From his upbringing to a lifelong passion, Greg Carmack creates masterful leather goods from the heart
By Laura Beth Moore
Inhale, as the whiff of leather seeps in deep, powerfully transporting one back in time to the days of saloons, gun smoke and back when the West was still wild. As the door to the shop closes, beating rings out and bounces off the tin walls. The clash of tools ricochets off the concrete floors and behind the aged wooden counter hunched over, concentrated on his work stands Greg Carmack, owner of Carmack’s Custom Cowboy Boots. Located off Highway 6 in Central Texas, just down the road from where he grew up, is the place where he first learned the craft of boot-making at age 11. An old craft, Carmack says, is diminishing quickly.
Growing up on his father’s ranch in Central Texas, Carmack worked on the farm during the summer at age 10. When the next summer came around, 11-year-old Carmack spoke up saying, “I don’t think I’m cut out for this kind of work.” The local boot maker, Larry Jackson, went to church with the Carmack family in Walnut Springs and little Carmack asked if he could sweep the floors of the shop. While Jackson said he didn’t need a sweeper, he taught Carmack to become a welt sewer—the process of stitching a strip between a shoe sole and upper portion of the boot. At the time Carmack didn’t know he would own Jackson’s store one day and become a boot-maker full-time. After a summer as a welt sewer, Jackson realized Carmack had a knack for bootmaking.
“You could tell he wanted to learn, and he never failed to learn,” Jackson said. “Greg didn’t want to make mistakes.”
Carmack continued working for Jackson through high school and college before stepping into the corporate world, which frustrated him, “You could discuss the issue, but no action was taken quickly to solve the problem. You couldn’t make a change when a change needed to be made. I like to hear people’s ideas and perspectives. I don’t have to be right, but if we know there’s a change that needs to be made, let’s make it.”
After discussing this with his mentor one day, Jackson said, “Then why don’t you just buy me out?” Shortly after Carmack purchased the business from Jackson and made improvements to the boots. He said the improvements he made focus around geometry, material construction, technique and design.
“I didn’t invent any of this,” he admitted. “This business is old, old, old, but a lot of stuff gets forgotten. So I just went back to the boot that was built in the 50s, 60s and 70s and put a few things back into that boot that took too much time for large manufacturers to produce.”
Carmack moves the weight bearing into the arch eliminating pressure on the long bridge of the boot causing feet to become tired. This modification holds and supports the arch of the foot making the boot more comfortable. For a man who stands on concrete 10-12 hours a day in leather soles, “My feet are happy,” he said. “It’s not magic it’s just time and understanding.” None of the factory boots can provide that modification, “they just don’t have the time. They’re just trying to compete to the dollar, and it’s a race to the bottom.”
With an emphasis on an “American born and bred” culture surrounding many boot-wearers’ there’s actually only one piece of U.S. leather in Carmack’s boots—the top lining. The lack of U.S. material grieves Carmack who wants to create a truly authentic American made boot, but now it’s impossible. There are no tanners in the nation making sole leather for boots. There’s no sole leather to be found. When Carmack began only two tanners existed within the U.S., and now there’s no U.S. sole leather and no calf skin—a staple to the boot.
The last U.S. tanner of sole leather went out of business in 2005. Carmack explained the reason these tanners go out of business is due to the costs large boot manufacturing companies save by purchasing leather from a South American tanner compared to a U.S. tanner in Pennsylvania. With time he watched as the Pennsylvania tanners—the last U.S. sole leather tanners—went out of business.
Over the thirty years he has built strong network of people who help him find what he needs. Carmack sources his own calf out of France and sources another piece of calf out of Poland. “I’m lucky enough that my exotic friends of mine can get whatever ostrich or alligator I need. Mainly it’s just difficult to get quality material,” he said.
The strength of his network led to acquiring the finest French calf to make his boots. A partnership with a representative for a French tannery—owned by exclusive leather goods maker Hermes—changed the entire quality of Carmack’s boots. Now he actually stocks the leather upstairs and sells it to other bootmakers as an agent for the representative based in Connecticut.
As the only bootmaker in the shop, trying to balance 30 percent of his time sourcing materials and the remainder of time making the boots remains quite a balancing act.
“You want to know the fastest way to insult me is to say, ‘You know I’d like to come a couple of weekends and learn how to make boots.’ So insulting. I could have been a surgeon faster than I was a bootmaker, and I could have made a lot more money,” said Carmack. “You don’t get to be bootmaker in a day, a week, a month or two months, a year or two years. It’s a slow, learned, repetitive, ‘do-it-in-your-sleep’ thing, and most people don’t have the want to do that.”
THE BOOT BUYERS
It’s his dedication to detail and perfecting the bootmaking process that brings customers flooding in to order their own pair of Carmack’s Custom Boots. People who knew Carmack when he was a kid sweeping the floors at the shop still come in to buy boots from him, and now their sons and grandsons come in to order their own pair of Carmack’s Custom Boots.
“I’m not so great with names, but if I built your boots, I could look at your boots and know I built them, and remember the boot go to the order in my head and look at the name blank—and know your name,” said Carmack.
While a majority of the clientele are Texas customers, Carmack has customers in all the states; he’s even shipped boots to France, Germany and China.
When customers are choosing a boot design, Carmack says they go through a careful process. He keeps lots of pictures and examples for them to see. As far as if they’re going to use it for a dress boot or a work boot, he steers them to the leathers that work best depending on the use of the boot.
“It’s a sense of accomplishment, when you take raw leather and combine it with someone’s idea put it all together and in the end you’ve got a finished product. They smile, put it on and say, ‘that’s exactly what I wanted,’” he said—a phrase that causes a smile to turn up across his face.
“In the end if the bootmaker and the customer aren’t both smiling…then you’ve got trouble,” Carmack said.
FROM ITALY TO TEXAS
Over the years, the unique machines Carmack uses have been rebuilt with new parts from wear and tear, but to purchase new machines, Carmack would have to go to Italy and pay around $50,000 for just one piece.
“A company named United Shoe Machinery Corporation built all the shoe equipment, but they didn’t sell a piece of it, you could only lease the equipment from them. You never owned their equipment, until a little company named Landis came along and started making shoe equipment with the tag line, ‘Own your Own.’ They would actually sell the equipment to you,” he said as the machine rattles.
“I just love this machine because it’s so old, and it just works and works.”
Walking over with a brisk in his step, eager to show off the only piece of equipment left from when he first bought the shop—the sewing machine he learned how to stitch on. “The faster you go, the more you get done,” Carmack said while the needle rapidly blazed a trail of thread upon the tanned leather.
THE PRIZED CURVED AWL
Along with the rare equipment, Carmack’s tools for bootmaking are hard to come by. New boot-making tools cannot be accessed in America. He must travel to South America to purchase them. His tools worn with smoothed handles from the 40s he purchased from West Germany. “A curved awl,” the tool he sews welt with allows him to poke holes into the welt to then sew the stitches through.
As his tools began to dull, he made a partnership with a guy in Ecuador to make some cowboy boots. In passing through a market where he buys leather, the “curved Awl” tool caught Carmack’s eye. Immediately he recognized the tools were from Germany stamped with the brand, King, “best curved awl tools you can get.” The tools were a buck a-piece. “Buy them all,” he said. “Now I have enough to last me and even for my kids if they want to pick up the business.”