It’s confusing, but the terms “benchgrade” and “handgrade” don’t actually describe shoes that were made on a bench or by hand. Instead, they’re ways of denoting different levels of quality, like “Gold” and “Platinum” Amex cards. Most quality shoes – including high-end names such as Edward Green and John Lobb – are Goodyear welted, which is a machine method. Real handmade shoes are rare, and typically cost $1,500 or more.
The exception is Vass, a small Hungarian shop beloved by shoe aficionados. They begin by hand-cutting pieces of leather for the uppers. These pieces are lined to give them some structure, and then sewn together using a sewing machine. Even in handmade shoes, uppers will be machine sewn because of the fineness and neatness that’s required in the stitching.
What makes a pair of shoes “handmade” is the process of turning uppers into shoes. After the uppers are sewn, the shoemaker “shapes” them by pulling the leather over a last – a wooden form made in the general shape of a foot. This done by hand with a simple pair of pliers. The shoemaker pulls each section over the last, and then nails the leather in place. Any wrinkles are then smoothed away as the uppers are hammered onto the last with a shoemaker’s hammer.
The next step is stitching the welt and fixing the rand, which perform the important task of holding the upper and insole together. Next, the outsole (in the case of single-soled shoes) or a midsole and an outsole (in the case of double-soled shoes) are affixed to the welt. The shoemaker then cuts a channel in the outsole, in which he sews the welt, insole, and upper together. He then covers the channel to hide the stitching, leaving the sole looking untouched and pristine.
There are some finishing steps – the heel is made by stacking layers of hard leather, the sides of the sole are painted, the last removed, and the uppers given a final hand polish. The “soul” of a pair of handmade shoes, however, is in the careful hand lasting and hand welting method, which is what gives them their artisanal quality. The Vass Budapest workshop is one of the few places in the world that produces handmade ready-to-wear shoes that rival the finest footwear anywhere, but at a price lower than many machine-made offerings.
Quality content, like quality clothing, ages well. This article first appeared on the No Man blog in October 2013.