Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Visiting Michael at Island Sandals

When I was getting started on my sandalmaking project, I spent some time with Google searching on the Internet for shoemakers, shoemaking supplies, sandalmaking, and other similar queries (a close friend taught me a few years ago how useful Google can be, and now I'm addicted to it). I found lots of interesting results, such as a high fashion designer shoemaking school, YouTube videos on old-fashioned shoemaking, shoe repair suppliers, and so on.

Serendipitous Coincidence

One of the websites I found was for Island Sandals, located in Lahaina, Maui. It so happened that I was already planning a family Winter Break trip to Hawaii (the Big Island and Maui) to see the volcanoes there (inspired by a recent unit in my older daughter's middle school science class). I started an email correspondence with Michael the Sandalmaker, and made plans to visit him in his shop in Lahaina while I was on Maui.

Among other things, I carted all four pairs of sandals I had made so far to Lahaina with me (that was easy--the kids were wearing theirs!) to get Michael's opinions and advice on them.

I didn't take many pictures or any video while I was visiting Michael, since some previous visitors had already done an extensive set of videos of Michael discussing his sandals, their care and cleaning, and some of the reasons he makes them the way he does.

The Sandal Design

Michael bases his sandal design on an ancient Ethiopian design meant for running warriors. The classic design is elegant in its simplicity. It has two straps: one runs under the heel and comes up on both sides of the heel as the riser, and the other is a long thin strap that winds around the foot and through holes in the sole to form the main part of the sandal. This "harness" strap arrangement holds the sandal on the foot really well so that the relatively-thin sandal sole moves with the foot (as opposed to the motion of the sole of a flip-flop sandal). When I tried some on, I felt like I should be doing dance moves in them.

The blue in the picture is the foam Michael uses for padding. The old sandal on the right is one Michael shows customers of an example of a sandal that has been well cared for with Saddle Soap and has been worn pretty much constantly for 15 years or so.

The main strap is fastened with an ancient and very simple knot that gets tighter over time.

Here is the back of the knot:

Here is a slip-knot version of the knot, used for things that need to be released easily:

The only metal in the shoe is a trio of brass nails that reinforce the attachment of the rubber heel.

The Pattern

Michael showed me how he traces the feet, keeping the ballpoint pen straight up and down for an accurate pattern. Since most people's feet are not the same, he traces both feet. Here is Michael's example of a foot tracing.

The holes for the straps are located such that the straps never go directly underneath where the bones of the feet press on the sole. For example, in the picture above of Michael's old sandal, the heel riser strap goes across underneath the foot just in front of where the heel comes down on the sole, not directly underneath the heel. Also, the straps never press on the bones above the soles (you wouldn't want a strap pressing on a bunion), but rather they nestle into the hollows between them.

All the Cool Toys

One advantage Michael has (besides working in beautiful Lahaina) is that he has all the right tools. Over the years he has bought a shopful of shoemaking and shoe repair tools from various places, typically from shoe makers and repairers who were retiring. The technology for making custom shoes hasn't changed very much over the past 50 or more years, even though the technology for mass producing shoes (like athletic shoes, for example) has changed quite a bit.

One of Michael's main tools is known as a finisher, which is basically a long spinning pole with several different wheels spaced along it for grinding, sanding, and polishing, such as for grinding and sanding the edges of a new sole of a shoe (here is what a new one looks like--Michael's is a much older finisher, though probably not quite as old as this one from 1948). It's a standard machine for a shoe repair business. It's also quite dangerous (especially the older ones), since it's easy for straps and such to get caught in it. Michael told me he'd once gotten a finger caught, and the finisher had dislocated all of the finger joints. Ouch!

Michael also has a stitching machine that pokes a hole with an awl-like point and then pokes back through the hole with the thread-bearing needle. Also a dangerous machine (not for use by kids).

I'm not planning to get any of the shoemaking machinery Michael has--it simply won't fit in my garage (and we now have a rule that I can only bring in new stuff if I get rid of the equivalent amount of stuff!). I probably won't be starting a business or making enough shoes to justify big equipment anyhow. But it's great to see how the pros do it!

The Leather

Michael uses latigo leather exclusively. This is leather that has been dyed and heavily oiled at the tannery. It's perfect for sandals. Michael gets his leather from all over the world.

(Not) Sniffing Glue

One great piece of advice Michael gave me was to move away from using contact cement that contained MEK (methyl ethyl ketone), toluene, and other toxic chemicals. He suggested a different adhesive, 3M's FastBond 30, which is water based. It turns out to be fairly hard to find, but I was able to order a gallon of it online through

I'm now using the Fastbond 30 for all of my shoemaking work. I really like it. It seems to hold just as well as the regular contact cement from Tandy, but it doesn't smell nearly as bad, and it doesn't need to carry a "could be fatal" warning on the label (a big plus, since I planned to use it with a bunch of middle school girls). I also find it easier to work with, since it's more like paint, and it doesn't get as stringy as regular contact cement. The downside is that you do have to wait a bit longer for the Fastbond 30 to dry before you can put the pieces together. A fan helps with the drying, though (and dissipates what smell there is).

A Fun Visit

Michael clearly enjoys his work and talking to his visitors, though a lot of his custom sandals are ordered by mail (especially for repeat customers). His sandals are really beautiful.

I had a great time visiting Michael in Lahaina, and I learned a lot. Thanks, Michael!


Air Jordan said...

What a great blog!There have a chance that we can have an furthur exchanges and cooperation.I will always pay attention to your blog.

Retro Jordan said...

It's great to hear from you and see what you've been up to. This blog makes me realize the energy of words and pictures. Thank you for sharing!