Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Shoe Mania, Part 1: Desire, Design, and De Soles

I've long been longing to make my own shoes, particularly sandals. It seems like it should be pretty straightforward: find something to use as a sole, and strap it to your feet somehow. Simple, right?

Right. As my older daughter is fond of reminding me, I never like to do things the easy way. And I never start with the easiest version. Nah, that would be too easy!

Now that I've gotten into leather working, it seems to me that the next thing after belts should be shoes. After all, since I'm not a gunslinger, how many tooled holsters do I need?


I'm not a total shoe addict like Imelda Marcos or some of the celebrities and fans of shows like "Sex and the City", but I've owned a few pairs of shoes over the years. The highest count I remember getting to was 83 pairs before I started getting rid of them in earnest (though I haven't counted lately--the count may have crept up again).

I don't tend to go for the really expensive shoes like they show on TV. Fortunately I have pretty "normal" size 7-ish medium-width feet, so I don't have a hard time finding shoes that fit. My most expensive shoes ever are some Dansko clogs ($125) that I wear all the time in the northern California winter, and my current favorite shoes are some faux-fur-lined "tie-dyed" plastic clogs I got for seven bucks on close-out at Walmart.


One big lure for me on making my own shoes is style. I can make them the way I want them, and it doesn't have to follow any particular fashion or fad of the moment. Getting my own style turns out to be harder than just the design and the desire, but that's the general idea.

I've always really liked shoes with strongly upturned toes, or what I think of as "elf" or "Turkish" style toes, just because I think they're cute and different. Of course, those are pretty hard to find at Walmart or any of the usual shoe emporia in my area. However, I did once find some sandals in Singapore with upturned toes, and I love them.

The interesting thing about these sandals is that the upturned toe actually helps me walk. As I move forward, my toes push down on the upturned sole, which then pushes the heel section up like a see-saw, so the heel section actually follows my own heel as it moves upward. So walking in these sandals is more natural-feeling and easy than the scuffing I find I have to do with other mule-type sandals.

I also like the adjustability and security of straps with buckles. Here is my rough sketch of my starting sandal design (which changed a bit before I finished the sandals, of course):

Getting Off Track Right from the Start

Since this was my first pair of sandals, I did a lot of experimentation along the way. I was following Tandy's "Sandal Making" eBook, but while very useful, it was fairly brief and couldn't answer questions I ran into. Also, of course I was doing my own sandal style, rather than one from the book, so I couldn't just follow a recipe. And to make things stray further from the book, I was using different types of leather, dyes, and finishing products. I also wanted to put padding in the sole, since I already know my heels get sore quickly without a lot of padding (I'm used to running shoes and similar cushioned shoes). Oh, and did I mention the upturned toes?

Making the Pattern

I started by making a pattern of my feet. I put ground-up chalk on my feet to get footprints as well as having my daughter draw around my feet (pencil vertical, please) on cardboard. I cut this pattern out, adding an extra quarter inch on each edge as the "seam allowance".

I then traced around that on another piece of cardboard, and added the extra allowance for the pointed toe to the second version. This way I can keep the original pattern for later and make modifications as needed on the pointed version.

Cutting Out the Pieces

Cutting out the pieces for the soles and the heels proved more difficult than I had expected. For the bottom (outer) sole and the heel layers, I was using saddle skirting leather, which is quite heavy and stiff (but not as stiff as an "armor and shield leather bend", which I knew I wouldn't be able to cut without a band saw). I was also cutting from a very large piece, an "extra large side" (that would be "half a cow" in normal English).

This stuff is 13 to 15 oz. in weight. From Tandy's list of leather-related terms: "Leather is usually measured in terms of ounces. One ounce equals 1/64th of an inch thickness."So a weight of 13 to 15 oz. means the leather is 13/64th to 15/64th of an inch thickness. Not quite a quarter of an inch thick. It felt like I was trying to cut out pieces of my favorite clipboard with a utility knife! I found out later that it's a lot easier to cut the leather if it's wet, but that has its own issues, such as waiting for it to dry.

I cut two pieces for each heel so I could stack them.

I used three different thicknesses of leather for my sandals: 13-15 oz. for the soles and heels, 6-7 oz. for the inner sole, and 4-5 oz. for the straps. I tried using the tin snips pictured here, but they didn't work all that well--probably not sharp enough. I found a utility knife worked the best for me. I used a strap cutter for the straps.

Here are my cut pieces:

Gluing on the Heels

I used contact cement to glue the heel pieces together and then onto the bottom soles.

Turning the Toes

Leather can be formed pretty easily by soaking it in water and letting it dry in the desired shape. In the following picture I had just poured out the soaking water from the bin. The leather was pretty floppy at that point.

Since it couldn't hold a shape on its own, I let the leather dry most of the way. Then I pressed it against my feet and shaped it the way I wanted, using rubber bands to hold the pieces together. The heels had come off when I tried to shape the soles, since the water had not completely soaked into the glued layers, so they were stiffer than the main sole.

You might notice that the heel pieces are now smaller and a different shape than they were when I cut them out. The "Sandal Making" book had suggested this slanted design, and when I had tried standing on the heels and soles for shaping, I found that the original heels were too big to be comfortable, so I cut off chunks of the heels.

The rectangle shape in the sole on the right in the following picture is from a piece of the excess heel that I had put there to create arch support while the soles were drying. It made quite an impression, as did the rubber bands holding the heels in their new place and shape. Fortunately those don't affect the final appearance of the sandals.

It took a couple of days to dry the soles completely, after which they were quite hard. I did the same soaking and shaping for the upper soles, though the result was much more flexible.

This forming process is quite fun, though it takes a long time and for most sandals it's really not necessary (those pointy toes require it here).

I'm now ready to build the upper parts of the sandals, which I'll cover in my next article.

Dog Mania

Yup, I got out my white sheet for a photo shoot again, and there was Lacey, offering her services as a model.

"Really, these would look good on me."

"Well, I'm not sure those pointy shoes are quite my style..."

Friday, February 20, 2009

Belting It Out Again

My first two belts were so fun that I immediately had to start the next one. Besides, my kids line up quickly when there are cool goodies to be had, and there was my older daughter, jostling her way to the head of the line! My younger daughter had already made her own belt, so she was sated for the moment.

For the new one I found a chain pattern on a photo of a tile, and I adapted it to fit the 1.5-inch wide belt blank I was using. The first thing I did was dampen the leather and use the edge creaser to mark lines along the belt for the edges, about a quarter-inch in from each side.

Then I dampened the leather some more and traced the pattern, following with the swivel knife. The pattern is really intricate and tedious, so I did each step in small sections to make it more interesting: trace, knife, trace, knife, and so on.

The following picture shows me cutting the pattern with the swivel knife. The idea is that you pull the knife towards you, swiveling it along the traced line with your thumb and third-fifth fingers while your index finger keeps the knife steady.

Here is a picture of the pattern, partly traced and partly cut:

The trick with the swivel knife is that is has to be really well sharpened and polished all the time. Mine wasn't sharp enough--it isn't completely sharp when you buy it, so you have to sharpen it more yourself. If you don't, you get "drag" on the blade as you go along, and the cuts aren't as smooth as they should be. It's hard to see in the picture, but my cut lines are a little jagged.

Here I started tooling the pattern as I went along, mostly with a patterned beveling tool:

As I mentioned in my post on riveting, I often jump straight into a project without doing quite enough practicing or testing first. I did in this case, and found that for my particular pattern I didn't have quite the right beveling or patterning tools to give me exactly the look I wanted. I ended up doing a bit of rework right on the belt as I tried out different tools. Fortunately the rework didn't show much (and perfection is a bad thing, right?).

Here is the tooled belt at the buckle end. The pattern and tooling goes all the way to the other end of the belt (the billet end).

Dyeing to Dye

A big reason for doing this third belt was to try using dyes that were separate from the finish, instead of the Tandy's Eco-Flo All-in-One. This time I was using Tandy's Eco-Flo Leather Dye. Also, for this belt I was doing different colors for the different threads of the chain pattern.

Here you can see how the different colors (Deep Violet, Emerald Green, and Evening Blue) weave together:

Then I added the dark brown background (Dk. Coco Brown):

If I had stopped here, I probably would have been fairly happy with the colors. However, the process recommended by the guys at the shop was to clean off the excess dye using a soft cloth and Lexol leather conditioner. I did that, trying to avoid mixing my several colors (mostly getting my green and purple muddied with brown), and my belt ended up looking very faded:

I then put a second painstaking coat of dyes on the entire belt and cleaned it again with the Lexol. It looked only slightly better than it did in the picture above, but since painting the separate colors was such a pain, I decided it was good enough.

I covered the back of the belt in the dark brown. The Lexol didn't take off as much of the dye from the back (the rough "flesh side" instead of the smooth "skin side").

Here is how it looked after the second coat and cleaning (and hole punching):

Dyeing to Finish

I used Tandy Carnauba Creme as the finish for the belt. It's basically a blend of waxes in a water base. You smooth it on using a soft cloth (I've been using cut-up pieces of a worn out t-shirt). When the creme dries, you buff it with more cloth until the leather shines. When I was applying the creme, I found that quite a bit more dye came off onto the cloth. Just a little more dye comes off during the buffing stage, though (whew!).

I did find that the most finely-textured (stippled) parts of the belt design still showed little white spots of wax after the buffing with cloth. An old soft toothbrush in a gentle circular motion worked for those.

Here is the final belt. Not that I'm keeping score, but this one probably took me 30-40 hours to make (instead of 8 hours each for the blue and brown ones). Carving and tooling the pattern for this belt definitely took longer, but the big timesink came with the careful multiple coats of multiple colors.

In general, I'm not particularly happy with the way the colors came out. The purple looks more like pink, and the whole thing is a little too "distressed"-looking for my tastes. But my daughter cheerfully snatched it up and carted it off before I could change my mind about giving it to her, so I guess it's good by definition!

Solvent Salvation

California, where I live, has imposed a lot of environmental restrictions on volatile organic compounds (VOCs), that is, all the really useful and effective (and harmful) solvents. This means that many manufacturers have had to reformulate dyes, paints, and such to eliminate or lower their use of the "bad" solvents. Tandy's Eco-Flo dyes and other products are the water-based response to lowering the VOCs.

The "old-timers" who hang out and do their leather work together on Saturday mornings at the local Tandy store shake their heads sadly and say that it's just not like the good old days where you could dye your leather and get a good high at the same time. Well, they don't really say that, but the old solvents were very good at carrying dyes deep into the leather, and water, while the ultimate solvent of life, just isn't quite so good for leather dye. They do say the new dyes just don't work quite so well as the old versions. But that's life in California, and clean air is definitely a good cause.

Lacey Investigates

Lacey is pretty diligent about investigating objects left on the kitchen floor. Food? Treats? Toys? Those nasty VOCs?

Nope, no VOC problem here. A few treats would be nice, though...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Absolutely Riveting

I'm currently in the middle of a leather project that requires buckles and rivets. I'm usually pretty self-confident (arrogant? lazy?) on trying new techniques, and often jump right in on the main project. Fortunately this time I tried out my rivets on some scrap leather first, because I immediately ran into trouble. When I riveted my two leather strips together, the rivet tops and bottoms ended up offset from each other!

Rivets of Many Types

When I was trying to figure out how to describe my riveting project, I thought I'd look up rivets on Wikipedia. The article describes several types of rivets, such as solid rivets and pop rivets, but not what I'm using, which are Rapid Rivets (Tandy's brand name for "cap rivets").

I kept looking, and I found a very good tutorial on using cap rivets for making bags (pretty similar to my project: riveting straps). I wish I had found it before I did my trial and error, but then I wouldn't have had half so much fun! But if you want to do anything with cap rivets, I recommend you take a look at Lisa's U-Handbag riveting tutorial.

Riveting Trouble

The first few rivets I set came out similar to the rivet on the right side of the following picture. The cap did get connected to the top of the shaft, but the shaft suddenly bent relative to the bottom part, leaving the top offset from the bottom, usually on about the second whack with the mallet. Not exactly the result I had hoped for.

One of the guys at the Tandy shop diagnosed my problem as two-fold: 1) I didn't have the right kind of hard surface to place the bottom part (shaft piece) of the rivet, and I was using rivets whose shaft was too long for the thickness of the leather I was putting together.

Hard Surface

I've been doing my leather work on the kitchen table (much to the distress of my family at mealtimes). It's a fairly sturdy table, but for setting rivets, you need something really flat and hard, like a big polished granite block or a big chunk of metal. I got myself a little 2-pound metal mini anvil from Tandy for the purpose.

That anvil is so cute! It looks like something right out of a Road Runner cartoon, except it's small enough to hold in your hands. I figure that when I'm not whacking stuff on it, it can serve as a paperweight. It works just fine as the base for whacking rivets.

In the photo above, I have a medium rivet sticking through the hole on the left, and a small rivet on the right. The corresponding caps are in front of them. Note that the diameter of the shaft is the same for both, but the length of the shaft differs. The shorter one is more appropriate for this thickness of leather. The metal cylinder with the red ring and the orange rubberbands is the rivet setter. I put the red (cupped) end on the rivet cap and hit the other (flat) end with my mallet. I have the red nail polish and the orange rubberbands on the rivet setter to give me both tactile and visual clues that I'm using the correct end--I kept trying to use the wrong end on the rivet cap.

Punching Holes

I have this rotary hole puncher that can do six different sizes of holes. Of course, rather than giving hole sizes, they are conveniently labeled 1 through 6. Guess what? 6 is the smallest. One of the first things I did with it was to punch holes in a piece of scrap leather, with one hole of each size. I labeled 1 through 6, and now I have a handy gauge to use when I need to figure out which hole sizes to punch for belts and sandal straps. I can test them by pushing the buckle tongues (the little wiggly bit that goes through the strap hole) through the sample to see what size is big enough, but not too big.

One thing I've learned is that even though the punches are supposed to be self-cleaning, the little leather circles often pile up and get stuck in the punch tubes. This makes punching the next hole more difficult, since you are trying to put a hole through your leather as well as push against the circle buildup. So I push them out with an unbent paperclip periodically.

The other thing for me is that I have fairly small, weak hands, and squeezing this tool hard enough to put a hole through thick leather such as saddle skirting is really difficult! It's easier if you push the bottom handle against the work surface and let your weight do more of the work (hey, can I use that as an excuse to eat more?). Rubber-coated gardening gloves help too. They help keep the tool from slipping out of my hands.

When I'm doing rivets, I need to punch holes first for the rivet shank to go through. They work best when the hole is small enough to be a tight fit on the shaft (back) piece. That's a Size 6 hole on this punch.

Smaller Rivets

In the photos above, I show two sizes of rivets. I had initially been using Medium Rapid Rivets. Since I needed a shorter shaft, I switched to Small Rapid Rivets. Unfortunately, the caps and backs of the rivets are smaller in diameter to go with the shorter shaft. For my project, I prefer the look of the medium rivets over the small, but fortunately it's only a slight preference. So since I can choose to do my design any way I want, I decided I "want" to use the smaller rivets!

Riveting Results

I really like the results of joining pieces of leather with rivets. It's very clean and neat and quick, unlike hand stitching (not quick!) or nailing (not neat), both of which I'm also doing in my current projects.