by Gene Fowler
Ever since I was a little bitty kid,” says Texas bootmaker Mark Candela, “I’ve loved anything western.” Having recently notched his 59th year wherever he notches ‘em, the Houston native grew up in an era when Hollywood westerns ruled the TV waves and the silver screen.
“I had a Hopalong Cassidy watch,” he adds, “and I wore boots and hats all the time. I even have a photo of myself at one year old wearing a cowboy hat and boots.”
The artistic aspects of making cowboy boots, along with the great satisfaction of making something by hand, also influenced the former software consultant to switch careers in his early 40s. “I earned a degree in accounting and passed the CPA exam,” says Mark. “But I actually never practiced—instead I founded an accounting software firm.”
When the hankering to make cowboy boots became so great that he could no longer resist, Candela confessed his compulsion to his wife and she advised him to try making a pair before going full-boot-biz. “So, I approached the legendary bootmaker Dave Wheeler in Houston. I said, ‘Hey man, I wanna learn how to make boots. Will you take me on as an apprentice?’”
Dave responded, “Keep your day job.” Undeterred, Mark got hold of some books on bootmaking and began participating in online forums. A fast learner, he made his first pair with guidance from the books. But he felt he needed more specific instruction and reached out to another legendary bootmaker, Lee Miller at Texas Traditions in Austin, who had learned from the uber-legendary Charlie Dunn.
“I asked Lee if he could make a pair for a buddy of mine,” Mark recalls. “He said, ‘No. But you can. And I’ll teach you.’ And he did. He taught me how to build a last, everything. That was around 2007, 2008.” The student bootmaker felt the presence of Charlie Dunn in his former shop. “Lee would say, ‘You know that’s Charlie’s hammer. There’s Charlie’s awl. This is Charlie’s bench.’ You really sense the history of that place.”
Having visited Texas Traditions, I concur. The tools and equipment are imbued with Charlie’s spirit—ornery, magical, a master of his art and trade.
Equipped with newly acquired knowledge and freshly nurtured skills, Mark Candela went back to see Dave Wheeler. “He figured I was serious at that point and I continued my education with him.” His own shop, based near the historic town of Columbus on the Colorado River—an hour-plus west of Houston and east of Austin and San Antonio—Mark still works with Dave today. “When an issue comes up, I go to Dave. He’s got 50 or 60 years of experience, so he’s pretty much seen it all. I was going to his shop every Thursday before this coronavirus hit. And Dave’s assistant, Jorge Amaro, does a lot of work for me.”
Despite Columbus being pretty as a picture postcard, Mark says he doesn’t often leave the ranch where his shop is parked. “I was looking to build a shop when I first got seriously into business,” he says. “Then a woman bought some acreage nearby that had a turn-of-the-century yellow house on it. My wife got to talking to her and asked what she was going to do with the place. The lady said she was going to take a match and burn it down. So, my wife said, ‘Well, can we have it?’”
The Candelas moved the old yellow house to their own ranch, fixed it up, and now it’s 2,400 square feet of bootmaking paradise. A large boot-shaped sign that says “HANDMADE BOOTS” greets visitors on the porch.
Mark does travel to visit customers for measurements and design sessions. The current wait time for a pair of custom Candelas is two to two and a half years. “That’s one thing I won’t do is bump somebody up on the list to get their boots quicker,” he says. “Once I get you measured and we settle on a design, you’re on the list.” Customers desiring to get their boots sooner are farmed out to younger bootmakers who have a shorter timeline. “Lee Miller told me that finding new business wouldn’t be my problem. He said my problem would be a backlog on delivery. He was right, but mostly people agree that a well-made pair of custom boots is worth the wait.”
The beauties seen here and on Candela’s website and Facebook page explain why. Take the brandy-colored Nile crocodile pair, for instance, with the floral tops tooled by Peter Main. “Peter had an old Al Stohlman purse,” Mark explains, “and integrated that pattern onto the boot tops. The leather is from Eric Larson Leathers in Dallas and El Paso.”
A pair that Mark calls Two Drunk Vaqueros was built with rough-out buffalo and electric blue kidskin tops. They were made for one of the owners of Molino’s Mexican Restaurant in Houston. “We went back and forth on artwork and decided on two vaqueros. I gave one guy a beer bottle and the other one is taking a leak. They’ve been resoled at least once, and the guy is still wearing them. He’s a member of the Texas Vaqueros, a bunch of rich guys that get together and ride horses. His subgroup is called Charro Bravo, and you can see that on the boots.”
For another custom pair, one boot carries a Rose Bowl design and the other a Citrus Bowl design. “The customer, a former member of the North Texas Wildcats football team, played in both bowls. That took a ton of hours.” For the Rose Bowl boot, Candela needed to learn how to do Charlie Dunn’s famous pinched rose.
“I asked Lee Miller to teach me the pinched rose and he said that he promised Charlie he’d never teach anyone that secret technique. So, I was at Duck Menzie’s shop in Temple, Texas, one day. Duck passed a lot of stuff on to me—we’d just sit there and talk and talk. I mentioned Charlie Dunn’s pinched rose and Duck said, ‘Aw crap, come here. I was in Charlie’s shop one day. He was getting ready to go fishing and he showed me how. You take these needle-nose pliers, take a piece of leather, keep twisting the back of the leather and then you inlay it with rubber cement.’”
The pinched roses on the Rose Bowl Citrus Bowl boots must have turned out well because when Mark called the customer six months or so later, his wife said he only put the boots on while watching football and wouldn’t walk in them unless it was on the carpet. “He was a bucket lister, a big dude,” adds Mark. “I get a lot of bucket listers, guys that have custom-made boots on their bucket list.”
Candela Boot Company works almost exclusively with exotic leathers. “I would say it’s about 80% ostrich and 20% alligator,” the bootmaker explains. “Ostrich is without a doubt one of the most durable. My own ostrich boots—if I get them muddy, I just spray them off. Ostrich is extremely supple and doesn’t require a break-in period.
“I’ve introduced using the whole ostrich skin, not just the quill. The upper thigh area has a reptilian look, and I like to use that on the toe of the boot. I take a whole skin and lay it out, show a customer the places you can pull from. You can kick ostrich around and it won’t scuff. Ostrich really delivers more bang for your buck.
“American alligator, of course, is the Cadillac of leathers. I like to pull from the loin section, where there’s more round tiles than square ones. The square tiles will crack. I also like kangaroo. It’s very light and has high tensile strength, though the vamps will scuff.”
Mark sources most of his kangaroo from Hardtke Leather of Dallas and El Paso. He makes a lot of boots for graduates of Texas A&M University, where the school colors are maroon and white. “My first pair of Reveille boots (Reveille is the university’s canine mascot) took 50 hours of inlay/overlay just on the dog. But I love maroon. And you can’t get maroon kangaroo anymore. I bought 20 skins before Hardtke discontinued it.” Other skins are sourced from C. Loy’s in El Paso and Mark Staton in Louisiana.
“The magic part of bootmaking,” Candela philosophizes, “is dealing with the customers. They don’t know what you can do. You bring them to the point of discovering what’s possible. It’s the biggest challenge and the biggest reward in bootmaking, especially when you deliver the boots. My wife and I always deliver the boots in person so we can see their reaction when they get ‘em on their feet. They just can’t believe it.”