Custom cowboy boots: A dying art

Cowboy boots

A bit of advice for anyone who hopes to be stepping out in custom-made cowboy boots like David Wheeler’s: Time is running out. Kristine Johnson takes us to meet one of the last of a vanishing breed:

On a quiet road next to the railroad tracks in the great state of Texas sits the Wheeler Boot Company, where owner Dave Wheeler has been making custom boots for more than 50 years.

“I always say, you’re only as good as your last pair,” he told Johnson.

CBS News

It’s safe to say Wheeler has been on a roll in that regard. He’s built quite the reputation around these parts, and beyond.

From the first measurement to the final product, the process can take hundreds of hours, with Wheeler and his longtime bootmaker, Jorge Amaro, paying attention to every detail.

It’s not just what he makes, it’s how he makes it. The machines are the same his dad used, and where Wheeler learned the tricks of the trade.

“When I first started sewing on these, I would fight with it. And my dad always would say, ‘Just let the machine have it. Let the machine have it,’” he recalled.

Texas bootmaker Dave Wheeler with correspondent Kristine Johnson. CBS News

Wheeler’s rustic and simple workshop is in stark contrast to the high-end leathers his customers demand. The skins range from cowhide to the exotic -- there’s alligator, elephant, kangaroo and ostrich. For one client Wheeler used bull frog.

Prices start at $2,500. The most expensive cost $25,000.

While the boots are made to order, they all share one thing in common: The bootmaker’s signature, on the tongue.

“Now I know how the addicted people feel, because you’ll be back again and again,” said satisfied boot customer Warren Savery, who had Wheeler fashion him boots that are a road map to every Super Bowl game he’s been to, with the leather tips sent straight from the Wilson factory, where tonight’s game balls are made.

Wheeler’s built boots for the tallest man in the world, for Dick Cheney, and Robert Duvall. No matter the client, the same rules apply: there’s a two-year waiting list.

No exceptions, even for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“He finds a pair of boots that he loves in one of the books,” Wheeler recalled. “It’s a floral design, a lot of leaves and stems, with a yellow rose in the middle. ‘I want this boot with the California poppy.’ I tell him the problem is we have a 2½ year backlog, so you cannot be in a hurry. So it’s January, so he says, ‘My birthday is in July.’ And I said, ‘That’s nice. Mine’s in August!’”

Schwarzenegger finally got his boots just a few weeks ago.

He’s also one of the last select customers Wheeler will build a custom boot for. He plans on retiring in three years, and he’s not taking any new orders. “The last 50 to 100 pairs that we make are going to be some of our best boots,” Wheeler said. “And that’s like going out by winning the Super Bowl, you retire.”

It is, he said, “a dying art. It’s true. One day there will be no bootmakers. There will be no bootmakers.” 

“But your boots will still be around.” 

“They’ll still be around!”

For now, you can find this Texan in his shop, taking his time, getting it right.

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