Cordovan Oxfords

These cordovan full brogue oxfords are made with Horween Color 8 cordovan uppers sewn with rust colored A&E Tex 70 thread. They are lined with undyed vegetable tanned calf. The soles are J.R. Rendenbach covered with Vibram cat’s paw. The leather heels are topped with Vibram heel caps. It’s all put together with welted construction using a hand dyed welt and beige hand sewing threads attaching the welt to the leather sole.

These oxfords feature a few interesting details worth pointing out.

Why rubber over leather? Leather is a good material for both soles and heels because it shapes to the last and foot. Good soling leather is tough and flexible, but it has its limitations. Leather does not insulate as well as rubber, which can mean cold feet on cold pavement. The rubber has better grip on a wider variety of surfaces and helps reduce the amount of water the sole is exposed to when the ground is wet. The rubber heel cap also grips a wide range of surfaces and is very hard-wearing. Both the sole cover and heel cap are easily replaced when worn. It makes for a good all-purpose, all-weather shoe. There’s no one shoe to rule them all and it’s nice to have the right shoe for the job if you can. You might choose to wear these instead of your leather-only soles in certain circumstances.

Most, if not all, cordovan is top finished, not drum dyed. When cut, you can see the color only slightly penetrates the top surface. The undyed original color, (typically a light brown) is then visible. That cross section is usually not shown on the shoe upper, but is often hidden by skiving and folding the edges.

Cordovan can sometimes be difficult to fold, and the fact that it is finished flesh-side out makes skiving problematic for the integrity of the material. I have found the thickness of Horween’s cordovan to be highly variable – from 1.2mm to 2.2mm in the same piece! I used the thick parts of the material for the quarters, and rather than skive and fold, I rounded and finished the exposed cross section. With the right treatment, it appears as if it were skived and folded – which only actually occurs where the top of the outside counter captures the backs of the quarters. (See above.)

What even is “cordovan?” It’s *both* a special piece of horse leather *and* a color. (I’ve written about this before.) Horween actually calls this reddish brown color “Color 8.” Maybe this is because in the 1930 edition of “A Dictionary of Color” by Maerz and Paul, Cordovan is listed as a color on page 39, Plate 8, Color Sample H8.

I don’t often dye the welts I use for welted construction, but I needed to figure out how to match the color when dying the blunt cut undyed top line. The “cordovan” colored dye was just brown, lacking even a hint of red. What matched most closely for me was using “burgundy” dye and then rubbing it with an uncolored oil and wax finish. This darkened the burgundy considerably and made the color I wanted.

Leaving aside for the moment all the problems with color correction, lighting and digital displays, you can still get a good idea of the color matching. It’s very difficult to distinguish the part of the topline that I dyed from the rest of the material below the stitching. The dyed and finished welt looks a bit more red because the undyed welt is much lighter in color than the undyed cordovan. I expect the welt to darken in time, but I think it’s a good match to start.

Cordovan is an interesting and unusual leather. The special attention required to the material thickness, skiving, folding and finishing make it an additional challenge to work with.

Sandal Repair

I never know how intensively my clients wear their shoes until I get them in for repair. Here’s a short composite of repairing some sandals I made in 2013.

She wore through the sole, midsole and into some of the insole too!



Some process shots of replacing the sole and getting ready to replace the sock liners. These are poron with a vegetable tanned pig skin cover.

Matching Bag and Shoes

Brown and Blue Spring Oxford 2012For the folks in Portland who came to visit while I was making shoes on display in March at  Larry Olmstead’s workshop inside Halo shoes,  here is a photo of the finished shoes of my work that was in progress for 2 1/2 weeks. I made these using leather that Larry has used in several of his leather bags. The side view shows the welted construction. The upper is vegetable tanned leather from the La Ruota tannery in Italy. It turns out the leather not only to makes stunning bags, but handsome shoes too. Stay tuned for more shoemaking events!

High Tops (pair 37)

Welted high top/ankle boot with braided stitchingThis is the first prototype of a high top version of the ExIT Cycle™ shoe. It’s a half step from shoe to boot, and from fashion to traditional. I’m sorting out the shape and fit, then planning to refine the style into a classic men’s boot.

Ankle boots can be made on the same lasts as low shoe lasts, but there are some tricky dynamics as the upper extends beyond the top of the last. I’m continuing to avoid eyelets as the leather upper is more than up to the task of holding the laces. Also, for custom shoes, those eyelets don’t see as much stress.

The veg tan cow upper is also fully lined with veg tan cow. They are build using a welted construction and stitched to a mid-sole using braided stitching. A Vibram Gumlite unit sole is glued on over the mid-sole.

Ladies 2″ Bike Heel

Ladies 2" Bike HeelI wanted to make these for Momentum’s Magazine’s Bike fashion show as part of Fashion Week here in Portland, but there were no models available in the size I was planning to make. Other than the perforation pattern, which was common on classic bicycle touring shoes, there’s nothing really “bike” about them – no special equipment required! You just get on your bike and ride.

Anyone who’s been around me or my shop over the last several months knows these have been on my mind. Finally today they are finished. These shoes have the same general styling colors as the ExIT Cycle shoes, but done in a 2″ heel.

Making high heel shoes is especially challenging for the small shoemaker because it requires a lot of specialized material, or a lot of engineering on the shoemaker’s part. While these were no  picnic to produce, I’ve gotten positive feedback from all the testers who took tried them out. Many wished it was currently picnic weather so they could wear them some more.

2" Bike Heel Bottom ViewThese shoes are unlined and feature the same Italian vegetable tanned upper  as the ExIT Cycle shoes, but with a killer firefighter Vibram sole . When you’re burning some rubber on your bike, or stamping out your camp fire, you’ll need these soles to protect you. (Hello firefighters…) Note the 100X on the heel. That’s because they are 100X cooler than any other ladies bike-styled shoes!

Casual Summer Oxford (Pair Number 30)

Casual Summer OxfordThis is the second revision of a pattern I’ve been working on. It’s the summer shoe I’ve always wanted. Light, versatile, good looking and good ventilation. It’s made from veg-tan cow (blue) and veg-tan calf (black). It has a veg-tan toe cap, veg-tan insole and footbed liner, but rubber Vibram Gumlite sole.

I learned something interesting this time about how the number of eyelets affects the lacing pattern on oxfords. Since it’s a size 38, quite a bit smaller than the size 42 of pair 29, I cut a pair of eyelets. With an odd number, it means the lace has to go diagonally once to complete the proper oxford looping lacing pattern.

Casual Summer Oxford Lacing and Tongue DetailWhen oxfords fit, the quarters usually meet in the center (see pair 19 on the home page) and you never see a diagonal lace, if one is needed. One problem with the oxford design is that the tongue falls down easily, so it needs to be sewn to the liner or somehow supported. I made a loop in the tongue of pair 29, after it was finished, which I thought complemented its casual appearance. In pair 29 the lace goes straight from eyelet to eyelet through the loop that holds up the tongue.

With 5 eyelets instead of 6, I realized that there would be a diagonal lace showing across the tongue. Yikes. Because I didn’t pre-cut the loop in the tongue when I made this pair, I was relieved to find it came to the rescue when positioned for the diagonal lace. It hides the diagonal lace elegantly. I simply got lucky. If you’re making a casual oxford design, consider carefully how the number of eyelets relates to the lacing pattern. In the picture here (click to enlarge) you can see the lace peeking ever so slightly from behind the loop.

I have been considering making these in fixed sizes and at a price lower than custom pricing. Is there interest?

Kangaroo cycling shoes (aka Pair Number 28)

Kangaroo cycling shoes. Front view of custom cycling shoes with pedal.These are custom shoes with an extra hidden feature for riding a bike with clip and strap pedals. (Who doesn’t like extra hidden features?) This pair is also reinforced with a polymer fiberglass laminate that runs the full length of the insole. It is very thin and provides only a little extra rigidity. The cycling structural emphasis for this pair was to prevent deformation by the force on the pedals while maintaining flexibility on the crease line (decent walkability).

For those of you who were around in the days when I said I would never make a pair of shoes in black, apparently times have changed. This is my second pair in black. I have my issues with black, but my bias aside, black is difficult to photograph well.

In cutting the slot for the pedal to lock in, it was a challenge to make sure the alignment was correct and the toe of the shoe did not rub up against the toe clip at the front of the pedal.

Kangaroo cycling shoes. Bottom view with pedal.Measuring the length was part of it, the other part was getting the slot position as close as possible to the crank arm while not having the shoe rub on it or have the heel hit the chain stay.

Here’s the view of the bottom with the pedal attached. I’ve also included the view from the front with toe clip to give you some idea of the ~3mm setback from the toe clip.

The leather used for the upper is vegetable tanned kangaroo, with veg tan cow liner. There is a deep red foot bed liner from veg tan goat that you can’t see from the pictures. It was not my intention to use kangaroo from the start, but due to some problems with the first uppers I made, I had to go get some more veg tan Italian calf on short notice and couldn’t find any. So I used kangaroo.

Custom kangaroo cycling shoesAre kangaroo cycling shoes for you? I’d heard kangaroo is tough stuff, but that’s not really enough. Tough, how? Inquiring minds want to know. Is this just kangaroo leather industry jargon? The wikipedia page on kangaroo leather gives some good information, but the links to the study are broken. There is an Australian RIDC publication available as a PDF that will tell you more then you probably ever cared to know about both bovine (cow) and kangaroo leather. Really, the heart of the matter is something like this (requoting wikipedia on the elusive morphology study):

The collagen fibre bundles in cattle hide are arranged in a complex weaving pattern. The fibres are often at angles as much as 90 degrees to the skin surface. Cattle hide also contain sweat glands, erector pili muscles and a distinct gradation in elastin levels, concentrated in the upper part of the skin.

Kangaroo on the other hand has been shown to have a highly uniform orientation of fibre bundles in parallel with the skin surface. It does not contain sweat glands or erector pili muscles and elastin is evenly distributed throughout the skin thickness (Bavinton et al 1987). This structural uniformity explains both the greater tensile strength of the whole leather and the greater retention of strength in splits. Bovine skin is much more complex in cross section. Hence in whole section it has many more weak point from which tears can start when placed under tension. In addition when sliced into splits the collagen fibres running at significant angles to the skin surface will be cut. These then become weak points in the structural strength.

The bottom line, especially now having worked with it a bit, is that kangaroo is in fact pretty tough stuff. Thanks to Ken at Renovo Bikes for cutting the slots on his table router, and for taking these pictures while my camera is overseas.

Pair 29 Digital Pattern

Pair 29 PatternI learned to make patterns by hand. The patterns are based on a profile of the last. You can see more information about the profile method in the Handmade Shoes for Men book, or on-line from one of the scans of the Golding books that DW Frommer makes available through the Crispin Colloquy Library.

I have been thinking of digitizing my pattern templates so I would have a backup in case of fire, flood, mice or a disgruntled elf. Last week I put my pattern on the scanner for the first time. As long as I had it on my computer, what the heck, why not trace it out. There was one modification that I wanted to make anyway, so I thought, “Why not just make the change to the digital pattern?”

A minor change to a paper pattern template can be a hassle sometimes. It was not, however, as much as a hassle as working the whole thing up on a computer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally happy with Fedora and Inkscape, but whoo boy was this tedious! As long as I went through all that effort, why not throw a little leather on the scanner too? I proudly present for your amusement, the pattern for Pair Number 29. Actually, I was so happy with the way the image looked, I almost decided that the pattern was really all I needed. Why make the shoe?

I made the shoe anyway, maybe because I wanted to see if the pattern really worked. It did! No surprise, really, because it was still just a scan of the paper pattern which is already pretty reliable. If you look closely, the parts for each piece of the shoe are all there on the pattern template – backstrap, quarters, collar, toungue and vamp. This shoe is unlined. If it were lined, the template would also include the pieces for the liner. There’s a white border covering the bottom 1.5cm to help me visualize this as a shoe and not just a pattern. I’d say this digital shoe pattern is 2 parts old school and 1 part new school.

Pair Number 29

Handmade shoes with bicycle stylingI’ve been thinking about what makes for a good summer shoe. I like the idea of large holes, as in Pair Number 25, and wanted to experiment some more with unlined designs. Summer in Oregon is nice and dry, so ventilation is all you get. If you live where summer means monsoon, these will participate fully in the precipitation.

The black sections are veg tan Italian calf and the brown sections are veg tan cow. I got the brown (wheat is the name of the color) leather from Larry Olmstead at Entermodal. I built them using welted construction, and then put on a Vibram Gumlite unit sole since I am going to take them traveling in June.

On Pair Number 25, I noticed that the holes made for great cooling effect while riding, but the all black upper made them warmer than I would like for a summer shoe. The brown quarters are definitely cooler.

I have a backlog of a few more pair of shoes to post, so don’t worry about the gap in sequence. More will be posted before too long.

Pair Number 25

This is my first bicycle touring shoe. I have been working on this prototype for a while. One day, Joel Metz, a local bike guy, brought some Carnac touring shoes from his collection for my inspection. I really loved the classic look and the straightforward design. No liner, big holes, low heel. Best of all, there was no messy cleat interface to accommodate.

Joel later emailed me some pictures of bike shoes from his catalogs. The pictures he sent included shoes from 1890, 1900, 1920, 1930, 1940 and 1960. The design I chose to reproduce is from 1960.

These shoes have been reinforced just under the ball of the foot to keep the sole from flexing too much while pedaling. It was designed to be used with clip and strap pedals. You could use them on any pedals you want, though the cage pedals will chew into the leather sole. Flat pedals would be fine, or no pedals at all. I think they will make fine summer dance shoes.

The spring steel shank on this shoe is right through the crease line. The crease line is the line on a diagonal from the big toe ball mount to the little toe ball mount. When you walk forward, the shoe bends on that line. The shank is noticeable when walking, but not too weird. These are totally walkable compared to a hard plastic touring or racing shoe.

shoe-w-clip-and-strapThe upper is vegetable tanned pig skin. There is no upper liner, but the foot bed liner is veg tan cow. The sole is nubuk finished red Italian soling leather. I’m going to take them for a spin on the bike this week and cut a slot for the rear cage of the pedal.

I also learned from Joel that touring shoes were sometimes made with a wooden sole. I’m going to give that a try sometime soon.

Pair Number 24

Pair Number 24These were a long time in the making and the first pair out of my new Portland studio. As such it was fitting to work together with one of the many fine people I have met since moving to Portland. I’m calling these “garden shoes.”

This pair was a birthday present for my step-father (his birthday was last June, but I’ve been busy). Having spent much of his professional career hob-knobbing in Allen Edmunds shoes raising funds for colleges of arts and sciences, he now mostly spends time raising beds for planting tomatoes and salad greens. I succumbed to pressure for a more casual shoe, and one that would be more resistant to the moisture of a walk on the wet lawn than my preferred vegetable tanned leather dress shoes.

I used water repellent permeated veg-retan pig suede leather from the Wolverine tannery. The liner and insole are vegetable tanned cow. The sole is a Skywalk cup sole made in Italy.

Let me say a word about cup soles. Cup soles are a bit of an all or nothing proposition. You get the shoe ready, get the sole ready and you have one chance to stick the whole thing together. If you put the cup sole on skewed, the shoe won’t sit right, or walk right and you’re back on the bench making another pair of shoes. Putting this together is not my specialty and I could not have done this with out the great skill and patience of Matt Menely of Mountain Soles.

I went looking for a cup sole when it was clear to me these needed something more rugged than leather dress soles. It was a great excuse to get to know Matt, who I’ve been meaning to meet for some time. He was a pleasure to work with and shares generously his specialized knowledge of rock climbing and hiking boot repair. He’s also just around the corner from my shop. I am very fortunate to have such a great resource so nearby. Check him out!