Start­ing a Late 16th Cen­tury Style Last

Over the next few weeks I will be mak­ing, and with a little bit of luck, actu­ally fin­ish­ing a pair of late 16th cen­tury shoes for my Laurel, who is soon to be elev­ated to the order of the Pel­ic­an. They will be white ‘indoor’ shoes, single soled for dan­cing and dec­or­ated with cut­work.

Unlike earli­er peri­od shoes you really need a last for shoes of this style, so I’m start­ing out on my second late 16th cen­tury style last. As with my first one, it is based largely on finds from the Dutch SO-1 ship­wreck, which was wrecked off the island of Texel in the Wad­den Sea on Christ­mas Eve in 1593. I have pre­vi­ously writ­ten a research paper on the lasts and shoes found on the wreck as pre-pro­ject doc­u­ment­a­tion for anoth­er pair of shoes based dir­ectly on finds from the wreck. That will get writ­ten up on here in due course.

The shoes are ‘straights’ — sym­met­ric­al shoes without defined left and rights. They fit quite dif­fer­ently from paired shoes and the lasts are quite dif­fer­ent. The up-side is that you only need one last rather than a matched pair.

These are the ori­gin­al lasts. This pic­ture comes from the web­site of the Dutch “Memory of the Neth­er­lands” pro­ject which has numer­ous pic­tures of finds from the SO-1 as well as many oth­er wrecks.

These lasts are also drawn by Olaf Goubitz in Step­ping Through Time and a recog­nis­ably sim­il­ar style of last can be seen in Leath­er and Leather­work­ing in Anglo-Scand­inavi­an and Medi­ev­al York.

This is the first last I made based on the SO-1 examples. It is roughly the right shape but there’s still about 30% too much mater­i­al in the front part. The pro­to­type shoe I made on it is the right length but far too big in volume.

The last I am mak­ing now is made from two bits of 100x50mm (what US folk call a two-by-four) radi­ata pine con­struc­tion tim­ber. This is really not a good wood to make lasts out of but it’s what I have lying around and while I’m still in the phase of learn­ing to make these it’s a soft, eas­ily worked, wood that holds up well enough to make a few shoes on.

The rough­ing out is done just with straight cuts from a saw. This would be far easi­er with a band­saw but I don’t have one big enough to cut this much wood. The next stage is a few cuts done with a cop­ing saw, then rough­ing in the final shape with a draw knife and on to shap­ing planes for the final shape. Fin­ish­ing will be done with cab­in­et scrapers. So far I’ve removed about 60% of the mater­i­al to come off. The oth­er 40% is going to take 90% of the time.

The Right Tool for this work is a block knife but sadly I don’t own one yet. I plan obtain­ing a stock knife suit­able for mak­ing lasts as well as a set of clog­ging knives but that’s a ways off yet. A stock knife would massively speed up the pro­cess of shap­ing the last.

I don’t have any­thing against the idea of using power tools or abras­ives to make lasts. It just so hap­pens that I don’t have the knack of shap­ing forms like this with power tools. I find it much easi­er to keep a sense of the shape and what mater­i­al I’m remov­ing using hand tools. I’m inter­ested in shoe­mak­ing as accur­ately as I can with the most accur­ate tools and tech­niques I can use but so long as the last comes out the right shape and works like a late 16th cen­tury one the tools used to make it don’t really mat­ter to me.

One day I may get ser­i­ously into last­mak­ing with tra­di­tion­al hand tools and the right woods and all but that day is not today. I say ‘tra­di­tion­al’ here because I’m not aware of any evid­ence exist­ing as to how medi­ev­al and renais­sance last makers worked or the tools they used.

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