How to Make Shoes: An In-Depth Guide
Like any kind of clothes, most people will buy their shoes directly from another company as a consumer. There isn’t anything inherently bad about this, but it also really limits what you can come up with when you are putting an outfit together. From stylish heels to heavy-duty work boots, almost any kind of shoe can be created with the right materials and preparation. It might seem like a lot of work, but shoemaking gives you full control over a custom style, shape, and shoe design, letting you tailor them for your preferences and needs.
Shoemaking at home isn’t as difficult as you might think: as long as you have everything ready ahead of time, you can start working almost straight away! Once you have had some experience with designing shoes, making them yourself, and customizing the final product, you will be all set to create as many pairs as you need in the future.
Step 1: Create a Shoe Concept
Before you do anything else, you need an idea. This isn’t as straightforward as it sounds: you really have to examine your own preferences, get an idea of what you will want from your new shoe at a base level, and then build up from there. Deciding that you want to use a certain material, pattern, or color scheme is obviously still important, but this should come after you get the simple parts planned out.
First of all, think about the type of shoes you will want to wear. Shoe making relies on you understanding what kind of end product you are trying to make, so figuring this out right away makes a big difference. Do you want an exercise shoe? A heavy boot? Something stylish? Do you want to copy the design of another brand and add some custom changes? These are only a few of the questions you might be required to ask yourself.
Planning can come in a lot of different forms, too. Don’t hesitate to make sketches or write down ideas you have. If you aren’t good at drawing, find pictures of similar shoes to use as a reference instead. Having a clear picture of your design in your head can help too, but it is always a good idea to keep visual references in one way or another. Without them, you might struggle to figure out what is missing from a half-finished design further down the line.
Once you have an idea, make it clear to yourself. Write out or draw exactly what you intend to make so that you don’t forget any key details. Depending on how you make shoes, it might take you more than a single day to finish the main body, and you are likely to forget things if you don’t keep proper notes. If you are really stuck, you can find blueprints and plans online that serve as a basic layout of a shoe.
Step 2: Gather Parts and Materials
Now it is time to get everything you need to make shoes themselves. How you gather them is up to you: more experienced shoemakers might buy the materials raw from companies that sell sheets of leather and rubber, whereas people without much spare time and money might prefer to cannibalize parts of old, damaged shoes. Salvaging materials like this can be a simple way of getting ready without needing to cut up large sheets of excess material, giving you a sole, heel, or other important section with very little effort required.
The rest of your materials can come from wherever they are available. You can sometimes even buy pre-made soles directly from certain stores: considering that the average sole can be the hardest part of any shoe design to make. This is often a good way to save some time. Be sure to get enough for at least two shoes, too: you do not want to suddenly realize that you only have one half of a pair.
Step 3: Foot Lasts and Casts
Getting the shape of your shoe correct is difficult, which is where a last (or cast) can come in. These are used to define the shape of your shoe compared to your real feet, acting as an object that you can build the design around. They can also be a good way of seeing how certain design elements will work on a 3D model before committing to cutting the material or adding any stitching, making it much easier to avoid problems with piecing everything together.
You can either make your own last or buy a pre-made last, and either will work well. If you want to create your own last, you will have to cast it yourself: this can be good for getting a fit that perfectly matches your feet, but it also takes more time and money.
Creating a last is no different from casting any other shape: you need a mold material, a casting material, and a box to create the mold in. For example, if you use alginate, you can mix it with water and stick your feet into an alginate-filled box until it turns into a tough jelly. This creates the very base of your last, at which point you can carefully remove your feet and leave behind a simple mold.
Creating the Last
When your mold is ready, you need to use the empty space as a way of casting the last itself. This can be done with fairly cheap casting material: you just have to pour it into the hole and slosh the mixture around so that it gets into every crevice. When that is done, leave it to harden, and you will eventually be able to pull out the finished last from the alginate outer layer.
Note that you will want to make one of each foot if you are making a pair for actual use, rather than just as a test or display item. It is also recommended that you use masking tape to cover up the finished last, giving you a surface to draw on. You can re-use the shape later if you are making more shoes, so don’t worry about having to remake the same last over and over again each time you want to create something new.
If you don’t want to create a last of your own, you can buy pre-made ones from various shoemakers or online stores. They aren’t usually very expensive and can generally be used multiple times in a row, so this can be a good way to save time if you want to make one or two new shoes without the hassle of creating your own casts. Remember that homemade lasts are cast from your feet: if you want to make something of a different size, you will either have to cast somebody else’s foot or buy a last online.
Step 4: Marking Out Your Patterns
“Pattern” doesn’t necessarily refer to a style choice when it comes to boots and shoes. Instead, the various pattern parts used in your footwear are more like the different layers of materials being used: for example, you might desire an extra leather pattern over the top of the upper section. Each pattern or extra component you add needs to be made separately, then combined together in the right order. Boots with exterior toe protection layers will need to have those pieces added last, etc.
A basic shoe has four distinct pattern parts that make up the rest of the item. These aren’t the only pieces that you can add, but they are the ones that generally need to be included for a shoe to hold together and feel properly comfortable. These four pattern parts include:
- The Toe: the very front of the shoe, and the part that often gets reinforced more than others. This pattern will usually be an extra layer that specifically covers the toes and the very front of the feet, but designs can vary.
- The Vamp: This is the central front piece of the upper section, acting as the ‘plate’ that goes over the front sections of the foot without stretching over all of the toe area. In some designs, the toe and vamp parts overlap or even blend into one another. However, the vamp can also extend higher over the laces, especially in big boots.
- The Counter: also called the heel counter, which obviously covers the back of the heel. This can also sometimes include the topline, which is the rim of the shoe’s mouth. In some designs, the vamp and counter might connect, but not always.
- The miscellaneous middle section: if the vamp and counter don’t connect, then there is a space in-between that acts as a separate pattern. This doesn’t usually have a defined name since it could connect to most other areas of the shoe. There still needs to be something here, but your design may make it as simple as a flat layer of leather.
Take whatever measurements you can, mark out these patterns on the taped-up last, and then try to mark the same areas on whatever materials you are working with. In most cases, this will be something like leather, so do your best to mark the inside with outlines of where you would have to cut. Try to go for slightly more material than you actually need: this makes it easier to add stitching later, and you can cut off excess materials.
Step 5: Cutting and Preparing Your Patterns
When you are ready to start adding pattern materials, you need to remove them from the original material. Carefully cut them out from whatever they are made with, and be sure to cut outside the lines rather than inside so that you don’t end up with gaps. Ideally, try to have at least an extra inch of material in key areas if possible, since this will let you attach each upper piece together properly. A knife or scalpel can make this much simpler than if you used scissors.
Once you have everything cut out, it is time to get stitching. While you might think that applying your pieces to a pair of shoes directly can be the easiest way, it can usually be easier to build the upper first and glue it on later. If you are already at least competent at stitching, then this shouldn’t be a problem, but take your time and make sure that everything is correct before moving on to the next piece.
Also, make sure that you are stitching close to the edges of each fabric piece: as mentioned earlier, an overlap can be a good thing, but a loose overlap can look untidy. Leather might make stitching harder since it is a much thicker material, but punching some holes in ahead of time can solve this problem. This would also be a good time to add eyelets so that your laces have somewhere to go: if you don’t feel confident in trying to cut them yourself, use a proper eyelet tool or a similar piece of gear.
Step 6: Assembling the Sole
This step works under the assumption that you are making your own sole. If you have already bought one, ignore it.
When you have a sole material ready, whether its cork, leather or something else entirely, you will need to sketch it out in the same way as the patterns. Use your last as a reference and try to create something slightly larger than the base of your foot, adding more layers of material if you prefer a thicker sole design. You can superglue multiple sheets of cork together to get a thick sole without the risk of them being cut at different sizes. A defined heel can also be made by adding an extra layer to the rear of the shoe, but not the front.
There isn’t that much else to do with the sole, but it might help to try resting your foot on the material to see how it feels. If it seems too soft or doesn’t offer very good support, then you might have a problem, especially if this pair of shoes are meant for hiking and other tough activities.
Step 7: Assembling the Full Shoe
Once the stitching is finished, and your sole has been cut into the right shape, you are usually ready to begin assembling the shoes. To start, it is usually best to glue on the sole first – you can do this with shoe adhesive, although some materials will allow stitching as normal. This glue also provides more waterproofing, and can usually last longer than any other attachment method. Use the last as a reference, and it is usually recommended to build the shoe around the last, if possible. Since it was molded from your feet, it should fit fairly easily, but be careful to avoid gluing the materials to the lasts directly.
With the sole in place, start stitching and gluing your other pieces in place. Each shoe design will be slightly different, and it is up to the shoes maker to decide how the stitches can be applied. Make sure that your pieces connect properly together and make a complete shoe body. Otherwise, you might have to make new pieces to fill in the gaps. If you were planning on adding any special treads, you could do this at any point, but it makes sense to do it before the rest of the design is finished.
This is also a good time to make any decorative stitch patterns you find interesting. Once the shoes are fully constructed, you might not get another chance. If you decided to make a tongue, add that too: you can technically add it later on, but the process is easiest right now. The same can be said for any insoles or padded layers, either bought or built from scratch.
After you complete the two shoes (or one shoe, if you decided to only make one as a test), trim off any excess material. Leather, fabric, and any other materials should be removed in areas where they don’t need to be. If this leaves behind any seams (such as between two leather pieces), you can stitch on patches or other elements to cover them up, but make sure that you aren’t ruining the design by doing so.
It is usually a good idea to let your shoes dry and settle before doing anything else, especially with slow-drying glue. However, depending on exactly how they were constructed, you might be able to move on straight away.
Step 8: Finishing Your New Shoes
When the physical design of your shoes is finished, you have technically managed to make your first pieces of homemade footwear! However, that doesn’t mean that you are completely finished. First of all, make sure to seal your shoes with whatever sealant works best: this can add waterproofing, extra protection, and sometimes even extra insulation. Even materials like leather can benefit from waterproofing, especially leather that might not be that resistant to water in the first place.
Aside from that, you also have a chance to make your shoes personal by diving into your decorative side. There isn’t going to be a step-by-step guide for this since no two people will create the same pair of shoe designs. For example, you might prefer using leather paint to color in certain sections, whereas another person might like making small changes through extra attachments or printed details.
Whatever you decide to do, there are plenty of resources out there for making almost any shoe design or style you like! Be as inventive as you need to be: you can add anything from a pair of leather logos on the front to a set of fake spurs on your heels. It is difficult to ruin your shoes now that they are fully-formed, so don’t hold back from making small aesthetic changes.
Step 9: Try Out Your Shoes!
Like all good shoe owners, you should try out your creations in a comfortable and controlled environment with a lot of different surfaces. Around the home, on a short walk, in your garden, wherever you are likely to use them. Unlike a shoe bought from a store, you have great knowledge of how these shoes were designed and what materials went into them, so you can usually identify any issues that might come up during testing.
For example, if your heel feels rough, you should add more padding. If the insole isn’t very cushioned, a softer replacement or another layer might be needed. Even if you run into a problem that can’t easily be fixed without tearing apart the whole shoe, you can always use a flawed pair as a learning experience for your next attempt!
Make sure to test out your shoes in water, too. Many people forget to do this, even with store-bought shoes, and rain can be the biggest problem your feet will face if you aren’t prepared. Walking through a puddle works, but if there aren’t any around, you could even try wearing them in the shower on a low setting. If that is too much of a hassle, then waiting for natural rain can be the simplest route.
Step 10: Upgrade!
Congratulations on creating your first pair of shoes! All of that sewing, hand-stitched material connecting, gluing, cutting, and planning have paid off. However, unless you were really lucky, there will usually still be quite a lot that you can learn. If you aren’t completely satisfied with your shoes, then try to figure out why! It might be something as small as the heel being too raised, but any notes you can write down will go a long way towards helping you in future attempts.
Now that you have conquered the art of shoemaking, you can step out of your comfort zone and alter your design to create something even better. Maybe you will change the type of leather you use, or try to create a more defined heel that matches the way you prefer to walk compared to the heel you used for this first pair. Even if you can’t make adjustments to the shoes you have just finished, they are an excellent starting point to judge what sort of improvements might be needed.
With a new set of shoes ready to wear, you have the opportunity to make something for yourself rather than for your feet. You could try some leather sandals next, or create shoes with uppers that specifically match your favorite outfit and color. Whatever you decide to create next, you will be able to get a further understanding of shoemaking and the different ways that you can approach each design. Even if you make something that you wouldn’t be caught dead wearing, they can still be a useful practice session and a good learning experience.