Choosing leather for shoes
These are my current thoughts on leather choices for the various parts of a handmade shoe. Please note that I am an amateur/hobbyist, and that these thoughts are to be considered just as that: my thoughts. Consider this page only as a glimpse into an amateur mind in the middle of a journey, nothing more.
That said, I’ve found it is of utmost importance to choose leather wisely for any project. (I’ve learned and re-learned this the hard way several times.)
Vegetable tanned vs. Chrome tanned
Vegetable tanned leather is the mother of all leathers. Tanned through a rigorous and traditional process, free of harmful chemicals, and with a genuine smell. It ages beautifully over time, takes dye with ease, and is very durable. You can moisten and shape vegetable tanned leather in ways that you simply cannot do with chrome tanned leather. On the downside, veg tanned leather is more difficult to work with in some aspects, and its ability to soak up water like a sponge is not always beneficial.
This being said, the vast majority of men’s quality shoes are made with uppers that are chrome tanned, for superior durability and ability to resist the elements. Chrome tanned leather is faster to produce than veg tanned, easier to work with in many aspects, more water resistant, and for good and bad it doesn’t really ‘age’. On the downside: you can’t really shape it, stamp it, dye it as easily as veg tanned leather (in my experience), and it’s potentially a bit more chemical.
So, which way to go? The answer tends to be a mixture of both: usually chrome tanned uppers, and veg tanned for everything else. Potentially, chrome tanned leather can be used as lining as well as uppers. Another option is using 100% vegetable tanned leather for a pair of shoes, uppers and all. (I’ve made a few, but I wouldn’t dare to wear them in the rain.) Regardless of the upper leather, some parts of the shoe must be vegetable tanned as explained below.
Even if you get the most expensive, top dollar hide, all parts of that same premium hide will not be created equal. As can be read in Analysis of leather and materials used in making it (1931), this image pretty much sums it up:
Upper leather should ideally be between 3 and 5 oz in thickness, which is equivalent to ca 1.2 – 2.0 mm. For a first shoe project, I’d favor 3 oz or 3-4 oz chrome tanned calf for uppers (1.2 or 1.4 mm). The best leather is full grain aniline leather – ie, not polished, corrected, “top grain”, “brush off” or “genuine leather”. (Corrected leather is synonymous with destroyed leather. “Genuine leather” is the lowest quality product available that still has “leather” in the name.) That said, printed leather can offer a nice texture as well.
The best calf leather for shoes that is known to man is available at Kolde Leder and A&A Crack & Sons. It’s also very expensive for a private persons pocket. These retailers between them stock international top quality product like Horween shell cordovan, Tanneries D’Annonay, Tanneries Du Puy, and Weinheimer/Freudenberg box calf.
For the hobbyist getting started, far more affordable alternatives are offered at buyleatheronline. As long as cost is a big issue, I would advise against getting the most expensive and qualitative leather for your first couple of pairs. Many professionals give opposite advice, and advocate going straight for the end goal and using the highest quality of materials from the get go. That is certainly a more efficient way to learn how to work with ‘the real deal’ (which is more difficult) – but it’s also way more expensive.
Lining is ideally made from vegetable tanned calf IMO, between 2 and 3 oz in thickness (ca 0.8 to 1.2 mm). My favorite lining is this 0,8 mm vegetable tanned baby calf.
Chrome tanned leather can also be used as lining. For instance, 0.6 mm chrome tanned goat skin is rather thin and easy to work with. It’s cheap, durable, soft and comfortable.
Toe puff & heel counter (stiffeners)
Toe puffs and heel counter stiffeners should be veg tanned. I’ve mainly used 5 oz pure veg tanned and 5-6 oz veg tan Tärnsjö garveri, and sometimes experimented with 5 oz latigo tanned shoulder leather. Depicted below is a 5 oz pure veg tanned toe puff, first lasted on top of the lining with Hirschkleber and then trimmed and sanded once dry.
Veg tan according to preference. I like to use ca 7-8 oz veg tan from Tärnsjö Tannery.
I like natural colored welting leather from Leather & Grindery. You can also make your own from veg tanned leather in your thickness of choice, preferrably about the same thickness as the rand.
The insole is the core of the shoe. Thick, vegetable tanned calf should do the trick, between 11 and 14 oz depending on the desired result. I’ve used 12-13 oz veg tan from Tärnsjö Garveri, 11 oz Italian dorsal and 12-13 oz veg tanned butt (which works fine but is very difficult to work with due to its hard temper). My favorite thus far (and coincidentally the most expensive) is buffed insole shoulder from Baker, shown below.
Thick ol’ hard tempered veg tan, around 12 oz. For leather sole shoes, I most often use 9 iron (equivalent to 12 oz) J. Rendenbach outsoles. It’s of course possible to go both up or down in thickness, depending on preference. Rendenbach is widely considered one of the best outsole manufacturers in the world).
Any veg tanned leather will do, with a thickness depending on how thick lifts you want. The easiest way to start is to use outsole leather. The thicker the lifts, the easier to make – the thinner, the more prestigious. Depicted below is 5 mm heel lifts.
For someone starting out on a shoemaking journey, trying to keep the costs down low and the amount of different leather types to a minimum, I would probably advise to get the following leathers.
Upper: 3-4 oz dollar printed calf
Lining: 8 oz baby calf
Toe puff, heel stiffener, rand and welt: 6 oz / 2,5 mm veg tan
Insoles: 11 oz dorsal
Outsole + heel lifts: 13 oz veg tanned butt (or the same option in 9-10 oz for a thinner sole).
These are not the highest quality options, but it will make do to start. The list above should be enough for about three pairs of shoes with some excess, and weighs in at 308€ at the time of writing. (Some additional hardware required, like top lifts and shanks, and of course stuff like glue and nails, etc. See my page List of materials for the other stuff needed.) Going for the highest quality leathers from the start would add a couple of hundred dollars/euro to a first purchase, and require ordering from different suppliers. I’ll return here to summarize some options for upgrades.