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Q&A with Custom Hiking Bootmaker
He describes the short story as a little shoemaker in Moscow who blesses the lives around him with his simple craft and sincere heart.
“I was hooked,” he recalls.
Nearly four decades later Van Gorkom is doing exactly that. He owns and operates Van Gorkom Custom Boots, a business that has been featured in Men’s Vogue, The National Post and Best Life.
Those who seek his hiking boots, which retail at around $1,600 a pair, can expect to wait between 7 to 11 months.
How did you get your start?
To get my foot in the door, I bought a shoe repair that was for sale. This all happened in northern British Columbia, Canada, 750 miles north of the U.S. border where I still live today.
Soon my shop drew first generation immigrants from Finland, Norway and Switzerland, among others, and some retired shoemakers. I learned all I could from them. During this time whenever I heard of a shoemaker, even more than 1,000 miles away, I would go and meet him and learn all I could.
During this time, I worked on an amazing pair of boots handmade in Finland more than 100 years previously. The boots were worn almost continuously since by three generations passing father to son. I resoled them and noted their construction and determined that this is how my boots would be made.
Your learned hiking boot making from Randy Merrell—can you tell us more about this?
Around that same time, I began to correspond with Randy Merrell, who was beginning to teach bootmaking at his shop in Vernal, Utah. I was making boots and shoes daily by this time and doing orthopedic work for Worker’s Compensation Insurance. I was learning everything I would need to know about feet, their problems and needs.
After about five years of saving my pennies, I went to Vernal, Utah, and took the bootmaking course by Mr. Merrell. What I learned there? Everything I hadn’t learned anywhere else. The most valuable to me was pattern making. After taking his course, any shoe or boot I can picture in my mind is mine to make. Show me a picture, I can do it; describe it or make a sketch, I can make it.
Another great thing I took away from Randy’s course was vision. I could see how a living could be made just like the little shoemaker in Moscow by working in a small shop with your hands. This is what I do today.
What did you learn during your training?
I discovered that among the population of the world, more than 15 percent cannot comfortably fit standard off-the-shelf shoes and boots. This left a huge market for me, as I saw it. I think the percentage is much larger today.
I developed my own unique methods and techniques, materials and designs that would allow me to guarantee comfort and a good fit and durability that could potentially span the generations. Some of the boots I made 38 years ago are still in use today and nowhere near the finished line. I don’t make guarantees about the longevity, but my goal is to make the best that money can buy.
Did you hike before beginning your bootmaking career?
I have always been a hiker and walker. I walk every day; I hike as often as I can. I live in rugged hiking country where people come for the outdoors from all over the world. I know them personally and understand their needs.
I am accountable to my clients for every boot I make. I personally test every new boot design or refinement on myself and my friends rigorously.
What did you do before you realized your dream?
From 1969 to 1976, I taught elementary and high school English, art and music, wrote commercials for radio and TV, co-produced, wrote and performed a kid’s live daily TV show, worked in a sawmill, drew portraits from photos, taught and performed classical guitar.
What’s something people often overlook when buying hiking boots?
Experience will teach you, but synthetic linings rubbing against your foot mile after mile can be murder. They are not skin-friendly.
A leather lined boot will always be cooler in hot weather and warmer in cool weather as well as luxuriously pamper your feet all along the way as you hike. Synthetic linings were developed as a way to cut costs and increase profits for the factory shareholders.
Good arch and metatarsal support really matters after about nine miles of hiking in one day. Many boots do not include this, even the most expensive and widely touted brands. Sometimes I joke about making a tour of China and teaching them about how to make comfortable healthy boots for happy feet.
What advice do you have for novice hikers?
Never go alone. Always go with someone who has experience and can guide and teach you.
What sets your custom boots apart from other custom boots on the market?
First, I am an orthopedic bootmaker with a lot of experience. I take pride and care about every client I serve. My measuring kit asks for more details than others, which gives me the data I need to handle the challenges every foot presents.
I need measurements, tracings, footprints, I have questions about history and expectations and present uses. I want specific photos and to hear all concerns and experiences of the past.
My boots are made from custom lasts made up for each foot, each of my boots is made by hand just for the foot that will wear it. Most custom boots offered today are mostly made overseas, or in a third world country and then custom fitted at the shop. When you talk to me, you talk to the guy who does it all. I only make one boot at a time, so that boot gets all my concentrated attention.
Another thing that sets my boots apart from others is that they are made to be resoled over and over again. I build my boots to last as long as possible, which for many will be longer than one lifetime.
My boots are also distinguished by the quality of the leather, inside and out, the fact the soles have no threads to wear out, they are brass riveted on by hand, over 100 rivets per boot. This is a technique proven over the centuries in Northern Europe.
My boots are distinguished by the hand sculpted orthotic footbed, painstakingly assembled from hand cut and sanded layers of varying densities of foam and then covered with soft leather. The footbed alone takes one whole day of work.
We read you spend 40 hours crafting one pair of boots. That seems like a really long time. Why do you spend so much time on one pair?
Let me walk you through a typical week in my tiny 250-square-foot shop. I only make one pair of boots at a time. Each pair of boots get my total concentration until they are finished, usually on Saturday.
On Monday, I study the measuring kit for the boots I’m to make. I read it over and over. I look at the pictures, I take measurements of the tracings and footprints and make comparisons one to the other. I don’t go further until I feel I really understand the reason why this client has come to me. I don’t go further until I get a clear vision of what I will do to meet his or her expectations.
Then I begin to make the last. The last is a sculpture of plastic and cork and leather that will determine the exact inner dimensions of the boot. I make hundreds of comparisons and measurements; I add a little, subtract a little, polish and glue and sand and carve until I feel I have made the interior of the perfect boot for the foot that will wear it. Then I varnish it and begin on the insoles which must be molded to the last before I go to bed.
My shop is three feet from my house, so I work all hours, depending on the time that is needed.
Tuesday I make the patterns from cardboard that I will follow when I cut the leather. When I am happy with the pattern, I begin to cut the leather and give it certain proprietory treatments using my own special techniques as I go. I cut and stitch and otherwise prepare the various parts of the boot for the final assembly.
By late Wednesday I have the boot upper completed and ready for lasting. Depending on how it has gone and how I feel, I may last the boots after supper, or do it Thursday morning. Lasting is where I soak the leather upper in hot water (not boiling, just hot to the touch) and then stretch and tack it to the last where it will dry in my special dryer overnight.
Thursday afternoon I would catch up on bookkeeping, paying bills, running the two hour round trip to the post office, shopping, ordering—all the things one must do to administer a business.
Friday the boots are dry and next comes making and installing the toe cap, the steel shank, the mid-sole and the final sole. By bed time, however long it takes (about 10 hours), I have the final soles on the boots.
Saturday I make the footbeds and do all the final waxing and oiling, trimming and polishing of the boots. Otherwise, the footbeds take the whole day. By bedtime on Saturday, I have finished a pair of perfectly fitting hiking boots, and my week is complete.
Sunday is my day off. I don’t set foot in the shop. And Monday I start over again, and thus it has gone for most of 38 years!
Do you hike often? Where is your favorite hiking spot?
I take good day hikes as often as I can get away, which is never as much as I would like. Everything I build into my boots is first tested on the mountains by me, my family and also my friends and neighbors.
My favorite places to hike are the mountains rimming the Bulkely Valley. On the one side is the Hudson Bay Mountain, and on the other is the Babine Range. Both have seen my boot soles climbing them many times.
Aside from hiking boots, what’s an essential piece of hiking gear?
For me essential hiking gear is light, multiple layers of upper body clothing, a hat, a small pack with snacks and lunch, including a tiny stove and water.
I always carry a tiny led flashlight as there have been several times I come home the last several miles in total darkness. Spooky when you know there are bears and wolves around!
(Images via Flickr)