From Washington to California, Oklahoma to Arizona, and Sweden to Iowa, Paul Opperman learned to make boots from some of the best in the business.
In 2006, he enrolled in Alan Zerobnik’s Shoe School in Port Townsend, WA. A four-month apprenticeship that focused on sewing and pattern cutting followed at WindWalkers in Bodega Bay, CA. In 2011, Paul took a one-month course with Lisa Sorrell in Guthrie, OK as a private student. He credits her with the techniques he uses. “Her methods are 90% of how I make boots,” Paul reported. In 2014, he spent a week studying last fitting and heel and toe shaping with Paul Krause in Prescott, AZ, and most recently, Paul spent a week in Ostersund, Sweden as a student of Janne Melkersson learning the techniques associated with English riding boot construction.
With degrees in engineering from Iowa State and Colorado State and eleven years of experience in the corporate world, Paul changed his career path in 2011 and elected to follow his passion. He began making three styles of boots: western, English riding, and lace-up boots. Paul combined his training in engineering with his skill as an artist and craftsman. He now travels from his home to his shop, located just adjacent to his backyard deck. An enviable contrast to his former life in the corporate world.
Using what he describes as “fairly old school methods,” Paul uses lots of hand tools and completes all the sewing by hand or on a sewing machine built in the 1950s. During his initial meeting with clients, he starts with a blank boot drawn on paper. Paul works with each individual in the design of the boot. Boots can be as plain or fancy as the client wishes. Paul has designed boots that have included the names of the client’s children inlaid in the shaft of the boots, boots that are historically based – such as those worn by Abe Lincoln or Gene Autry – and even boots made for Mark Hirsch, local author of That Tree, who wanted boots adorned with oak leaves and acorns to be worn on his book tours. How perfect!
Paul then takes a foot print, a tracing, and at least eight measurements per foot. For riding boots, he measures every two inches up to the knee as riders typically prefer a tight fit. Paul keeps 3/4-inch and 1 5/8-inch heel heights in stock and can get 2 1/2-inch heel heights should that be a customer’s preference. He advises that most western boots are 13-14 inches tall while riding boots are tall enough to touch the back of one’s thighs when seated.
When being measured, clients are encouraged to wear the socks they intend to wear with the boots to ensure a proper fit. Boots that fit properly should be tight through the arch with room that permits the toes to wiggle and the heels to move very slightly up and down.
With measurements and designs in hand, clients must also consider the type of leather and color they desire. Options range from calf to ostrich and alligator to kangaroo. The newest skin available for consideration is salmon skin from Iceland. In fact, Paul is currently working with a client whose boot design includes sea turtles and fish – a great use for that salmon skin. All leathers are dyed prior to delivery to Paul’s shop so clients can see and feel the products that will be used to make their custom boots.
In addition, Paul sends clients photographs once or twice a week to keep them apprised of his progress. His customers quite literally see their boots take shape every step of the way.
It takes Paul 25-30 hours to make the simplest boots he sells. For those that are highly decorated with inlay and lots of stitching, nearly 100 hours can be required to do the job. Prices range from $1500 to over $2000.
While national news recently suggested that boot making is a dying art, it’s clearly alive and well in Dubuque. If you’d like to learn more about custom boots made for walkin’, ridin’ or workin’, please visit Paul’s website at www.PaulsBoots.com or contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.