The top, also known as the shaft, is the artist’s canvas: Here is where the most detail work is done (although, ironically, if you’re a man, the top stays hidden under your pants legs unless you’re riding or at a cowboy ball). Standard tops are twelve inches high, though custom boots that replicate vintage models of fifty years ago or older—especially old-timey cowgirl boots called peewees—sometimes have tops that are shorter. Luccheses have always had thirteen-inch tops. Yahoos and Buffalo Bill wannabes go for even higher tops, despite their propensity to cause the feet to sweat more in the summer.
When it comes to skins and leathers, the sky—and your wallet—is the limit; the rarer the species, the costlier the material. Calfskin is the basic starter, followed in no particular order by goat, lizard, anteater, shark, kangaroo, quill ostrich, stingray, buffalo, bullfrog, snake (not very durable), bullhide (very durable), elephant (the most durable), and alligator (the most expensive).
The stitching of custom boots is done by hand. Think decorative, not practical: Once upon a time, stitching held the layers of leather together, but today glue mostly does the trick. The more rows of stitching, the finer (and more expensive) the boot. Two rows are standard. Ten rows are awesome.
The vamp is the lower part of the boot, and ideally it’s cut from a single piece of leather. It comes together in a series of steps. First the medallion—or bug and wrinkle, so named because it looks like, well, a bug and a wrinkle—is stitched onto it. Then it’s sewn to the top, wetted, and stretched over the last. Next, it’s pulled back so the toe box can be inserted. Finally, it’s sculpted and dried.
Pulls, or ear pulls, are the loops sewn into the side of your boots at the top to help you get them on. Over-the-top pulls are standard. Mule ears, which are five to seven inches long, and flush pulls, which sit inside the boot, are fancier. Some boot buyers prefer holes in the top to slip their fingers into.
Inlays are sewn into the top or, less frequently, the vamp. This is the delicate part of the artistic process, sometimes involving microscopic strands and pieces of leather. The more detailed the inlay, the harder the job—and the longer it takes. (Overlays, or foxings, are pieces of leather attached to the outside of the top or the vamp; they’re the bootmaking equivalent of hair extensions. They perform the same decorative function as inlays, but they’re susceptible to scuffing or being torn off.)
Piping covers the vertical seam where the tops are stitched together. Typically it’s a single strand, but sometimes it involves more-elaborate braiding.
Your choice of toe reveals what kind of person you are. Rock stars and fashionmongers gravitate to pointy toes, also known as pin box toes, roach stompers, and fence climbers. Yes, they’re trendy, but they’re actually the kind grandpa used to wear when he rode horses (the pointy toe makes it easier to stick the boot into the stirrup). The box toe—also called the five-eighth toe, since the boxed front is five-eighths of an inch across—is the most popular version of the pointy toe. (The boot pictured has a three-fourths-inch toe.) Round toes, reflecting more conservative tastes, are preferred by modern ranch folks and professionals who want something to wear with a business suit. The number one round is a modified pointy toe. The number three, also known as a J toe, is the most common of the round-toe styles and is preferred by the button-down crowd. The number four is so round that it can pass for a shoe.
The bottom consists of the insole, the outsole, and the shank cover. The insole is nailed to the bottom of the last before the vamp is stretched. After the vamp is dry, it is stitched to the insole by hand, creating the welt. The nails are pulled from the insole, and the last is removed. Then the outsole is stitched to the welt. heelThe heel determines height and function. Higher heels make it easier to stay in a stirrup while on horseback, but they’re hard if not hell to walk in (getting around on a two-and-a-half-inch “undershot high narrow rounding heel” is like wobbling on Manolo Blahnik spikes). Most boot wearers prefer a lower, flatter heel, like a one-and-five-eighth-inch “walking wide heel” or a one-and-three-fourth-inch “short contest heel.”