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Shoes and Craft

A shoemaker's blog about shoemaking

Recently I receive a mail from a former student, about struggling the heel and sole edge finishing. Let me share a few tricks and a story.

Years ago, I was considering myself a decent craftsman, not a great one (I still don’t) So, I met an old master, who offered some tools, lasts, leather for sale and let me take a look at  his work. I was shocked. The “decent” work I have done suddenly seemed crafty and rough. His heel edge was just perfect. I have only seen that quality work from only the most prestigious workshops. It was just amazing. Neat, sharp edges, impeccable finish and straight heel top – just like it should be, just like in the textbooks. I am the type of person, who doesn’t give up  too quickly, even if I felt that there is no way, that I can produce this quality ever, so I asked him to teach me. He was pretty old, but agreed to do so. Let me share a few tricks with you about this special topic, so you guys might benefit from it.

First of all: this is not for beginners. If you don’t know how to make a very decent heel edge shaping, don’t even bother to continue reading, it won’t be any good for you, only waste of time, frustration. The finishing process – where this little tutorial starts from – takes me at least a day. Be patient!

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So, we start from here. As you see, we have an almost ready heel. What happened until now? Knife, rasp, glass, and so on. Not needed to mention that you need a good quality leather, what you need to use damp, not wet, not dry. Those will not work.

Why it is the holy grail for shoemakers? Because it is difficult. It just doesn’t work with the “trial and error” – except you make it for plenty generation, but I can hardly believe that you have that much time. So let’s learn from the old masters (and this one here – even I don’t count to be that old yet). And how it can turn out wrong? Many ways: you can see the layers, you can see the glue layers between them, the layers are just not flat – some just stays out whatever you do, doesn’t get shiny, scratches, etc. A lot of errors.  Not if customers would care. Not today customers, but our grandfather’s time, customers were greatly educated and expected a lot. The heel edge should look like glass, nothing less. How we can get there?

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After the proper shaping, you need to get sandpaper. I know it doesn’t sound like traditional, but this is a living tradition and as a very traditional shoemaker I can tell you – there is nothing wrong with it. So, start with a 120 grit. Attach it on a flat surface, so your thumb won’t make the edge in a funny shape, and start sanding! Back and forth, dry this time. Do it until you get a very nice surface and do it a lot more!

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Take a fine sandpaper – let’s say around 180 grit. Do the same. After you can’t feel scratches with your finger – wet it. Use that sandpaper only one way – away from you! It is not gonna be quick. Do it, don’t give up.

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Now you should have a really neat surface (I know I said I am not talking about the shaping part… but … don’t worry about the top of the heel yet. Later.)

And now the big trick. Leather hardener. ALL the shoe factories use something and all the old makers had some secret recipes – I share one with you. Shellack and denatured alcohol mix. (wikipedia about shellack: “Shellac is a resin secreted by the female lac bug, on trees in the forests of India and Thailand. It is processed and sold as dry flakes (pictured at right), which are dissolved in ethyl alcohol to make liquid shellac, which is used as a brush-on colorant, foodglaze* and wood finish.”)

Obviously the most important part of this list is the wood finish, which is pretty much what we are looking for. So put a layer of your liquid shellack (get the real stuff, don’t bother with the fake versions or pre made ones from hardware stores) and wait a bit. I dries very quickly, so when you finish the other shoes, you can continue working with the first.

Take a very fine sandpaper. 600 grit. No kidding. Fold it half – this time no worries about the heel shape. Only one direction, slow, smooth moves! Repeat this step twice.

Ready to go – paint the edge! Hopefully you have a good quality dye. Every shoemaker swears on a certain brand, you should find your favorite too. I left this shoe semi transparent, but I can tell you – if you made a good work with this, with minimal effort of waxing and ironing you can use it for shaving.

Ps. there are plenty more tricks and advices, I just can’t share all here.

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