Bespoke Shoes Unlaced – a shoemaker's blog

Friday, 13 April 2012

The Leather We Use 3 - Sole Bends

After a very pleasant Easter break which I spent painting, eating (yes, chocolate too) and generally resting, we are back with a short week. Now this would not normally be a cause for complaint, but, as usual, we have a glut of work all coming at once which needs doing immediately.

The first few months of this year have been a bit quiet and we have taken the opportunity to do all the things which usually get shunted to the back of the queue, which is good in some ways, but now it's gone crazy. I do wish there was a way to regulate the flow of work, but it just doesn't work that way.

This week's post is the third in our irregular series on the leather we use. This time it's sole leather. Again, we use the oak bark tanned cow hides made in traditional tanning pits by Bakers of Colyton, Devon. The part of the cow used for the soles is called a bend and it comes from the back of the animal. The hide is split down the spine and then the two hardest, strongest parts are used. The belly part is cut off and used for toe puffs and stiffeners.

If you remember, the insole shoulder runs across the top of the cow's shoulder from leg to leg, so the grain runs along its length. But because the sole bend runs along the length of the cows back, from head to tail, you have to bear this in mind when cutting the soles. It means the grain runs across the width of the bend, so you have to cut out the soles in this orientation.

Sole Bend. The Grain Runs From Right To Left Across It

The sole bend has to be the hardest, most long lasting part of the shoe, so it is rolled very dense to compress the fibres. It is rock hard and feels like wood when you tap it. Unlike wood, it is flexible when you bend it.

This is the back surface or flesh side where you can see vein marks.

The front surface or skin side is much smoother and is the part which touches the ground. It should be smooth and uniform in colour, so that you can get an even finish on the finished shoes.

When we buy our bends, we ask the tannery to pre-cut them. This is because it is much easier to store. They have three standard sizes which fit 90% of the shoes we make. When there is a shoe which does not fit onto one of the pre-cut soles, we have a whole bend which we can cut from.

This is what the pre-cut sole looks like.

As for thickness, we usually buy this thickness below. It is measured in irons which I believe are 1/64 of an inch (could be completely wrong there!). But we talk to the tannery and tell them it is for a 1/4" sole or 5/16" etc. The thickness below (about5.5mm) is great for a 1/4" or 5/16" sole. For a 3/16" we have to buy a thinner bend. Likewise, for a thick sole, 3/8" for example, we buy a thicker bend.

The rolling process really helps to even out the thickness, but you have to be aware that this is an organic product and is not always exactly the same thickness.

Good luck if you are planning to buy some sole bend hide. Look for something dense and hard but also flexible. If it feels brittle when you bend it, it is likely to split or crack. And remember, that it is very hard, but when you work it, you soak it in water, so it is much softer and easier to work.

As for brands, we use Bakers because they are fantastic and local, but the other excellent tannery that most bespoke shoemakers use is Rendenbach in Germany. Both excellent quality and highly recommended.

And that, dear readers, is a wrap. Have a thoroughly excellent week and, until next Friday, happy shoemaking!