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R. I. Merrell Institute of Bootmaking
Twice a year, typically, Merrell FootLab brings extra sewing machines, work benches, tools, jacks and so on in from storage—and becomes the R. I. Merrell Institute of Bootmaking. We do it because we have fun at it, because it is an opportunity to get very well acquainted with some great people, and because we genuinely enjoy sharing what we have worked hard to learn. We want this craft to go on and on! In 1981 Randy became frustrated because we had dozens of individuals writing, calling and visiting, to request an apprenticeship with us. We had tried an apprentice situation a couple of times, unsuccessfully. The decision was made to teach one two-week, intensive bootmaking course to accommodate those that wanted to learn bootmaking. A small classified ad was placed in Shoe Service Magazine, and—wow! The course was filled months before it was held. A second course for the same summer was scheduled—and filled. Then a third was scheduled, and filled. We had 38 individuals attend our courses that first season.

At the time of this writing we are into our 23rd year of Bootmaking Seminars. Having conducted 77 regular classes with a total of 422 first time students, plus 7 Advanced or Level II classes. We have had several students from Australia, as well as from Hong Kong, and Japan. We have had students take their notes in French, Spanish, Greek, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. Of course, during that time our program has evolved, changed and progressed, but several things have remained constant. The Merrell Institute is a workshop experience, not a classroom experience. The focus here is on making the boots, not on taking the notes.

Here's How It Works

In some respects the course starts when you register with our sending you a “Course Guide” which is a booklet detailing the program so you can plan and prepare accordingly. Additionally we send a 2 hr. VHS video tape with some “overview” materials such as a description of patternmaking, instruction about lasts, on overview of the bootmaking process and instructions for measuring feet (in the eventuality that you are planning on making footwear for someone other than yourself.) This tape enables our students to start on common ground from which we build.

The actual course begins on a Sunday evening with a “get-acquainted” dinner and then some time getting settled into the workshop. 8:00 the next morning we will start hard and fast and go through Saturday. Sunday is a day off. We then start again Monday morning and work through Saturday mid-afternoon.

By the end of the first day you will have cut leather, sharpened knives, learned how to skive by hand and started stitching on the sewing machines. The second day we learn the function and characteristics of lasts, how they are made and last terminology. Then we jump into measuring feet with a brief introduction of the role that bio-mechanics of the feet play in the fitting and function of footwear. Then we learn about fitting lasts to the measurements of the feet and about trial shoes, or as some call them; fitters models. The rest of the week is spent making a pair of hiking boots for yourself.

The second week of the course you need to decide whether you are going to make Western Boots, or Packer Boots. Our Program is principle driven. In other words we don’t just teach you to make Western Boots, or Packers, or Hikers. We teach you the pattern making skills, the cutting, the skiving, the stitching, the lasting and so forth—and you can go home and make any kind of shoe or boot that you desire! Each of the three styles taught in our course is representative of a large family of boots so you will have a broad knowledge enabling you to make most any style of footwear that you choose.

While you are making your 2 pairs of boots there are three topics that run as a recurring thread throughout the entire program. The first of which is patternmaking. Few boot and shoemakers are adept at making the patterns for footwear. In fact, it is considered in the trade to be a separate craft or skill. We teach patternmaking here; day by day. Early in the week you will make a Last Draft, then a simple little girls pump pattern, then a couple styles of men’s oxfords, possibly a ladies shoe pattern. Later in the week we will make a lace up boot pattern. We begin the second week making patterns for Packer Boots, which is a very involved pattern. Those that choose to make Packer Boots then use these patterns to make their boots. Those making Western Boots will make the patterns for the tops and we teach the method involved in “springing” the Western Boot vamp patterns. Also we teach a method of grading patterns by hand.

A second thread that runs through the program is the “Business of Bootmaking.” There was a time when the majority of our students were planning on a career in bootmaking. Now the majority are seeking either a hobby, or craft, or a retirement avocation with which they can be passionate. Regardless, it is awfully nice for bootmaking to pay it’s own way. So we will cover topics such as Setting Prices, Purchasing, Shop Layout, Avoiding Problems with clients, and Solving Problems with clients—and many other important subjects in dealing with the dollars.

The third continuous topic is that of bio-mechanics of the foot. In my early years I assumed that if a foot was properly fitted in a quality boot the foot would be happy. I was wrong. Not everyone desiring custom footwear have bio-mechanical issues, but most do and don’t know it. During your time here there just isn’t time to teach you to be a Pedorthist, but our goal is to give you a view or a vision of what can be done and how. You can seek further training if you have a desire. Many of our Advanced classes have centered on this topic.

Throughout the course there is a constant stream of “mini-topics” such as adhesives, nails and tacks, thread, leather, leather care, sewing machine maintenance, sewing machine repair—and on and on. This is a comprehensive self-contained program.

Our forte’ lies in making quality, functional, footwear. Our interest does not lie in highly decorated boots, nor in footwear as an art form. Nor do we produce “historically correct” boots. We teach a common sense blend of bootmaking using old time craftsmanship with modern adhesives, threads, abrasives, leather, finishes, etc. Our students are extremely complimentary about the instructor’s knowledge, background, experience and teaching techniques and ability. Typically on about the 3rd day of class many students voice surprise at the intensity of the course, on how much “ground” has been covered already. Commonly on the last day of class our students are slow to leave because they have had fun, and have experienced good feelings here.

Things Not Covered: We don’t teach shoe and boot repairing. Nor, do we teach custom lastmaking—that is a topic for the Advanced class. On occasion we have a student needing “orthopedic” footwear and decide to take the class and make the boots for themselves. That kind of work is more involved than can be handled during the course. You will do custom fitting, but won’t have time for orthopedic work.

The Fee to Attend: The 2-week bootmaking course is $2,100.00. That which is provided is the instruction, use of the shop and handtools, practice materials, pattern materials, materials for two pairs of boots and the course manual. An $800 non-refundable registration fee is due and payable when you submit the registration form, signing up for the course. The balance of $1,300 is due upon your arrival at the course.

Frequently Asked Questions

What about lodging? We have a bunkhouse for male students, and a travel trailer for ladies or couples. Both have a small refrigerator, microwave and stove, along with cooking and eating utensils. The charge to stay in the bunk house is a $40 reservation fee. For those desiring more privacy there are about 15 motels in the area, and a couple of campgrounds. Information can be found at www.dinoland.com.

Is it possible to “make a living” building boots? That depends on you. I have done it for 30 years, and a search on the internet will give you websites of several others that have succeeded. Others have established clientele, or are backlogged and do not desire the exposure given by a website, or they are simply “old timers” and are not into the electronic media. So yes, it can be done—but you will find it challenging in today’s marketplace. There are several “niche” markets that are so tiny that they are not addressed by manufacturers (especially at the high end,) such as race cycling shoes, figure skate boots, various types of dance shoes and boots, and some historical footwear where makers are being profitable. Your chosen location plays in integral part of your success or failure, as well as your skills with people, and your skills at business—not to mention your skill at making the boots!

What does it take to set up a shop for bootmaking? This is the most common question we are asked. It has an elusive answer. It all depends on you! What kind of shoes or boots do you want to make? Are you the kind of person who likes to have everything set up just right or are you a "make do/get by" sort of person? Do you need new equipment or is used and rebuilt fine? The range is very wide.

You could spend a quarter million dollars plus setting up a one-man mini-factory complete with “high-tech” cutting equipment and robots, or you could do like we did for a demonstration at a Shoe Service Convention in Nashville, TN in July 1997. With a small bag of hand tools, a $700 sewing machine, a pair of lasts ($15), and a table to work on, Lou-Ann and I made a man’s shoe in 75 minutes. We made the patterns, cut the leather, skived, stitched, and lasted the shoe upper, explaining and teaching as we went.

We made the mate during the next class. We did not put the sole and heel on because we did not have a shoe finisher/grinder in the room (they are a little hard to travel with). With another 15 minutes, we could have found a finisher on the convention floor and completed the shoes. The bottom line is that Lou-Ann and I with two hours of time, a work place, materials, some hand tools, a $700 sewing machine, and a shoe finisher (old finishers are available for $200.00-$400.00) could produce a pair of men's dress shoes!

The western boot is the most complicated and machine-demanding of leather footwear. They require several sewing machines: one for the decorative stitching, and usually another to assemble all the pieces, another to sew the heavy side seams, and then another to sew the soles on. Finally, a finisher or grinder is needed to shape the soles and heels.

With all of this said, and the western boot being the worst case scenario, I could purchase all of the tools, equipment, and lasts that I would need to make a pair of western boots in about 60 minutes on a telephone. The total cost would be about $3,400.00. If I wanted to construct hikers instead of the western boots, I could do it for about $1,800 in tools and equipment.

Bottom Line: the equipment to construct boots is not nearly as big an issue as you may have feared. Surely, as you continue in bootmaking you will want additional equipment, but this would get you started.

Often, individuals planning on attending our course call requesting that I give them a detailed list of what they will need by way of tools and equipment and tell them where they can purchase it, so they can be “all set up” so they can go right to work when they get home. There are too many variables for me to do this—you need to make choices. Until you know how to make boots you don’t have the base of knowledge to make those choices well. That is one of the things that you are paying me for in attending the seminar—you work in a well appointed shop for two weeks so you can get an idea of the possibilities and start deciding how your want your shop. If you can’t wait, just get your shop space and dollars put aside.

Do you teach shoemaking? We have held a couple of shoemaking courses. Our experience is that when potential students learn that the bootmaking course is more involved and intense, they opt for bootmaking. So we discontinued the shoemaking course. However, that does not leave out those who want to learn shoemaking because, as I mentioned earlier our program is "principle" driven. During the bootmaking course you will learn to make the patterns for shoes, do the cutting, skiving, stitching, lasting and bottoming. It is just that you will be practicing on boots.

Is there air service into Vernal Utah? Currently we are served by a commuter service out of Salt Lake City, UT, called Salmon Air.

Are there books or video programs from which I could learn this craft? None that we recommend. Precious little has been published about bootmaking. Either it is so cursory as to be of little use to one wanting to learn the craft, or so detailed as to make it impossible to understand unless you already know the craft. Regardless—even if you did have an effective book or video, neither can show you how you are turning the awl incorrectly, or give an opinion as to the correctness of a piece of leather for a particular use that you may have in your hand. Our belief is that with a book or video you would “play around” for several years learning and practicing—whereas with a seminar such as ours—you come focused, work hard; and go home knowing how to make boots and what you need to do it. You need to do much practicing on your own time, but you will know how. Also, the money saved by buying the right equipment the first time could more than pay the cost of the course. It will help to avoid much of the frustration of starting up.

Can this really be done in 2-weeks? If you ask an “old-timer” who spent 8 years+ as an apprentice—they will tell you “no way!” But, we’ve been doing it for 23 years. Often we will have a student comment that they are very pleased at what they are getting, or that they feel the course is “way” worth the money, or that they wish they had done it years sooner. I don’t believe that we have ever had a student not make at least 2 pairs of footwear during the 2 weeks. Some of our students feel that their boots are somewhat crude, but most feel that the boots “turned-out” far better than they had expected. Nearly everyone insists on wearing their new boots home—even on the airplane.

How many students in a class? Much of the “magic” as to why we are able to cover so much in a short times comes from the interaction between students—we all learn from each other's questions, mis-understandings or mistakes. One would assume that one-on-one would be the strongest teaching/learning situation. Not so. We have taught a few classes of one—generally it is not great. So, we take up to 8 students at a time, but 5-6 is more usual.

How do I sign up? Just print out the registration form from this site, paying close attention to dates. Fill the form out, attach the $800 registration fee, and mail it in. We take it from there.

Note: The registration form is in pdf format, and you will need an Acrobat Reader installed to view the form. (Most web browsers have a reader.) If needed, click the icon to the right to download a free reader.

The registration form is also available in Word Doc format. Click here to open the form in Word.
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