a lot more.

Mid-sole: Mid-sole is above the soling (the rubber part on the ground) and below the padding (which is the comfy part under your foot.) One can use a hard, 6-7 ounce cow leather made especially for soles (which I used), or commercial mid-sole material. These can be ordered online or obtained from shoe shops, which usually stock them. I went with the leather. Avoid belly leather, which is cheap, low quality, stretchy and weak. Shoulder or back leather is stronger and better for midsoles.

I bought leather from Tandy Leather and S&T Leather ( a wholesaler, but they will sell you a single hide and work well with online orders). Both suppliers provided excellent help educating me about which leather was for which purpose.

Soling. This is (literally) the rubber that hits the road. I went with a thin 4mm rubber soling material called vibram cherry. This isn't the blocky clodhopper vibrams that your Appalachian Trail hikers wear - this is a thin material that makes you feel like spiderman it sticks to the floor so well.

Padding: This is between the mid-sole and your foot. I build padding out of a retail gel sole, adding some metatarsal pads my doctor recommended. I added a layer of EVA foam (available from craft stores) of about 3/8" thickness. One can also order a sheet of Soletech Cloud EVA which is a soft, moldable foam that is used for all kinds of shoes.

Waxed Nylon Thread for sewing together leather.

Eyelets to make holes for shoestrings

Barge cement- a commercial contact cement used by shoemakers and repair shops. Stays flexible, doesn't mind getting wet, but doesn't come off very easily if you've goofed.

Plaster and Durham's Rock Hard Water Putty - these are available at any big-box hardware store and are used to make the foot casts.

Food Coloring - this makes part of the cast a different color (we'll tell you why later)

Alja Safe casting compound for making a cast of the foot. There are other methods, but this is the one the old-master shoemaker that was teaching me these techniques preferred. It is used in the movie industry to make molds of faces and hands for special effects. The amount you need will depend on the container used around the foot, I used an old shoebox, you could also make a duct-tape and cardboard shape to minimize the amount of casting compound needed. Might take two 3 LB boxes to do both feet. There are also plaster gauze, that harden on contact with water, which one could mold over an old pair of socks on your feet and then cut off. Lots of other ways to make a mold of something.

Step 2: Tools

Leatherworking tools and other stuff including:

  • Leather shears (these aren't just scissors - very stout)
  • Sewing awl
  • Exacto craft razor knife
  • Pricking Iron (multiple punch to make lines of holes for sewing)
  • Leather punch
  • Hammer
  • Drill and mixing blade ( I used an old piece of steel bent into a hook)
  • Bucket
  • Pliers (long-handled pliers are best for leverage)
  • Belt Sander clamped into a bench vise
  • Rivet setting tool sized to match eyelets
  • Self-healing cutting board
  • Rotary cutter

Step 3: Mold Your Foot

The first two pictures show my foot with and without corrective toe spacers. I have a pronounced bunion and a hammer toe, both of which are corrected with the toe spacer. However, I cannot wear any commercial shoes I've found with the toe spacers, except some modified crocs. I molded my feet with the toe spacers in place.

  1. Take a shoe box, or a custom made box made from duct tape and cardboard fitted to your foot.
  2. Mix up Alja-Safe molding compound 1:1 with water in a bucket, using the drill and a mixing paddle or a hook bent of of a stiff rod.
  3. Sit in a chair. Be ready to place feet flat on the bottom of the shoeboxes. But wait a bit ..
  4. First pour in about an inch of casting compound
  5. Place feet in the box with just a bit of weight, flat on the bottom of the box.
  6. Pour in more molding compound slowly, stir so as to break up any bubbles.
  7. Wiggle toes ONCE then hold still.
  8. Sit for about 5 minutes. Don't move. Make sure the feet are on the bottom, so that the natural weight of your legs resting against them shows us the shape inside a shoe. Don't stand up, that's too much weight.
  9. After 5 minutes, the casting compound will be set. Wiggle your feet out, try not to tear it too much.
  10. A bit of cooking oil on your feet will prevent sticking, but I've never found it to be much of a problem so I didn't bother.

Now you have a negative mold of your foot. We'll fill it with plaster.

  1. Take some scissors or shears and chop up a foot of hemp or sisal rope into 1 inch lengths. Scrub this with your palms until it is a mass of hairy fibers. You could use other types of fibers - snips of string or burlap. This will help reinforce the plaster.
  2. Start mixing plaster in a bucket with the drill. Slowly dribble in some of the fiber into the mix. This will make it stronger.
  3. Plaster sets up fast, work quickly.
  4. Pour the mold half full of plaster.
  5. Rock the mold back and forth to get rid of air bubbles.
  6. Pour the mold full.
  7. Rock again or take a spoon handle and poke around in it to vibrate out air.
  8. Allow to set for an hour or two. Then remove the plaster cast from the mold.
  9. Throw away the alja-safe when you peel the plaster out of it. Alja Safe is a natural product made of algae and will spoil once wet. Smells foul after a few days in the sun, and also shrinks. Do the plaster within four hours of making the mold.

Now you should have a positive plaster mold of your feet, in all their glory. Just for fun, marvel at the fact that (for most people) the feet are not the same size. Good thing we are making custom shoes.

Step 4: Make a Toe Box

Molding shoes over the plaster casts now would be a failure - there is no toe box. All shoes, unless they are being used by the Spanish Inquisition to extract confessions, have a toe box. In other words, if you are wearing shoes without toe boxes (I am taking to you high heel people out there) you are ruining your feet. Confess!

There are very specific dimensions shown on the picture of the cardboard pattern. The pattern was made with a pencil held VERTICAL.

  1. Hold the pencil right against the heel. Zero clearance back there.
  2. Trace the foot exactly, with the pencil held vertically.
  3. Now add the following amounts:
    1. 3/4" at the toe
    2. 1/4" at the sides
    3. add a little more around any bunions at joints (maybe 3/8" total) because they tend to get bigger
    4. Leave room for the crooked bunion toe (usually the big toe or the little toe) to heal back to it's correct position with the use of toe correctors. (Doctors sometime say this is impossible. Mine have already begun to return to normal. Who you gonna believe, them or your eyes? )
    5. At the instep, make a mark the same as the outline, then a mark as far as you can go inside the instep, and split the difference with your sole pattern.
    6. Make both patterns reasonably similar in curvature, even if your feet are different. As long as you leave enough toe box room, these numbers can vary a little. Shoes look better if they match.

This has made a sole pattern. Now round out your foot mold with a molded toe box:

  1. Make a cardboard mold the shape of the front of the pattern and the height of your tallest toe (usually the big toe joint).
  2. Fill the mold with colored plaster or water putty. It will take about 350 mL (1.5 cups) of plaster, give or take. The coloring allows you to shape it later, but not take off too much. You'll know when you hit white plaster you've shaved too far.
  3. Once the plaster dries, sand and file it to a pleasing shape. Sand about 1/8" off the toe, and undercut the toe.
  4. Maintain about 5/8" in front of your longest toe.
  5. Undercut the bottom. Leather will curve around here. You'll need a minimum of 1/4" to 3/8" exposed midsole to sew everything together later, so the sole pattern has to be at least 1/4" bigger than your foot mold all the way around, but not much more.

Now you have a foot mold with a toe box: a LAST. He who lasts last, laughs best.

Step 5: Midsole and Padding

Cut out midsole material using your pattern (Midsole material can be leather or commercial plastic midsole material.)

Remember midsole is under the padding, above the outer sole, which is the rubber that meets the road.

Put the "shiny side up, and the rough side down". The rough side will take glue much better, and later we'll glue on soling. The finished side will end up being inside your shoe.

Now you need to make some padding. This can be simple or elaborate. Simple would be to buy a sheet of Soletech Cloud EVA, and cut it out 3/8" smaller than the midsole.

Elaborate would be to sandwich a commercial gel sole, your favorite metatarsal support, some more EVA foam, and a scrap of leather rough side down. Glue it together with Barge cement.

Rough up the shiny side of the midsole, and glue on the padding with barge cement. There should be an exposed 3/8" around all edges, unless you topped your padding with leather. In that case trim the leather top to the edge of the midsole.

Any shiny side or finished side of any leather must be roughed up with sandpaper before it can be glued. Suede does not need roughing up.

At this point you have a midsole of leather with a padding layer glued on top of it.

Step 6: Cut Out the Uppers

Using the paper pattern, cut the uppers out of leather. See the description and the photo of the paper pattern in the photo above.

Or, optionally, you can make your own duct tape pattern. Put on an old pair of socks. Cover them with duct tape. Remove your feet. Cut vertically down along where your achilles tendon would be. Cut along the edges of your feet where they would touch the ground, and add 3" to the pattern from the heel, around the toes and back to the heel so it is the shape of a fan. Flatten it out, use it to cut out your leather.

I added lacing eyelets, toungue, and some other details, but it may be better to add these later.

Sew the back of the heel together. You'll use a butt joint, no overlap. Each stitch must be horizontal inside the shoe - if there is an X-stitch on the inside, it will pull your socks down.

Design an attractively curved heel counter (a patch over the heel seam) that has matching curves both sides. You may sew it on now or later. Now is easier, later it will lay against the curve of the heel after the shoe is molded. You should put the heel counter on the outside of the shoe, but it is also OK to add another heel counter on the inside of the shoe.

You might also like a Toe Counter. You know wing tips? That pattern on the toe is called a toe counter. You should put the counter inside the shoe, so it keeps the toe box puffy and protects your toes from stubbing. Using alcohol, soak some leather and stretch a patch of leather around the tow of your casting. Later, use glue to hold it on the inside of the shoe. The shape isn't critical, but it should be stiffer leather, especially if the rest of the leather you use for your shoe is soft.

Plan your toungue and eyelets - sew them on now and it is easier, sew them after the upper is molded and they will look a lot better.

Last you'll glue the upper to the midsole. See the cutaway illustration - you are putting glue only on the outer 1/4" of the midsole, and the edges of the padding. Put glue on the corresponding areas of the upper. Be generous, the glue is OK on the inside of the shoe, in fact it waterproofs it some. Do not get glue on the top of the shoe, it will hold too much moisture and sweat. Put some glue on the inside toe counter and inside heel counter if you used these features.

STOP! Read the next step while your glue is drying.

Step 7: Cut the Last and Stretch the Upper

Drill a 3/8" hole in the last, at an angle, and cut a 3/8" dowel to fit it. Now saw at right angles to this hole, so that the last can separate in two halves. Notice the angle - it will allow the heel piece to be removed from a shoe.

I'm going to make a video of the next step, but it isn't ready at this writing (coming soon! )

You are using contact cement. It has to be just the right dryness - not gooey, not wet, yet not too dry either. Tacky. If it is right, you'll be able to attach the upper to the midsole even under some tension.

Assemble the midsole (with dry contact cement) padding (Also with dry cement) and the plaster last.

Grab the heel of your upper, and stick the glue right at the heel, with it centered, to the midsole.

Grab that point and pinch it with two fingers so it will stay. With the other hand, STREEETTCH the upper over the toes of the last, and while stretching it hard, stick it at the toe so it is centered. Now stick two points on the sides.

The next step is CRITICAL for a good smooth shoe. You now have four wrinkles - the toe and heel are stuck, the sides are stuck at a point, a wrinkle in between each point. For each of those wrinkles, divide the wrinkle in half, and stick it down. Now there are two smaller wrinkles. Continue dividing each wrinkle in half until there are none left. All of the edges of the upper are stuck to the midsole, with lots of leather hanging over.

Now you'll repeat with pliers. Start at the heel, pinching the upper material onto the midsole firmly. Cut off excess upper material if it is in the way. For every little wrinkle, use the pliers to firmly anchor the center of the wrinkle so it is flat and stuck to the midsole.

Step 8: Glue Soles to Midsoles, Sanding, Final Stretch and Finishing

The attached video demonstrates the steps of gluing on the soles (outersoles, which are on the bottom of midsoles) and sanding the edges.

Video link here:

Cut out an outersole that is no smaller, and not much bigger, than the exact shape of the midsole. Careful with rights and lefts, dislexics like me can get confused here. If the outersole is exactly the same size as the midsole, then that's perfect, but if it is even 1/16" smaller, it is too small.

First, establish a clean work surface by laying down some fresh butcher paper. Don't use newsprint as it might smear ink all over things. Glue in an area with lots of ventilation, but not too cold. Don't do this in your house - a garage is OK.

Gluing with contact cement is a little counter-intuitive - you are going to join two surfaces with DRY cement. If Barge contact cement is wet, it doesn't work very well. But if it is too dry, it doesn't work well either. It needs to be just slightly tacky. Like the tie I got for Christmas. No not like that, just a little sticky. Well, the tie was sticky too - it's a long story. If you've read this far you do deserve a bit of humor, and to be admired for your stamina.

If one of the surfaces is shiny or slick, such as finished leather on the good side, rough it up first with sandpaper. Rough suede-side leather glues very well without sanding, as does outersole rubber material.

Spread a thin layer of Barge cement on the two surfaces to be mated. Very thin. Don't leave any big globs or puddles.

Once they are tacky (no, not like the tie!) which will take 2 minutes at room temperature but could take 5 or more in a cold room, hold the two surfaces just apart, line them up, and stick them together. You get ONE CHANCE at this, because once they are together they are stuck. If you peel them apart (with difficulty) you'll have to start over with the glue and may need to sand the old glue off.

After this, the two surfaces should be clamped or hammered to mate them well. See the video.

Then, using a belt sander clamped in a vise, carefully sand the edges of the midsole/outersole to a smooth shape. Be careful not to sand the leather of the upper. If you do, you may be able to fix it with a little leather dye.

Now use matching leather dye to color the edge of the midsole the same color as the upper, or black, or whatever you prefer.

A couple more steps and you'll have a shoe. First, soak the shoe in some household rubbing alcohol. This allows it to stretch and mold to shape. Re-insert the plaster last in the shoe, and allow it to sit overnight and stretch the leather to the exact shape.

Once it has dried, try it on. If you are satisfied, add some shoelaces and some nice boot dressing or waterproofing spray to keep your feet dry and protect the leather from a street puddle. Leather does not like water.

If you are not satisfied, get creative and stretch or take up or modify until it fits just so.

Be sure to check the video it is a lot easier to understand than all this blathering about ties and such.