Hand cut, hand stitched and handcrafted. That’s how Willy O’Neal and his wife, Barb, create each individual pair of custom shoes. For the past 32 years, they’ve been perfecting their craft as in bygone days.
Willy’s grandparents owned a shoe shop in Skowhedan, Maine. That’s where, at age 15, he began learning the detailed processes of the craft.
He developed skills to build virtually anything, including the seven homes he and Barb have lived in in Maine, Colorado, Idaho and Arizona. Their most recent home was built two years ago in Green Valley. Barb draws up the plans and Willy does the building.
One wing of the house is the shoe shop, complete with the tools and machines of a shoemaker’s trade, along with a supply of smooth, textured and dyed leathers, laces, threads and molds for each custom pair he creates.
“We had a shoe store in Estes Park, Colorado. I got two years behind (fulfilling orders). I closed the store, went home and just made shoes. I can’t sew fast enough to have a store,” Willy said.
The couple attends art fairs and festivals and will be at the Tubac Festival of the Arts opening today, Feb. 7, at space C-97. They typically gets 30 to 50 orders during the five-day festival, and Willy estimates he can turn out about 20 custom pairs a month.
His basic shoe style are moccasins and loafers that can be made in one color or contrasting color leathers. He also designs and makes a variety of styles of boots in which a customer selects the leather colors, lining, trim color, tassels and other design elements.
“I also make hunting shoes, golf shoes and penny loafers. I have 16 shoe styles,” Willy said.
He will make a custom design for a customer and will even keep the mold. He will rebuild soles, and will help customers who have different size feet. And the final products will have no inner seams.
Recently Willy received an e-mail from a customer he made shoes for more than two decades ago.
“I have a pair of moccasins that I purchased from you over 20 years ago at the National Western Stock Show in Denver. These moccasins have been fantastic! The problem is, they need new soles. Can you resole them? If so, can you send me information,” Mike K. wrote.
Demonstrating a design element, Willy took a 4-by-1-inch piece of textured brown leather, created two horizontal slits within the piece and braided the inner part by manipulating it over and under, then twisting one end to show one design he can incorporate into a pair of moccasins or loafers.
Willy and Barb designed an order form so customers can choose specific details. It's most beneficial for anyone with different size feet, a hammertoe, bunion, high instep, and wide or narrow feet, where buying a traditional pair of shoes doesn’t accommodate their feet.
What about making custom shoes does Willy enjoy most?
“The whole process — hand sewing and going to shows. We’ve narrowed the business down to what we can do by ourselves.
“I have a passion to do it. It’s not a job to me.”