I recently made a documentary in Guatemala where I built a pair of boots from start to finish in 5 days, and did I ever learn that I know nothing about making boots.
I knew there were known unknowns, but I was able to easily rack up a truncated list of ten things I had very little understanding of before embarking on this process.
So after I had my boots in hand, I sat down with Peter Sacco, the founder of Adelante, to talk about boot-making assumptions that were crushed by the tough reality of making a pair of their Havana boots by hand.
[Shop Adelante’s Boots Here]
1. All the Knife Work
Adelante is the most handmade footwear you can get at this price point — which is really cool, but one thing I didn’t expect was just how much cutting was done by hand.
There was a lot of freehand knife work. So much that I really should have insured my fingers before I left.
I had to cut each piece of leather. I had to shave the heel stack. I trimmed the sole, I even had to shave the heel with a piece of broken glass during the finishing process.
Safety was fine if you know what you were doing, but the knife always coming toward me as well. (Boy scout whittling safety rules be damned.) The number of times I almost cut my throat open during production was scary. I was reminded more than once that healthcare isn’t so great in Guatemala.
2. Leather Lining Is Incredibly Laborious
You take a lot of components for granted when it comes to boots. I know that some boots are lined and unlined. We talk a lot about lined and unlined loafer and dress shoes, but I never really gave the lining much thought. To be honest, given how common it is in the newer, less expensive brands like Thursday Boot Company and Oliver Cabell, I think I unconsciously started associating lining with cheaper boots. Easier to make boots.
But as I learned, adding leather lining is a ton of extra work: twice as much leather cutting, twice as much sewing, and what seemed like a gallon of extra glue.
Just looking at similar styles across different brands, you’ll find lined and unlined high-end service boots like John Lofgren’s $1,020 unlined Shinki M-43 service boot and Viberg’s unlined service boot. Then there are Thursday’s and Adelante’s sub-$300 service boots which are both lined. So, my guess is that lining a personal preference is more than a rule of thumb.
Regardless of why bootmakers decide to put a leather lining in a boot, I can tell you it’s a ton of extra work and I was washing the glue off for over a week. Like all good learning experiences, I found a dark corner of my knowledge about boots, and I had some of my assumptions tested, which are all good things.
[Watch the full video: How I Learned Bootmaking In 5 Days (In Guatemala)]
3. What a 270-degree Welt Is
Many boots have stitching around the vamp that disappears around the heel, making what’s called a 270-degree Goodyear welt. But it turns out that stitching around the heel doesn’t necessarily mean a 360-degree Goodyear welt. In fact, you can’t see the welt stitching on boots.
One would assume that those visible stitches you can see in the picture above are part of the welt, but they aren’t. As Pete said,
there’s a common misconception that that ‘s the Goodyear welt, where the Goodyear welt stitch is actually inside. And if you want to see, actually what you have to do is push back on the upper and you can see the welt stitch.
The stitching that’s visible connects the sole to the welt, not the welt to the upper. That stitch is hidden.
4. The Glue
There is an unbelievable amount of glue involved in making a pair of boots. You assume a lot of the boot is held together by stitching, but the upper, the sole, each layer of the midsole, the lining, all get glued on.
5. The Downsides of Vegetable Tanned Leather
Veg tanned leather is, in many ways, worse than chrome tanned.
Yes, I said it.
I’ve been part of spreading this myth that the more “all natural” method of tanning we’ve been using for thousands of years is, well, always better. But there are a few downsides that I didn’t recognize at first: veg tanned leather is a lot harder to dye, it has limited colors, it takes more energy and water to make, it takes longer to break in, and it’s stiffer. That means it tears a lot more during the lasting process.
When I was hand-lasting this the leather was regularly tearing, though that was mostly because I’m a terrible craftsman with five days’ experience.
[Adelante’s Story: How Starting a Boot Business Became a Humanitarian Endeavor]
6. Hand Lasting Is Hard Manual Labor
Hand-lasting is very difficult, it takes a lot of strength to do it. Most places don’t do hand-lasting, with that process taken care of with machines. It makes sense, given that hand-lasting requires multiple tools and a considerable amount of skill to do properly — not to mention big, ropey forearms. The amount of force it takes to get the leather uppers over the last and secure the leather in place is more than I expected.
Cobbling and shoemaking don’t always get put in the same category as other manual labor like construction but it’s very physical.
7. What It Means to Hand Welt
Now, normally, as Pete told me, the workers
use the Goodyear welt machine. I think when it comes to the function of the welt, the output is likely the same. Just because you’re doing it all by hand, inherently there’s more craft involved in hand welting. But functionally you get the same output from a Goodyear welt machine and hand welt.
And I very much get that. I decided to hand welt because I couldn’t use a Goodyear welt machine without risking destroying the boot itself. That’s an extra afternoon of my life I’m not getting back.
8. The Meaning of Handmade
Handmade has a lot of different meanings. Every company says their boots are handmade, but what does that really mean? We use our hands to operate machines, so does it mean no machines were used? Or there aren’t any assembly lines or automated processes?
I’ve visited a few boot factories around the world and they all use machines for part of the boot making process. Even Adelante, which uses very few machines still uses machines to punch the eyelets, stitch the Goodyear welt, sand and finish the edges, a press to smooth the layers of the outsole together.
Everyone wants to say that they are handmade, the reality is that ‘handmade’ is a spectrum. But you have some other brands out there that put some final touches with their hand, it’s 95% done with a machine and they say it’s handmade. I think that the important thing here is that Adelante is the most handmade brand.
In my experience, it’s true. Right from the beginning, the components of the upper are cut out by hand, unlike the machine dye-cutting I’ve seen in other factories — and the handmade touches continue throughout the process.
[Related: How Thursday Boots Are Made]
9. There’s Fire
More fire than I was expecting, which was zero. I had to burn off loose threads, I had to cook the sole in an oven to harden the glue, and at one point, I even had to set the toe box on fire to harden it and make it less likely to collapse.
There’s something elemental about it that fits with the handmade, artisanal craftsmanship.
10. The Truth About Finishing
I also underestimated exactly what finishing entails. I knew that it was important and often the difference between a good boot and a great boot, something I heard a lot of guys talk about but for me, mostly just meant how smooth the heel was.
I knew the heel was smoothed down, but you’re smoothing the entire perimeter of the boot with a machine, then a knife, then (in this case) broken glass, with multiple other tools used along the way. The sole and midsoles are also treated with lime and conditioned with a variety of conditioners.
I don’t know how I ever reviewed a boot without making one. Just the amount of labor and steps that go into the finishing portion! I have even more respect and admiration for these craftspeople.
My boots were far from perfect, but the video on all the mistakes I made along the way is still to come…