authentic roman boots

Constructing Roman Leather Military Boots (Calcei) – Part Two

Sooooo I should have had this finished ages ago, and I’m sorry for keeping everyone waiting. I hope its worth the wait! If you need a refresher, this the second part to the Roman Military Boots Pattern Making article I published oh, ummmm *mumble-mumble*…yeah about 2 years ago. . .

ANYWAY! Here’s the follow up and as always, if anything is unclear, or if you have questions, feel free to comment below!

Cutting and Prepping the Leather

I feel like the act of cutting out the leather from the pattern is pretty self-explanatory so to summarize:

  1. Place pattern on leather
  2. Trace pattern onto leather (trace onto what will be the inside of the boot)
  3. Cut out leather – Ryan used an exacto knife (went through a lot of blades though)

This is a super simple design, so the only other thing worth mentioning is to make sure you transfer your calibration marks and fold line to the inside of the boot.

Ryan often works faster than I can photograph so he got quite a ways into it before I took any photos. The images start a few steps forward with the pattern cut out, calibration marks transferred, skiving done, toe stitched, and notches cut. Using Florentius’ calcei assembly steps, you can see his detailed step by step process and its what Ryan referenced numerous times throughout the course of constructing these boots.

Skiving

You’ll want to do the skiving before any sewing – obviously this image shows the toe stitched up, but the skiving was done beforehand. You can see where the leather seems to get a bit flimsy about 1 inch from the bottom edge and that’s where the tapering from the skiving is.

Making Calcei: Skiving, Notches

The skiving seemed to be the trickiest part – I didn’t know the term skiving so I’m going to assume some of my readers don’t either. Skiving is done to make the leather thinner and easier to fold. The inch we added to the bottom of the pattern gets folded under and wedged between two sole pieces and this is the part you want skived.

Ryan tried using two different types of knives; a curved skiving knife and a Super Skiver. He ended up getting more adept at the curved skiving blade once we got a large polished stone tile to skive against and a wet-stone to keep the blade sharp. The whole point behind skiving is to thin the leather by tapering out the thickness so it folds under more easily, and doesn’t leave you with a lot of bulky leather underneath.

Curved Leather Skiving Knife

Here are a couple videos that may help visualize how to do the skiving if you’ve never done it before:

Stitching

The first bit of stitching you do for these boots is along the toe. As you can see from the photos below, you do a running stitch until you get to the last inch where the leather folds under. For that last inch you want a stronger hold so it won’t come apart where you can’t easily get to it. (In addition, you can see in the photo on the right how thin the leather is after skiving – Ryan may have made it a little too thin so keep that in mind).

Making Calcei Stitching, Notches, Skiving

Using an awl to poke holes ahead of time will make life much easier. Make sure to keep everything aligned as well – shifting is no bueno! The Florentius example shows that he glued the toe seam together first, poked holes once it dried, then stitched. That seems like a good way to do it, but Ryan didn’t bother gluing first.

Notches, Alignment, and Gluing

When you have the toe stitched up, you want to [ideally] have a shoe/cobbler’s anvil to put the boot on and kind of eye-ball where you are going to need to cut out your notches (triangular notches shown above). Basically, you want the leather to fold under the inner sole without folding over itself creating lots of unpleasant bumps.

After you cut the notches, line up your calibration marks with the sole again, and you want to glue the sole to the upper. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to align the calibration marks. . . if you don’t you’ll have an ill-fitting, twisted boot. Since the leather that you fold over doesn’t meet in all areas, ie there will be an oblong section in the middle where the folded over part doesn’t touch, and you’ll want to cut out a filler piece; this will prevent sagging, and uncomfortable dent in the middle of the boot.

Next you need to cut out two more thick, bottom soles. Glue those on one at a time. The glue Ryan used was MASTER brand All-Purpose, Quick-Drying Cement. Some people will stitch all the layers together – some people don’t have the patience for that – and some people use a more historically accurate bone glue (so I’ve been told, but don’t hold me to that – I’m not an expert on historical glues).

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(That gap can be filled in with glue or something similar).

Florentius shows a much more detailed progression of the sole gluing steps so if you need more imagery and step by step descriptions, check it out.

Shaping

Shaping is an important part of the process to make the leather fits more snuggly and comfortably to your ankle and gives proper room in the toes. You’ll want to wait until your glue is completely dry, then fill the toes of the boots up with water to soak the leather and make it more flexible. Stuff plastic bags into the toes and press out the toe areas. Leave the plastic bags in and stick a shoe tree in there if you have them (Goodwill!!). Leave them like this and keep doing it until it fits comfortably in the toe.

Ryan also opted to soak the ankles, then wrap them tightly with fabric while wearing them for a couple hours. This shapes the leather to your ankle.

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Oiling

Once everything is dry, but before hobnailing, you’ll want to apply neatsfoot oil to the entire boot for protection and preservation. This also makes the leather more supple, making the hobnailing process a little easier.

Hobnailing

Before hammering a bunch of hobnails into the boots, you’ll want a hobnail pattern. I created a hobnail pattern based off this red and blue pattern we also used for the caligae pattern. (Click on the image for the original article).

valkenburg-hobnail-pattern

My pattern, below, might look a little peculiar because I decided to be lazy and just make one pattern that changes based on which foot I’m putting it on (it’s one piece of paper with writing on both sides so some of the holes are crossed out). Ryan’s feet are a bit asymmetrical so we need separate shoe patterns for his feet and the sole on his right foot is slightly narrower so the hobnail pattern needed subtle changes to easily transfer to each foot. I don’t recommend using my exact pattern and I’ll explain more below.

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Transferred the pattern onto the soles. . .

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After hammering in the hobnails. . .

Calcei - Hobnails

Now I will suggest that you DON’T copy this exact hobnail pattern because its not ideal – use it as a reference if you want. Like I said, we were basing it off of the red and blue pattern above, but as you can see, that one is much narrower than Ryan’s foot. Not only did I need to stretch the pattern, I also had to limit the number of hobnails used because we had a finite number of them and (at the time) no way to get any more.

I also thought that by having them more spaced out, that would make the grip/traction a little better, maybe? Wrong. Leather is not stiff and therefore sags… with sagging comes wear and tear. It also means as the leather sags, the shank of the hobnail pokes into the inner soles, making them uncomfortable. It’s like laying on a couple nails, versus laying on a bed of nails.

calcei-hobnails-wear-and-tear

The heel is fairly populated with hobnails, but the ball of the foot and around the edges could use a few more. I suppose if you can find use out of the pattern, just add more hobnails in the gaps. Luckily, we have now found some new sources for hobnails (though we haven’t ordered from them yet) and will plan for a more dense hobnail map in the future.

Inner sole

After hobnailing, cut out another sole piece for inside the boot to cover the clenched shanks of the hobnails. Some people will then put in a normal/modern insert for more confort, or felt insoles, or another piece of leather. Depending on how many or how thick your insoles are, you may need to stretch out the toes more.

Laces, Tab Trimming

Once you’re done hobnailing, that’s all the hard stuff. All you need now are leather laces and to cut some holes in the leather tabs. Put the boots on and get an idea of where the laces will go, then punch your holes. You can also trim off any excess tab you don’t need/want.

Hole punched in tabs with small slit. . .

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Finished!!

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Ryan finished these two years ago and I only had this post halfway done as of a couple weeks ago so if something seems lacking, please feel free to demand more info! I hope the links to the resources we used are helpful too!

Happy boot making! 🙂