Last making with paroir

When I first read the book Handmade Shoes for Men, I saw this picture: Der Leistenbauer (the last maker). I was struck at the time, and for many years to come, by the utter otherworldliness of the man, the tool and the activity. How was it that such a refined and beautiful shape was crudely hacked out of a piece of what appeared to be basically firewood?

While visiting the shop of Berluti in Les Rosiers-sur-Loire in April, I unexpectedly received a paroir (aka stock knife) as gift from Anthony Delos. (A famous shoemaker in his own right who’s business was purchased by Berluti.) Stunned, I thought about that picture and I really wanted to find out what it is like to make a last using this tool. It was pretty rusty and I have no idea when it was used last, or when it was made. Using one of the polishing wheels on my finisher, I cleaned it up and sharpened it.

First I had to make a handle. Thanks to my friend Greg, I learned a bit about how to turn a piece of wood on a lathe and how to make a T handle. We used maple for the shaft and T, and copper pipe for the front of the haft. The T was fitted to the shaft in much the same way that a leg or spindle is fitted to a Windsor chair – tapered shaft to tapered hole. It was pinned, but also set with epoxy.

I decided to copy a last that I already had. Using rough outlines of the profile and the bottom pattern as guides. Going primarily by eye, I chopped away. After 2 days and about 10 hours of chopping, I was totally wiped out and figured I had gone about as far as someone would with that tool.

Throughout the carving process, I used my existing last to compare the shape and size, length and width, toe and heel spring. I did not use a profile gauge or take the dimensions too seriously.

My guess is that a last maker would put it in a vise and clean it up with a file and spoke shave. I sanded and did the final shaping on my finisher.

The heel height and toe spring looks right and the lengths are the same. I could have spent days working on it to get it exactly right. Ok, I did spent 3 days on it.  I’m just going to stop and call it good.

Learning which cuts were hard and which were easy was very interesting. I would definitely mount the paroir on a lower table next time. I managed not to cut or otherwise injure myself. While my right hand was really tired and sore, I did not get any blisters. I’m quite happy with the shape of the handle, and ultimately with the last I carved totally from scratch.