Two years ago, my wife and I went to North America for our honeymoon. We stayed with friends and family on the US East Coast and on Vancouver Island in Canada. One afternoon, we were walking through Victoria, the largest city on Vancouver Island, when we saw this little shoe shop. My eyes were immediately drawn to a pair of handmade sandals in the shop window.

I wanted them. I wanted to learn how to make them.

One of the people who worked at the shop told us that the owner made these sandals. He was out, but would be back later. So we walked around the block, had some lunch. When we came back to the store the owner, Keith Gage-Cole had returned. I asked him if he could make me a pair of sandals before we had to leave town, three days later. “Sure”, he said. We chatted a bit about my own leatherwork. When I showed him a couple of pictures of what I did he said “you should make sandals”. Jackpot. He offered me to show me how he makes the sandals. When we returned two days later he had most of the components prepared. He finished the pair while I watched and I walked out of the shop with a new pair of handmade leather sandals and a head full of newfound sandal-related knowledge and ambition.

Now, two years later, I’ve made a bunch of sandals based on Keith’s design. In the process I’ve tweaked it a little bit: different materials, slightly different constructions. Below I’ll give a description of how I generally make these sandals. There’s a lot of room for little variations, some of which I’ll also discuss.

What I can’t give you are precise measurements. These depend on the size and shape of the foot that you make the sandal for. I can only give you some general pointers and tips on how to figure out these measurements. I also won’t go through every little detail in making these sandals, as that would lead to a blog post so long that no one would read it (and I wouldn’t write it).

Oh, and if it’s all a bit too complicated or you need some more help getting started: I also teach how to make these, both privately and for groups. For more info, feel free to contact me.

First, a list of what you’ll need:

The sandal consists of 5 parts:

  • top leather sole
  • bottom leather sole
  • rubber sole
  • front straps (actually one strap)
  • Ankle straps (actually one strap as well)

I use vegetable tanned leather for the leather parts. I prefer thick high quality leather for the sole: 3-4mm thick (9-10 ounce). For the strap I use slightly thinner leather at 2,5-3mm thick (7 ounce).

For the rubber sole I use Vibram soling rubber. My favourite is Vibram Eco-crepe. It’s very grippy and non-slip, and is partly made with recycled rubber.

Besides the leather and rubber for the above parts, you’ll need:

  • good glue, such as rubber cement. I’m using Renia Colle de Cologne.
  • Either short nails (preferably good cut or forged nails) or waxed linen thread.
  • Gum tragacanth (or similar) for burnishing the edges.
  • Leather wax for finishing the leather.

Essential tools:

  • Strong sharp knife for cutting the leather and rubber
  • Strap cutter
  • Edge beveler
  • Hammer
  • Little anvil or metal surface

If you’re planning on stitching the soles together, you’ll also need:

  • Stitching awl
  • A sturdy needle, for example one used for embroidery
  • A pair of pliers for pulling the needle if needed
  • Groover
  • Pricking iron with two prongs or stichting wheel

Recommended tools

  • Sanding paper up to P500 (European grit, roughly equivalent to 360 grit US) for smoothing the edges
  •  Leather burnisher
  • Punches for strap holes. I use a 9mm round punch, and a 7mm and 10mm oblong punch.
  • A little push drill can come in handy if you’re using very thick leather
  • Thick glossy paper or cardboard for making the template

Well, that’s a long list of stuff. If you don’t have all of it, don’t feel discouraged. There are workarounds for many of these tools if you’re a bit creative.

Step 1: making a template 

As I said before, when I make sandals I don’t work from measurements. I work from the foot that I make the sandals for. I usually make one template (from either the left or the right foot) and use that for both sandals, unless someone has two very different feet.

Let your victim stand on a glossy piece of paper or cardboard. It’s important that they stand, because feet spread a bit when there’s weight on them. Trace around the foot. Mark in between the first and second toes (this is where one of your straps goes). Also mark where the toes join the foot on both sides of the foot. Lastly, mark where the “ball” of their ankle is on both sides. Then put two more markings on both sides, spaced evenly between the toe and ankle markings. You’ll end up with 9 marks: one between the toes and four on each side. See the photo below.

Step 2: cutting the leather

Trace your template on some leather. Make two versions with the skin side up and two with the skin side down. Each sandal consist of two layers of leather sandwiched together with the flesh sides facing each other. These form the soles. Carefully cut out the leather for your soles, making sure to leave a millimeter outside your markings. You will lose a bit of leather when finishing the edges. Also, this gives you a bit of wiggle room in case you make mistakes.

 

Use your punches to make holes for the straps at the locations you marked. Use a 9mm round punch for the hole between the toes. The four holes on each side are oblong. The back two holes, around the ankle, are a bit wider. For the three front holes I use a 7mm oblong punch. For the one around the ankle I use  a 10mm oblong punch.

You’ll also need to cut some straps. Now here’s the trick about these sandals: there’s only two straps per sandal. One is pretty short and 15mm wide, the other is long and 10mm wide. The short wide strap forms the ankle looks and the long narrow strap does the rest. I usually cut three straps from the entire length of a double shoulder: two 10mm wide and one 15mm wide. The last one is more than enough for two, maybe three pairs of sandals. But the two narrower straps will probably be used entirely for this pair. Prepare the straps by edging them (taking off the corners, optional) and making the slit for the knot. You do this by punching a small hole about 1-2cm from the end of the strap. This will prevent the slit from tearing out. From here you cut a slit down the middle of the strap, about 3-4cm long. You finish the other end of the strap after you cut it to length, later in the process. But for now, put an angle on it so it’s easier to pull through.

Step 3: Putting the straps in

At this stage you’ll get your first peek at how your sandals are going to look. I first put the ankle loops in. The loops should reach to right under the “ball” of your ankle, which is 6cm in my case. The holes are quite tight, so I cut an angle on the strap and thin it a bit so it’s easier to pull through. This one strap forms both loops, by going under the middle of your foot. After you’re happy with the length of the straps, cut off the excess. Leave a little bit on the sides so you can stitch or nail the straps in place when you assemble the whole thing. You can cut off the last bit later.

Now it’s time to put the long narrow strap in. This may look a bit complicated, but it’s pretty simple once you understand the pattern. You start at the hole next to your big toe. Put the end with the slit into this oblong hole. From there you go under to the round hole in between your toes. I’ve illustrated the rest of the pattern in the drawing below. Make sure you have enough of the strap left to make the knot later.

The pattern in which you put the straps in the sandals (right sandal pictured). The dotted lines are where the straps run across the backside of the sole. Start at number one (bottom right) and work your way through the numbers.

 

Step 4: assembling the “shoe”

 

The “shoe” is what I call the leather parts of the sandal. In this next step you put the two leather soles together. They’re glued, then stitched or nailed. Before you do this, you have to make sure the glue doesn’t stick to the straps. They still have to move so you can adjust them, but also to enable you to oil them so the leather lasts longer. I apply a thick layer of leather wax (my own formula, Oxen Wax) to the straps and surrounding leather.

Next step: applying the glue. I use a contact adhesive, which means I apply a thin layer to both soles, let dry, then push and hammer together. After this, you either stitch the soles together before gluing the rubber sole to it, or you nail it after. I won’t go into how to stitch the soles together any deeper here. It’s just saddle stitching, which is a topic in its own right.

Now is also the time to burnish the edges of the leather soles. I sand them lightly until they’re smooth and even and then apply gum tragacanth and burnish using a wooden burnisher. This gives the side a nice smooth finish.

Burnished and oiled to the left versus natural to the right.

Step 5: attaching the rubber sole

The rubber sole is glued to the skin side of the bottom leather sole. To ensure it has good adhesion, I use a leather rougher. I cut a piece of rubber a bit larger than the sandal, so I can cut off the excess after gluing. I use a sharp knife to cut the rubber flush with the leather.

If you want to nail your sandals together rather than stitch it, you do so after attaching the rubber sole. I use nails that are just a tiny bit longer than the thickness of the sandal. I hammer them in from the top and then put the sandal over a small anvil and give it another whack. This bends the nails over inside the rubber sole. You can’t see or feel it from the outside, but this makes a really strong connection between all the layers of the sandal. It also makes the rubber sole more difficult to replace when eventually needed, but that is one of the downsides of a nailed sandal.

Step 6: adjusting

The sandal is nearly finished at this point. The final step is to adjust the straps. Put your foot in as far forward as you can. Pull all straps tight. The end of the strap with the slit should go just through the ankle loop and end a couple of centimeters behind it, just on the inside of your ankle next to your achilles. The other end of the strap goes through and makes this knot:

This knot is made as follows:

  1. go through the slit from the back
  2. go under, loop around making sure not to twist the strap
  3. Pull through the loop, downward

Now you can cut off the excess of the strap at the level of the top of the sole, so you don’t step on it.

You do want to thin and taper this side if the strap before you tie the knot.

Done

Enjoy your new sandals!

An example of nailed sandals. Also, in this variation the straps loop over the foot only three times instead of four.

They will darken a lot with use, but that’s what I love about them.

Oh, one last thing. You can add these rings to the sandal straps. They look cool, but they also keep the straps in place. This gives the sandals a lot more structure and prevents blisters from straps grinding over the top of your foot. They’re really easy to make and can be added or removed at any time after you’ve made the sandal. I use two punches: one is 30mm and is used to cut the circles for the straps, the other is 15mm an cuts the hole in the circle.


Update 2018: I’ve used a bunch of new tools since I wrote this. I’ll be adding them to the list.

This guide is aimed towards those who are planning on buying their first green woodworking tools. It can be difficult to find out what you should buy. You are often torn between three main, and often conflicting goals: you want to buy good tools, that are easy to come by, for cheap. With this guide I aim to give you some advice, keeping these three goals in mind. Sure, it would be easy to buy great tools with unlimited funds, but most of us are on a budget. And you can easily get cheap tools at your local DIY store, but they aren’t always the best buy. I’ll discuss a couple of different options, so you can decide whether you’re going for cheap and easy, going to save up for something more expensive, or perhaps that it would be better to go for a more challenging solution.

The advice I give below is, of course, based on my own experience. I live in Europe, so it may be easier or harder to get certain items over here than it would be in, say, the United States. I haven’t tried out everything that’s available out there, so if you feel that I’ve missed some important products, feel free to tell me in the comments!

Your two most important tools for carving spoons are your straight, or sloyd knife, and your curved, hook, or crook knife. I’ll discuss these knives first.

Knives
Straight knife: Mora 106

Choosing a straight knife is actually pretty easy: the Mora 106 combines great value for money with excellent availability. I feel you actually can’t get a lot better knives than this. Sure, you can go fancier, but the 106 is hard to beat, performance-wise. I own a bunch of 106’s for teaching, and they are just wonderful. It comes with a very ugly, but very functional, plastic sheath. I use a different Mora knife myself. It’s a blade that you buy without a handle or a sheath, so it involves a bit more work. It’s a bit shorter than the 106, which I like, but otherwise it’s nearly identical. If you feel like making your own handle, I’d go for that one.

good
90%
easy
85%
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90%
Straight knife: Beaver Craft Sloyd knife

From time to time people would ask me if this knife was any good to buy. This maker, Beaver Craft, sells his wares via Etsy (and I believe Amazon as well). He clearly tries to cater to the spoon carver market: he sells these “sloyd knives”, as well as a lot of different hook knives and “spoon carving sets”. The knife looked pretty decent on the picture and the price was even better: cheaper than a Mora 106. I decided to order one to see for myself if these were any good. The knife I was sent looked a bit different from the one in the etsy ad. I was a bit disappointed, to be honest. Sure, you can’t expect quality tools for this price but this guy got so close. The mistakes that he made with this knife could probably be avoided without adding to the cost. Firstly, the geometry of the blade felt off. It was a bit too thick and wide and the bevels were the wrong shape. This knife won’t go into corners as a sloyd knife is supposed to be able to. Secondly, the handle was very bulky and square. I ended up carving it down quite a bit. I’ll also have to regrind the blade pretty drastically. All this extra work is not worth the money you save by not getting a Mora.

good
50%
easy
90%
cheap
100%
Curved knife: Mora 164

Choosing your curved knife is a bit less straight-forward. There’s two options: either you can go cheap and mediocre, or more expensive and difficult to come by, but excellent. The cheap and mediocre option is the Mora 164. This knife is pretty cheap and shouldn’t be too hard to find at your local woodworking store or online. It’s more or less just a bent Mora 106. It comes without a sheath, so you’ll have to make that yourself. Mora makes a couple of other curved knives, such as the 163 and the 162. What sets the 164 apart from these two is that these are sharpened on both sides, while the 164 is only sharpened on one side. The 162 was actually my first curved knife. I bought it without any knowledge of how to carve a spoon. I thought it would be easy to be able to cut both towards myself and away from myself. I did not realize, however, that it is very important to be able to push the back of the blade with your (in my case, being right-handed) left hand. Guiding the blade with the hand that is not holding the knife gives you much more control, and ultimately a cleaner cut. That’s why I would not recomment the 163 or 162.

good
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easy
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cheap
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Curved knife: Nic Westermann finishing knife

At first glance, the Nic Westermann finishing knife (seen in the illustration at the top of this page) may seem pretty similar to the Mora 164: both are only sharpened on one side, both have a rounder end, which makes them more versatile than knives with a shallower curve. A few characteristics set Nic Westermann’s knife apart from the 164, and make it the best curved knife I’ve ever used: first off, it has a much more sophisticated grind. It is hollow on the inside, which makes it much easier to sharpen, and the outside is one continuous bevel instead of the scandi grind on the Mora. This smooth outside bevel helps to cut across, and even against the grain. The knife has a rounder section at the end, great for deeper bowls, but also a long shallow section, perfect for shallower curves.
So in short: it’s great. What are the downsides? It’s nearly three times the cost of the Mora 164, it comes without a sheath and without a handle. If you really are on a tight budget, go for the Mora 164. But if you can afford it, Nic Westermann’s knives are well worth their cost. Do keep in mind that Nic often has a waiting list, so be prepared to wait for the knife. And don’t worry about making a handle for it: it’s easy. The finishing knife comes with a round tang, so just carve something handle-shaped out of ash, oak, or whatever you have; drill a hole at the top and glue the tang in with a bit of epoxy. Job done.

good
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easy
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Spoon-carving-toolsBig

Hatchets et al.
Hatchet: Gränsfors Bruk carving hatchet
To rough out a blank from the log, you need a hatchet. I use a Gränsfors Bruk carving hatchet, which I love. They’re a little over a hundred euros over here, but I’ve seen them for as much as 185 US dollars across the Atlantic. If you can afford it, or can get one for a reasonable price, I’d recommend this one. It’s well worth the money, comes with a good handle and a sheath, and comes razor sharp. It holds a good edge and is exactly the right shape and weight for spoon carving. Keep in mind, though, that this one could be a bit too heavy for you. I’m a big guy and like heavy tools, but I know many carvers who prefer slightly lighter hatchets. I recently tried one of Svante Djärv’s hatchets, which I really liked, and I know Robin Wood also sells some decent hatchets.
good
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easy
90%
cheap
40%
Hatchet: a flea market find

Before I bought my GB carving hatchet, I used an old sandvik hatchet, a flea market find. It only cost me a couple of bucks, and with a few hours of grinding, sharpening and polishing and a new handle I had a perfectly usable hatchet. I’ve seen lots of great hatchet at flea markets, and if you know how to restore them you can possibly get the perfect spoon carving hatchet for next to nothing. It does require some work, skill, luck and persistence, though. If you’re on a budget, I’d recommend trawling your local flea markets, pawn shops and thrift stores for treasure.

good
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easy
10%
cheap
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Hatchet: a camping hatchet from your local big box or DIY store

I’ve seen many beginning wood carvers starting out with awful camping hatchets from their local DIY store. Nine out of ten times, these are practically unusable for spoon carving. They are often very dull, and the geometry of the bevel is usually far too steep. You could make one of these work, but it would require a complete regrind of the bevel. Oftentimes the grain direction of the handle is way off, and the finish of these tools overall is poor. Of course, there are exceptions, but I haven’t seen them yet. Even if these hatchets are cheap, you’d get bad value for your money. My advice: steer clear.

good
20%
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cheap
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Saw: Japanese folding saw
You need a good saw for making stop cuts and cutting pieces of wood to length. The best type of saw for this are Japanese pruning saws. These saws cut on the pull stroke. A lot of spoon carvers use Silky saws, and those are great. They can be a bit expensive, though. I use the Orikomi folding saw 250, coarse. This saw is about half the price of its Silky equivalent, and just as good if you ask me.
good
90%
easy
80%
cheap
60%
Bonus: the Leuku

While it’s not really essential, and not many spoon carvers own or use one, I’d like to briefly discuss one of my favorite tools: the Leuku. This is a large knife, traditionally used by the Sami people of Northern Scandinavia. It’s somewhat similar to a machete, but smaller. In its function it’s almost in between the hatchet and the sloyd knife. I use it for finish hewing, splitting and chopping tasks, and courser carving tasks. It’s more delicate and controllable than the hatchet, but more powerful than the knife. I made my Leuku myself, from a Lauri leuku blank.

good
100%
easy
30%
cheap
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Other Essentials
Of course you will also need some other things in your basic spoon carving toolkit, such as a chopping block, and something to keep your tools sharp. Some of these thing you’ll need to buy, but others you can make yourself. I’ll discuss these in an upcoming post.

 


                            

Update: since writing the post below my ideas on carving safety have changed. I no longer believe it’s a good idea to use a thimble, or any type of extra protection while carving. They can encourage unsafe carving practices. If you use unsafe techniques this thimble won’t protect you. You’ll carve straight through it, one day. I’m keeping this tutorial, though, because you may find another use for the thimble. I’ve used it in leatherworking, for example. 

If you’re carving wood with a sloyd knife, many techniques require that you carve towards the thumb of the hand holding the knife. If you’re not careful it’s really easy to accidentally skip out of the wood and into your thumb. That is why I often use a simple leather or suede thimble to protect my thumb. Here’s a little tutorial so that you can make one of these yourself, using only very basic tools.

This (clumsily made) drawing shows the two bits of leather you’ll need. I used some scraps of (I think) buffalo leather, but you can pretty much use anything.

 

Leather carving Thimble

The sizes don’t really matter that much. Those indicated above worked for my thumb, and can be used as a rough guideline.

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Step 1: cut two bits of leather.

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Step 2: put the two bits on top of each other, skin sides facing each other, and cut off the corners.

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Step 3: using a lacing/stitching chisel (or an awl, doesn’t really matter), punch a couple of holes along the sides. Keeping the two bits of leather on top of each other helps to line up the holes.

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Step 4: stitch the two bits of leather together using strong thread, skin sides facing each other. I recommend saddle stitching, which is done with two needles. With a needle on each end of the thread, you basically do two running stitches from opposing sides, making a tiny flat knot inside each hole. If this explanation doesn’t make sense, don’t worry. I’ll write a more detailed post on saddle stitching soon.

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Step 4.5: turn the thing inside out. It should start looking like a thimble by now.

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Step 5: there should be two holes in the middle of the smaller piece of leather. You can put a small stitch in these, pulling them together to make the thimble a bit tighter around the thumb.

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Like that.

 

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Step 6: attach a piece of elastic (from an old pair of boxer shorts for example) to the thimble. Start with the pair of holes closest to the middle, and work your way out. Attach one side first, and then the other.

 

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And that’s it. Leather carving thimble done!



A friend of mine recently managed to save my beloved Koga Miyata. Its bottom bracket broke and the threads were completely worn out. I was ready to throw the frame out and look for a new (old) one, but he offered to have one last look at her. He welded in a new bottom bracket and the bike lived to ride another day. So, as thanks, I made a leather cover for one of his handlebars. It’s a beautiful old track bike handlebar from 3ttt. Here’s the finished product:

Leather handlebar wrap

And here’s how to make it.

  • First, measure the circumference of the handlebar. In this case it was about 8cm (a little over 3″) around.
  • Cut straps that are a bit narrower than the circumference and a bit longer than the length you wish to cover. For example, I cut two straps of 7,7cm (3″) by 46cm (almost 18″). I used pretty thin veg-tan leather. I think this stuff was about 2,5mm thick (6 oz.).IMG_20151224_145345369 IMG_20151224_145443512
  • Make a line parallel to the long edges using a compass or groove cutter. The line shouldn’t be too close to the edge or it will tear out. 3 or 4mm (1/8″) from the edge looked fine to me. This line will guide the stitching chisel, and make sure all stitches line up straight. I used a groove cutter to cut a very shallow groove. It helps me feel whether my chisel is on the line or not.

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  • Punch holes for the stitches using a stitching chisel. If you don’t have one you can also use a stitching wheel and awl, but it takes a lot longer.

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  • Use a plant mister to make the leather slightly (not soaking!) wet. This will help the leather stretch and form to the bar.IMG_20151224_151101458
  • Take a length of waxed linen thread of about 1.5m long (a yard and a half). Attach a needle to both ends. The stitch will be a sort of a hybrid between saddle stitch (in the sense that you use two needles) and baseball stitch. Start it off by making an X as shown below.
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  • Now, the bottom needle goes to into the next hole over on the opposite side, entering from the skin side.
  • You now have two threads coming from the top side, take the first (left) one, and cross over to the bottom side, to the next hole over, going over the outside and in on the skin side.
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  • Continuing with this needle, cross over to the top side, again over the outside and in on the skin side.
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  • Repeat the last two steps until you come to the end of the handlebar.
  • Some tips: always make sure that you have the thread you are stitching with to the left, and the other to the right. Tighten the stitches continuously. Also keep manipulating the leather to keep the seam where you want it.
  • Once you’re at the end of the handlebar, go back and forth between the last two holes a couple of times and tie it off by making a flat knot. Cut off any excess leather and thread with a sharp knife or pair of scissors.

    All done!

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The new version of my website, which now includes a webshop, has been under construction for a while. But now that I’ve finished my MA thesis, I’ve finally had the time to take some proper pictures and put up some more products. That means that I’ve now officially opened the shop. I’ll be adding a lot more stuff in the coming days and weeks, but feel free to look around and see what’s there already. Maybe there’s something that strikes your fancy.

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