By Eric Peterson | Jul 08, 2015
Spring City, Utah
A Spring City resident since the 1980s, Walker spent the first half of his career as a truck driver.
"Seventeen years, I owned and drove my own truck," says Walker, now 62. The business got tougher and tougher, and he decided to shift gears. "I've never been an employee and I was pretty sure I didn't want to be an employee."
After considering a fast-food franchise, he bought some used tools from a shoe repair shop and taught himself to fix footwear. "I'm fortunate in that God gave me hands that could do anything," he says.
But it took him a few years to make his first boot. The first attempts didn't turn out so good, leading him to study under Randy Merrell, the founder of Merrell, in Vernal Utah in 1997.
"I spent three weeks with him learning the tricks that masters know," says Walker. "I came home and said, 'I'm a bootmaker.'"
Hundreds of custom pairs later, Walker Custom Boots has a well-earned reputation for making boots that work.
His clients are primarily ranchers and riders, as well as two "medium-famous people" in NFL linebacker Dhani Jones and Western singer Mary Kaye.
All customers are required to come to Walker's shop in person to get the perfect "glass slipper" made of packing tape that he uses to craft the boot. "My big thing is fit," he says. "It's not worth anything if it doesn't fit."
Each pair then requires "two weeks to two months” to make and prices start at $1,100. The most expensive pair Walker ever made went to a customer in Moscow, a top-to-bottom gatorb boot with lots of inlay, for $4,500.
He sources leather from a broker in Houston, everything from cowhide to alligator skin to kangaroo leather.
"I'm doing more exotic leathers than I did at first," says Walker. "My clientele runs towards tougher leathers. They want something that's going to hold up."
"As I got more comfortable with what I was doing and happier with the quality, I raised my prices," says Walker. ”Then I was whining because I had too much work." He got some sage advice from a fellow bootmaker: Once you have a 10-pair backlog, raise your prices again. "That's been my M.O. ever since."
Bootmakers are as busy as ever, he adds. "I don't know a bootmaker that isn't backed up. It's a lack of bootmakers."
Custom boots are 75 percent of his business, but Walker still repairs shoes for locals. "Repair shops are getting few and far between," he says.
And they're one-of-a-kind places, especially Walker's place. "I've got what I need and things flow smoothly in my shop. Others come in and wonder how I can function, but everything is right where I want it. I don't like change."
Challenges: Finding domestic leather. "I cannot get good cowhide in the U.S.," he says. "There's a lot of scar tissue" from branding and barbwire. "Branding ruins leather."
In fact, the supply chain is a big challenge for Walker overall, "especially for a small shop like mine." Certain threads are difficult to source in small quantities. "You can't get it unless you order a carload and you just need one spool," he laughs. A bootmaker co-op is a possibility, but difficult to organize. "We're a bunch of crotchety old boogers."
Opportunities: "I pretty much try to keep up with what I'm doing," says Walker. "I don't advertise."
Then he jokes, "I've got a retirement plan. When all of the orders are filled, I can finally die."
Needs: An apprentice. "I can't find an apprentice," says Walker, noting that his son his making "noises" of doing that when he retires from the military in seven years. "The only way to learn this business is to be an apprentice." Why? "The things masters do, they don't know how to teach. I still work with Randy Merrell whenever I get a chance. They don't even know they're doing it -- you have to see it to learn it."
He notes that he loses money while training an apprentice, so such an apprenticeship needs to be a career track for teenagers like it is in Europe. "We make our kids go to high school until they're 18 years old. A quarter to half of them are wasting their time and my money. They'd be better off in a shop learning a trade. When you're 18, you need a job where you can make money."