Jeremy Atkinson’s custom-made traditional clogs are crafted using methods which have stood the test of time.
A workshop in the Herefordshire town of Kington is filled with the strong smell of leather and wood. Shelves are packed with piles of leather pieces and ancient boxes full of nails and tacks. Wooden clogs are stacked high, waiting to be picked up by customers, while baskets full of lasts sit on the shavings- and sawdust-covered floor. More baskets are filled with old tools. A stove gives off the evocative scent of burning wood. In the corner is a wooden trestle workbench with a large ring at one end, on which a long, sharp knife is hooked.
This is where Jeremy Atkinson has hand carved his traditional clogs since 1980. He creates his wooden footwear in the same way as a clog maker would have during the Industrial Revolution.
“It takes years to perfect the art of clog making,” he says. “You cannot teach yourself. You need guidance and have to be taught, learning to carve wood first of all.” Clog making was not his first choice of career. Trained as a teacher, he worked in a range of jobs, including teaching at a special school, selling bikes and helping former military personnel find a new trade. In between, he helped a clog maker in Tregaron in Wales for a year in the late 1970s. The work was unpaid, but helped him learn his craft. “I knew I wanted to work with my hands,” he says. “I’m not an artist, but a craftsman. You learn by rote, and develop an eye.”
Finally, he moved to Herefordshire, where he opened his shop. For the last 36 years he has been making his bespoke, hand-crafted clogs, designed to perfectly fit each individual buyer. He is an excellent champion for the benefits of clogs, as he wears nothing else on his feet. “They are warm in the winter and cool in the summer,” he says. “Your foot never sweats in them, and they offer great support as well as being incredibly comfortable.”
Choosing the wood
Jeremy makes his clogs from start to finish, including felling the wood for the bases and cutting it himself. The wood comes from local coppices of sycamore or birch, sometimes alder. He picks nursery trees that are either 6in or 12in (15cm or 30cm) in diameter. These sizes allow him to make one or two clog bases out of them. Once he has cut the wood to size, approximately 12in (30cm) long and 5in (12cm) thick, it is taken to his shop to add to his stock of blocks. Depending on the length of the tree, and the knots in the wood, he can get up to 15 blocks out of one tree. Four or five is the average.
He starts with the wood unseasoned, as it is more pliable and easier to work. First, the bark is removed from the block using a very large and very sharp knife that is approximately 38in (96cm) long, including the handle. Called a stock knife, this is hooked to the workbench to give more leverage and power. The finer the edge of the blade, the easier the job is. His stock knife is a traditional tool many years old, made by a 19th century Yorkshireman, Henry Carter. “I happen upon old tools,” says Jeremy.
Once the bark is removed, he starts to shape the clog. Holding the block of wood with his left hand, he finely slices down with the blade using his right hand, pushing away from his body. Care has to be taken to avoid wood with large knots, as this can weaken the clog. The knife is chamfered on the back, offset against the handle to make it concave. This makes it easier to cut the curved shaped of the clog. Using his right hand, Jeremy pushes the knife deftly to make the curve. His experience means that he makes it look easy, but it is an awkward knife to use. Much repetition and practise has been necessary in order to perfect this skill.
The heel is then cut out using a hand bow saw and a knife. He does this by sight, the skill required coming from years of experience.
The depth of the clog can vary, depending on the size of wood and style. “I make traditional, functional clogs, not fashion clogs,” says Jeremy. Therefore, the traditional clog shape is virtually the same every time. This whole process of shaping the clog is called blocking out.
The clog blocks are now left to season for the wood to harden. Jeremy stores them in his cellar for up to a month for this to take place.
Once the wood has seasoned, the shape of the foot is carved out. Before doing this, Jeremy needs the buyer to come in for a fitting. He measures the length of the foot, height of the arch and where the ball of the foot lies. A cardboard template is made of the foot and the wooden sole cut to match. To do this, Jeremy draws round the template on the block with a pencil. Using the stock knife and a hollower, the shape of the foot is carved out. The last, a wooden mould that imitates the foot’s arch, is placed on the clog so Jeremy gets the curve of the foot exactly right.
Once this is done, a rebate, or ridge, is cut around the edge of the clog to which the leather upper will be fitted. This is done with a gripper, the most difficult tool a clog maker has to use. It is steered with the left hand and pushed with the right. “You have to feel what the blade is doing, feel it catching the wood. It is very easy to split the wood at this stage,” says Jeremy. This is because the wood on the rebate is at its narrowest. Some ledges need to be deeper than others, depending on the thickness of the leather being used.
The sole is then finished off by smoothing it, using rasps and short-bladed knives. The edges of the heels are nipped off and rounded so that the wood does not catch and split.
Once one clog is made, work starts on the other. This has to match the first exactly and, again, Jeremy works by sight. “Years and years of practice is how it’s done, doing it by rote,” he says. Rubber is then nailed to the soles, using small brass tacks, to stop the wood wearing. Occasionally, he adds a clog iron. This is something people used to nail on to the heels of shoes to prevent them wearing down too quickly.
Adding the upper
The upper now needs to be made using fine English cowhide sourced in Dorset. Jeremy uses soft, coloured leather that is easy to use and comfortable to wear from the outset. The upper is fitted over the last, then cut out over a template he has made. Heel stiffeners are stitched together by hand and put in place. The last is then placed on the clog. The leather is pulled down and nailed into the wood along the rebate. To do this, Jeremy sits on a stool, the clog
on his knee.
His clog hammer is rounded so it does not damage the leather. The sharp, pointed nails used to hold the leather are known as tingles. He has boxes and boxes of tingles in all different sizes, ½in, ⅝in, ⅞in and ¾in. These have either come from factories which have closed, or been given to him by people clearing out old shops and attics.
At this point, a second fitting is required to see if the clog needs to be made deeper or shallower. If necessary Jeremy will stretch the leather on the last to make it deeper. This is also the time when he puts in the eyes for the laces. Once the fit is perfect, the tingles are covered with a strip of leather called the welt, cut with a Stanley knife. This is held in place by clog welt tags, often made from copper or brass. This procedure is called nailing in. The tags are driven home evenly, making sure that the tingles used before are not directly underneath.
Finally, the majority of clogs are finished off with brass or steel toe tins to protect the toe. Once the clog is complete, the last is removed using a poker.
“I get great satisfaction from the finished article, and enjoy working with my hands and with wood,” says Jeremy, who can make two pairs of clogs a day. “I also like working for myself. Every clog and customer is different. I take great delight in being a skilled craftsman who is always improving. I want to keep the tradition alive, and am proud of my profession. Every pair of clogs I make gets better, even after all these years.”
Shoe of the working man
Clogs are an ancient form of footwear going back as far as Roman times. The English clog evolved over the years. Originally slats of wood held in place by straps, they were often worn over footwear to elevate the wearer above the mud and effluent on unmade roads. Those who were too poor to afford shoes wore clogs directly against their skin. During the Industrial Revolution, clogs became the working man’s footwear, as they were cheap, strong and hard-wearing. Popular between 1840 and 1920 with millworkers in the North, particularly Lancashire, they were also worn by miners, dockers and market stall holders. They were superseded by the hobnail boot.
Clogs are not always suitable for outdoor wear. As they do not bend, mud or snow sticks to the soles, accumulating rapidly. This is where the term ‘clogged up’ originated from.
Clogs are still worn today by metalworkers and shot blasters, as they last much longer than a normal pair of boots. Jeremy makes up to five pairs a year for one such man. Normally, a pair of his clogs lasts between 15 and 30 years, depending on wear and tear. Orthopaedically advantageous, clogs are very popular with those with fallen or broken arches. This is because they are rigid, but curved, offering great support.
Words: Mary Bremnar Photography: Richard Faulks
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Bespoke clogs from £240 to £300