Complete Guide to Shoe Making: All The Equipment Needed

As a child, you may have heard the fairy tale “The Elves and the Shoemaker”. In this story, a good shoemaker struggles with making ends meet. He’s down to his last scrap of leather. He cuts out the leather to make shoes, but it’s getting late, so he goes to bed, intending to finish the shoes in the morning.

To his and his wife’s great surprise, the leather cut-outs have been sewn together to make an elegant pair of shoes that fetch a high price. It’s enough money that he can pay his rent, buy some food, and buy more materials. There’s even enough to give to charity.

The shoemaker designs and leaves out leather to make two pairs of new shoes. By morning, they’re sewn into the best shoes he has ever seen. The shoemaker sells the shoes for a healthy profit, buys more leather, and cuts it out. The next morning, the shoes are ready. One night, the shoemaker and his wife decide to stay up and see who’s helping them. They find some tiny elves troop in and get to work stitching the leather together to make shoes.

The shoemaker’s wife decides to make a gift for the elves. She crafts clothes and shoes as a thanks to the elves for helping them. When the elves come back, they gleefully put on the clothes and shoes, do a little song and dance and disappear into the night.

This story is cute, but most shoes are not made by elves but machines. What all goes into modern shoes?

young shoemaker in workshop making shoes

What Is Needed To Make Shoes?

What is needed to make a house? Just as you could use brick, wood, or metal to make a house you could use different kinds of materials to make shoes. Leather is the best-known material.

Textiles such as cotton, canvas, wool, polyester, and nylon might be used. Synthetic materials could be used. Rubber is commonly used for soles. Open-cell foam is used for a lot of modern footwear.

What Tools Do Shoemakers Use?

At the time the Grimm Brothers recorded their fairy tales, shoemakers used knives to cut leather, awls to put holes in leather and hammers to nail the soles down. Pliers would be used to stretch the shoes.

A rasp would shape the leather. A burnisher would be heated to rub the soles and heels to a shine. The last used to shape the shoe would be perfectly straight so there was no difference between a shoe for the right or left foot.

A lot has changed over the years. While a lot of these tools are still used by today’s shoemakers, contact glue is preferred over nails. Sewing and shaping of the soles are usually done by machines now.

The lasts are shaped like actual feet. There are still some shoes made the old-fashioned way but be prepared to pay for what they’re worth.

What Is a Shoe Last?

A last is like a dressmaker’s dummy, only it’s in the shape of a foot. The last determines the shape and size of the shoe. The ones the elves in the fairy tale used were likely wooden.

Iron lasts were likely for heavy boots or anything requiring a high heel, which went in and out of style as revolts went on. More modern shoe lasts are made of high-density plastic, and a computer made design.

How Are Shoes Last Measured?

As it was then as it is now, a flexible measuring tape is the best way to measure a last. To create the shoe last, ten measurements are taken. The stick length is measured by taking the length of the foot, from heel to the top of the toes.

Ball girth is the circumference of the ball of the foot. Instep girth is the circumference from just behind the ball to the instep. The waist girth is the circumference measured about an inch below the instep.

The heel lift and toe spring are respectively measured with the back of last held parallel to the ground. The bottom length is the total length of the sole. The width or the ball, instep, and waist are all measured with a flexible tape.

What Machines Are Used To Make Shoes?

Who needs elves when you have modern machinery? Some machines cut and mark and some do the stitching. Sewing, even by machine, still requires a skilled hand and trained eye.

Assemblage and priming can be done by machine. Pressing the shoes into shape and removing the lasts may be done by machine. A dryer oven and/or a UV may also be used to prevent any mold growth.

What Is The Best Sewing Machine For Shoes?

A common sewing machine isn’t going to get the job done here. You need something that can go through layers of leather and jute. Even with an awl, it can take a lot of strength to get a needle through leather. When done improperly, stitched can look forced, and the fabric damaged.

good sewing machine creates even, perfect stitches and accommodate a thick needle that slides through leather like butter. A walking foot and sturdiness are other things to look for in a good machine.

How To Use a Shoe Sewing Machine?

Some of the newer models of sewing machines can be modified to work leather. Keep these tips in mind when sewing leather:

  • Switch out your presser foot. You need a roller foot or a Teflon foot as an ordinary presser foot will stick to the leather and keep it from feeding through properly.
  • Switch out the needle. You’re going to need a big, heavy-duty needle to do this work. Even the big needles meant for leather can break if they must go through extra thick layers. Keep some spares on hand.
  • The stitch length must be long to keep leather together. About 3.5 should do it. It should be shorter than a basting stitch.
  • It’s important to use the right thread. Cotton will not do. The tannins in quickly destroy it. Use polyester or nylon thread instead.
  • Do not use pins. Pins will leave permanent, gaping holes in leather. You can use double-sided tape to keep the leather together as you sew.
  • Try testing it first. Stitches done in leather cannot be reversed as easy as other fabric stitches. Test your sewing out on a scrap piece of leather first.

Plan. This almost goes without saying in any sewing project

Which Material Is Best For Shoes?

That depends on what you want out of your shoes. Leather is both functional and fashionable. It is stretchy, durable, flexible, and is available in various colors, styles, and prices. It’s also heavy, hot, and prone to water damage.

There are a wide variety of textiles that can be used to make shoes.

Consider lightweight, durable materials like polyester and nylon. Lycra is super stretchy. Cotton canvas is breathable. When you’ve decided the type of shoe you’re going to make, you can choose which material would be best for it.

How Much Leather Is Needed To Make Shoes?

That really depends on how big the shoes are. For the sole alone, you should add an extra inch just in case. You may need twice as much to create the uppers. For simple adult-sized shoes, you might need three square feet of fabric. If you want to make boots that cover the calf, you may need even more fabric. Consider buying a square yard, or even more depending on your measurements.

What Is Shoe Leather Made From?

The shoe leather found in most leather shows is cowhide. Deerskin is used in traditional Native American crafting. Other used materials include premium leathers such as horsehide, goatskin, calfskin, or sheepskin. Some exotic boots are made with crocodile or snakeskin. Pigskin may be used as a lining.

What Are Synthetic Material Shoes?

Synthetic materials and fabrics are textiles fabricated from artificial materials as opposed to natural fibers. Shoes are often made with synthetic materials such as polyester, spandex, nylon, acrylic, acetate,  Kevlar and lastex.

When compared to leather, synthetics have a ton of qualities that make them stand out. This includes some not possible with natural fibers. For example, when it comes to shoes, synthetic materials can be more lightweight and breathable.

Is Mesh Material Good For Shoes?

It’s good if you like your shoes to be breathable and lightweight. Sneakers and running shoes can be made of mesh. It’s also durable and stylish. While it is not water repellent or good for keeping feet warm, it is still good in other circumstances!

What Shoe Material Is Waterproof?

Mesh is no good for waterproofing, but rubber certainly is. Use a synthetic that is good for repelling water, like polyurethane or neoprene. Be aware that waterproof shoes do tend to be a bit on the stiff side. You can also make some materials that aren’t typically waterproof water repellent by applying wax or WD-40.

How Long Does It Take To Make a Shoe?

Consider the analogy of building a house. Do you want to build a small cottage or an elaborate castle? And are you using old fashioned hand tools or are you playing with power? Are you considering the delivery time for the different materials or components needed?

A show pattern can be made, a last created, and the show thing stitched in just a few hours. If logos or other details are called for, it may take longer. A stitching line in a shoe factory can make up to 1500 pairs in a single day.

How Are Shoes Put Together?

First, a last is selected, which helps to determine the size and shape of the shoe. A shell pattern is then created, used to follow the shape of the last. This is a flat shape that can be stretched over the last into a three-dimensional shape. Once the pattern design is complete, the factory can then cut the pattern parts for the shoe.

Once all the parts are cut out and organized, they’re sent off to the stitching line for assembly. Once the stitching is done, they are sent to an assembly line where the upper is joined to the outsole. The shoe is then put on a last and heated to make it conform to the shape of a foot.

After the last is removed, any laces needed can be added. The shoe can then be cleaned, polished (if needed) and then reviewed to ensure its quality. After that, all that’s left is the packing and shipping.

How Long Does It Take To Make a Shoe By Hand?

If using only old-fashioned tools (and no elven magic) a pair of shoes can be put together in eight to ten hours. The process may be longer if fancy tooling is called for.

bootmaker sitting in workshop making shoes

Handmade Shoes Vs. Machine Made

Though they can be hard to find these days and expensive, handmade shoes are the price. The leather, including that of the sole, is often of premium quality. Every component in a handmade pair of shoes has been crafted meticulously. The shoes are stronger and more durable. Machine-made shoes are a bit more stiff than handmade.

How Much Does It Cost To Make a Shoe?

It really depends on the shoe. For example, let’s consider a sneaker that costs $70. At the wholesale price, it would only be thirty-five dollars. Shipping one pair of shoes from China to America would cost fifty cents. And then there’s $1.32 for the import duty. (Keep in mind that this price can change.) Uncle Sam will want yet another 32 cents for customs and insurance. (Again, this fluctuates.)

The expenses of a shoe can be broken down as such. Thirty-four percent of the cost goes into the upper parts such as tongue, laces, hardware, logo, etc. Sixteen percent of the cost goes toward the leather. Labor, overhead and profit cover twenty-seven percent of the cost. Fourteen percent of the cost goes toward the outsole. Six percent covers packaging.

What Skills Do You Need To Be a Shoemaker?

A shoemaker must first and foremost have good crafting skills. Manual dexterity is necessary as is endurance. Both fine and gross motor skills will be of use. Since many shoemakers work for themselves, business savvy is also of great importance.

Shoe Making Courses

In the old days, a shoemaker might take in an apprentice, someone younger to teach the trade to. While some craftsmen today might be willing to take on an apprentice, a lot of the classes can be taken online today. There are even colleges that offer shoe design classes.

What Is The Difference Between a Cobbler and a Shoemaker?

A shoemaker makes the shoes and is key in the design process. The cobbler is more like a repairman, fixing shoes when needed. When mass production became a thing, many shoemakers had to become cobblers.

How Much Does a Shoemaker Make?

On average, an American shoemaker can make about $28,840 a year. Generally, the wages start at $19,440 and the top prices are about $39,790. It’s the nice people of snowy Minnesota that seem to pay their shoemakers the most.


Making a shoe by hand is a dying art these das. Most people would rather not go into the laborious task used to do these jobs. However, if someone really wants something done right, they will put in the effort to get it done. Barring that, at least put in the money needed to get it right.


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