For kids: A perfect fit for a shoemaker

He puts his heart and sole into crafting footwear.

He shows how a pair of shoes is made.
Big feet: Alan Zerobnick, a shoemaker, holds shoes he created for clowns. The shoes may look big, but they fit regular-size feet.

The first thing you notice at the Shoe School in Port Townsend, Wash., is the shelf by the door. It's lined with giant clown shoes – bright red sneakers and big black hobo boots with huge toes sticking out the front. Most look like they're fit for a foot that's at least a size 20. You might wonder, are a clown's feet really that large?

"No," laughs Mr. Zerobnick, who made all the exaggerated footwear. "There's a normal shoe on the inside, and then the other stuff is just extra, for fun. It's more art than shoe."

Mr. Zerobnick should know. He has been crafting shoes for more than 30 years. Now he is teaching the trade.

"When I was starting out," he says, "I went to all the old masters I could find."

Sometimes, those experienced shoemakers were reluctant to share their secrets. Mr. Zerobnick doesn't have that problem. If he had his way, everyone would make shoes for themselves.

"The best part of it," he says, "is that you get to work with your hands and make something that will last. [Most] shoes today don't last long enough."

He points to his own shoes, which look sturdy and comfortable. "These shoes will last for six or seven years," he says.

Mr. Zerobnick's shoe school is one of the few of its kind in the United States. Students come from all over the world to learn the art of shoemaking.

Some of them want to start with fancy high heels, but Mr. Zerobnick says no – it's best to begin with the basics.

And so, over the course of five days, he will show them how to trace, cut, soak, mold, shape, punch holes in, skive (or thin the edges of), stitch, sew, glue, and lace a few pieces of leather into a fine pair of oxford shoes.

"We give the students a lot of information very quickly," says Jayne Woodward, Mr. Zerobnick's partner.

His worktable is covered with pieces of leather of various sizes and colors and with tools.

He picks up a rotary punch, which is a sort of studded wheel used to punch holes for laces. Next to it is an awl – a big needle attached to wooden peg – that is used to add the stitching that holds the leather together. And then there are hammers, knives, knife sharpeners, and pliers.

Working with this equipment, a good shoemaker can make a single pair of shoes in about 20 hours.

Someone just starting out doesn't need fancy gadgets. "You just have to have a few simple tools, and off you go," Mr. Zerobnick says.

His workshop is also a museum of shoemaking history, with interesting artifacts stowed in the corners or covered in bedsheets.

Some of the items are very old. One of his favorite pieces is a modelmaker's lathe from the 1930s. A lathe is a machine that shapes metal or wood by rotating it against some sort of cutting device.

Mr. Zerobnick's lathe makes shoe lasts, which are the models of feet that shoemakers use to build their shoes around.

He liked the lathe so much that he brought it to Port Townsend all the way from Boston, even though it weighs 2,400 pounds. He hopes that people will always be interested in these sorts of tools.

Whenever someone tells him that they want to make shoes for a living, he always encourages them, saying, "Try it."

Mr. Zerobnick wants everyone to know that their feet are unique – even if they aren't size 20 – like a clown's.

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Fun facts about shoes

• Every day, you may take up to 15,000 steps. Over the course of your entire life, you could walk up to 87,000 miles. That's like walking around the equator 3-1/2 times!

• The first shoes were probably sandals, because they're easy to make.

• The world's oldest shoes were found in a cave in Oregon, buried under layers of volcanic ash. They were made from sagebrush bark and grass. To keep feet warm, they were lined with rabbit fur and pine needles. Scientists think the shoes could be up to 10,500 years old.

• It wasn't until the 13th century that it mattered which foot a shoe went on. That was when the right shoe was shaped differently from the left shoe.

• In ancient Egypt, shoes were worn only by nobles, priests, and warriors. When explorers opened up the tomb of Tutankhamun (better known as King Tut) in 1922, they found a pair of shoes made out of gold.

• During World War II, high-heeled shoes in the United States couldn't be more than one inch tall. This was so the country could save resources.

• Shoestrings (or shoelaces) were invented in England in 1790.

– Eric Wagner

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