The last comes first—the old shoemaking maxim is as true as it is poetic. But then there’s the process known as relasting…which is about dead last on most cobbler’s lists of standard services, if at all. But man can it be visual or fit-based magic when done correctly.
As the name suggests, relasting involves pulling everything off the bottom of the boots—the outsole, midsole, insole, and (if it’s a Goodyear-welted boot) the welt—then getting the uppers back onto a set of lasts to alter (or, if they’ve been well-worn and badly deformed, restore) their shape.
Some footwear brands will offer in-house rebuilds of their boots that may include a relast—many of the Pacific Northwest boot companies do, for example. Unfortunately, these companies will typically only offer relasts for their own products, and it’s not a service most other makers offer at all.
Which means your best bet is to find a cobbler able and willing to perform a relast, such as Unsung House. Unsung’s Grant Gustafson (who we had on the Shoecast, listen below!) was kind enough to explain exactly how the relasting process works, its limitations, and why so few cobblers offer the service.
It’s a drastic step for sure! Indeed, why not just get a different pair of boots completely?
There are a couple major reasons people choose to relast footwear. One is most certainly nailing an ideal fit. The pair in question might have significant sentimental value to the owner; perhaps they were an older pair passed down by a family member, but may not fit their new owner quite right. Maybe it’s a brand-new custom-made pair that someone has been DYING to get their hands on, but when they arrive, the fit just doesn’t work—maybe there’s too much room in the toe, or the heel slip that seemed temporary is actually permanent.
For others, the reason for relasting may be, simply, to make their boots look cool and different. In this way, the shoe collector community is not unlike the car modding community: some are hellbent on performance upgrades, while others get their kicks from differentiated bodywork.
The Possibilities and Limitations Of Relasting
In an ideal world, we could reconfigure any pair of boots to any size and shape we wanted—longer, shorter, wider, narrower. Well guess what, that’s ridiculous as THE WORLD ONLY EXISTS TO DISAPPOINT YOU.
In better, more topical news: relasting definitely CAN be the answer in various situations! But, it’s important to understand the limitations to what’s possible.
As a general rule with relasts, you can really only go down in size. The reason for this, Grant explained, is “because of the necessity for excess upper material to pull the boots around the new lasts. If you come up short, you won’t be able to welt the boots and put them back together.” Makes sense.
You can expect to be able to go down about half to one and a half sizes with a relast. “Anything beyond that starts to mess with the original pattern too much,” Grant said. “Cap toes start to get really short, seams fall in weird places, etc.”
All that said, in rare cases, you can go bigger with a relast, but it requires another drastic step: removing the original vamps and replacing them with new, larger vamps offering more lasting allowance to pull the material over a larger last. In that case, you or your cobbler would have to source the same leather found on the original boot, or settle for an alternative similar leather.
This is an extreme measure, not only in terms of extra cost, but also the skills and resources it requires. Think about your cobbler’s challenge here: carefully removing the vamp, tracing the pattern onto a new piece of leather and updating the proportions as needed, then hitting all the same holes when stitching the new vamp onto the uppers. Grant told us he’s done this for a client before, but it sure doesn’t sound easy.
Another limitation for a relast can be the pattern of the boot itself. Grant offered an example of how some people might feel dissatisfied with the fit of an engineer boot, because of factors like “way too much volume in the instep, or the pass line is large, and they have to cinch down the instep strap, causing big folds in the shaft leather.”
Grant said only so much can be done in such situations: “In relasting the boots, I can adjust or remove volume in the bottom part of the boot, but the large pass line opening isn’t adjustable by relasting. It’s more of a pattern issue.”
The Relasting Process
To illustrate how a relast works, Grant documented the process of relasting a client’s Onderhoud Handmade boots. These boots were made with a welted construction, and while the considerations for, say, a stitchdown boot will be slightly different—for example, they don’t have a holdfast (the structure that secures the insole to the welt and the uppers)—most of the steps are the same.
Before he begins to break down any pair of boots for relasting, Grant holds an in-depth consultation with his client about what they’re looking to achieve—whether it’s something more aesthetic like changing the shape of the toes, or if they want to completely change how the boots fit. He has the client take a few different measurements of their feet while sitting and standing (this can be accomplished in-person or remotely).
Grant then goes to his library of lasts and selects a shape that will most closely match what the client is looking for. If needed, he’ll sand down parts of the last—or, conversely, create build-ups with pieces of leather—to get the shape and size exactly where it needs to be for the client’s unique measurements.
Once the lasts line up with the client’s measurements, Grant sticks ’em in the boots to get a feeling (literally, using his hands) for where the boots’ shape will need to change. “Once I’ve confirmed that there is enough extra volume to redistribute,” he said, “I’ll start disassembling the boots.”
Most of the teardown is much like performing a basic resole. Grant will remove the heels, the soles, and the welt. Unlike a normal resole, the insole also gets removed. Depending on whether the boots were hand-lasted or machine-lasted determines how easily the insole can be removed. Typically if the boots have been hand-lasted, Grant said, “I can use a tool to separate the upper from the footbed and pull it out rather easily.” Machine-lasted boots, on the other hand, “usually have dozens of tiny staples right around the welt line where the lasting machine secured the upper before the boots were Goodyear welted on a machine. We have to go around and pull every staple out individually, because they can tear the upper if you try to pull at the footbed before removing them.”
Once the uppers get removed from the insoles, it’s easier to access the toe puff material. If the client asked for the toe structure to be removed, or if the new last shape won’t integrate well with the toe puff, it gets carefully taken out.
Grant also prepares the new insoles on the new lasts. Tracing around the lasts, Grant will cut out roughly shaped pieces of insole leather which are then soaked in water to make the leather more malleable. He then tightly wraps a strap around the last and the insoles to fully mold the leather to the new shape. The insoles are left to dry in this state for two to three days.
After the insoles are completely dry, Grant roughly trims the insoles to the feather line of the last. (The feather line, or feather edge, is the perimeter around the last where the upper part meets the bottom part.) He’ll revisit the client’s foot measurements and mark where their ball joint lands—this will be used as a reference for where the holdfast will need to go.
Grant trims the rest of the excess around the feather line, and he’ll also cut out a little extra around the waist to ensure everything sits properly and the welt will be in the right place. He’ll then use a rasp or a 100-grit sander to clean up the edges of the feather line.
Now the holdfast gets formed. A shelf gets cut around the outer edge of the insole, and then a shallow channel is also formed around the inside of the insole; between this shelf and channel, a small ridge remains. Grant uses an inseaming awl (which he periodically pokes into a block of beeswax to keep it lubricated) and pokes stitching holes through the ridge.
At this point, it’s finally time to put the uppers on the new last. Grant carefully pulls the leather around the last and tacks it into the insole. The heel counters are also put in (new pieces, or if the original heel structure fits with the new last, Grant may reuse the old heel counters). The boots are left to rest for another two or three days, in order to break the leather’s memory and get it fully formed to the new shape.
From here, the boots will get a new welt. Grant uses two needles to saddle-stitch the welt into the holdfast by hand. After the shanks are added in and some leather is used to fill the cavity of the insoles, the boots can now be resoled and finished.
Why Don’t More Cobblers Offer Relasting Services?
If it’s not evident from all the steps above, relasting is a very skill- and time-intensive process. “Many basic resoles can be finished in one day or even a couple hours,” Grant said. “Relasting requires a few steps in the process where the boots have to sit. I usually end up having the relast boots on my bench for about 7-10 days once I begin the process.”
Even if a cobbler is skilled enough to accomplish a relast, there’s one important ingredient they often don’t have to make it happen: the lasts themselves. Unsung House is a rare cobbler shop with a vast library of lasts in a range of sizes. A last library is a major monetary investment, and can take up precious space in often-small shops. Part of the reason Unsung can justify having so many lasts is because they also use them to make their own footwear—something hardly any cobblers do.
Even though Unsung has a lot of lasts (“I have shelves full of lasts and then a big Rubbermaid tub full beyond that,” Grant said), they only carry three styles. While each of those three lasts is distinct, there are plenty of other different boot and shoe shapes out there that they can’t accommodate—Grant noted that he doesn’t have any lasts for cowboy boots, for example.
While relasting services are hard to come by, there are some other cobblers besides Unsung who will do it—Vince DeVito, Awl Together Leather, and Dr. Sole, to name a few. While we didn’t poll everyone in our cobbler guide about relasting, some of the other folks there—or perhaps even the people at your local shop!—might be willing to do it, provided you have a set of lasts. It won’t hurt to ask.
Relasting is far from being a cheap and easy process. Unsung’s own relasting service currently costs $450, which doesn’t even include the cost of a resole. But, if there’s a pair of boots that you’re absolutely in love with that just don’t quite look or fit the way you want, then a relast could be worth the investment.
Big thanks to Grant and Unsung House for their photos and contributions to this article.