How to Make Sandals

Walk in comfort with a pair of handmade leather sandals fitted to your feet.

article image
by Lauren Martin

This is a casual and unfussy sandal that’s easy to make. The design consists of two pieces per foot, with a tie at the ankle. The straps are sandwiched between the sole layers and skived so you don’t feel them underfoot. Feel free to adjust the toe strap width and play around with the shape of the ankle strap. If you don’t love laces, you can easily swap in a small strap that closes with a buckle or stud.

Making Sandal Patterns

a hand with pencil tracing a paper strap pattern onto another pi

Deciding which style of sandal you want to make may be the hardest part of this whole process! Once you’ve chosen a design, you’ll need paper patterns for each component, including the sole and all the upper straps. You can find patterns online, copy the style of a beloved sandal you already own, or design your own pattern from scratch. Remember, each paper pattern piece is meant to be flipped over, so one side of the paper will be for your right foot and one for your left foot.

I started my sandal-making journey by re-creating my favorite sandals and making alterations. It was a wonderful way to learn, because I had something to reference. If you have a pair of sandals you love, use them as a template for a new pair. Place the chosen shoe upside down on paper, and then roll it from one side to the other as you trace with a pencil. Cut out the shapes, and then drape them over the original shoe to see how faithful your pattern is. Your pattern pieces won’t be perfect at first; make modifications as needed. And remember to alter the design to make it your own!

If you’ll be making a pattern from scratch, draw shapes that resemble the design you wish to create, and then cut the shapes out and drape them on your foot. Look closely, and decide what adjustments you want to make, such as making the straps longer, shorter, thicker, or more curvy. Make little arrows on the paper where you want more material, and mark a line where you intend to cut. Then, trace the pattern pieces onto new paper, adding and subtracting as needed, and making other corrections until you’re satisfied. It can take many iterations before the pattern resembles what you’ve envisioned.

a hand with pencil tracing the shape of a sandal strap onto pape

If you’re looking at an existing pattern, keep in mind that you can alter it to suit your style and size. When my workshop students encounter my patterns, they usually start to look for their shoe size. I try to get them to ignore size markings and instead see the patterns as shapes. Any paper pattern can be added to, subtracted from, extended, have sections pinched out, and so on. Even shoes factory-made to “standard” sizes vary in fit. Try to see past your number size and look instead for shapes you like. Feet are all so different. Be open to altering your patterns as much as necessary to fit your feet and your design preferences.

Your sole pattern should err on the larger side. I recommend leaving 1/2 inch extra space in front of your toes and 3/8 inch extra space behind your heel. This is because you’ll lose some of the length as you stack the layers and shape the sole to the contours of your foot. If your sole pattern proves too long in the end, you can always cut and sand it down. On the other hand, your toe and ankle patterns will not be sanded down, so they need to be accurate from the beginning. Place your foot on a low stool when choosing your toe and ankle patterns, and then drape different pattern pieces over your foot. Make sure the pattern pieces hug the curves of your foot and extend 1 to 1-1/2 inches underfoot so they have enough surface area to hold the glue.

Tools and Materials

  • Pencil and permanent marker
  • Scissors
  • Straightedge
  • Knife
  • Awl or rougher tool
  • Rotary hole punch
  • Masking tape
  • Solvent-based shoe glue
  • Hammer
  • Belt sander (optional)
  • Pattern pieces
  • 1- 1/2 square feet medium-weight leather (4-to-5-ounce leather or similar), for toe and ankle straps
  • 1 square foot thick leather (9-to-10-ounce leather or similar), for footbeds
  • 1 square foot rubber soling material
  • Laces

Step 1 Preparing Patterns

On a piece of sturdy paper, draw patterns for a sole, an ankle strap, and a toe strap. You can fashion the toe and ankle straps into the same style as the sandals pictured here, create your own design, or copy a pattern from an existing sandal. (See “Making Sandal Patterns” above for more details on choosing a pattern.) Be sure to draw a sole pattern that’s slightly larger than what you think you’ll need. One side of the patterns will represent the right foot, and the flip side will represent the left foot. Mark the sides “R” and “L” to help you remember.

a foot on top of a stool with paper pattern draped over foot

Cut out your patterns, and then check that they fit your feet and that the style suits you. Make adjustments as necessary. Be sure the toe and ankle straps extend at least 1 inch underfoot when pulled snugly against your foot.

Step 2 Tracing and Cutting

Using your patterns, trace the ankle and toe straps for both feet onto the medium-weight leather. Trace the sole pattern onto the thicker leather to create two footbeds. Remember to flip your patterns over so you get the correct shapes for both the left and right foot. Use a straightedge and sharp knife to cut out the shapes just inside your lines so no marker or pencil marks remain on your shoes.

Step 3 Draping and Marking

Place one leather footbed onto a low stool. Put your corresponding foot on top of the footbed, and then drape the leather toe and ankle straps over your foot. The back of the ankle strap should be snug against the top of your heel. The toe strap should cover your pinkie toe; in other words, don’t let all five toes stick out past the front of the strap. The ends of the toe straps (the tabs that will eventually go inside the sole layers) should be angled back toward the heel to allow the opening at the toes to be a bit narrower than the space at the back. Once you’ve found the place where the straps look best, use a pencil or awl to mark a dot on the footbed where each end edge of each strap lands, about 3/8 inch from the outside footbed edge. Repeat Step 3 with the other footbed.

Step 4 Dots and Slots

use an awl to mark slot placement on sandal footbed.

Take one footbed and punch out the dots you made in Step 3 using the smallest setting on a rotary hole punch. Place the first footbed face to face with the other footbed, and then use a pencil or awl to transfer the dot placements to the second footbed. Punch out these dots with the rotary punch. Once the holes are punched in both footbeds, use your sharp knife to cut parallel cuts between the holes to create the slots for the ankle and toe straps.

Step 5 Fitting

bottom of sole with tabs makred by black permanent marker

Slide the toe and ankle straps of both sandals into place through the slots in the footbeds. Adjust the straps until the fit is just right. This may require tugging them at a diagonal or cutting triangular darts into the tabs of the toe straps. Adding darts will provide a slight curve to the sides of the toe straps, resulting in a better-looking shoe. Use masking tape to secure the bottom tabs of the toe and the ankle straps to the undersides of the footbeds.

Step 6 Outlining

When you’re happy with the fit on both feet, outline the bottom tabs on the undersides of both footbeds with a permanent marker. Move the tape out of the way into a hinge position that will prevent the tabs from shifting out of place.

Step 7  Scratching and Gluing

applying glue to tabs on bottom of sandal sole

With an awl or rougher tool, add texture to the surfaces of all the tabs and both footbeds where the tabs will be glued in place. Apply glue and wait for it to become tacky. Press each tab down carefully within the lines you drew in Step 6.

Try on the shoes. If you’re satisfied with the fit, hammer the tabs to secure the bond. If the fit needs a correction, pull up a tab with pliers and reglue it in the improved position.

Step 8 Skiving

skiving tabs with sharp knife on bottom of sandal sole

Carefully use your knife blade to skive the edges of each tab for a smooth feel underfoot. Try the sandals on and make sure there are no spots of discomfort. When you feel you’ve done enough skiving, use your awl or rougher tool to rough up the entire bottom of both footbeds, including the tabs.

Step 9 Preparing Rubber Soles

trimming rubber outer sole with sharp knife

Trace your right and left sole patterns onto the rubber soling material, adding a halo of about 3/8 inch all the way around to produce an outsole shape slightly larger than you’ll ultimately need. This will make it easier to glue and trim the outsoles later. Cut out the outsoles with a knife.

Steps 10 Joining Rubber Soles

In a well-ventilated area, apply glue to the bottom of both footbeds and the smooth side of both rubber outsoles. Wait until the glue is tacky, and then apply another coat to the footbeds and outsoles. Wait again for the glue to get tacky, and then carefully join the footbeds to the outsoles. Press the surfaces together with your fingertips, and then gently hammer the layers together. Try on the sandals, and use your body weight to further compress the layers.

Steps 11 Trimming

If you don’t have a belt sander, you’ll need to hand-trim the outsole edges with a knife. Hold the toe and ankle straps out of the way, and then carefully insert a sharp knife blade (at least 2 inches long) into the rubber soling. Using the footbed edge as a trimming guide, pull your blade steadily through the rubber, going all the way around the sandal in as fluid a motion as possible.

If you have access to a belt sander, roughly cut off most of the excess rubber soling on both shoes using your knife, and then carefully finish the soles with the sander. You can also take the soles to a cobbler for sanding.

After sanding or hand-cutting the soles, you’ll notice an imperfect top edge on the footbed. Trim this away using a knife for the sides and scissors for the curves at the toe and heel. Take off as little edge as possible, and work at a 45-degree angle. After this trimming, you may choose to leave your sandal edges raw, because the leather and rubber can react differently to edge treatment.

Step 12 Adding Laces

Lace placement is up to you. First, decide whether you want one or two holes on each side of the ankle strap. Then, try on your sandals and draw dots where the lace holes look most natural. I usually place my lace holes about 3/8 inch from the edge of the ankle strap. Once you’ve determined lace placement, punch the holes with the hole punch, using a setting that will let the laces pass through easily. Decide how long the lacing needs to be to tie a bow, and then trim two laces to size.

Rachel Corry is a shoemaker with a special interest in handcrafted sandals. This is excerpted from her book The Sandalmaking Workshop (Storey Publishing).

  • Updated on Mar 3, 2022
  • Originally Published on Feb 28, 2022
Tagged with: handmade clothing, leather, sandals, shoe making
Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368