Austin part deux: buying custom boots

July 28, 2015 • 10:30 am

As I’ve mentioned several times, one of the reasons I went through Austin was to get measured for a pair of custom cowboy boots by Lee Miller, in my view the finest bootmaker in the U.S. His shop is called “Texas Traditions,” and Matt Dillahunty accompanied me there a few days ago for my Big Measurement.

I’d waited five years to get to the top of the list (with a huge backlog, Lee doesn’t take new orders), and so I was quite excited. Matt is a boot lover himself, and wanted to tag along to see the process (he now has a jones for a specific kind of custom boot, but I won’t spill the beans).

I first visited the shop, just to see the operation, in March 2010, and now, five years and four months later, I got to finally order the boots (I was snuck onto the closed waiting list because I sent Lee a copy of WEIT, which he liked). Go here to see my post written after my first visit.

It took Lee about forty minutes to measure my feet. He is obsessive about getting a good fit, and does everything he can to ensure that. I sat on a thronelike chair for the measurements (pictures are by Matt):

P1080876

After taking a few simple measurements with those metal slidey-scales you’ll remember from shoe stores if you’re of a certain age. Lee then gets down to business. Tape measures are applied all over the foot and calf, and then he makes you wear a sock of normal thickness, puts a piece of masking tape on each foot, and then measures around the foot at about six marks made along the tape, which he then puts in a file folder.

Tape results

He then applies a metal comb with moveable teeth to the top of the foot so you get the contour of each foot (essential for a good fit):

Comb 1

Here’s the upper contour of my left foot:

Comb 2

I was then asked to stand on a big inkpad in my socks and then make an impression on a piece of paper. That gives the bootmaker an idea of how your weight is distributed.

After the long period of measurement, Lee gets a bunch of data (below) that he needs to make the last: a wooden or fiberglass three-dimensional model of the foot that is used as the substrate to build the boot around.

Matt asked if making a last couldn’t somehow be done by 3-D computer printing, and Lee responded that we’re not quite there yet, for he has to adjust the dimensions of the last based on subtle aspects of his boot-making experience. Here are my foot data, including the tracings from the “comb”:

Data

Here are some lasts of some of Lee’s customers(note the names). Once you have a last made, you don’t need to be measured further, but can order boots at long distance—unless your foot has somehow changed.

miller-lastsjpg

Picking the design, leathers, toe shape, stitching, and everything else consumed nearly two more hours with the help of Carrlyn, Lee’s wife, who runs the shop and does a lot of the designing. We decided on kangaroo hide, which is very tough and (unlike calf) doesn’t crack. I chose a cognac color for the footpiece (the vamp) and a dark, forest-green color for the shaft:

Hides

I won’t reveal my design until I get the boots in four or five months, but one hint: they incorporate a feature of Charlie Dunn’s personal boots, shown in this earlier post.

While choosing the leather, I once again saw Lauren Bacall’s personal boots (she was taken to the shop by Lyle Lovett, a steady customer who was starring in a Robert Altman movie with Bacall). These boots were returned because they didn’t fit well: she was said to have hard-to-measure feet. Lee simply kept the returned boots and made her a pair that fit, for no additional charge. He’d do that for any customer whose boots didn’t fit. Note her initials on the inside of the pulls. They have the classic Texas bluebell design in inlays.
Bacall boot

I took a photo of Lee and Carrlyn (pronounced “Car-Lin”) in the workshop. They’re delightful people; a pure pleasure to work with. Lee is wearing pigskin boots (very tough) that he made for himself. Carrlyn owns one pair of boots: a black alligator pair with a design similar to the one I chose (she’s not wearing them in this photo). Note the lasts hanging everywhere.

Lee and Carrlyn

When my boots arrive in four or five months, I’ll give them a premiere on this site.

24 thoughts on “Austin part deux: buying custom boots

  1. I would like to one day get a pair of custom-mades. When I was in college, I thought for a while that I was getting the gout. It seemed odd that college food, cheap West Virginia beer and an occasional pizza would give me the gout and indeed my big toe pain ended up being caused by my off-the-shelf Acmes. (Which looked sharp, nonetheless.)

  2. Somehow I read that as “they incorporate a feature of Charles Darwin’s personal boots.” That would be pretty fitting, too.

  3. Quite the process. There are a few places left where modern technology and machine made cannot compete if you want the best. This would be one of them.

  4. Although I don’t care for cowboy boots personally (prefer combat-style) I did find this piece quite fascinating and informative.

    Thanks for the mind-broadening!

  5. haven’t worn boots since I was a kid and will never wear them again but I cannot help being impressed by the skill, craftsmanship, and attention to detail that he puts into his boots. a fantastic peek into the world of a true artist. thanks for sharing.

  6. Great post, Jerry, thanks!

    Nice taste in shirts too! 🙂

    Happy to see the gray hair proudly worn by everyone in the story (Lee, Carrlyn, yourself). Looking good! 🙂

    (I figure gray hair has survived because it was a flag to the young-uns that this person is worth protecting: They know a lot. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!)

    1. Gray hair is common in male gorillas with their silver backs. It’s not that common in chimps, and I think they seldom develop large areas of gray hair. But in humans it happens in both sexes. Do the same genes control gray hair in gorillas and humans? And is it really an adaptation at all, or just something that happens?

      1. Since when has the number of boots anything to do with the *coff* need *coff* for yet another pair of them?

        I really look forward to seeing this pair, cognac and dark forest green is a lovely combination.

        1. I’ve tried to wear those sorts of boots, I just can’t get my feet into them – my feet’re too broad. I guess I should try again.

          I have a dozen or more pairs of elastic sided riding boots though. Various colours and leathers, and various conditions – from pristine to gardening-only pairs.

  7. I wonder if your feet are messed like mine, if he could make boots that buttressed them like my orthotics do. The ancestor I epinherited the bad feet from always used to get custom boots made.

  8. I have terrible feet, they’re practically square and I also have a really high instep. I recently bought a pair of men’s motorcycle boots in size 7 3W, which fit pretty well, but the leather is very stiff so my feet get tired. A pair of custom made boots would be wonderful. Sigh.

  9. Matt anticipated my question about 3D printing of lasts, but I’m also wondering why they don’t use a laser scanner or something similar to take the measurements. Perhaps there just aren’t enough custom bootmakers to form a viable market for such tools.

    I seem to recall that a friend of mine had custom shoes made back in the 1980s, and they did it by making a foam impression of his feet much as your dentist does with your teeth.

    1. I did that once with a semi-custom pair from Falconhead, but the problem is that it gets only the bottom of your feet–not the tops, as Lee did. Also, they need to measure your calf so the shafts fit. The best way is always to be fully measured in person.

  10. Jerry,

    You have reawakened by interest in cowboy boots! (All those westerns of my youth.)

    But. What about practical matters?

    First, how does the frugal scientist find good boots that fit and don’t cost too much? Custom boots from the greatest artist in the business are an inspiration, but not an option for most of us.

    Second, what conditions are they good/bad for? (Especially the soles.) Icy slushy streets? Hiking in the mountains? Summer in New Orleans?

    1. First, eBay. The vast majority of boots I have came from eBay. If you know your size, and they give the measurements, you’re likely to get a good fit (and many sellers will take the boots back if they don’t fit). I’ve gotten terrific bargains on eBay, like $5000 full alligator boots, almost brand new, for $500. I’ve also bought boots from very famous custom makers for very little there.

      I don’t wear my boots in slushy conditions, or when hiking. They are street footwear, or, if you’re a cowboy, horse and work footwear. I don’t find mine get too hot in summer.

  11. As a Texan and a lover of custom-made boots, and proud owner of a pair of M.L. Leddy’s, a pair of Rusty Franklin’s… I’m jealous of you getting in on some Lee Millers.

    I wear a 13B. Needless to say, it is VERY hard to get “off-the-rack” boots or shoes that fit me well. There is nothing like a good pair of customs.

    Congrats, you lucky bastard!

  12. Yes, the mirror-signature motif is the way to go — aesthetically pleasing and the ultimate in customization. Awe*ome and ama*ing!

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