Just some thoughts...

This off topic area is a place where, while you are visiting the Crispin Colloquy, you can talk about beer, whiskey, kilts, the latest WWII re-enactment, BBQ, grandsons, shoes in the media, and even the odd meandering essay on "why we make shoes."
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Just some thoughts...

#1 Post by dw » Mon Aug 07, 2006 7:00 am

The following is an exerpt from the last chapter of my new book. I post it here just to see how people will react and to perhaps illustrate what this topic "Rants, Rationales, and Suppositions" is supposed to be all about. It is long and, I hope thought provoking. Be warned! Image

Historically, bootmakers, as a class, have tended to be thoughtful and deliberate individuals. It is not a Trade for the timid. Or the easily frustrated. Nor is it a Trade that lends itself well to the impulse to “run on automatic,” either. There are so many variables...in the leather, in the the foot...that only by being fully engaged at all times can the work be taken beyond the mundane.

Eventually, anyone making boots has to ask him or herself why they do it; why, in an age of computers and nanotechnology and the nearly culture-wide expectation of “instant gratification,” pursuing a vocation that has roots and traditions and essential skills that go back literally centuries—a process that can never be made “fast,” only faster...and then, objectively, at the expense of quality—why this might seem like a viable career option.

Why do we make boots? And for whom? My answer is that we make boots for ourselves. Not for the customer, although he is, and ought to be, an important factor...but that’s all he is—a “factor’, no more important than the leather we use or the tools we handle. Not for our peers although they, their opinions, and their work surely influence and guide us as we begin. Not even for the “Elder Boot Gods” (as I somewhat humourously but deeply respectfully, refer to the masters of the past) although, for me at least, that comes closer to being a good reason than any other.

Nor do we make boots for the money...although there may be some who know, or have, no other way...simply because any hard, realistic analysis of the Trade as it is in the early 21st century, has to generate the certain knowledge that there are other easier, less demanding, less frustratng ways to earn a living.

So, why do we make boots? This is a question I’ve been asking and thinking about for over 35 years. And it’s important...it isn’t just some philosophical puff of hot air or an excuse to contemplate the navel of the universe. The answer is critical, central, to the choices we make as makers.

I am fond of saying that a person has to choose: to make boots or to make money, because in some fundamental sense one cannot do both. It is easy to misinterpret this statement. On the face of it, it is almost shocking to those who do not think it through. But the simple fact is that in any endeavor there must be a focus.

If we choose to make money...if that is the underlaying motive...every decision that we make will revolve around that objective. “Cutting costs” becomes the order of the day. Buying cheaper leathers, employing faster (but not better) techniques and materials, ignoring the little, “fussy” details, are all viable considerations to maximize monetary returns.

Perhaps there is nothing wrong with this approach, although it is certainly not the author’s cup of tea. But it is something other than bootmaking for the very simple reason that the focus is on the money, not the boots.

If we choose to make boots, a whole other set of choices not only present themselves, but become almost mandatory. A bootmaker is always searching for better leathers...better tannages, better finishes, longer wear...and price cannot be a consideration. A bootmaker will always be open to new materials and new techniques (or ways to improve upon old ones)_--not to speed up the process or to make a difficult job easier, but for the simple and sole reason of improving quality and wear and fit and beauty. Sometimes that even means going back to older, time honoured, techniques that require a level of skill and mastery that do not come easily or quickly.

Those who find themselves troubled or taken aback by the idea that one must choose between making money and making boots, miss the the point: it’s not about whether we can make a living making boots (we can...although it may be a thin living) or whether one can make a decent boot while focusing on the “bottom line.” Rather, it is about what we hope to achieve.

And, perhaps most confounding of all, is the simple, yet seemingly contradictory fact that choosing to “ignore” the money issues in favour of quality issues, often yields the largest financial rewards.

As “bespoke’ makers, the worst thing we can do is to try to compete—at any level— with factories. Those who do so, are nearly forced to adopt the very same philosophies and techniques that factories use (perhaps with some inconsequential modification for scale). Unfortunately, however, it is a common model that many people eagerly embrace (in many aspects of life) without much thought...simply because Trades such as bootmaking are so rare that the alternatives are almost unknown.

But as “bespoke” makers, the most lucrative and the surest path to success—at any level...financial or artistic—is to create a product that is uncommon. That’s the cache—the “hook”—that will open any niche market such as custom bootmaking. The best materials and the best workmanship will always command a greater interest and a higher dollar than the commonplace or the mediocre. Yes, it takes time...and dedication...and probably some judicious PR. But a select clientele is infinitely better and more reliable (for repeat business) than a client base that is constantly looking to “upgrade.” Achieving a reputation for unstinting quality, attention to detail, best quality materials, is the key—the one certain path—to commanding both greater respect and higher prices...prices commensurate with the actual effort and skill involved.

And there is yet another, “hidden” consideration: the only way a maker gains the skill and ability to successfully undertake complicated and difficult techniques is to do the job for the “learning” experience—in the absence of any consideration about money.
If a maker cannot show examples of such work, he will not get many orders for it. If he has no commissions, he will never learn to do the work...at least not well. If he cannot display a certain mastery, he can never...at least not with integrity...ask a price that will compensate him for the time and skill he brings to the task. And so it goes...it’s a vicious circle.

It is perhaps only because we are the product of an affluent and privileged society (relative to earlier times) that we have the luxury to contempate such matters. None of us have been sold into indenture, or apprenticed into a Trade chosen by our parents or patrons. In an earlier time, being a “bootmaker” was a job—a means of survival—not a career, and the “Master” was the owner of the production facilities—the shop—not necessarily even a qualified maker, at all.

Most of us chose our “careers,” and the the course of our lives, to one extent or the other. In doing so we are the beneficiaries of a freedom greater than all but the most privileged of our ancestors enjoyed. Recognizing this fact is a blessing in and of itself and a recognition that further frees us to pursue our choices to whatever heights and ends we desire. In that context, competiton with factories is not just unneccessary it is downright foolish. In that context, catering to the every whim of a customer, even when such whims run contrary to what we know is “do-able” or advisable...perhaps to the detriment of the quality of our work or even our reputations...is short-sighted, at best. In that context, even the competition among other bootmakers—to be the “best”—seems somehow trivial.

In that context, the only rationale to make boots that stands the test of time, the market, and which justifies the choices we make, is love of the form, the “pursuit of excellence,” and the challenge to one’s own internal sense of beauty and refinement.

There is a certain satisfaction—a feeling of “wholeness,” of ”peace,” even—that comes from immersing oneself in a process that is both complicated and difficult to master. There is a certain satisfaction in challenging oneself...each and every day...to do better, to go beyond the boundaries of yesterday without dismissing the past nor the wisdom to be found there.

And sometimes...when we’re least expecting it...we lose ourselves so completely in the work that when we look up we find we’ve been tapping into “something greater than ourselves,” some wellspring of creativity not wholly our own. And often, we find that until that moment, we weren’t really capable of doing what we’ve just done.

That alone is worth the price of admission...and reason enough to make boots (or shoes).


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(Message edited by dw on August 07, 2006)

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Re: Just some thoughts...

#2 Post by sorrell » Mon Aug 07, 2006 8:06 am

DW,
I enjoyed the exerpt from your book. Bootmaking is a fascinating craft. People always ask, "How did you get into this trade?" You've explored the question no one ever asks: "Why did you get into this trade?"

I do have to disagree with a very basic premise that part of your discourse revolves around. (Perhaps you knew I would!)

"If we choose to make money...if that is the underlaying motive...every decision that we make will revolve around that objective. “Cutting costs” becomes the order of the day."

I am becoming more and more convinced that there IS another option. What if we worked on educating the public and had the confidence to charge for the highly skilled work that we do and the high-quality leathers that we choose to use?

I had the opportunity over the weekend to look at a huge "art" book of Manolo Blahnik shoes. Most of them were sandals with little more than a heel and a couple of narrow straps, yet they cost of hundreds of dollars. They were presented as both art and fashion and there was absolutely no apology for the cost. In the minds of the designer, the photographer and the people who buy and wear the shoes, there was absolutely no question of, "Do they cost too much? Are they worth it?" This is simply how the shoes have been promoted and how they're perceived--it has nothing to do with labor and cost of materials.

Why do we as bootmakers simply accept our fate--that our craft gets no respect and we'll never make any money at it? We deal only in the concrete issues of labor and leather costs, and forget the less visible but ultimately more important factors of marketing and perception.

Lisa

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Re: Just some thoughts...

#3 Post by dw » Mon Aug 07, 2006 11:17 am

Lisa,

Thanks for your reply. I actually agree with you. I've had that very same conversation with every dedicated boot/shoemaker I've ever met--from Jim Bowman years and years ago to the current jefe of the Guild, Dan Freeman, and even Master Saguto hisownself.

I hate to say this but I think part of the problem is what I said in my excerpt---namely that on some level we all buy into the paradigm of the factory. And it's so pervasive in our lives and our culture that it affects us in ways, and in arenas of our lives, that we don't even consciously acknowledge.

We set our prices somewhat above what the going rate for "off-the-shelf" footwear costs but, on some level, we still keep an anxious eye on "what the market will bear." I do this. I don't know any boot or shoemaker that does not. And what the market will bear is mostly tuned to the "lowest common denominator" simply because that's what the level of education is (about any Trade not just bootmaking) and what the masses are willing to pay for.

Why do we do this? I think it is because we live in a consumer driven society. There is a rather unpopular cliche that goes something to the effect that "Americans know the cost of everything and the value of nothing." There is a grain truth in this (at the very least) and it is what not only keeps our prices down but allows mediocre craftsmen and mediocre products (maybe even mediocre thinkers) to flourish.

At some level however, what Blahnik is selling is PR. Status. Popularity. And I am not interested in going that route either. I don't think it is a good reason to make shoes or boots nor is it strictly speaking "shoemaking"...as I would define it. More like "celebrity making." His own celebrity if no other. And that's one way to exploit a niche. But it's not shoemaking...in fact, I have even money he, himself doesn't do much if any of the work. I may be wrong,but that's certainly the MO of other celebrity makers.

BTW, I edited my post to include a paragraph that I had buzzing around in my head but wouldn't originally come out....regarding doing difficult work such as inlays and such. If you read the post online you probably got it but it was an interesting point that fits nicely into the overall theme.

Again, thanks for your remarks...I guess it's no secret, I actually enjoy this kind of discourse.

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Re: Just some thoughts...

#4 Post by firefly » Mon Aug 07, 2006 12:28 pm

Isn't this just great. Where in the world are you going to find two people at the top of their craft exchanging discourse on why they do what they do?

I cannot really weigh in on this subject since I do not "make a living" making boots, but I am not really sure that was the question anyway.

For me there is making money and passion, they are two seperate things. If you snuck a peak at my bank account you would realize that I don't have a passion for making money.

I do think that folks buy "image" and "celebrity". If someone wants to pay money for that I don't see anything wrong with that. You are not lying, cheating or stealing. After all, the money is going to go in someone's pocket, why shouldn't it be yours.

I wholeheartedly agree with your comment, Lisa, about educating the public. That is not to say that you are suggesting that you create a celebrity buzz around what you do but let the public know what the value is in what you do and produce.

So why am I so attracted to boot making? I have to learn to sew, sharpen knives and a mutiplicity of things that I have never done before. It is humbling to say the least, but to me there is just nothing in this world sexier than a pair of boots. They stand tall above any other footware with a grace and majesty all their own. The boot's history is rich. It has been worn by kings and warriors and was the foundation for the cowboys and frontiersmen who settled the West. The boot defined the heros that I grew up with...Hop A Long Cassidy, The Sisco Kid, Roy Rogers and John Wayne. Boots have always been a part of my life and have somewhat defined who I am.

I have always loved boots and the Cowboy way of life. I just want to learn to build with my hands what I have learned to love all of my life.

Thanks for letting me lend my two cents here.

Mark

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Re: Just some thoughts...

#5 Post by dw » Tue Aug 08, 2006 7:17 am

Just some further musings prompted by your collective remarks....

Someone...it wasn't Dorothy Parker...once said "you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink." And unfortunately that's the problem with the whole "education" concept.

Personally, I'm all for educating the public...if only because it is a small but insidious force to undermine the "factory mentality" I often refer to. The HCC is a 501 C-3 non-profit educational organization. The Crispin Colloquy was created to preserve and educate. I've written some things that aim to educate. But someone...perhaps an Eastern mystic...once told me long ago that "you cannot teach someone until they are ready to learn."

With our best efforts, we cannot make our fellow human beings look at or think about issues that do not directly concern them. Even those who come to us to make shoes for them are often ignorant...willfully ignorant...of what it takes with regard to time and skill. And of those who seek us out because they appreciate the workmanship and the dedication, even fewer will lean forward to listen intently when we start talking about "negative space" or "toe spring."

Where does that leaves us? For myself...I believe. In the face of that certain knowledge, I still believe that it is worthwhile to educate and I will do so with a single-mindedness right up to the point where it gets through my thick head that their eyes are glazing over. To do less is to surrender to a demonstrably self-destructive cynicism.

But short of celebrity, it leaves us at the mercy of that same ignorance...market-wise. If the public perception...the general consensus...is that a $200.00 Justin is a "top shelf," high end boot, then it will be very hard "re-educate" enough people to not only make our product more universally attractive but attractive at a relatively outrageous price.

But that said, the fact that so many of our customers, as well as the general public, would prefer to remain ignorant underscores the central reason for making boots that I offered above: we make boots for ourselves. We must. To rely on others or outside influences is asking to be disappointed.



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Re: Just some thoughts...

#6 Post by bjohnsonleather » Tue Aug 08, 2006 12:29 pm

DW,
All I can say is...Wow! This is as great a piece of philosophy as to why we do what we do as I have ever read.
I am going to dig back a bit. I grew up in a livestock family - cattleman and feeders, showed horses, worked for trainers, roped, rode roughstock poorly, and went to vet school. After graduation I moved out here to a practice in CA, and ended up spending free time with Bob Scott, who had a saddle shop in Clements. Before Bob sold out to Rick Ricotti, he taught me to handsew, basket stamp, and fix my own torn up stuff. Spent a lot of time watching them put together saddles. Continued on casually doing my own repairs, but nothing to speak of. Broke my pelvis several years ago in a "bucked back into the saddle" incident, and had about 3 months of nothing to do. Wandered into a Tandy store and took a class. I tooled arguably one of the world's ugliest floral coasters. Kind of a challenge and kept at it. At some point, I got more serious. I bought better tools, and subscribed to an upstart magazine that was catering to leathercrafters at the time. My tooling was slightly improving, but I was no threat to anyone making money. I had no interest in making boots, but there was a series of articles on bootmaking by some guy from Oregon. (told you I was digging back). He was talking about aesthetics a lot, tradition, lines, geometry, flow, and more tradition. There was a section on pull holes - "if they don't look "round", they aren't. Train yourself to see where the circle is not round". The writer seemed wise and experienced, and I generally seek out advice from such. I started following that advice, and looking at my work with a much more critical eye. Instant improvement, and a lot of trashed leather. Thank you for that advice back then, my friend. My work is still improving, but there is less trash. Quick sidebar - I was making tooled inlays for oak magazine racks. One particularly well-tooled one had shrunk up about 1/8" all the way around. Efforts to rewet and stretch were distorting the tooling slightly. My wife said it looked OK, nobody would notice. I remarked that DW wouldn't put an inlay on a boot that wasn't just right. Of course her response was , "Who's DW?". LOL. Redid the inlay, and the next rack I got was 1/8" shorter all the way around. The shrunken one fit as perfect as a DW inlay.
I am still practicing (small animals now - no emergencies), riding better broke horses, and my leather business is as serious as anybody's. Maybe not the volume of some, but the quality and improvement are there. Currently I am making everything from business card wallets to saddles. I vowed I would never make saddles. I told someone I have to sit in 20 to find one that I like. I would make 19 duds before I made a good sitting one. Unfortunately his response was all I needed to do was to sit in some wet leather, and then whittle until it felt right. A lot of saddles done since then, and I don't have to sit in as much wet leather. I told a guy in Sheridan this spring that I would never make boots - I have to try on too many to find a pair that fits. I am probably going to have to back up on that statement sometime too.
I took a saddle course in Sheridan in May. Al Gould's advice was that "pros learn from other pros". Don Butler's mantra was "pay attention to details, don't weaken now!" Don also said he doesn't build a saddle for the customer, he builds it for his own satisfaction and to out-do the guys "down the street". Of course the guys down his street are a higher caliber than most streets. I got home and started seeking out other forums and lists than I was on. I ran across the HCC and recognized some familiar names from another group. Paul Krause said I needed to be here, I would learn a lot from a guy named Jake and another named DW. He's right, and there's a bunch more too. Today's posts from DW and Lisa Sorrell is proof enough of that. Thanks.

Bruce Johnson

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Re: Just some thoughts...

#7 Post by dw » Tue Aug 08, 2006 4:56 pm

Bruce,

That does go a ways back. Sure do appreciate your comments, however.

There is a concept in design that I have been aware of for longer than I knew its name--it is the "fair curve." It is important in areospace design and nautical engineering and, of course, in any esthetic endeavor. In fact, I first became aware of the name in woodturning circles/forums.

The "fair curve" can be described as a "pure" curve...one without flat spots or "corners." A truly round circle is, of course, a perfect example. But an oval may also be a fair curve...as well as any ellipsoid. And I would think that a mathematically true sine wave would be yet another. We can see a fair curve if we take a bead chain and drape it between two points. The chain can drape more or less but the arc it describes will be a fair curve.

Not all lines are, or need to be, curves. Some lines are straight. But when a curve is intended, the eye wants to see a fair curve. Even if we don't know it, subconsciously our appreciation for any line is diminished when a fair curve is expected and it is not there--when a flat spot or an abrupt change of direction, no matter how minute, is present.

We make boots (or shoes) in pieces but we have to learn to see, and more importantly think about, the "gestalt." We have to understand that those pieces form a larger thing and that in order to achieve harmony or even beauty, they must...they will, whether we like it or not...merge and work together to generate something that is more than the sum of its pieces--the gestalt.

When a mistake is made...in form, in technique, whatever...it is, by itself and in the larger scheme of things, probably inconsequential. A "flat spot" on a curve may be noticed on some visceral level but not really register at the conscious level. But, at some deep level in the brain, guaranteed, it is noticed. And we all make such mistakes.

There is a point when enough of these tiny, easy-to-wave-off, mis-judgments, mistakes form a "critical mass," if you will. And suddenly, without conscious effort, and almost in defiance of logic, they overwhelm our senses and the overall picture--the sum of all the parts--will be seen as ugly. No other way to say it.

Understanding this--recognizing the "gestalt"--is one, critical, must-happen-sometime, way to take your work to the next level.

Learning to use and trust your eye and your gut feeling about design elements...or even technical elements...is a critical tool, perhaps the most important tool in your kit.

It's true...if it doesn't look round, if it doesn't "feel" round....you may not know how or why or even where it is out of round, but chances are it isn't round.

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Re: Just some thoughts...

#8 Post by sorrell » Thu Aug 10, 2006 1:40 pm

DW,
I've been pondering your explanation of a "fair curve" since you posted it. It makes so much sense. I think from now on I'll always think of my mistakes as "flat spots."

I WAS going to point out that we try not to build boots based on how factories build them, but unfortunately we use factories boots as a sort of guide for pricing. But you beat me to it.

I had a thought the other day: If we could ignore all external factors we know or think we know about what people will pay, and just priced our boots based on our own overhead, leather costs and labor, what price would we charge? Try thinking about it. It's completely different than how we're accustomed to thinking about pricing and it's a fun exercise if nothing else.

This is one reason I admire the TCAA. Lots of people have lots of different opinions about that organization. But it impresses me that they were able to step outside of that box and consider pricing levels that are not based on "what everyone else charges."

Lisa

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Re: Just some thoughts...

#9 Post by dw » Thu Aug 10, 2006 5:53 pm

Lisa,

I always enjoy your posts...you always have something interesting to say.

If I could charge what I think I am worth...I'd charge like I was a doctor and by the hour. So what would that come to? $250.00 an hour? Yes!!

But this raises the old ugly problems again...I doubt I'd have very many takers at that price...at least not in my area. Maybe San Franscisco...in fact, if I lived in SF, I'd double or even triple my prices immediately. The point is that we are all at the mercy of market forces. You can raise your prices but you will lose customers. I guess there may be a balancing point, where the loss of customers is made up by the increase in price. That's all to the good of course, better wages for the work. But you will always be pricing someone out at any price point.

Of course, the limiting factor is really the way that people in your area perceive value. And that raises the other issue--what standard of quality people are willing to pay for and how we educate the public about quality. I'm still thinking about that. But it seems to me that before any campaign of education can be undertaken ...some sort of standard of quality has to be established...and agreed upon within the Trade.. And I don't think it is do-able.

For me, knowing what I know and having seen what I've seen, the late 19th and early 20th century were the heyday of boot and shoemaking. There weren't any factories to speak of and people valued quality...even if it was only a hangover from an earlier, more innocent era. There was a shoemaker/bootmaker in every town and sometimes four or five They all competed with each other for the "quality" dollar--that's what they sold...or they went out of business.

The standards set during that time...which come down to us via historical examples, word of mouth ("my grandad had a pair of boots..." ), and the few books that were written...were so valid that we are still riding on them today. In fact, the factories are still riding on them...molded vinyl outsoles with fake stitching are but one example.

Of course not everyone agrees with my idea of what a boot should look like even if I can point to older boots to underscore my point. Not everyone agrees that the 19th century was the heyday. I can't imagine what time period a dissenter from that view might point to, but I for one would have a hard time "educating" the public by pointing out that in an earlier time boots were made with leather toe boxes that were shaped by hand and held up for decades but now (thanks to the influence of mass manufacturing) we use synthetic toes boxes not significantly different from plastic. I'd have a hard time saying that and trying to convince my customer that what we were offering was better...or a step forward. The same is true of using fiberboard for heel stacks or shank cottages, or nails instead of wooden pegs, or pre-made top bead instead of hand-made. Inseaming with Nyltex instead of a waxed end. Channeled insoles versus gemming. And so it goes. Those may be viable options for some but I don't think that everyone would agree that they represent a step forward in quality. Or that they present a universal standard of quality. So how do we educate?

Once upon a time, children were taught to do math using multiplication tables and long division; once upon a time, children were taught to read and spell and write and talk using proper grammar. Nowadays, even in the age of the computer, illiteracy is rampant even among high school graduates and no one can add up their grocery bill for two items without a calculator. Have things gone forward? The real difference is that it use to take some degree of engagement...an engaged brain...to do these things. And the skills that developed leaked over to the way we perceived value...and even the way we dealt with each other. Like custom boots people were more complex and more interesting. Maybe I'm being romantic, but from my point of view, like custom boots, people weren't vacuous clones of a rather superficial "factory" standard.

But having said all that...what would you charge for your boots if you could charge whatever you wanted? [And I think it is fair to add a certain percentage for your reputation and the cache that attaches to a pair of Sorrel boots. After all there is nothing wrong with charging for celebrity (up to a point) as long as you actually walk the walk. ]

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(Message edited by dw on August 10, 2006)

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Re: Just some thoughts...

#10 Post by sorrell » Thu Aug 10, 2006 7:25 pm

DW,
I enjoy debating this subject too!

The first thing that struck me about what you said was your reference to where a bootmaker lived or what people in their area will pay. Maybe I'm weird, but I just don't think about that at all. Few of my customers come from my area. I try to price my boots to reach the customers I wish to make boots for. Where I live and where they do doesn't really factor in. Of course, I think a lot of my business is based on the fact that when I got into bootmaking I was too dumb to know what absolutely wouldn't work so I did all the wrong things and sometimes that worked for me!

You're right--there's definitely a point at which educating the public is no longer useful. They don't need to be told every single little detail of what makes a custom built boot better. Their eyes start glazing over after a while. I know, because I'll bore people to death given the chance.

I guess I'd just like to see more confidence in general among bootmakers. We invest YEARS of our time learning this trade, hundreds and thousands of dollars in shops, machinery and leather, blood sweat and tears in labor, we make a really beautiful and worthwhile product, and then we're afraid to charge for our time. There's a lot of room between $250 an hour and minimum wage, which is what far too many bootmakers are working for.

Some sort of guild system could provide a standard of quality, as well rating skill levels and setting pricing structures. But I'm too independent to be in favor of it and I can't see it ever happening.

Lisa

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Re: Just some thoughts...

#11 Post by dw » Thu Aug 10, 2006 8:13 pm

Lisa,

Well, there's another old saying that I've always been fond of..."price your work low and the public will value it low."

The thing about location is that most of the folks in my area...even the doctors and lawyers and such, aren't used to paying Silicon Valley prices here. Yes, it's true for me as well: many if not most of my customers are from out of the area. And as the years have gone by, my prices have soared to reflect that fact.

But there's another issue for me...and here I may be the weird one...I love making boots. I'd do it for less than I currently make...for minimum wage if no one depended upon me.

But beyond that, I have always believed in walking lightly on the earth (well, as lightly as I can). I am not acquisitive...at least not just for the sake of owning more toys. I deeply believe that if you have "enough"...if you have what you "need"...that's all a person can, or should, ask. That's a foreign concept for many people in this country--"enough."

In my area I make a decent living--I own my own home, my own shop building and I am about a debt-free as you can get (talk to me after the re-roofing and re-siding in September--half the original price I paid for the house...although we think we'll pay it out of pocket). I have "enough" and the boot business provides me with it. Now if I were in SanFran, well again... Image

And no, customers don't need to be told every detail, but not only should a bootmaker be ready (and open enough) to proudly proclaim every nuance if asked, but for me at least, even if the customer doesn't need to know, I do.

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Re: Just some thoughts...

#12 Post by dw » Thu Aug 10, 2006 8:42 pm

Lisa,

BTW...and really neither here nor there except in reference to being weird...I got into the tub thinking about this whole subject and got out hearing Mick Jagger in my head singing "you can't always get what you wan-ant, you can't alawys get what you wa-annnt, but if you try sometime you just might find, you get what you need!"

I guess we're all a product of our times and places.

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Re: Just some thoughts...

#13 Post by sorrell » Fri Aug 11, 2006 8:12 am

DW,
Ah, but here's my question (and you really don't have to answer). Did you buy the house and the shop and achieve your debt-free status with ONLY your bootbuilding income?

I grew up shopping at Wal-Mart and buying things on credit like most everyone else. It sounds like my idea of wealth and comfort is about the same as yours. I'm not wanting or expecting yachts, private islands or huge shopping sprees. I want to be able to pay my bills and own a few necessary things like a house by the time I retire.

I know I'm always out here on the front line arguing about money, so I guess it can appear that I'm obsessed with it. (I'm not saying you're accusing me of it, just acknowledging how it must appear.) But I LOVE making boots too, and I want others to be able to experience the joys of building boots.

Right now our trade attracts almost exclusively retired people. That's great! I'm thrilled they're getting into it and Lord knows they'll need that retirement income. But for this trade to not only survive but to flourish, it needs to be a viable option for young people to choose. It needs to support young families and house and car payments and groceries.

That's why the money issue is so important. We all love this trade, but regardless of the old saying, love does NOT make the world go 'round. Our day to day living tends to revolve around whether or not we were able to pay the electric bill. We have to demonstrate that we can pay the bills from our bootmaking income to attract younger people into this trade. And young bootmakers are what we need to assure the survival of our craft.

Lisa

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Re: Just some thoughts...

#14 Post by firefly » Fri Aug 11, 2006 8:52 am

I hate to butt in here because I am learning a great deal of the human side of bootmaking which is invaluable, but...I do have some questions concerning the positioning of your talents and skills in the market place.

I may get squashed here for saying this but as an example I have had an inexpensive pair of factory made boots that I have used for very rugged use for several years. Lots of hours on horseback, digging ditches and just general abuse. When the mud gets caked on heavily enough I use a water hose to clean them. For $150 they have held up well and I will not resole them after three years but I will just buy another pair. Their construction would make either of you guys wretch. But the service that I recieve for the price I paid (value) is satisfying to me.

I guess my point here is that the days of bespoke boot makers making boots for the working cowboy seem to have its limitations with all the competition from the factory boot makers. I believe that the more strategic market place is a very small niche (percentage wise) of folks that are willing to pay for the art and celebrity (something very few others have). I think this line of thinking might be reinforced by Lisa's earlier reference to the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association. These are artists in my opinion.

I know that quality is important but when I try to explain to my wife the importance of wood pegs or steel shanks she pats me on my bald head and says "that's nice honey". I see both of you guys much more as unique artists. Your boots should be in galleries not boot shops. They should be worn in board rooms and on movie sets.

There are very few people in this world who have the talent that you have and can do what you do. I think both of you should get an agent. I could see Joan Rivers asking "...and Mr. Pitt, your boots are Sorrell or Frommer?"

DW, I read your post about ART? You are as much an artist as you are a craftsman. Remember Da Vinci was a technician who used that skill to produce some of the greatest art this world has ever known.

This is all very interesting to to see how you perceive what you do from a philisophical perspective.

I know that this is more that two cents. Its more like a buck-and-a-half, but it is Friday.

Thanks for listening.

Mark

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Re: Just some thoughts...

#15 Post by dw » Fri Aug 11, 2006 11:39 am

Lisa
I know I'm always out here on the front line arguing about money, so I guess it can appear that I'm obsessed with it. (I'm not saying you're accusing me of it, just acknowledging how it must appear.) But I LOVE making boots too, and I want others to be able to experience the joys of building boots.


I know you love making boots...it shows in your work.

And as for accusing you--I know what you were saying but...I will say this: I am a critical person. I think that personality trait is near on to being essential to being a good craftsman...of any kind. It is the heart and soul...the mundane expression of the ability to do critical analysis...objectively. I have never met a bootmaker nor examined their work without seeing something that I myself would not do differently. On the other hand, I have never made a pair of boots that I didn't wish I had done differently...never made a pair of boots that I couldn't and didn't find fault with. Again, some would disagree but to me that is a strength not a weakness.

That said, I have never met a bootmaker whose work I wanted to criticize...either in totality or in detail. As a teacher and a writer, I try to lead (if anyone is listening) by example. I talk about my own experiences and my own standards of quality. That's all I can talk knowledgeably about, that's all I really have the right to talk about.

I hope you understand and this and, if need be, make allowances for my eccentricities.

As for the money aspect, I mostly agree with you...at least to the point where such a discussion comes to have real significance even for the "philosophically pristine" side of my nature.

I have never had another job except bootmaking unless you want to count the shoe repair I did right alongside the bootmaking. I survived and paid my bills on time all through those years. Then about six or seven years ago, I was asked to sit on the board of directors for a venture capital firm. It involved roughly 12 days a year, total, traveling to San Francisco, and Santa Fe (all expenses paid) and sitting through a day long meeting listening to discussion about issues that were way beyond my military grade (and my intelligence) and trying to look like I was interested. For those six years I received over $20k per year. It's done now but it did help. I doubt we could have built the shop and apid it off without that income. I know we would never have gone...not once but twice...to the Caribbean.

That said, in all those years I was never tempted, not once, to throw it all over or to expand the scope of the boot business. I did my level best to create a wall of seperation between those seemingly contrary aspects of my life.

In my world, retirement is not an option. Maybe the good Lord has other plans for me than I envision, but I know one thing certain...I wasn't born into this world with a 401k clutched in my tiny mitts. "God doesn't promise us a rose garden." But if we don't make a habit...take every chance possible...of smelling the roses we do come upon, we might as well be wandering in the wilderness.

As for those coming into the business...I have a fair percentage of students that are younger than 40. And a few in their 20's, although the younger ones generally aren't mature enough to appreciate what is before them. But for me at least, the main thing is to not...ever...make bootmaking out to be something one might do in lieu of...say...pumping gas to make a living. Those who come to my school come knowing that they have to have a different reason (a better reason?) to make boots than just the money. I will tell them the names of other teachers if I think they and I won't have somewhat compatible viewpoints in this regard. It's simply a matter of planting in fertile ground.

Anyway, never think that I am criticizing you or look down on you...just the opposite is true. You are one of the people who I look up to.

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Re: Just some thoughts...

#16 Post by 5shot » Fri Aug 11, 2006 12:43 pm

Forgive me if I am sticking my nose where it doesn't belong (especially since I don't yet know how to make a pair of boots), but I do have what might be an insight into this topic.

I make custom holsters, mostly for concealed carry, and each piece is made to the customer's specification, using materials that they choose (in that respect, not much different than boot making, I would guess). Each piece is made by me, and I personally complete each and every step along the way.

When it comes to off the shelf holsters for similar applications, they can be had for about $50.00. My price is about double that, and were this my only source of income, it would be almost 2-1/2 times as much. Custom material like shark, elephant, ostrich, etc push the price up even more. I don't think that I would have any problem keeping busy at the higher prices either. Other makers who have more experience are able to do it, and many of them have very large backlogs for this type of work.

Why?.....Because paying $75.00 more for hand made doesn't hurt as bad as paying $750 more. I think it boils down to Dollar Volume.

I think the work you guys do is incredible and I doubt you will ever get paid what you are worth, unless of course you change your last names to Gucci, Versachi, etc.

My White's work boots were $400.00 - they were put together at the factory in about 2 hours. The salesman told me they put out about 50,000 pairs a year. Still hand made (machine stitched where possible), but little attention to fine details. Some missed stitches here and there, layout marks that are exposed.....They fit great, are comfortable and will last a long time. My next pair of packers will likely be custom however (might even make them myself!). I will still rebuild the White's when they wear out, but I see the benefit of the truly custom boot.

There will probably never be any justice for the one man shop - if you were loaded up with apprentices doing all the grunt work for minimum wage you might have chance.

John

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Re: Just some thoughts...

#17 Post by 5shot » Fri Aug 11, 2006 12:55 pm

One other thing that I meant to ask, just out of curiosity - how long DOES it take to make a pair of boots? Not the tremendous works of art that you two create, but a nice pair of leather boots.

John

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Re: Just some thoughts...

#18 Post by dw » Fri Aug 11, 2006 2:15 pm

Mark,

I think it's a valid point...I make fewer boots for working cowboys now than I did 20 years ago. But I also think that's as much a function of what I have to charge (nevermind what I ought to charge) than anything else. If we are ever going to get what we deserve for our skill and our work, we are nearly going to have to write off the very people who give cowboy boots their authenticity and cache.

You ought to read the poem in "The Conundrum of the Workshops" under this topic. It is probably more expressive of the conflict regarding ART vs. Craft than my remarks.

postscript...everyone is welcome in this discussion, and no one is sticking their nose in or butting in anywhere. I say this with the ponderous authority of one who is "in good with the powers that be." Image

And John...it takes me 40 hours to make a pair of plain boots. Others can make them faster--as you say Whites can make them in two hours...I wonder how long it takes Justin or Acme (are they still in business?)

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Re: Just some thoughts...

#19 Post by dw » Sun Aug 13, 2006 8:03 am

Apropos of our discussion on pricing...

Every year for the past couple, I donate, and get invited to, a big "charity" auction for the High Desert Museum here in Central Oregon.

This year I had a pair of boots in the "live" auction. The "write-up" on the boots clearly stated that this was for a "basic model boot with accelerated scheduling"--in other words, they would get my starting-price, dress boot (the Museum gives me a check for the cost of materials...the rest they keep--I donate the time and labour), and I make them right away instead of the customer having to wait almost 4 years. This was stated again in the announcement before and during the auction.

The boots went for...$4,500.00!

I mention the bit about the way they were billed because the boots the Museum put on display to "illustrate what could be done" were a pair of "Tejas" I built several years ago for Randee (my wife and fellow maker). They are smooth ostrich and kid skin with a hand cut, hand beveled, one-eighth inch in diameter, eight part round braid of four passes along the top scallop. They are good looking boots although I did end up with a small water stain at the side seam (maybe I'm the only one who would notice) The photo was taken with an old style camera and scanned in commercially. When I get the boots back from the museum I will take another photo of them with my digital.

Anyway, the boots were displayed in a glass case in a "pride of place" location at the auction, and displayed on two very large screens, in all their colours. It may very well be that, what with the "free bar" and the general excitement the winning bidder did not fully appreciate that these were not the boot he/she was going to get. that said, I have always felt that "presentation is everything." And this may be a prime example.

Of course, for many the cost is nothing--"chump change" and it is a tax deductible write off for a very good cause. But if we acknowledge that what you can sell a pair of boots for is an accurate reflection of "fair market value," then perhaps a basic, plain Jane pair of custom boots ought to start at $4,500.00...certainly more than I'm charging. Image
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Re: Just some thoughts...

#20 Post by jake » Sun Aug 13, 2006 7:02 pm

Dee-Dubb,

That's GREAT! I remember those boots. They are truly a work of art! I would hate to wear them through the barnyard!

But....I'm like you. Plain-Jane (Basic Model) boots for $4500? I'm not D.W. Frommer, II, but if I got half that.....I might quit my day job.

Anyways, Good for You!

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Re: Just some thoughts...

#21 Post by dw » Fri Jul 06, 2007 4:03 pm

A recent email conversation with a forum member brought to the fore...again...the whole question of celastic toe boxes versus leather toe boxes.

Before I comment further, I would like to say, right up front, that there are some few individuals who I respect very greatly who use and prefer celastic. I disagree with the reasons given to support that choice but it is, and always will be, theirs to make. I have an opinion...of course...but it is only an opinion, and only one man's opinion, at that. If it carries any weight at all, it should be for the logic contained within it and not because of any cache that might be attached to me personally.

So...a few observations...

I was going through an old Goetz catalog the other day and ran across the German/European version of celastic--both the solvent based material and the heat activated. It came in several thicknesses probably similar to, or even heavier, than what those who are its most ardent advocates use. What struck me, however, was that right there, on the same page with the toe stiffening material, was heel stiffeners/counters also made of heavy celastic.

Now, those who prefer celastic can rationalize the use of celastic by saying that it is heavier and stiffer than what is used in the factories. Some even make the claim that it is stiffer than leather and will hold up better than a leather toe box. But if you cut through all the white noise that surrounds this issue, the main reason--often stated bald-facedly--is that it is faster and easier. On the face of it, that's a good enough reason to make any personal choice.

But as a reason for advocacy (for saying it is the best or better than leather) it smacks of expediency, in my opinion. Because, no matter how you cut it, "faster and easier" is just another way of saying that you don't want to be bothered acquiring the skill, taking the time, and using your intelligence to make a leather toe box. Of course, no one wants to openly admit that convenience and "ease" are the real reasons for their choice in this regard...even if that is a perfectly valid reason. So, instead, they offer alternate explanations and cite celastic's strength, thickness, durability...yada, yada, yada.

But once you get down to cases, these very same "alternate" reasons could be, and are (in the factory context), given as reasons for using celastic heel stiffeners. So why are we not also using celastic counters?

Think about it... if you can justify a celastic toe box, then you can justify a celastic heel stiffener...

and, conversely, every reason for not using a celastic heel stiffener is a valid reason for not using a celastic toe stiffener!

Beyond that, I think it is important to bear in mind that virtually every factory shoe or boot being made today (I cannot think of an exception)...especially at the low end of the spectrum...uses celastic toe boxes. And most use some form of celastic or synthetic heel stiffener, as well. But not every custom shoemaker uses celastic (although some do, admittedly)...and most significantly, the really high end shops, in Britain, Germany, and Austria seldom, if ever, do.

Some will tell you that the product they use is not the same as used in the factory boots. "It's heavier..." etc.. But thickness doesn't make it something else. It's is still the same product, regardless of the incidental specifications. I guess we could also use paperboard insoles (maybe that's the next step), and, indeed, there are synthetic insoles available today that are a lot heavier than what is used in the factory, and are, additionally, perspiration and odour resistant, and antibiotic, as well. And "gemming" might be easier than channeling the insole...not to mention finding good insole leather in the first place. It doesn't take a great leap of logic to apply the same rationales used to justify celastic toe boxes, to justify a paperboard insole as well.

I guess it depends upon who and what traditions you want your work to be associated with. Sad to say, the there are segments of the Trade where, apparently, the tradition is rapidly converging with the traditions that prevail in all the little boot factories along the Tex-Mex border (that hire illegals and pay a sub-subsistence wage), as well as the traditions of Taiwan and Korea!.

It's a slippery slope...and like most of them, you never know you're over the edge until you find yourself sliding.


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Re: Just some thoughts...

#22 Post by tmattimore » Sat Jul 07, 2007 5:34 am

Speaking as a fellow who is parsimonious in nature my choice in toe boxes and heel stiffeners has little to do with tradition. When I need them the first place I look is on the floor under the cutting table. I have used celastic on ocasion and find it no easier to work with then scrap leather.
On second thought being thrifty may be in the tradition of the early New England shoemakers.
Tom

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Re: Just some thoughts...

#23 Post by dw » Sat Jul 07, 2007 5:59 am

Tom,

I'm with you. This is something I've never understood. I've seen shoemakers use the very same leather that they were using for vamps...scraps...to make credible toe stiffeners.

We pay for that leather. Each and every square inch. It is doubtful we can recover the cost of every square inch no matter how parsimonious we are but why go out and spend even more for a material that is, at bottom, redundant, if you simply take the time?!

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Re: Just some thoughts...

#24 Post by jss812 » Sat Jul 07, 2007 8:52 am

First, I got no dog in this hunt. I'm not a maker but rather someone who wants to build their own. And, I do not intend to offend.

My own experience suggests that celastic is ok but that is only one data point. I took apart a pair of Laredo boots (some 20 years old) and found celastic. These were worn in barn lots, hay fields, while building fence etc. The leather foot finally wore through. Toe box still sound.

Anyway, to the point. I think y'all's selling points would be you are using all premium materials, all leather (except for thread, shank), individual fit, hand made, traditional methods, etc. Its hard for me to imagine a selling point to be that you are using scraps to build an $800 pair of boots. To me, if it's my money, I don't want to hear about scrap materials, especially when that toe box material cost is pretty insignificant compared to the cost of the boots. In my opinion, economics is not a good arguement.

One might argue that leather toe box materials are better, rebuildable, longer lasting or whatever. I would think y'all are factoring in the total cost of materials while maintaining what you want for your labors. After all, you don't charge the same for domestic leathers as you do for exotics, right?

Anyway, just an opinion from an outsider looking in.

James

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Re: Just some thoughts...

#25 Post by dw » Sat Jul 07, 2007 11:29 am

Jim,

Thanks for your perspective. It's a good one. The fact that you are not a maker both adds something and leaves something missing. So, let me address what I think is your main point....

For instance, your reference to "scraps" is, I think, different than what most of us who are makers might have. When you buy a piece of leather...whether it be top grain upper leather or soling leather, there is theoretically only about 25% of it that is "prime." Now you could make the case that all the rest is scrap. If you cut a pair of boots from a full hide of french calf, as an example, the "prime cuts" go into the vamps. Obviously, you cannot afford to throw the rest away. And, in reality, no one expects you to. So we cut tops from leather that is not "prime."

Of course, if you are buying really top quality in the first pace, the tops come out of leather that is only marginally less than prime. And the back panels come out of the best of that, then the fronts, then the counter covers, pulls and fenders, in that order. But as each piece gets further from the prime, the more it might very well be considered scrap. And things like stays or heel slides or toe bug backing often actually do come right out of the margins of the hide.

So what, in fact, are scraps? Well, let's look at it from another angle. Suppose I cut side welt and top bead from some "extra" kangaroo I have laying around. Is that scrap? If I can't cut vamps or tops from it, it probably is, at least from a maker's point of view.

But wait!! Take it one more step...suppose that after I'm done cutting the side welt and top bead, I see I need a backing for the toe bug. And I also see that I have a piece of that very same kangaroo that has fallen on the floor because I trimmed it off the larger piece while cutting the top bead. Is that scrap? Surely, if anything is scrap, it would be a piece picked up off the floor?!! Yet by every measure, it is good leather, perfectly suited for the purpose.

Now to toe boxes. While the toe box is a critical structural, as well as esthetic, element of the boot...it is not seen. And aside from holding its shape...faithfully...it doesn't need to be as "prime" (if leather) as another piece that is going to be subject to stretching, flexing and the elements (rain, dust, etc.) What's more, it is a relatively small piece and taking it out of the prime area of a hide would be nearly criminal for the simple reason that it could ruin the hide for taking vamps. Being a small piece, taking it out of a small "cut off" that has fallen to the floor--a "scrap," in other words--makes good sense. Logical sense, economical sense, financial sense, and Trade (craft) sense.

And if you make your toe boxes from the margins of a soling bend or from insole shoulders, not only is all of that scrap, but if a certain intelligence is brought to the process of looking at the scrap and determining its density and "quality," toe boxes that are every bit as hard as anything made of plastic or celastic, can be made. In fact, this is part of what I meant about "be(ing) bothered"--acquiring the skill and taking the time--in my original post. More importantly than that however, is that judging good leather from bad (and not every scrap will be good, or good enough) is a critical skill that a good shoe/bootmaker must develop...sometime.

One other point, many bootmakers buy their heel blocks. Aside from being an additional expense that they don't really need to make, they have no control whatsoever as to the quality of the leather lifts that comprise the block. And I am here to tell you that, even from the best supplier, ready made heel blocks are usually built from the worst, most punky, scraps swept off of the cutsole suppliers floor. The heel block makers buy it by the ton.

My final point, is that as a maker, I can assure you that sometimes survival in a business that has it's roots in the 19th century...and often has to operate on 19th century wages and profit margins....is a matter of pennies. It adds up. You are right, it is nothing to spend an extra 3(?) cents on a celastic toe box...although that suggests that you will throw away a perfectly good piece of leather that may have cost you 20 cents....but it adds up and pretty soon you don't have all the 3+3+3+3....pennies that you need to buy a good grade of outsole. And so you compromise and buy a cheaper product. Where's the saving??!

And more importantly, how does that affect your overall quality?

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