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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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Put On Your Woodworking Shoes

What type of automatons have we become, rushing to the internet for even the most trivial and mundane of information? I marveled at my own web-based affliction, addiction, or predisposition when I recently typed in the search phrase "woodworking shop shoes." As odd or obscure as the search seemed, the discussion boards and chat rooms had literally been alive with the subject. We woodworkers will debate almost anything.

I'm not even really sure what prompted me to search such a phrase, except that perhaps the shoes I have been wearing in the shop have seen better… no, much better… days. I took some trash out during a light sprinkle and my socks were soaked within seconds. The tread is gone, worn slick over years of use, and there is a glob of Titebond glue that will be there, I believe, longer than the pyramids. It is time to move these shoes on down the hierarchal line of use and replace them with something better.

The message boards and blogs were not helpful, though. The clumsy, or absurdly cautious, advocated steel-toe work boots, while the comfort-inclined extolled the virtues of Birkenstocks, Doc Martens, or (gasp) sandals. There were barefoot woodworkers (it seems that sawdust and woodchips between the toes helps one "connect" with the wood) and devotees of sneakers and plenty of folks that contend it is not the shoe, but the inserts in the shoe, that make the difference. A whole army of woodworkers, it seems, advocate changing the floor rather than the shoes to achieve podiatric nirvana.

Like the internet is wont to do, the "change the floor" discussion sent my surfing into entire new directions with pop-up ads for discount hardwood flooring and rubberized mats and blog recommendations for horse stable pads and spongy kitchen throw rugs. Information overload! I tore myself from the screen and ran back to the safety and serenity of my shop. A little relaxing music, I thought, might restore my serenity, but I began to riff… on shop shoes.

What is the best shoe for woodworking? Did Sam Maloof have a favorite? Would kids stand in long lines or camp out overnight for the latest "Plane Schwartz" shoes like they did for "Air Jordans?" Maybe a "T-Mac Power" shoe or a "Highland Hopper" is the next big thing in fashion forward joiner's footwear. Manufacturers like Nike, Puma, or Converse might vie for rights to the crepe-soled "Krenov Creeper." Fights might break out for a pair of plaid "Abrams Electrics." A used pair of "Greene’s Greenies" might go for a record amount on eBay. "Underhill Underfoots" might be shipped in wooden boxes like fine wine or cigars, perhaps even autographed.

Inevitably, the woodworking shoe manufacturers will pursue environmental marketing… shoes will claim "all natural materials," "no animals were harmed in the manufacture of this shoe," and brag "with every pair purchased, we will donate one hundred pounds of wood chips to a local OSB manufacturer."

Specialty shoes, of course, will follow. If we have to have special bowling, golf, and tennis shoes, why not planing shoes, sawing shoes, and Teflon-coated shoes for those messy finishing sessions. A special router shoe might promise to keep the chips out of our socks. See, the possibilities are endless!

Alas, though, just like Carlos Santana lost it a little (in my humble opinion) in the riff toward the end of that otherwise great instrumental "Europa," my shoe riff came to an end and reality set in. The fact is, my favorite shop shoe has always been simply a comfortable shoe that is no longer "pretty enough" to wear in polite company. You know the shoes… you got them for knocking around in jeans, shopping with your spouse, or wearing to the woodworking store. Over time, they have been worn down, scuffed up, and no longer look all that spiffy. Still serviceable, still comfortable, just not spiffy. And there starts the progression.

First, they are presentable-in-public casual shoes… then, in due time, shop shoes… then maybe shoes for the garden… then, their last stop before final interment, as shoes for painting, dry-walling, or resurfacing the driveway. Only then, without a hint of sadness, the shoes are unceremoniously dropped into the waste can, and each pair up in the hierarchy moves down a notch. We simply turn another page in our history as down to earth woodworkers. No need to search the internet for the term "hand-me-downs"--- that’s my favorite shop shoe.

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