Cowboy boots evolved pointy tips to help ranchers get their feet in the stirrups in a pinch. While most modern wearers don't need that level of utility, there's no denying footwear so rich in history and identity. Texas, which has history in spades, is king of the cowboy boot—and making them a means of expression. We surveyed the workshops of Lone Star custom bootmakers to find out why and how their creations pack so much personality.
“Miller inherited the business, the techniques, and even the tools—some in the shop date back to the 1920s—while stoking his own creative flames.”
“Rocketbuster Handmade Custom Boots is a funky, colorful workshop in El Paso, a city that bills itself as the 'Boot Capital of the World.'”
Handmade custom cowboy boots carry a kick of culture, identity, and unrivaled comfort. Plus they tend to look darn good. Luckily, Texas offers a good many skilled artisans plying their trade. If you want to wear a real slice of Texas, consider these custom creations.
Quality is the imprimatur at Texas Traditions, a humble workshop located in the trendy Austin neighborhood of South Congress.
Very little is trendy about this place, though. True to its name, the shop operates with a deep respect for the heritage of its craft. Owner and designer Lee Miller apprenticed under the late Charlie Dunn, a man dubbed the “Michelangelo of cowboy boots,” a fifth-generation bootmaker who practiced for 80 years and founded Texas Traditions. Country musician Jerry Jeff Walker even wrote a song about him.
Miller inherited the business, the techniques, and even the tools—some in the shop date back to the 1920s—while stoking his own creative flames. His least expensive creations sell north of $1,900 and adorn the elite feet of an exclusive clientele, including musicians like Lyle Lovett and Slim Pickens. The wait list is several years.
When we paid a visit, we got a peek at the process. Miller and his assistants measure clients' feet, take an ink imprint of their soles, and establish their vision for a design. From there, it's hours and hours of work by hand: cutting and carving leather, stitching, shaping the fit, and embroidering boot tops. What results is the gold standard in western footwear.
Some famed Texas workshops, like Wheeler Boot Company in Houston and Kimmel Boot Company in Comanche, have closed their doors to new customers because demand was too high to be able to keep wait lists short. But that doesn't mean customers have to compete to find a good pair of custom boots; after all, Texas has the most bootmakers found anywhere.
Take Alan Bell, owner of Bell Custom Boots, a family business in the Panhandle Plains town of Abilene that's been in operation for nearly four decades. Bell works with his wife, who stitches the boot tops, to bring handcrafted quality to customers of all stripes—not just high-end clients. His boots come with an average 16-month turnaround, which underscores one reality for travelers who find themselves at a custom boot shop: don't expect to come home with your handmade treasures right away.
Bell apprenticed with the owner of another hidden gem in Abilene. Tex Robin Boots was opened in 1944 by a man named Tex and has been operated for the past four decades by his son—also Tex. A walk-through of the shop and a peek at past creations yields eye-popping displays of boot tops with artistic flourishes. The elder Tex, the son of a Swedish immigrant, learned to make boots after repairing them while on the rodeo circuit in the 1930s. Now, that's credibility.
Rocketbuster Handmade Custom Boots is a funky, colorful workshop in El Paso, a city that bills itself as the “Boot Capital of the World.” With major manufacturers like Tony Lama Boots and Lucchese Boot Company, as well as a smattering of custom bootmakers, the city just may have the right to that claim.
Rocketbuster specializes in bright, over-the-top, out-of-this-world designs anchored by traditional handmade quality. Owned by Nevena Christi and founded by her husband, Marty Snortum, the shop is nestled inside an industrial-chic brick building in El Paso's rising Union Plaza district. More than a dozen workers produce 500-plus pairs of boots a year in the shop, a wonderland of quirky-cool paraphernalia that attracts visitors from all over the world.
While Abilene, Austin, and El Paso have their heavy hitters, San Antonio boasts one of the oldest family-run operations in the Texas custom boot market. Little's Boot Company was founded in 1915, and four unbroken generations of crafty customizers followed. Little's offers fancy styles and leathers made from skins ranging from ostrich to crocodile, kangaroo, and, yes, elephant, and the handmade belts and wallets are fairly swanky too.