Making Lasts


Making your own Lasts is one of those topics that can get you literally a different opinion on with every different person you ask. Some professionals will start muttering about obscure things such as "bottom radii", "inside cones", "degree in the heel" "medial swing", "extremes", "treadline", and goodness knows what all else, and claiming that if you aren't careful you will at best be wasting wood, and at worst, destroying your client's feet. The less religiously inclined will tell you that it's possible, but warn you, if you make a lousy last, it doesn't matter if you can make decent shoes. There are those will tell you that you can't make identically matching lasts, as though that means you you shouldn't try.

All I can tell you is just be careful. Lastmaking has always been a distinct and separate trade from shoemaking, and one that requires a certain degree of artistic ability as a sculptor as well as a fitter of one of the more difficult portion of the human anatomy to clothe -- not to mention a costly tool kit and set of skills entirely different than those needed to make shoes. Few shoemakers have ever been noteworthy lastmakers, and even fewer lastmakers have ever made shoes worth remembering. Now, after these frightening opening remarks, let me just say that in the face of all this, not having lasts at all can make what should be a challenging project somewhat more frustrating or even disastrous for the beginner -- as I assume most individuals just want to make an occasional pair of shoes to go with a period costume and are not setting up a production shoe shop.

So I hear you asking, why can't I just use modern lasts?  You can, and no one will stop you.  The only problem with modern lasts are their shapes.  Very few modern lasts even begin to approach a medieval last shape, and virtually all shoes made in the past hundred years or so have been made with heels.  That detail of construction means that virtually all lasts used in the past hunfred years or so have had that distinctive "s-curve" of the raised heel.  As we discuss elsewhere in this document, raised heels aren't period and neither is that "s-curve" -- and that curve never goes away.  So what?  That curve also means that the last was shaped to help support the foot on a raised heel, and keep the foot from sliding forward down the shoe into the toe cap.  The more pronounced the s-curve, the more that shoes made on that last, when worn without heels, are going to wind up squeezing the upper part of the metarsal region of the foot, resulting in quickly tiring, aching feet.  This, by the way, may be the origin of one of those annoying myths -- "Period shoes are uncomfortable" since any shoe made on a last designed for a heel, but worn without one, CAN be uncomfortable.

Now all is not lost.  I own a lovely pair of lasts myself that are for women's pointed flats in 7 1/2.  The shape's a bit off, but they will make serviceable shoes, but  I will have to build up the instep area so that anyone I know can actually wear shoes made on them.  So, for the most part, it would be just as easy to make a new pair of lasts.  And I'm not a particularly gifted woodworker.

There are basically two ways to make your own lasts.  Plaster and wood.  I'm going to include both, and I've made both, but to be honest, I prefer the wood even though it's more work.

Plaster

I'm going to quickly cover this since, really, I don't think you should waste your time with it.  If you want to hear more about using plaster from someone who seems to believe in it, I suggest you find a copy of Mary Wales Loomis' Make your Own Shoes. Privately printed, 1992.  I believe she has a web-site out there someplace selling the work.  It's a nice book on making shoes and using plaster lasts to do it.

The method commonly described begins with taking an old but good-fitting pair of shoes. Some people suggest straightening several wire coat hangers, and then start bending them to shape to criss-cross the interior of your "sacrificial" shoes, being careful to not have them distort the shape of the shoes after they've been laced shut (assuming you are lacing these shoes).  I don't know that the hangers are necessary.  I didn't use them, and everything was fine. You then fill the shoe with plaster. After the plaster is dry, cut the shoe away, and let it sit for a few days to fully dry. Then sand and smooth the plaster, after which it may be best to cement some fabric to cover the plaster to protect it. You can also use a plastic bag taped tightly around the plaster to protect the last from moisture.  You can even use more plaster to modify the last to change the toe shape to a more period style, to improve the fit of the shoes from the last, and so on.  Also, since you are (hopefully) using a matching pair of shoes, the lasts they produce should actually match each other fairly well.

lastm5.jpg (3130 bytes)
Ok, it's green fabric covered, but it's plaster.

However, they won't take tacks, or hammering.  You will have to lace your uppers on the last by sewing across the bottom, when you are shaping leather.

 

Wood

lastm3.jpg (7484 bytes)lastm4.jpg (4989 bytes)
Two views of a repro of an early 14th century last from Greenland.

I have several quotes from different people on how to make lasts from wood, and then some thoughts of my own.

From D.A. Saguto, writing to H-Costume, September 8, 1998 (used with permission)

"For a one-time or occasional use, perfectly satisfactory lasts can be made from two sections of soft pine 2 x 4 glued together to obtain a dimension approaching 4" x 4". The insole pattern of the shoe style you want (not your footprint) is drawn on the bottom, and at a suitable distance from this the rough shape can be cut-out on a bandsaw. Since the foot has no sharp corners on it, but the last does, the broader profile of the last tends to overhang the "feather", or the defined sharp edge that is represented by the insole pattern. If you are confident, further stock removal can be done on the bandsaw, but for a real sense of satisfaction and better control, a fast-cutting "Sure-form" rasp is desirable here. In rounding the last to shape, the girth measurements and their locations on the last are critical. It should be noted that a last is never a one-to-one model of the foot, nor is the insole pattern (bottom shape) just a footprint with a toe extending off the end. This is why plaster casts are useless to make shoes over. They are decidedly too short and tend to be too big in girth. The shoe made over them ends up looking like an ugly shapeless foot-bag in wear, the soles walking quickly out of place and wrapping themselves up around the side of the foot.
A shoe last should be thought of merely as the container-shape, as it only defines a void or negative space--the interior compartment of the footwear. The upper design, linings, stiffeners, bottoms, etc., each can and do alter the outward appearance of the shoe by modifying the last's shape complicating matters, so one should not be dismayed if a trial shoe does not look exactly like the last it was made over. In numerous ways the last is different from the foot: it is longer at the toe, and in girth it must be smaller.
Further detailed instructions on how to make a last here would be senseless, because so much rests on the shoe style one hopes to reproduce. And needless to say, the lastmaking project will require numerous trial and error experiments, adjustments to the last (for building up, "Bondo" auto body putty is good), and more trial shoes until you have a shape that captures the style you want to reproduce and one that fits well. This is the same tried and true procedure shoemakers and designers go through before settling on a last design they like. Once you have a last you like, however, it will be as good as gold both for the style and the fit. For a good practical description of the traditional lastmaking process, I recommend: Last Making and Last Measurement; (London,1889) by Albert E. Tebbutt."


Instructions by David & Kai Kurnik, posted to Medieval-Leather, 13 March 1999 (used with permission)

The instructions below are for one last. This process should be repeated for the 'other' foot.

Materials:
3-4 feet of 2"x6"
2 feet of 2"x4"
Wood Glue
Wood Putty (for when you make a mistake)
Oak panel (optional)

Tools:
3 screw in eyelets (large)
2"-3" long Belt Sander (Coarse, and medium belts)
Good Saw (I use a Japanese woodworkers Saw. A good reciprocating saw should work well also.)
Vice Scroll saw or reciprocating saw
3 Large Clamps (the more the better)
Wood Chisels (optional)
Wood rasps (optional)

Five Steps:

  1. Measurement and Design
  2. Cutting and Gluing
  3. Trimming (heavy)
  4. Sanding and Shaping
  5. Finishing:
  1. Measurement and Design
    1. Measure: Take these measurements/sizes of the foot:
      1. Trace the circumference of the bottom of the foot. This will be the basic shape of the bottom of your last
      2. Place a piece of cardboard edgewise on the ground next to the instep.
        Trace the back the heal and the side-ways profile of the foot down to
        where the tip of the toe intersects the ground.
      3. Measure the circumference of your upper ankle about 4.5" up from the ground.
    2. Design: Keep these ideas in mind throughout the process of forming your last. Now is time to decide if you want to have round or pointy toed lasts.
      1. The narrowing of the last: The last is designed not to perfectly mimic the shape of the foot but to serve as a tool in forming a well fighting shoe. Last should start the circumference of the bottom of your feet. From there they should follow a narrowing angle around every edge, but most especially at the heel. The finished heel should narrow as much as 15 degrees from the vertical. This convergence holds the finished shoe firmly onto your foot. Avoid a vertical angle to the on every edge. This angle is shaped in the Trimming and Sanding phases of construction.
      2. The top: Due to the narrowing of the last, the top of the last will not be shaped anything like your Upper ankle. However, it still must be the same circumference of your upper ankle. (Measurement {I.A.3.}) Its shape will be something like a elongated rectangle with well round corners.
      3. Round or Pointy: If you want round toed last extend the toe of what you traced in {I. A. 1.} 1/2 inch. If you use pointy trace out a shape you like. Look at some source material for help on this shape--It may take several tries to get one you like.
      4. Remember that you will loose some volume inside the shoe with it is turned due to the nature of the seam that attaches the upper to the sole. Account for this by erring on the large side. It is significantly easier to trim some off that add wood back on. Refer back to your foot frequently during the process to 'eyeball' the fit.
  2. Cutting and gluing:
    1. Cutting:
      1. Take the pattern you created from I.B.3. and trace that onto your 4x6. Make sure the 4x6 is of good quality free of cracks, knots, and irregular curvature. Cut with a scroll saw or reciprocating saw. We will call this the 'bottom piece'.
      2. With the help of the side profile of your foot in I.A.2., determine where the incline of you foot will rise above the thickness of your 'bottom Piece". Cut a piece of 2x4 that will stretch from that point even to the heel of 'bottom piece'. We will call this the 'Middle Piece'. The corners of the 'middle piece' will hang out over the edges of the bottom piece.
      3. Once again use your foot profile ,I.B.3., to determine where the angle of your foot rises above the combined thickness of the bottom and Middle pieces. Cut another piece of 2x4 that will stretch from that point to the back of the Heel. This will, of course, be referred to as the 'top piece'.
    2. Gluing:
      You may wish to glue all three pieces together depending on how many clamps are available to you and your confidence in keeping three pieces of clamped wood from sliding around. Surfaces of wood should be free of paint/dirt ect....
      1. Smear wood glue on both contacting surfaces of the bottom and middle pieces. Center middle piece onto the bottom piece and clamp evenly with 3 clamps. Tighten clamps evenly making sure the bottom and top pieces do not slide around. Leave clamped for one hour.
      2. Repeat II.B.1. gluing the top piece in place. Allow to sit a day for a complete bond.
      3. Attach eyelets. These eyelets will allow you to vice the last while you trim and shape it. Drill three starter holes for the eyelets in the bottom of the last. Screw eyelets in place.
  3. Cutting
    1. Sawing: In this step you will trim almost every edge of the last with a saw. I use a Japanese woodworkers saw that works very well affording me speed, and control. A reciprocating saw power tool might serve well in this task. Before you began, clamp the fixed eyelets firmly in your vice.
      1. Using your foot profile trim excess large chunks of wood until the last has the general shape you are working toward. At this point the last should seem large, but not so that you feel comfortable hacking large pieces away. Remember the "narrowing of the last" and make your cuts reflect this concept. Plan your cuts to bite deeply into the wood at the top of the cut, yet thin down to nothing upon reaching the bottom edge of the last.
    2. Chiseling: Now is not the time to learn how a wood chisel cuts a piece of wood. If you do not know how to use a wood chisel with skill, especially how the grain affects the cut, you should stick with the saw. The wood chisel is a luxury that can make the job faster, but can sorely gouge or ruin your work.
  4. Sanding and Shaping:
    Use a belt sander for this. I use a Hand belt sander clamped into my vice. I am advocate of using the right tool for the right job, so I don't recommend this, but I have been able to manage with this dubious arrangement. There is probably someone you know in the SCA with a belt sander. Use a coarse grit belt to start.
    1. Rasps: At this point rasps may be used to further shape the shoe where control is important along with the 'bite' of the tool.
    2. Belt Sander: Not elegant but effective.
      1. Sand around every Edge you cut with the same thought in mind: Remove more wood form the top, and almost none from the very bottom edge. The difference is that now you are working to form smooth angles around the last.
      2. You will have to pay special attention to the inside curve the last, smoothing out the sharp angles of the Middle and Upper pieces into a curve that is something like the profile of your foot.
      3. Angle the sides and back of the ankle sharply (up to 15 degrees). Complete this angle before you make the final measurement in the next step.
      4. Remember that though the top of your last will be shaped different than your upper ankle, it's shape should have a circumference close to the corresponding part of the upper ankle. Once you are happy with the sides and back of the ankle, trim the front of this upper ankle to match that circumference.
      5. It should be noted that care should be take in sanding the 'toe', especially with round toed lasts, as it is easy to remove to much and thus confine the toes, and reduce the 'fit' of the shoe to the next size or two down. I suspect a benefit of pointed toed shoes was a forgiving fit.
      6. Instep: The instep of the foot caves inward and, going upward,
        follows a sharp incline up the to upper ankle. Though your cut from
        II.A.1. should reflect this inward curvature, you will have to achieve the
        shape of the rising instep via sanding with the rounded edge of the sander,
        or with rasps. You will remove quite a bit of wood in this manner as a the
        angle will not allow for the saw, and the grain of the wood in this area is
        too risky for the wood chisel. Remember remove more wood from the last the
        higher you are on the last.
  5. Finishing:
    1. Finishing touches:
      1. Remove eyelets from lasts.
      2. Fill any mistakes with wood filler/putty
      3. I recommend quickly stitching a shoe out of scrap materials to test the fit. Adjust the last as needed with this data.
    2. Optional Hardwood surface: I came upon this because my first set of lasts was too small. I added a panel of red oak I picked up at Home Depot, and was pleased to discover that not only did it give the added size to the last to improve the fit, but it also added a hardwood edge where all the tooling on the last takes place--Nice touch. This also covers up those unsightly holes left by my anchoring eyelets.
      1. Trace bottom of last onto the panel (1/4" wide). Make your mark just slightly larger than the last. The panel I refer to is actually .25" thick, and 6" Wide. This adds to your last a like volume to what you loose when you turn the shoe. (Due
        to the sole-upper seam). You are basically making a sole of hardwood for
        the last.
      2. Cut panel and glue as above clamping for at least one hour. Let cure one day. Sand edges smooth.
  6. Notes:
    1. The first uppers stretched over the last may be damaged by adhering and drying to the seams of glue connecting the pieces of the last together.


As you can see from the above, the keys here are measuring the foot, tracing both the upper and side sillouettes before beginning.as the basis for shaping the block with a bandsaw, or whatever.  The girths of the last should be slightly smaller than that of the foot (about 1/8" smaller in circumference).

Get the stick, or foor length, and then add a little to it.  Make sure you accurately note the shank length, the length from the back of the heel to the tread line, the wide spot on the foot at the ball joint. The toe length is important too, but this "hinge" point is critical to fit, especially if you are using any sort of stiffened sole, or raised heels.
lastm1.jpg (5183 bytes)lastm2.jpg (4609 bytes)
Two views of a repro of a 1590s last from the Netherlands.

Be sure to test the shape with fitters.  Experience, mine and others, says that even if you accurately transfer your measurements to the last, you are going to have to fiddle with it to get it to fit right.

Please note that there is not one hard and fast rule for all of this, and even the experts who do this all the time will sometimes have to "fiddle" with things.

For more of a discussion of making modern, welted shoes, try Making a Modern Shoe

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Footwear of the Middle Ages - Making Lasts, Copyright 1999   I. Marc Carlson. 
This page is given for the free exchange of information, provided the author's name is included in all future revisions, and no money change hands, other than as expressed in theCopyright Page.