Story and pictures originally published in Taos News
Custom-made, hand-tooled and hand-painted cowboy boots are both a fashion statement and a symbolic representation of the American spirit.
They grew out of a need for dependable and protective footwear, and became, thanks to the movie industry, an icon of the West. Now they are trendy items, while still considered working shoes.
Frank English Custom Boots is a one-person shop that just moved to El Prado, next to Camino Real Imports. English does everything, from measuring his clients’ feet to the last stitch on his signature-carrying boots.
Before coming to Taos English lived in Montana, but he got tired of the long winters.
“I needed more sunlight and I thought that people here would be interested in my work,” he said. “So here I am.”
From barber shop to boot shop
Frank English wore his first pair of custom-made cowboy boots in 1995 in Boulder, Colorado, and was so pleased with the way they fit him that he decided to learn the craft.
“In 1996 I asked the person who had made the boots to become my mentor,” he said. “At that time I owned a hair salon and, for the next two years, I closed my business down one day a week and went to his shop to apprentice with him.”
Later, English turned his hair salon into a boot shop and started making boots for his customers.
Boot-making became his full-time business in 1998.
“My boots were very popular,” he said. “There is a good reason for it: when you are wearing them, you feel as if you were standing barefoot on the floor in a neutral position.”
The perfect fit
The difference between store-bought and custom-made boots, English says, is that the latter are made to keep people in proper alignment with their body.
“The boots that you buy in the store are made to look ‘perfect,’ but most of us don’t have perfect feet,” he said. “I try to make them look as normal as possible, but I also adapt them to the specific characteristics of the person who will wear them.”
First, English takes seven or eight measurements of his clients’ feet. He then makes an imprint of the foot and finds out if the boots will be used for dress or everyday work.
“This is very important,” he said. “When people use them for work, I steer them to certain kinds of leather.”
After his clients choose the leather, English makes the pattern and adds inlays, colors and designs. Finally, he builds the last and makes the boot around it.
Products and services
Besides cowboy boots, English makes purses, belts, computer bags and motorcycle bags.
“They are all made of high-quality leather,” he said.
He plans to make jackets and vests in the future and can also repair certain kinds of boots.
“Unfortunately, many of them are not made well enough so it isn’t worthwhile to repair them,” he said.
The proper care of leather boots
Quality boots are an investment. They are expected to last a long time if taken care of properly.
“Taking good care of leather boots means proper conditioning, polishing, and drying, if they get wet,” said English. “Never, ever put them in front of a heat source, which will dry the leather out.”
Do you want to make leather boots?
Those interested in western boot making can contact English about classes. He will be taking students soon.
“I like to teach small classes that last at least two weeks, and preferably longer,” he said.
English says that boot making is a complex process that can’t be learned in a quick crash course.
“You need to make at least twenty-five pairs of boots before you can figure out what you are doing, or what you should be doing,” he said. “Some people intuitively have a good eye and know what works and what doesn’t. In other instances, this awareness has to be developed. In any case, it takes several years to master the art and craft of boot-making.”
A niche business: quality over quantity
Selling made-to-order cowboy boots falls in the category of “niche business,” which offers a highly specialized product to a specific group of people. It is also built on a strong relationship between clients and providers.
“I have many repeat customers,” said English.
When you order a pair of boots from English, you can be assured of its quality, but you should also be prepared to wait up to a year, or longer, he said.
“I had someone ask how many pairs of boots I made in a day, if three or four,” said English. “Well, it usually comes down to two or maybe three in a month if I am making boots for a repeat customer and if they aren’t very ornamental. I don’t take shortcuts and I don’t like to rush. My name goes inside the boots and I am not going to put it on something that is not made right.”
Frank English Custom Boots is located at 1299 Paseo Del Pueblo Norte.