With curiosity, creativity, and an appreciation for century-old tools, Orlyn Gaddis makes fine furniture and shoes for his hard-to-fit feet. Whatever he envisions in leather or wood, he can make.
Since retiring as a design engineer at the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center, he now has time to satisfy his curiosity and creativity. His latest endeavor is making shoes.
“The heels and ankles of my feet are narrow, and the front is wide, so it’s hard to find a comfortable shoe,” said Gaddis while working in his shop adjacent to his home in Leslie in central Idaho.
His interest in shoes began in 2014 as an offshoot of a woodworking project. He made a rocking chair, and his wife, Terry, a talented seamstress and quilter, sewed the leather seat cushion.
“We had a mostly idle leather sewing machine, so I wondered what else to use it for besides belts and chaps. I thought, ‘Why not learn to make shoes?’ I’m still learning.”
Gaddis and his wife often collaborate on projects.
“It’s gratifying to live in a house with furniture, quilts, table coverings, and other things we’ve made ourselves,” he said.
Since retiring in 2011, Gaddis said he is grateful to have the time to learn whatever interests him—whether it is the art of making shoes or his decades-old pastime of crafting fine furniture.
“It’s great to live without schedules and deadlines,” said Gaddis, 64. “I retired at a younger age than most people because I still had so much I wanted to do.”
To learn to make shoes, Gaddis watched a video series on the internet and read online forums.
“One thing led to another.”
While researching shoe styles, he found a sleek and comfortable last design called the Munson Army field shoe, made in the early 1900s. A last is a wooden, foot-shaped form used to make shoes and boots.
“An Army officer whose last name was Munson realized soldiers needed comfortable shoes, so he designed this style,” said Gaddis, pointing to his shoes.
“It’s nice to have shoes made of leather. When your feet perspire, the leather absorbs the moisture and wicks it away, and your feet stay comfortable. Commercially made shoes usually have a liner glued and sewn into the uppers. The glue forms a vapor barrier, which traps in moisture instead of wicking it away.”
Gaddis does not sell or repair shoes.
“It’s just fun to make them for family and friends without the pressure of having them done by a certain time. It takes about 10 to 15 hours to make a pair.”
He said he is still perfecting his techniques. After making his first pair, he tweaked a pattern to suit his specifications, experimented with using different leathers and glues, and found the best slip-resistant soles.
A perfectionist, he strives to make the eyelets on each side of a shoe align horizontally when laced up.
“On the first few pairs I made, the eyelets were slightly off, with one side a little higher than the other, so I donated them to charities,” he said.
To make a pair, Gaddis cuts out the leather pieces and stitches them together, then glues and stitches them to the midsoles. He then uses a last to form the shape of the shoe.
Some tools he uses are more than 100 years old.
“I found them on the internet at leatherworking forums or through friends. It’s neat to use these vintage tools for their intended purposes. They’re simple but still work great.”
Built in the late 1880s, a leather splitter was used to control the thickness of leather. A small, hand-operated sole-stitcher, built in the 1920s, speeds up the process of sewing the leather to the midsole.
“It would take me an hour to sew it by hand, but I can do it in about 10 minutes with the stitcher.”
Gaddis’s shoe-making and woodworking skills complement each other.
“I’ve made some wooden tools I needed for the shoes.”
When he needs a break from making shoes, Gaddis turns to his latest woodworking project.
“I’ve been working with wood since I was a kid,” he said. “I’ve always liked wood, and my grandfather taught me some woodworking skills. The grain patterns in cherry, walnut, and especially tiger-striped maple can be spectacular and unique.”
Stickley and Mission styles of furniture appeal to him for their simplicity.
“I’ve also been drawn to a Provincial style of furniture crafted in the late 1700s, after the Queen Anne period of design ended.”
He showed an elegant example, a cabinet where his wife stores her quilts. The doors are book-matched panels. To make them, he sawed a 2-inch thick piece of wood down the middle, so the two panels are mirror images of each other.
In their living room, a walnut stereo cabinet was built from a pattern for a linen press popular during the 1800s. He worked on it for about 500 hours. Gaddis said he has plenty of time these days for such pieces.
“When I retired, I told my daughter-in-law to make a list of the furniture she wanted. She couldn’t wait. I’ll be busy forever.” ISI