The front of a cobbler’s shop and the back of it are worlds apart. I’ve always wanted to get a peek behind the curtain separating the two, but, until very recently, I didn’t have the opportunity. Turns out, all you have to do is ask.
When I started considering a full re-sole of my Goodyear welted Wolverine 1000 Mile boots, I reached out to Isac Våge, a third-generation cobbler who runs a small shop specializing in Red Wing boots in Gjøvik, a small Norwegian town about two hours north of Oslo. He’s one of only two cobblers licensed for Red Wing re-soles in Norway, so, if you’re in Norway and you want a top-rate boot repair job, it’s worth the trip.
Isac and I spent a full day together—and I do mean full day. I arrived around lunchtime, and, with only a few short coffee and pee breaks (for Kira the shop dog), we were bent over the boots nearly every minute until 10pm. The process was much slower, with more painstaking craftsmanship than I expected. My eyes had never been more open to what goes into the cobbler’s art.
If you have an opportunity to do something similar, jump at it with both feet. For now, though, you can look over my shoulder while I look over Isac’s. Here’s a detailed breakdown of the re-sole process.
Stage 1: Inspection and Cleaning
Before things get rolling, Isac is looking for a few things that will indicate the scope of the re-sole and (perhaps) repairs:
Is the welt intact? Have the boots been re-soled before? Was that cobbler careful to stitch through the existing holes, or did they weaken the welt by effectively doubling the number of holes in it during the re-sole?
What kind of shape is the leather in? Has it dried or cracked? If so, these areas may need further repairs.
It’s often necessary to clean the boots at this stage as well (do your cobbler a favor—clean your boots before you drop them on the counter). A damp towel is usually enough to get the boots clean enough to work on, though they often also need a bit of a scrub with a stiff brush along the welt and in those other hard-to-reach areas that we miss with our regular cleaning and maintenance regimes.
Stage 2: Disassembly
It’s at this stage that the boot starts to get pulled apart. This starts with the heel, which is pulled away from the sole in a matter of seconds, exposing the nails underneath. At the same time, any rubber sole protectors are peeled away with heavy pliers. This is a rough process. For somebody (like me) who tries to take very good care of his boots, this feels a lot like watching one of the Saw films.
The footbed is then removed, exposing the padding beneath. If you’ve worn your boots hundreds of times since the last time somebody was in there, the padding will probably be worn away to nothing or almost nothing. Isac almost always removes this (replacing it with new padding later in the process).
The exposed pegs are now ground down, and so are the edges of the outsole. The outsole edges are ground down (or more properly, up), weakening the point where the bottom stitch and the top stitch lock together. This will make stitch removal easier.
Depending on how deep the stitch is sunk into the sole, this might mean that the stitch can be pulled out in one piece and in one motion (Isac says that when this happens, it is “intensely satisfying”). If the outsole has worn down enough that the stitches are only millimeters from the outsole (as was the case with my Wolverines), they’ll need to be cut and pulled out one by one.
With all of the stitching removed, the outsole can be peeled away, exposing the underside of the footbed. The cork filler (or what’s left of it) is removed.
Short of cutting your boot in half, this is the best way to get a good look at your boot’s construction. If the construction was extremely clean and precise, it should be apparent. There were a few places in my 1,000 Miles where the welt had been stapled down and the staples had been left in place when the outsole was stitched on. You wouldn’t find this in higher-quality builds. The work is cleaner—even where you can’t see it.
Stage 3: Sole Prep
The next step will be applying a new cork filler. To give the adhesive something to latch onto, the underside of the footbed is roughed up with a brass brush. The cork filler is then applied (Isac uses a shoe horn as an applicator). Some cobblers use sheets of cork (cutting them to size), but this creates a too-even pressure on the footbed, flattening it even slightly and losing some of that crucial broken-in feeling.
The cork filler is given a little time to dry (coffee break!), and then the cork and bottom of the welt are sanded in preparation for the next round of adhesive (from front to back, the bottom of the boot should feel like one uniformly smooth surface). The new sole is sanded as well, which will help it bond with the welt and the cork filler.
The boot is then placed carefully onto the sole and an outline is traced on the new sole to prepare for trimming. The positioning is extremely important when your new sole has any kind of tread, which should line up perfectly with the balls of your feet.
Finally, it’s time to build the new heel stack. The existing heel stack can be used if it’s not excessively worn. But that means there is less to work with when it comes time to shape and finish the heel. Most cobblers, when doing a re-sole, prefer to stack a new heel from scratch.
Two layers of leather (per boot) are measured, cut, and shaped, using the trimmer for the bigger cuts and the sander for shaping. If you have a higher heel, you might be looking at more layers. The pieces are then carefully glued together.
Stage 4: Sole and Heel Application
The fourth stage of the re-sole starts with more glue. The cork lining and welt are coated in a layer of adhesive. The bottom of the welt (where that strong bond is so crucial) gets a second layer.
The upper is then laid carefully onto the sole and hammered down to make the seal tight—no nails, just hammering to really tighten up that connection between the welt and the sole.
The sole is then trimmed into rough shape. While Isac is at the trimmer, they also use the machine to flatten the welt against the sole. This is particularly important around the toe, where the boot wants to pull upwards.
The sole is then given a touch more shaping with the grinding and sanding belts. It’s very close now to its final shape.
The ancient Rapid D machine has been looming in the corner of the shop this entire time. It’s a finicky piece of equipment, and Isac makes it part of his practice to turn it on first thing when he comes into the shop in the morning if he’s going to be using it. If it’s not hot (very hot), it’s more liable to behave unpredictably.
A quality re-sole makes use of the existing holes in the welt, so Isac marks these holes carefully, checking and double checking that the first few stitches are exactly where they should be before he really turns the machine loose.
Once both boots have been stitched, Isac hammers down the stitches, sinking the thread and closing the hole up a bit.
It’s now time to add the heel. Adhesive is added to the heel and its parts, then it is carefully placed on the sole. To make the seal tight and uniform, most cobblers use a press at this stage and then finish the press’s work with a bit of hammering.
The boot should not be completely flat. We want it to nose slightly forward, so, before the stacked heel is applied, it is ground so that it is a little higher at the back of the boot than it is at the front.
It’s hammer time! The heel is nailed to the boot. These nails are kept to the inside of the heel, leaving space for the heel cap nails, which will go around the outside.
The rubber heel cap is then glued and nailed down. A tool is used (I didn’t catch its name) that allows the cobbler to apply the force of the broad hammer to the tiny head of the nail as it sinks into the narrow crevices of the tread.
The boot is then turned over and more nails are driven through the other side of the heel (from the inside of the boot). Over this goes the padding and the insole, both of which are applied with a thin layer of adhesive).
Stage 5: Finishing
We’re now inches from the finish line. The edges of the new sole are shaped and smoothed, first with a belt sander and then with sandpaper (always sanding in the same direction). This includes the inside part of the heel (the part that points towards the toe). Tape is applied to the sole to protect it during this final heel shaping and polishing.
A varnish is applied to the outside edges of the sole and the stacked heel. This is then buffed, bringing out the leather’s deep browns and cognac tones.
And there you have it! Once the boots are polished, they’re ready to hit the streets.
I want to thank Isac for opening up his shop for me and for walking me through every step of the process. If you’re ever in his neck of the woods, be sure to stop in for a coffee and a little cuddle time with Kira the shop dog. He’s got a great selection of Red Wings, so, whether you’re thinking about bringing new life to an old pair or adding a new pair into the rotation, he’ll sort you out.
Stitchdown contributor Bryan Szabo, Founder of the Indigo Invitational Denim Fade Competition, is a freelance writer and editor based out of Hungary and Norway. He’s a frequent contributor on Denimhunters, writing mostly about denim and fade culture, but his passion for well-made good extends to footwear and leather goods. That passion has guided him here to Stitchdown.