by David G. Perch
Reprinted from The Chronicle Volume 28, No. 4, December, 1975
One afternoon late last spring, I had a chance to experience a once-in-a-lifetime sight. For two hours I watched a Dutchman go through the steps of making wooden shoes by the same method and using the same tools as those illustrated in Diderot’s Encydopedia of 1763. On arriving home I set about putting down on paper the steps this craftsman went through. The following day, armed with a camera, plenty of film, a notebook and pen, I returned to the place where he would be demonstrating his craft. There I set about taking photographs of all the various steps he went through from the start to the finished produce-a pair of clogs.
I watched him work for the better part of three hours and had the opportunity to talk with him. The name of the sabot maker is Wim Holmer. He is Holland’s best known clogmaker, and comes from a long line of clogmakers. He travels around the world demonstrating his craft and was brought to Ottawa as part of the annual tulip festival activities. He was good enough to answer my questions and read over my notes to make sure I had the steps in their proper sequence and had the correct explanation of techniques employed and the names of the various tools used.
The wood used in the manufacture of wooden shoes is either poplar or willow. Logs of poplar, which Wim was using, are stripped of their bark and cut into proper lengths, depending on the size of shoe to be made. They are worked green; no drying time is allowed whatsoever. Nine tools and two horses are the only equipment necessary for the job at hand (Figure 1).
Once the logs are cut to proper length, they are split lengthwise in either four or six pieces, depending on the diameter of the log. The wood is split using a heavy four-inch steel wedge and a hammer.
These rough split pieces are trued up using a small broad axe similar to the axe used by coopers and a ten-inch-long offset handle. (The poll of the axe is also offset.) I was told that this allows the craftsman to see exactly where he is chopping. This axe is also used to rough-shape the block. It cuts away the excess wood from the toe portion and rounds off by the heel, the piece that will have the opening where the foot will enter, and the heel notch (Figure 2). (A pair of clogs are usually worked together.) The blocks are then given a more decisive shaping using the shaving knife (or bench knife as we know it) (Figure 3). The bench knife is mounted on the piece of burl having three legs. The side facing the workman is straight-sided and has the knife mounted so it will cut about three inches in from the straight side and parallel to it. Once the shaping has taken place, the two shoes are mounted in a horse at an an angle of 150° from perpendicular and wedged tight, with the toes pointing downward (Figure 4). Using the spoon auger with the pointed end, or first bore as it is called, three holes are made in the block. The first hole is bored to a depth of approximately one inch straight down, as is the second. The third hole (Figure 5) starts in number two hole but in the direction of the toe of the shoe, using the round-nosed and wider spoon auger (Figure 6). A channel is opened up between holes one and two. This channel is gradually widened and worked in towards the third hole, widening it out (Figure 7). The long crooked knife (Figure 8) is used to open out the third hole even wider and to remove the excess wood for the instep and the fore part of the sole. The tool is worked three ways: first by holding it high on the handle and rotating it in a conical motion; second by grasping it with the right hand just below the handle and the left hand just above the cutting portion of the blade and moving it from side to side. A third cut is effected by reaching into the opening towards the toe and pulling the tool towards the heel.
The crooked or bottom knife (Figure 9), resembling a question mark, is used to smooth off the bottom. The second bore finishes the inside opening at the heel, bringing it to proper shape and width. Again, the bottom is touched up with the bottom knife and the inside for the forward half of the foot with the long crooked knife.
Chips are removed periodically with whatever tool is being used at the time. The finishing touches are given the shoe with a small sharp knife. This is used to remove the sharp corner around the inside opening of the shoe (Figure 10).
The ruler is used only to determine the inside length of each shoe; otherwise all measurements are done with the experienced eye of the craftsman. Shoes are made in half-centimeter increments (23, 23.5, 24, 24.5, etc.).
Tools were sharpened with powdered emery and a long tapered wooden stick. The only time a sharpening stone was ever used was when the tool was knocked over by a careless spectator.
All of Wim’s tools were old except for the hammer and wedge, and they were definitely hand-forged by some blacksmith of a bygone day. He told me that replacements are next to impossible to obtain, so he, therefore, takes extra special care of all his tools.
The two pegs on the left hand side of the horse are used to hold the tool while it is being sharpened. The tool is placed between these pegs and held tight by pressure on the handle from the thigh.
Before the days of machine-made clogs, a skilled workman could turn out between eight and twelve pairs a day, depending on the sizes made. The average time taken to complete a pair of clogs is about an hour and a half.
It is thought that the wooden shoe or clog originated in the south of France, but it has been worn by all kinds of Dutchmen since the middle of the fifteenth century. Farmers, construction workers, butchers, dike workers, brewery workers, masons and even suburban weekend gardeners buy five million pairs a year. The clog was carved by hand until after the First World War, when machinery took over the clogmaking industry. Now Holland has close to 400 fully mechanized clogmaking establishments that can turn out a pair every few minutes. Thanks to men like Wim Holmer with their primitive tools and the knowledge handed down from each generation from father to son, their craft is not forgotten. It is still with us, even in an age so eager for mass production of quantity, not quality.
Editor’s note: Watch JoJo Wood, a young clog making apprentice in England, make a traditional wooden clog using traditional tools.