mens timberland boots uk Dillon boot maker shares Western footwear craft
Detail is what makes Schwarz Custom Boots stand out from the footwear you’d find at any local Western retailer. At $1,550 for the basic cowboy boot, the small, family owned business prides itself in the 60 or so pairs of handmade cowboy boots turned out custom each year. When the Schwarz family first started out in the boot making business about a decade
ago, their clients were, not surprisingly, actual cowboys. Anymore, most are out of state business executives and the waiting time today for a pair of cowboy boots is 12 months.
You’ll find Schwarz on a dusty dirt road on the outskirts of town. A two car garage attached to the house is ground zero for stretching, sewing and sizing leather to make boots.
It’s relatively tight quarters for Dan and Julia Schwarz and their 29 year old daughter Keni Crane. But on this particular day, it’s even a little more snug.
That’s because it’s class week.
Four weeks out of each year, Schwarz Custom Boots holds classes to share the craft of boot making with anyone with the stamina, fortitude and the $3,000 tuition cost.
Some come with hopes of returning home to produce custom made cowboy boots. Others see it as a two week working vacation. Some are legitimate cowboys and cowgirls. Others just fancy the Western lifestyle.
This week, there’s a rodeo cowboy from North Dakota and a brick layer from Anaconda. A cowgirl from southern Utah and Bugeaud, a leather craftsman from British Columbia.
It won’t be tomorrow, but Dan Schwarz envisions a day when the family will no longer take boot orders.
“If it were up to me, I’d do a full time school,” he said. “I love to teach. I mean there are some students you’d prefer not to have. Any kindergarten teacher could tell ya that. But I love the look on their faces when they see what they’ve just made.”
The Schwarz family fell into the boot making business by falling out of a pair of cowboy boots in the late 1990s. Cattle prices were low. Schwarz was leasing a small ranch in the area when he brought a pair of cowboy boots into the local shoe repair shop. The owner suggested Schwarz buy the business when he dropped his boots off, and he mentioned the idea again to him when he returned to pick them up.
That was October. Following a six month apprenticeship, Schwarz was the new owner of Dillon’s shoe repair shop. Quickly, Schwarz and daughter Keni, a teenager then, realized it was increasingly difficult to fix some of the cowboy boots coming into their shop.
“You can only do so much” for foreign manufactured cowboy boots made of plastic materials and glued together, said Crane, who today is married with twins. They are the kind of boots that aren’t meant to be repaired, throwaways.
“You felt limited by what you could do,” she said.
Both Crane and Schwarz decided that in order to better repair boots, they ought to learn to make them.
They turned to well known Billings’ cobbler Mike Ives, who at age 81 turned them down flat.
“Girls aren’t strong enough to build boots,” he told Schwarz.
So, when Schwarz and Crane were traveling through Billings a short time later, Schwarz told his daughter: “You offer him your hand and you squeeze it with all your might.”
Show the man you mean business.
“I know I probably went red in the face,” Crane recalled of the handshake.
Ives replied, “Maybe she is strong enough.”
For 10 days at $100 a day, Ives taught Crane how to build cowboy boots. She took careful notes and shot photographs of each step. The satisfaction of building a pair of cowboy boot for the first time is indescribable, Crane said.
“Well, what do you think?” she asked Ives on the 10th day.
On average, it takes 40 hours spread out over two weeks to make a pair of boots. Keni and Julia Schwarz, Dan’s wife, are the “top men,” which means they work on the part of the boot around the calves. That includes the stitching and colors. It’s the aesthetic part. Dan is the “bottom man,” who makes sure the boot fits perfectly right.
They don’t use nails, which will rot an insole. Schwarz Custom Boots uses traditional boot making methods, using only wood pegs to hold the sole to the boot, a rubber heel cap and a steel shank under the sole. Otherwise, the entire boot is leather.
Schwarz and Crane measure every customer in person. They take nine measurements on each foot.
“The measurements don’t lie,” Crane said.
Most of the customers these days live out of state, so either the boot maker needs to go to the customer or the customer comes to Dillon. Schwarz and Crane have traveled at clients’ expense to New York, Washington, Utah, California, Colorado and Arizona to size up feet.