Dr. Sole’s ascent to becoming a world-famous solemaker in the heritage boot scene wouldn’t have been possible without getting more Dr. Sole products on more pairs of boots. To speed that along, founder Chao-Yung Lin decided the best way to make it happen was by offering to put the soles on himself.
The only problem? Lin had never resoled a pair of shoes in his life.
In our conversation below, Lin shares his inspiring story of how he went from absolute beginner to shoe repair expert, thanks to his dogged pursuit of teaching himself the trade along with the help of some strangers on the Internet. Ultimately it would lead him to moving his Bench-Re-Built operation from an old apartment to the full-sized brick-and-mortar shop it resides in today, where Lin and his team revive worn pairs of boots through old-school craftsmanship with a touch of custom-car-modding swagger.
In addition to learning about how Lin refined his approach to cobbling—and overcame his trepidation of a fearsome machine known as the Landis K—we hear more about Dr. Sole’s growing Pioneer footwear brand, how they developed their first in-house pair, the Game Changer, and what we can expect from Pioneer in the future.
This is Part 2 of our chat with Lin. You can find Part 1 here.
Josh: Before Dr. Sole, you had no personal experience in cobbling, but taught yourself how to repair and resole shoes. Are you still personally involved with the resoling work?
Lin: Yes, I am a self-taught cobbler and I am still involved with the resoling work.
In 2012, not long after we began selling the Dr. Sole products, more and more consumers reached out to us for the sole/heel. In 2013 Betty and I moved back to our hometown, Taipei, while she was pregnant. The headquarters of Dr. Sole was moved to Taipei at the same time. But we still traveled back and forth between China and Taiwan to continue the production. With the growth of sole sales, some customers asked us if we could install the sole for them.
So, we began our resole service by cooperating with some local cobbler shops here in Taipei. Later next year in 2014, I decided to jump in by myself, as the local cobbler could not fulfill some requests.
I used to visit a shoe factory specialized in Goodyear welted footwear very often during 2012 to 2013 as it was our customer. The shoe factory was just a five minute drive from Johnny’s factory. For a shoe enthusiast like me, the factory was totally a playground. I peeked at all the production procedures and asked questions to the workers whenever I had questions. That’s where I absorbed most of my knowledge about making welted shoes.
When I decided to begin doing resoles, I thought it would not be a tough job as I gained the knowledge. Every time I saw the workers doing their job at the shoe factory, they seemed very skilled, making me believe it was an easy task to resole shoes by myself. However, to do it with my own hands was a totally different world. I was too naive.
My first 10+ pairs were disasters.
I practiced on my own boots, my little brother’s boots, and my friend’s boots. When I encountered problems, I looked at the book Handmade Shoes for Men by László Vass [Ed note: buy this book! It’s incredible.] and searched for solutions on YouTube. I posted the results on my Instagram account and surprisingly, there were more and more customers inquiring about the resole service.
I’ve met some amazing cobblers all over the world on Instagram. Cobblers are one of the most generous species I’ve known, when it comes to sharing the skills, solutions, the sources of certain tools/materials, and so on. I think the generosity in sharing is the key reason why there are more and more great cobblers/bootmakers showing up on Instagram, which is undoubtedly a booster in promoting and cultivating the heritage boots culture.
Dr. Sole’s first headquarters and resole workshop in Taipei was in an old apartment, which was difficult to get to. With the steady growth in sole sales and inquiries for resoling, we decided to move to our larger current site in March 2016. It’s also a brick and mortar store that is open to all customers, where we take resole cases and do leather boot sales.
I recruited my first teammate, Luker (@lukerchen_) to my resole team in September 2016. He was totally a blank slate and knew nothing about leather boots when he joined us. But he has enthusiasm and the ability to learn all the knowledge and skills about boots spontaneously. He is totally a boot guy now. Currently, he serves as our store manager and the chief cobbler. Now our Bench-Re-Built team is composed of four people (including me) and taking mail-in orders all over the world.
How has Dr. Sole’s approach to resoles changed since you started doing it a decade ago?
The approach has been changing and evolving.
Since I am self-taught, my teachers are the books, Youtube videos, and many cobblers around the world. I am still learning. Sometimes I learn from my co-workers—I learned how to use sewing machines from one. We are always trying to reach some better approach to improve our resole service. It could be a better tool, skill, materials, or whatever that can help us to achieve a better result.
My first 10 pairs or so were done all with hand tools. I didn’t even have a sanding machine to trim and shape the soles, which was done with knives and sandpaper. Needless to say, it was very time-consuming and the results were not good. Then I purchased a sanding machine, and learned to master it on my own. During the first 2-3 years of my resole service, this sanding machine was the only powered machine involved in my resole service. The rest of the jobs were still done by hand tools.
After we relocated to our current site, we got a bigger space and the resole business kept growing. So we not only recruited new staff, but brought in new machines to enhance the efficiency. We’ve added some machinery since 2016, such as two sewing machines for upper repair, a sole presser, a leather skiver, and most importantly, the Landis K sole stitcher.
Do you still offer hand-stitched resoles?
We used to hand-stitch all the soles. There is nothing wrong with hand-stitching and the best thing about it is that we can always ensure the new stitching goes through the original holes, ensuring the longevity of the existing welt in Goodyear welted construction, or uppers for stitchdown construction. It is just so time-consuming and sometimes the stitching looks crooked. It might take 1-2 hours or longer to hand-stitch one pair of boots. On the other hand, it only takes a few minutes with the machine.
However, no one is born to master a monster machine like the Landis K stitcher. We were all very thrilled while the machine arrived at our workshop. But the excitement disappeared very quickly, because I had absolutely no clue how to use it. The huge sole stitchers like Landis K or Sutton Rapid E are extremely rare here in Taiwan, which means I had no one to learn from.
Which meant it was time to learn by myself again. I spent months getting familiar with the machine, understanding how it works, adjusting the parts, and so on. When I encountered problems, I looked up the manual, searched the solution online, and inquired with the cobblers in the States who use the same machine. I used my own boots to practice again and again. The more I touched the machine, the more I understood it. After nearly a year or so, Landis K finally officially joined our team. With the machine, we have saved tons of time on sole stitching. Currently, about 95% of sole stitching jobs are done by the machine. We still do hand-stitched soles for certain types/brands of boots, such as Visvim, which are all hand-stitched originally.
You’ve done some pretty unique customizations, such as these Wescos with stacked leather spring heels and a Super-grip full sole. Where do you find your inspiration for jobs like these?
Like the inspirations of our sole products, I always look back to seek for the inspiration.
The stacked leather spring heels with rubber full soles can be seen on the vintage Wesco Lineman boots circa 1950s. The first time I saw this sole was on an Instagram post of a vintage boots collector. Then I read more about it in Wesco’s 100th Anniversary Commemorative Book by Rin Tanaka. I think this is a very cool and unique make-up that is rare to see on today’s market.
How much does Dr. Sole’s resole work influence your sole development and manufacturing, and vice-versa?
Undeniably, the resole work delays the sole development. I spend 80% of my work time on resoles, the other 20% is taken by sales, development, and so on. But it is our annual goal to launch at least two new styles of sole/heel every year.
However, I am not just a developer; I am also a heavy user of our products. The resole work helps me understand how to design the products in a more practical way. Besides, I can always get first-hand feedback while talking to the customers, and thus understand the market needs, which definitely helps me a lot in composing the ideas for new products.
The last big topic I wanted to tackle is the Pioneer brand. Dr. Sole has previously worked with a number of different makers to produce its Pioneer collection. What motivated you to start producing footwear yourselves?
We are a sole-maker. It is inevitable that we want to see our sole/heel installed on as many boots as possible. I like the idea and brand image of “Pioneer” very much.
To make collaboration boots with bootmakers is a great opportunity for them to see and use our soles. Every collaboration is an expedition for us. But if we cannot make the styles we like from the bootmakers’ existing custom options, it becomes time to develop the boots ourselves. The Game Changers are the first Pioneer Collection not in collaboration with other bootmakers.
What was the process like for finding the tools and talent to make the Game Changer?
To be honest, it didn’t take us too long to develop the Game Changer. As we have the vintage boots (where the inspiration comes from) at hand, we have the suitable last (Pioneer Last), and the proper sole and heel (this is what we do). The only thing that took us more time is the leather selection of uppers.
We thought of suede or a combination of leather and canvas, but there has been something similar on the market. In the world of heritage boots, nubuck leather is a leather option that is seldom talked about and used. But we really like the velvet-like texture and think it is perfect for sports-inspired footwear. So, we decided to use the nubuck leather.
However, the drawback is that the nubuck leather is very difficult to handle during the production as it absorbs everything. If any glue or oil lands on the nubuck, it is very difficult to clean the stain. So we need to take extra care while working on the boots.
The Game Changer pays tribute to a pair of 1920s sporting boots. Where did you come across these boots? Why did you decide to use them as inspiration for the Game Changer?
The vintage sports boots are from Luker’s archive. He was curious about how the athletes in the past exercised in leather boots like these. The design is still seen on modern Converse Chuck Taylors, bowling shoes, and monkey boots. Then we found out that the lace-to-toe system is a very smart way to adjust the fit, making it easy to fit the feet in various widths.
Can you offer any clues about what and when the next Pioneer release will be?
Yes, we are working on a new model. It is house-made just like the Game Changer. All I can reveal is that it is a service-type boot and also inspired by our vintage boots archive.
Do you anticipate doing more collaborations for the Pioneer brand in the future, or are all Pioneer makeups going to be made in-house from now on?
We will be doing both ways. If we can make the ideal style based on the available options from the existing bootmakers, we would love to have more collaborations, as it is a good way to communicate with the customers from two directions. A new collaboration with a new brand is on the way. Meanwhile, we will make more boots in-house to provide our customers with more unique styles. Please stay tuned!