Making leather sandals

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.

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