Tom Wandell- Cobbler

I met Tom late on a Tuesday night in January. On my way home from a drive to Bodega Bay down 1, I was driving down San Pablo in Berkeley, and saw him with his lights on in his shop working on some shoes. I felt compelled to go in and see what he was up to. After some time, I decided to go into more detail with him about his process. Here’s what came of it.

How did you get started? 

I got started, interestingly, through mountaineering. I moved to the Bay Area in ’95, and started climbing. I was an armchair mountaineer with my brother in Philadelphia, you can see there is a whole library of mountaineering books behind you there. Since we were kids we exchanged books about mountaineering for the holidays. So he has a library like mine that I’ve donated to him through the years.

Then I met a guy out here who actually climbs mountains. And I was like “OH, there’s mountains in California.” So I moved out here in 95, and a couple years after working in a cafe, I needed a job, I got a job at Marmot Mountain Works, and they had a climbing shoe repair service, the manager thought I might be able to help out there, and then I did.

I was working there for a couple years with a couple guys who were bike racers actually, who showed me how to do resoling. Then I was away for a couple years, and when I came back, the resole shop was closed because they didn’t have anyone who knew how to do it anymore. I convinced them to allow me to re-open it, even though initially they didn’t want to.

I grabbed a couple buckets of rental shoes, and spent a couple months just ripping them apart and putting back together shoes. I got the old guys to come back and refresh me on how to do it. That was in 2000, and until three years ago, I did it for Marmot Mountainworks.

What education and learning did you do prior to shoemaking?

I went to school at the California Institute of Integral Studies, I got my BA there. It’s the highest degree you can get in generalism, without a speciality. The way it’s approached is, “Here’s an idea, a thing. Let’s examine this thing from all these different perspectives.” Each thing can be talked about in terms of science, of mass, gravity, density, it can be talked about culturally, sociologically, psychologically, economically, societally, personally, emotionally, every one of those lenses. It was very easy for me to go there, it’s how I naturally see the world, with multiple perspectives, that’s what this shop really fosters.

I also spent a couple years in art school, two years as a general art major. Watercoloring, figure drawing, perspective, acrylic, just going through getting a solid foundation in all of the building blocks.

What are some of the things that you do in your shop?

A lot of it is half-soles and heels. I fix a lot of straps on purses, polishing, cleaning, and then I get what we refer to as projects (laughs). Which are so hard to turn down, because they’re fun, but once you start working on them, you realize how long it’s gonna take.

I’m still tied to the mountaineering world.  I still do a ton of rock climbing shoes. There’s usually a pair of leather sandals. Three customers right now have custom shoes being made for them.

How do you do what you do? 

Well, I mean there’s you know, there’s so many ways, that’s the thing with this type of work, kind of like the project stuff, you have to be able to just pick up anything and work where it’s at. I probably have a hundred projects going on here, and each one is in a different place. I don’t pick up a shoe, do the entire process, finish it, put it on the done shelf, go pick up another shoe, and do that one. Every one is in different stages.

But with curing times for glue and things like that, you can’t just sit with it for the drying. The glue likes to sit  for an hour, overnight, depending on what the use of the shoe is. With climbing shoes, I like them to sit overnight between each stage.

I’ll try to go through everything in a similar stage, like everything that needs to be ground on the finisher, I’ll just have that running, and I’ll just walk around the shop. “Gotta clean up that heel, this one needs to be finished, I need to cut a groove in this…” I’ll turn on a machine, and I’ll just do every shoe I can do with it. Then I’ll start glueing, anything that needs glue…

Why do you do what you do? 

I grew up in an age where people fixed stuff. hahaha. The middle school I went to, Loller Middle School in Hatboro Pennsylvania, everyone learned how to do woodworking, ceramics, cooking, we did a little bit of smithing, sand/casting of metal objects.

It was considered part of your general education at the time. “You’re going to have a home some day, and things are gonna break, and maybe you actually aren’t going to be able to get that part for the car anymore, you’ll have to make one.” Melt some metal, make a sand casting of it…

I think that really instilled in me an aptitude.

Also because I’ve been able to keep going deeper, deeper in so many different threads. There are so many lines of development, that I’m growing in through my work here.

It became really exciting when I started learning shoemaking. Because it’s not just shoemaking, you gotta learn the history of shoemaking, and the history of shoes, the knots, the way you use the materials. It’s a tradition, that’s been handed down. Being able to connect with the tradition like that, and to embody it in my work, is so rewarding.

I’m connected vertically, through the history of the trade, that’s been handed down, from one person to the next, showing how to do in-seaming, how to work with leather.

And horizontally attached to hundreds of other people that right now are in their shops doing the same thing. I’m connected on Facebook with three groups, several hundred shoemakers and repairers, who are posting their progress throughout the day, of what they’re doing, and how they’re doing it. And we’re trading inspiration and ideas, but the biggest thing is knowing that we’re both doing it TODAY. We’re both out there facing the same challenges.

“I know what I would do, but how would you guys recolor this cordovan?” You know, because a color is very particular, it’s a very specific shade, that’s from a very particular tanning, very particular part of a horse. And the guy said, “Meltonian dark burgundy.” hahaha. You know, that was the answer that I came up with myself. It’s great that I got that validation, it’s great that if I wasn’t right, that I would have gotten an even better alternative, that someone had posted. We also talk about price. That’s super helpful.

My shop and myself have been tied very intimately to the mountain climbing world. Of this weekend, Dean Potter, probably the most famous climber out there right now, died in a BASE jumping wing suit accident two days ago in Yosemite, at Taft Point…They were trying to pass through a notch in this ridge, and they weren’t high enough, and they slammed into the cliff. And so now, there’s message boards, thousands of posts long, with people really debating the issue of his motivation. What motivates him to do that? It’s interesting after reading these comments for hours, to be asked myself what motivates me to do this work. In many ways it’s probably the same thing.

In a way, I don’t know how to NOT do this. I got myself into this environment, where I have what I need right here. I can be perfectly satisfied with any one of these tasks. Somebody posted on a shoemaking forum, “what is the job you hate most?” And I thought…”There are none.”

What do you see down the line? 

Ideally, I see myself doing more shoemaking, and perhaps still owning and running a shoe repair shop. I will have apprenticeships. Maybe if the shoemaking took off enough I would drop shoe repairing all together, but if I own a thriving shoe repair shop, that could be a way of taking people in to the trade and then they could work on shoemaking themselves. I’m more interested in the making of new shoes and sandals.

I’m going up to Ashland, Oregon in a couple weeks, for the first American shoemaking symposium. To gather offline, there’s dinners and cocktail parties scheduled, because it’s about sitting next to someone and getting to know each other, there’s going to be a lot of workshops and demonstrations.

There’s discussion of forming a modern shoemaking guild. To tie people who want to learn, to the people who know. To tie the people who know to each other. To perhaps standardize some aspects of the trade, because we’ve been off in our own little pockets.

There was a moment a few years back where we thought the trade was going to die. There weren’t many people who knew how to do it, and there weren’t many people who wanted to do it. But once we connected on Facebook, we got to find all these people who came out of the woodworks. Who both knew how to do it, and wanted to do it. In the pre-digital age, you might hear about someone else doing it, maybe through a phone book, word-of-mouth really. It didn’t seem like there were many, but once we got online, there was a lot of them, and they wanted to learn.

Any other thoughts you’d like to share? 

The whole craftsman ethic, aesthetic, ethos is: the things you use, the made world around you, transforms you. You are transformed any time you pick something up, everything you interact with transforms you. If you live in a box built by people who hate their jobs, made out of aluminum made in a factory where people hate their jobs and are underpaid and overworked, think about shoes, and the labor conditions for the people who make the shoes most people wear. Your character will change based on your environment. It’s karma, it’s the interplay of our lives.

The arts and crafts way is that if you surround yourself with things made lovingly, and the things you made you wear show that love, show that handcraft, show that a person held this and made this, and that person was happy when they did it, it’s like calligraphy, the line of paint they put on the canvas, is a painting of the consciousness of the person who painted it. The person looking at it gets it. Because you can tell, if a painting has a bunch of zig-zags and looked like the person had a panic attack when they did it, you’re going to feel a certain way. If a person was graceful when they did it, “I loved making that line!”, you’re going to feel different. Those feelings, those experiences interacting with the made things around us shape our character.

Author’s note: If you would like to get some custom leather shoes or leather shoe repairs done, call Tom, or send him an email.

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