By the time Nathan Florsheim realized he wanted to make and sell his own boots, he had already taken some important steps:
1) Disassembled some Red Wings to better understand their construction.
2) Riffed up a pattern of his own.
3) Successfully made a few pairs from scratch.
4) Became totally cool with the fact that bootmaking is pretty much a terrible way to get rich.
It’s completely natural to look at the price tag of a handmade shoe or boot, compare that to its factory-made counterpart, and gasp a bit. But no matter what a maker charges, crafting footwear by hand takes an incredible amount of time and requires expensive equipment and materials, almost none of which can be purchased at any sort of volume that would enable cost savings. Add in start-up costs, R&D, marketing, necessary if unsexy overhead…you get the idea.
But much like the craft of shoemaking itself, the actual costs behind it remain largely arcane, whether intentionally or otherwise. And while there’s certainly an enjoyable romance to the aspects of handmade shoemaking that exist in the shadows, we’re of the mind that it’s far more helpful than harmful to have those kinds of numbers more out in the open, to give customers a much deeper more nuanced understanding of exactly what goes into it all.
Luckily Nathan felt the same way!
Which isn’t totally surprising, as he’s quite up-front about the price of his work—you can see that a pair of NFs starts at $1200 right on the homepage of his website. While that price is comparable to a certain class of other small handmade or one-maker brands out there (although miles from bespoke dress shoe maker prices that can easily reach north of $10,000 a pair), it’s certainly not an insignificant amount for most people to spend on footwear.
But when you consider the time and investment that Nathan has put into launching NF Bootmaker and making each pair completely by himself, it’s actually pretty damn reasonable. Or if we’re being honest, startlingly low for what you get.
Nathan was kind enough provide a peek behind the curtain and lay out everything it took for him to make the leap from amateur to professional bootmaker, and all the costs that go into making a pair of boots by himself. For anyone who’s ever wondered “why are these one-man brands so gosh darn expensive?”, there’s endless insight to be found here.
In a breakdown of expenses that Nathan shared with me, roughly $8,000 in startup costs included everything from machinery (bell skiver from Leather Machine Co.: $2070; used Landis 5-in-1: $400) to tools (lasting pliers from Zegzug: $74.91; awls and knives from Barnsley: $81.79) to materials, both big (soles from Dr. Sole: $699) and small (thread from District Leather Supply: $11.75).
Research and Development
To get NF Bootmaker off the ground took not only thousands of dollars in tools and materials, but also about a year and a half of research and development. For Nathan, that R&D included revising and reconsidering his patterns, exploring a lot of different material options, figuring out where to buy supplies, and contending with some setbacks along the way.
Some of those early bumps on the road involved getting his lasts and patterns figured out. Once Nathan had revised his first pattern by hand a few times (tracing and redrawing it on paper), he took scans of his pattern pieces and digitized them. He was then able to manipulate and adjust them even more easily through the use of a photo editing application called Affinity ($49.99).
However, a boot pattern’s design is often determined (and sometimes limited) by the last it’s built upon, and early on, Nathan only had a hodgepodge collection of different sizes and shapes. For some of the early boots, “I was kind of doing what I could with the patterns by just manually adjusting vintage lasts and one-off pairs I bought off Etsy,” he explained.
What Nathan really needed was a library of identical lasts in a range of sizes that he could scale his patterns onto. His first attempt at procuring a last library did not go well. “I ended up getting burned and losing like $700 on a set of lasts that looked nothing like they were supposed to in person, which was rough,” he said.
Shortly after that debacle, Lars Jensen of Østmo Boots helped Nathan get in contact with German lastmaker Spenlé. Nathan ordered some lasts to sample, “and after doing some manual modifications to the model by hand, I was happy with how it was working with my pattern,” he said.
Nathan now has a collection of Spenlé lasts ranging from EU 37 to 48 ($1,900.70). “Right now it is just one width that can easily fit up to an E-width foot,” he said, “and I can make small modifications to areas if needed, like the instep, or waist, heel, etc.” He can also order lasts in a size or width he doesn’t currently have for individual customers ($89.90).
Another big challenge was finding a reliable set of wholesale suppliers. Hobbyist shoemakers in the United States might use retail sites like Sorrell Notions and Findings, Rocky Mountain Leather Supply, or Zegzug for getting their supplies. In contrast, a professional shoemaker with a tax ID number (signifying their status as an actual business) can gain access to wholesalers like Frankford Leather or Ruby Leather, who sell supplies for prices 40-50% lower than what you’d find at retail.
While he was still developing his NF products, Nathan lucked his way into accessing the catalog of one wholesaler before he had his tax ID. “I do think there are situations where the last name helps open the door,” he said. On the flipside, however, “Sometimes I think people expect me to be a huge client,” which is nice, “and then ghost me when they realize I’m not,” which is not.
“It was important to find suppliers that were good to work with,” Nathan explained. “Finding a supplier to take a small maker seriously can be super difficult. I wanted to avoid finding something I loved, start using it, and then have the supplier disappear on me.”
Nathan tried out endless different components for his boots along the way, which he cites as one of the hardest parts of the process. “I probably tried over a dozen different types of sole bends before finding what I use now,” he said. “Same number of outsole threads, maybe more.” Finding the right hardware (i.e. eyelets) was also difficult, “and I still have to hand-sand and antique the brass rivets to match my eyelets.”
Doing all of this R&D was costly for Nathan, and he (understandably) wasn’t thrilled about that. On the other hand, he said, “I just wanted to find the best things I could, and then figure out what I need to charge to make it doable.”
While undertaking his R&D, Nathan also set about building up his workshop with better tools and equipment. At the very beginning, he had some tools carried over from his previous experiences in art and bookbinding, and he also got some basic leatherworking tools and supplies from places like Tandy Leather and Weaver Leather. Since then, he’s made some big upgrades.
Nathan’s first few pairs of boots had hand-stitched uppers, but he didn’t want to use that method forever. “I had an image in my head of what I wanted from the start,” he said, “and knew that hand-stitching wasn’t gonna cut it.”
A post-bed sewing machine ($1300) allowed Nathan to close his uppers much more neatly and quickly. While getting a sewing machine was a big leap forward for his bootmaking, there was also a problem: he had never used one in his life. “It was a really long, intense, and frustrating learning curve,” he noted.
Thankfully, after spending a lot of quality time with his machine—and after getting a speed reducer ($157), which slows down an industrial sewing machine’s motor and provides the torque needed to work with thick leathers—Nathan grew more comfortable using it. “It was a matter of just practicing a ton, and sewing a lot of uppers that never even made it to lasting,” he said.
Nathan’s other significant equipment purchase was a bell skiver ($2,070), used for reducing the thickness of leather pieces and making them easier to stitch together. He has also been using a belt sander ($1,021.18) for shaping his soles (the learning curve there has been a whole other challenge for him), and he hopes to someday purchase a professional finishing machine—something along the lines of this Landis model ($6,587.50)—and upgraded sewing machine (~$3,000).
Materials Cost Breakdown
For this story, I asked Nathan if he could tally the materials cost of one pair of boots—in this case, the Milton Boots in Horween Pioneer Reindeer that I had ordered from him. Nathan gladly obliged, and meticulously documented each aspect of the boots as he put them together. Here are the numbers he came back with:
- Horween Pioneer Reindeer with shipping: $270.27, but assuming a yield of two pairs out of a side: $135.13
- Horsehide Liner with shipping : $108.67, usually get four pairs (eight vamps) out of a piece: $27.16
- Leather Insoles/Midsoles: ~$16/pair shipped, two sets used for each pair: ~$32
- Leather Counters: ~$5.50
- Leather Shanks: ~$2.50
- Leather Laces: $6
- Leather Sockliners: $4.07
- Eyelets: ~$6.50
- Rivets: $0.45
- V-Bar Soles: $16.37
- Dr. Sole Whole Heels: $11.88
- Adhesives: $3.80
- Brass Tacks: $.02 each x ~30 = $.60 per boot: $1.20
- Brass Clinching Nails: $.04 each x ~30= 80 cents per boot: $1.60
- Recycled Cardboard Box: $5.32
- Recycled Packing Paper: $0.50
- Canvas Logo Tote: $8.12
- Shipping Label: $31.46
So, for a pair of NF boots priced at $1200 at the time this story was published, the materials cost is just under $300. (This sum does not account for low cost-per-pair consumables, such as thread, edge finish, and the lasts, which will eventually wear out as they’re used.)
For the active hands-on time involved in making a pair of boots, Nathan estimates it took him about 45 hours for building this one pair. (His goal is an annual output of around 45 pairs.)
But aside from being a bootmaker, Nathan wears several other hats: customer service (consulting with a client about their order), marketing and social media (shooting and editing photos to advertise and share his work online, plus building and managing his own website), and fulfillment (packaging the boots and sending them off for delivery).
These other tasks take about an additional 8 hours per pair. “I’m hoping to cut that down a bit as I get the process of accepting and getting through orders dialed in,” Nathan noted, “as a decent amount of that time recently has been just getting stuff organized and ready for opening my books and getting information together on my website.”
Of the non-material cost of a pair of NF boots, let’s take that remaining $900 and divide it by 53 hours, and we’re looking at just under $17/hour.
Not exactly a king’s ransom—although that revenue does more to offset the cost of Nathan’s time and labor than it might if he were living somewhere other than where he is now; his residence in Cleveland, Ohio has a relatively low cost-of-living (about 6% below the national average in the US).
However, that income has mainly gone straight back into paying for business expenses and helping NF Bootmaker continue to grow—that includes things like website costs (Squarespace Commerce site: $324 per year), payment processing fees (Paypal business account: 2.99% per transaction), accounting (Quickbooks: $30 per month), storage space ($100 per month), plus saving up towards equipment upgrades.
Nathan only just recently began to pay himself an actual income, which has reduced his reliance on living off of savings. Somewhat obviously, he wants to be able to stop using those savings at all, and a time will come when raising prices will be necessary as the lone route to reaching financial stability while keeping the business running. Still, Nathan is mindful of keeping the price of NFs in reach.
“I am going into this trying to keep the prices as low as possible, without it being a reckless and unsustainable business,” he said. “Because I didn’t come into it with a big collection of boots in this price range, and most of the people in my everyday life haven’t spent more than $200 on shoes. I already know this isn’t very accessible, so I want to try and keep it as accessible as I can.”
While this is only one example of what it takes to launch and maintain a one-man shoe brand, it likely isn’t too different from the costs and challenges faced by other comparable makers. When you take a big step back and really consider everything that goes into a pair of these boots—not just the materials and labor, but all the time, effort, and money it took Nathan to get to a place where he could actually do all of this—it really puts that hefty pricetag into perspective.