Quality French Calf: You Owe It To Your Customers

As told by Greg Carmack. 

!@#!#!@!!!!!!. Frustration. I had been honing my skills as a custom boot maker for 27 years. I knew my skill set was adequate. It must be the leather. Twenty hours into the boots so far and lasting the toe of the second boot—BOOM!!! Toe check. That means a crack in the grain of the leather right over the hard line of the square toe. That “french calf” had failed me again. Yes, there is a lot of pressure at that point, right in that spot. But I was taught by a master. He used to say that a good bottom man could “squeeze the neck off of a Coke bottle and last wet toilet tissue.” I was close. French Calf had been a staple of the boot trade for decades. What was going on?

I emailed one of my best leather network friends. He was President of an 80 million dollar company. I said in the email, “You have to know someone that can get me decent French Calf”. I had a name and contact info the same day. Then the lesson started. The “french calf” that I was sold was not on French raw stock or tanned in France. In speaking with the tannery, I asked for “dye struck” leather (colored all the way through) and was told that dye struck leather was bag leather. Shoe leather, on the other hand, was traditionally not color struck through. Doing so would likely cause grain checking issues. What????? Time for me to listen to the ones that had been making French Calf in France on 100% French raw stock for over 100 years, expressly for the shoe trade.It took some time, finagling and a consortium of boot makers, but finally the leather was shipped. I got it in, unwrapped it and shipped it all out to the anxious consortium members. The hand of the leather was pretty darn firm. “I wonder how this will last?” I remember thinking. I started a pair the next day. Tops and bottoms, French Calf in a cognac.

It top stitched like a dream. The boots jumped together like they wanted to be boots. Time to last. Medium square toe, hard lines, firm tempered leather. Well shoot, here goes nothing. I dunked them in warm water until they were dead wet. That firm temper turned to butter. My brain had forgotten what “correct” French Calf felt like when you last it, but my hands damn sure remembered. WOW! Too easy. The boots finished as easy as any I had ever remembered. They dried without issue(no spots or water circles) and polished to a mirror.

It wasn’t luck. The consortium members reported exactly the same experiences. We had something. Nine years and a few hundred pair later and I still have not had the first issue. Any experienced maker out there will definitely experience a “homecoming” and I always tell new makers that the easiest way to improve their boot is to use high quality raw material. There is too much work involved in making a pair of high quality custom boots to leave any part of the experience to chance. I often hear, “I can’t afford real French Calf for my customers”. I believe the opposite is true. If, as a maker, you cannot afford to buy French Calf as a raw material, you have but one real choice. Go up on your price, you owe it to your customers.