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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