It happened when he was 11. Brian Thomas walked into his local shoe repair and leather store and was quickly seduced by the sultry smell that lingered in the air. He just knew he had to find a way to be around it and he did. In fact, he’s made a lifelong passion of it with no signs of slowing down.
From the ground up
As a kid growing up in southern California in the early 1970s, Thomas took his first job at that local shoe repair shop sweeping floors. The shop’s owner joked that he had to learn the business from the ground up.
He wasn’t kidding,” Thomas said. “I made $5 a week and then graduated to shining shoes and was just fascinated by how they were made.”
Thomas worked at the shop during his teenage years and by the time he was a senior he’d made up his mind.
“I really wanted to learn how to make cowboy boots,” he says.
So, in 1976, he enrolled in the Shoe Boot and Saddle course at Oklahoma State Tech (OST) under Earl Bain’s direction. After graduating from the program, he made boots and did repairs for an Oklahoma western wear shop. He was ready to move on, and in 1980 became an apprentice bootmaker for Tex Robin in Coleman, Texas.
“Tex mentored me and provided me with a wealth of valuable knowledge; he set the bar high,” Thomas says. “I remain true to building the best boot possible – the way I was taught by Tex. My boots reflect his style in the design.”
After a few years with Tex, Thomas felt a responsibility to serve his country.
“Tex was an Army vet. I was raised by and worked for vets my entire life,” Thomas says. “My father was a WWII vet; my boss at the shoe repair shop in California was a Korean War vet; my instructors at OST were vets; and the owner of the store where I worked in Oklahoma was a Vietnam War vet.”
So, at the age of 27, he left Tex’s shop and joined the Air Force in 1985. What he thought was going to be a standard four-year stint turned into a 20-year career.
“The Air Force had a tremendous effect on my bootmaking career. The continual training, constant upgrades, life experiences and people interactions were valuable,” he says. “I learned that ‘The Standard’ is all the same,” he says.
Today, his bootmaking skills take into account that same standard and its his attention to detail and that perfect fit that attracts people to his boots.
Handmade, not custom – there’s a difference
In the last six years of his military service, Thomas returned to bootmaking on a part-time basis. In November, 2004, he opened his own shop in Abilene, Texas, “Thomas Custom Boots” and started bootmaking full-time.
“I used to say that my boots were custom, but that word really has no validity anymore. Custom has evolved into a loose translation of what it once meant. My boots are handmade to measure where the fit lasts a lifetime,” he says. “I even changed my store’s sign to reflect that and it now reads ‘Thomas Handmade Boots.’ There’s an emphasis on the ‘handmade.’”
When a customer orders a pair of boots, Thomas determines what type of boot to make by asking the customer how he/she will use the boot. Is it for work? Is it for play? The customer chooses the type and color of leather, and Thomas takes nearly a dozen measurements on each foot before the boot building begins.
It takes about three weeks to make a pair and that includes making and fitting a last. Prices start at about $1,600 per pair and he makes about 16 pairs of “Made to Measure” boots per year.
“The last comes first,” he says. “I make my own lasts and it’s the most important part of the process.”
He constructs a last to be the same size and shape as the customer’s foot with layers of leather, using an electric finisher to grind and shape it.
From that model last, he constructs the boot from the top down and says his favorite piece of equipment is his roller feed stitcher machine, a PFAF 141-5BL. He learned on this machine and says it’s “user-friendly and built like a tank.”
“It’s hard work. Sometimes you feel like you’re sweating blood,” he says.
But he wouldn’t have it any other way.
When asked how many pairs of boots he personally owns, he shares that he’s currently “wearing four,” but has a closet full of worn out boots and boots that no longer fit. Some date back to when he was 17.
I guess old boots never die, they just fade away.
Over the years, Brian Thomas has won numerous Professional Choice Awards at the Boot and Saddle Makers Round Up.