Thomas Wandall always loved building things with his hands, but shoemaking actually grew from his desire to rock climb. In 1995, after his band broke up, he left the clutches of Philadelphia and followed a friend out West, gaze set on California’s mountains. Soon he landed a job repairing beat-up climbing shoes at Marmot in South Berkeley, and the cobbler life stuck.
Now Wandall runs his own shoe shop, a little place called Berkeley Resole on San Pablo Avenue. It’s quietly been in existence for three years and, while he specializes in shoe repair and custom-made bespoke leather shoes, there are few projects he’ll shy away from (he recently helped a woman with a pair of pointy pumps sewn to a set of shiny spandex leggings.) He also sells journal covers, and delicately engraved belts and suspenders, just for fun.
What Wandall really loves most of all is the process of making shoes from scratch. It takes 50 hours to construct a pair and demands, more or less, 200 individualized skills.
“With my kind of ADHD brain I need to be able to totally focus. I can hyper-focus on pattern-making or lasting.” Lasting is the process of forming the leather to carefully shaped plastic or wooden mocks of the client’s feet.
“Both are totally different and there’s always a way to express anything I feel,” he says. That said, he also keeps his electric guitar within arm’s reach, pausing to play throughout the workday.
Commercial shoes come in pairs that are reflections of each other, but no two human feet are alike. At $600 a pop (which, although unaffordable for many, in the world of bespoke shoes is a steal), one can get a dreamy pair made just right.
“We have to talk, I have to take your feet in my hands. It’s the antidote to the way commercial sales happen,” says Wandall.
Choices include derbies, oxfords, climbing shoes, and sandals. Toe medallions can be requested and customized to preference.
Wandall uses Italian leather for the upper and German leather for the soles. He sources from San Francisco-based O’Baltor & Sons, a family-run company that’s been supplying the West Coast with the finest leather for almost a century (it’s said the practices of their German supplier are so meticulous the owner of the factory will drink a glass of the wastewater in front of the inspector.)
Many shoe brands of the highest pedigree use thermoplastic in the sole (and sometimes in the toes and heels, too), but Wandall works with only leather.
“The leather of the shoe will actually change to your foot and your gait and become more accustomed over time. Plastic will track moisture and make your shoe wear out sooner. It will break instead of break in,” he says.
The shoes we wear are “our user interface to the planet, [they’re] the thing contacting the Earth throughout the whole day.” Wandall balls up his hand and hits the table repeatedly, imitating footsteps, jostling tools laid out nearby. “And that shoe we’re using is very involved in what that experience is like… Our bodies are gonna change over time based on what we’re wearing and that can either be beneficial or detrimental. Mostly detrimental, probably.”
Perhaps in line with a returning desire for thoughtfully handmade objects, there has been a recent revitalization of the shoemaking trade. The most dedicated shoemakers – Wandall included – founded the Footwear Maker’s Guild in 2015, an online community now edging into the thousands. Thanks to social media, shoemakers and cobblers from all corners of the country have a way to find each other and share their work. Now one can attend a yearly symposium, find local workshops, and become master certified by the most skilled shoemakers.
“There’s been an encouragement to document everything,” says Wandall. “In 150 years none of us will be here. If we don’t tell people how to do what we’re doing — boom, it’s gone. We are the keepers of this craft. The community’s been really responsive to that in being encouraging and having a place for people to get into the trade.”
These shoemakers don’t necessarily see their work as an anachronistic profession – feet sizes and shapes change with time, and so the craft must too. The guild aims to honor the old customs of shoemaking while also letting their practices evolve. “We aren’t so stuck on tradition that we don’t continue to grow. That is a skill that has continued to be handed down: the ability to adapt,” says Wandall, going on to admit he’d even made a pair of shoes with a staple gun once.
The thrill of discovery is one of many reasons why the quiet life as a shoemaker continues to keep him engaged. “I work with the customers, I work with my hands, I work with tradition and natural products that respond so well to care. You take something like this,” Wandall points to the sole-less upper shell of a shoe, “and soon it takes on this whole different life.”
With a childish smile, he adds, “And I get to do really refined things with a sewing machine then bash stuff with a hammer.”
This is the seventh article in our series on expert craftspeople in Berkeley, written and photographed by Melati Citrawireja, a 2016 UC Berkeley graduate and former Berkeleyside intern. Don’t miss her stories on perfumer Mandy Aftel; textile designer Amy Keefer; St. Hieronymus Press, the workspace of David Lance Goines; Klaus-Ullrich Rötzscher and the Pettingell Book Bindery; coppersmith Audel Davis; and ethnobotanist and natural fabric dyer Deepa Natarajan.
More of Citrawireja’s work can be found at Melati Photography.