By Johnny D. Boggs
Custom bootmaker does not even begin to describe Deana McGuffin.
Certainly, since starting an apprenticeship with her father in the early 1980s, she has been making custom cowboy boots – the past 18 years at her shop, McGuffin Custom Boots (www.McGuffinBoots.com) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Yet, she has also displayed her creations at museums across the West, including the University of Wyoming Art Museum in Laramie and the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, Arizona. She even played a big role in organizing an exhibit, Sole Mates: Cowboy Boots and Art, at the New Mexico Museum of Art in 2010. And, oh yeah, McGuffin and her father, L.W. McGuffin, once showed their work at the Smithsonian.
Perhaps more importantly, McGuffin has been teaching others the craft and artistry of bootmaking, including at the Master Artist and Apprenticeship program since the late 1980s and private classes for vacationers and serious students since 2007.
“I’ve done demonstrations for service clubs and even talked to the juvenile boys in lockup one time,” says McGuffin, 69. “I got up there and laid all my stuff out and I started talking and said, ‘If you have any kind of interest as an artist, don’t let anyone ever tell you that you can’t make a living as an artist. But you do need to go to school so you can learn how to handle the business end of this; and if you have anyone in your family that does anything with art, don’t be afraid to ask them to teach you.’”
McGuffin learned from her father, but that took some doing on both his part and hers. L.W. McGuffin had learned the trade from his father, C.C. McGuffin, who had left Texas to open his boot shop in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1915. Deana’s interest in following that tradition didn’t start percolating until an in-law began berating her at a family gathering. “She said, ‘You have this person with this incredible skill, and it’s a dying art, and you’re not learning it,’” Deana recalls. “I knew Dad did all this stuff and I’d learned to carve from him, but I’d never really considered bootmaking.”
Still, she had to think about it for a while. “I was already in my 30s and thought I really don’t want to work this hard all my life,” she says, “but this is pretty taxing, too.” After she decided she would like to learn the trade, it took her about a year to get her dad to teach her. “He agreed to do it just to placate me,” she says. “I don’t think he ever thought I’d really do anything with it.”
She smiles. “Fooled him.”
L.W. McGuffin, who died in 2005 at age 90, didn’t believe women were strong enough to make boots. “I said, ‘Dad, I’ve been doing construction work, farm labor,’” Deana says. “‘I think I have the strength.’”
She quickly learned, though, that making a pair of cowboy boots isn’t for the weak.
“It takes a lot of hand strength and a lot of upper-body strength,” she says. “You sew side-seams inside out, wet them and turn them. That’s a hand killer, depending on how heavy the leather is. And I have a tradition in my classes when we sew the welts – probably the hardest thing in bootmaking – I take a photo [of the student flipping the bird] and post it on Instagram saying, ‘So-and-so hates sewing welts, too.’”
She looks at her hands. “This work has taken a toll on my hands. Mine look just like my dad’s did.”
In fact, when people sign up for her two-week boot course, they’re surprised at how much work goes into making a pair of boots. “That’s kind of our society now,” she says. “We’ve been programmed to become a throwaway, disposable society and there aren’t a whole lot of people who make their own stuff.”
Over the years, McGuffin has earned respect from practically everyone in the industry. She won the Open Class Award at the Boot and Saddle Makers Roundup in 2004, has judged the contest and is a fixture at the annual event in Wichita Falls, Texas.
“She is a great, old-school, traditional craftsperson,” says Jim Arndt, an acclaimed photographer, boot connoisseur and author of Buckaroo Boots. “A generational talent who learned from a great bookmaker, her father. She doesn’t skip any bookmaking steps in her work.”
Prices for McGuffin’s boots start at $2,800, with a turnaround time of usually 8 to 10 weeks. Those prices might have to go up, she says, because materials – especially colored kangaroo, her favorite leather – are becoming harder to find.
She is even considering branching out with her artistry. “I’d like to do some other type of leatherwork and woodwork. Some leather and wood, Southwestern furniture. I want to do some carving, and I kind of want to do some different things that aren’t quite as physically difficult.”
Not that she wants to stop making boots. “I still enjoy it and I still find challenges in it,” she says. “It’s still fun, and I’ll probably do it until I can’t do it anymore in some form and fashion.”
The one-person boot shop isn’t going away in America, she says.
“I think it’s going to survive. I’ve seen a lot of younger people in classes, and a lot of women students, too. One of my students, Wes Shugart, has just done amazing work. I won’t say he was my best student, but he’s the one who has really taken it and run with it. He has more boot orders than I do. Of course, that’s all right.”
Deana McGuffin deserves some credit for keeping that tradition alive.
“She taught me how to make a pair of boots,” says Shugart, who took McGuffin’s course in 2012 and now makes custom cowboy boots at his shop, Music City Leather, near Nashville, Tennessee. “She taught me the process. It was a class, wasn’t a true apprenticeship. But we’ve spent a lot of time on the phone, Skyped and all this, and actually become good friends.”
Says McGuffin, “I teach all the time. I think it is important. You never know what seed you might put in someone’s mind.”
Keeping students on course to sound bootmaking
Wes Shugart had a successful custom-home building operation in Nashville, Tennessee, when he arrived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to take Deana McGuffin’s bootmaking course in 2012.
He went because he “needed a hobby.” He left with a pair of boots and a new career.
“I always loved cowboy boots,” Shugart recalls, “and going to see her was just something to fill my time. I created [the boots] myself, but she was the catalyst that created such passion in making boots that I just never went back into construction.”
Today, Shugart makes custom boots at Music City Leather near Nashville. He’s just one of several students McGuffin has inspired since she began offering classes at her boot shop in 2007.
The two-week course (prices starting at $3,800) includes private instruction, materials (exotic leathers, etc., are extra) and tools. McGuffin can even rent an apartment at her house to out-of-towners.
“We build a boot from start to finish,” McGuffin says.
Two types of classes are offered. In the one geared toward individuals interested in becoming professional bootmakers, McGuffin makes a pair of boots while the student builds his or her own pair. “Hopefully, I have orders to do,” McGuffin says. “Otherwise, I get a new pair of boots. But I don’t really work on their boots very much. I want them to have the full experience of it.”
The other class is a “learning vacation.”
“They can do as much work on [the boots] as they want,” says McGuffin, who is available to help out when needed.
Tops are done the first week and bottoms the second, and although McGuffin has a mechanical leather skiver, she still teaches how to do that by hand.
“We’re here 9 to 5 at least five days a week, if we stay on schedule,” McGuffin says. “That’s intimate work together. You get to know them real well.”
The students get a pair of boots they’ve made themselves. What does McGuffin get?
“I just enjoy it,” she says. “I’ve met some incredibly talented, funny and just fun people doing this.”
firstname.lastname@example.org (she doesn’t check email often)
Music City Leather
Santa Fe, NM