Tips for New Shoemakers

Last Updated March 10, 2024

For Who?

This guide is for fellow residents of the USA learning to make leather shoes by European-derived hand methods.

I hope this guide might be useful to others, too. However, tools and materials are very specific to kind of shoes, and what’s obtainable and worth getting varies a lot by market. Shipping from the US-based suppliers I mention below shouldn’t be first choices in other countries.

By Who?

I’m a fellow beginner, learning from study and the odd bit of advice, rather than any apprenticeship or training course. I’m not an expert shoemaker or shoemaker-trainer, but I know what it’s like going through this.


Avoid tool mania.

The United States once led the world leader in industrialized shoemaking. That now-endangered industry leaves behind a huge catalog of specialized tools. Browsing online stores today, you might think each step in shoemaking takes its own, specialized tool.

You don’t need all those tools. Probably the most expensive mistake you can make is throwing your budget at tools, just because they’re for sale.

Working in a factory a hundred years ago, your job might have been doing exactly one operation, over and over again, day after day. Cutting outsole blanks. Trimming heel stacks. Channeling insoles. You and ten other people may have had the same job in the same factory. Thousands of workers across hundreds of factories nationwide led tool companies to make tools specific to your job, to do that step as efficiently as possible. It was worth it for the companies to buy those tools by the boxful.

There is a specialized tool called a “channel knife” or “feather plough”, just for cutting down the outside edge of an insole for handwelt inseam stitching. These cost $100 or more new today. But meanwhile, great custom shoemakers have cut their insoles freehand, with their utility knives, for generations. Others have the tool, or ten of them. But you evidently don’t need one to make shoes, even great ones.

Keep sharp.

It will usually be far more important to have a sharp tool than “the right” tool. The edge of the knife you use most often should be mirror shiny and razor sharp at all times. Ditto the points of your awl blades. Dull tools make everything harder, as well as more dangerous. Sometimes, it's just not practically possible to do a good job with a dull tool.

I suspect it might be possible rely on disposable utility and 30° snap-off blades, like those from Stanley, plus some disposable-based skiving tool, like an Osborne Skife or Tandy injector-blade Super Skiver. It’s shocking how cheap those blades can be in bulk, and many shoe repairers seem to do just fine buying lots of them. But this isn’t the way I went, and I wonder about the awl blades. Good awl blades aren't cheap, and rarely seem to come sharp in the first place.

Meanwhile, there are a bunch of good, cheap ways to keep reusable edge tools sharp:

Given a sharp blade, any of the above can keep it sharp over many, many uses. Make a habit of honing, steeling, or stropping every sharp tool briefly before each use.

Eventually, you will actually need to resharpen a tool, grinding away material so the sides come together at a good angle angle. Alas, many new tools also come blunt or semi-sharp, especially those sold primarily to industry. Factory and repair-shop workers often use machines like finishers to resharpen quickly. You can absolutely get the same results with a bit more time, a bit more practice, and a simple combination-grit benchstone from your local home or hardware store. Buy some blunt kitchen knives from your local secondhand store to practice on.

Succumb to a few key tools.

You can get a lot done with a smooth, convex-faced framing hammer. However, a French or London pattern cobblers’ hammer like C.S. Osborne’s No. 65 or No. 66 aren’t that expensive, and you will really want the flat, smooth rear faces they have. It’s also nice to have a hammer you only use for shoemaking, so the face isn’t dinged up by house chores. A marred face will mar leather as you hammer it, like a big metal stamp.

You will need some kind of skiving knife. That could be a purpose-built, disposable-blade tool like an Osborne Skife or Tandy Super Skiver. Or it could be a more versatile blade like a Japanese leathercraft knife, curved TINA, or Osborne 469.

If you choose one of those more versatile skiving knives, you can do without a separate utility knife. All kinds of videos online show talented makers doing nearly all their cutting with one Japanese or European-style utility blade. What those videos often don’t show is how much time those makers spend, maintaining so many fewer knives at razor sharpness.

You will need awl hafts and blades for any sewing you do by hand.

For saddle stitching uppers, you will a haft you can hold in your hand while manipulating a needle, as well as a straight sewing or saddlers’ blade.

For inseaming, you will want a sturdy haft with a groove for wrapping thread to pull stitches tight. The blade should be curved, and long enough after the curve to pierce through insole, lining, stiffener, upper, and welt. Tom Carbone produces inseaming awl blades in the USA, sold through Lisa Sorrell. You may actually prefer to import one from England or Germany.

For outseaming, you will want a particularly sturdy haft. Blade styles differ, with some preferring square or diamond-shaped cross-sections. Osborne makes diamond curved and sick-shaped blades you might try.

If you work with very light leathers for your uppers, you might get away with pointed glovers’ needles, or even stout fabric sewing needles.

Buy precut material.

Consider buying insole, midsole, outsole, and heel-stack leather as pre-cut rectangles or foot-shaped blanks and lifts, rather than as hides or sheets. This will bring your up-front cost of trying out shoemaking down, as well as bring ideal materials for your first pairs into budget range. Making due with substitutions, like outsole leather for insole leather or vice-versa, can make unfamiliar jobs even harder.

You can also find pre-cut toe puffs, heel stiffeners, and welt strips. I personally cut and skived these myself, and was glad for the practice. But if you’re already ordering soles from a seller that also stocks precut inserts, too, you might order a pair of each, just to get your hands on examples you can see and touch.

If you live in or near a city, try and find out if there’s a local shoe-repair supply distributor in your are. Failing that, try and find any quality shoe-repair shops nearby. They will most likely have standing business accounts with distributors, and may be willing to order and resell to you. Shoe repairers in particular make heavy use of premade shoe components, sometimes called “cut stock”.

If you go the cut stock route, make sure to add learning about the tannages and cutting criteria for all the things you buy pre-cut. These are all complete fields in their own rights, but learning enough to, say, properly order and cut a sole bend for especially large shoes, isn’t a huge project. Many repairers and makers do just this.

Watch a lot of videos.

Read a lot of books.

Make notes to yourself.

You’ll likely make a lot of mistakes on your first few pairs. Some of those mistakes you won’t yet be able to notice. That you do, you should find out how to correct, then write yourself a note somewhere you’ll see while working on your next pair.