By: Alison Gwinn
There’s something about cowboy boots that makes a person walk a little taller, dance a little smoother, raise a little more hell.
John Allen Woodward has seen it with his own eyes. “Western boots are a true American fashion,” says the Boulder boot maker. “When you put on a pair, you feel different, more confident. You might be in a boardroom all week, but on the weekends you put on your boots and you’re a rebel.”John Allen Woodward has seen it with his own eyes. “Western boots are a true American fashion,” says the Boulder boot maker. “When you put on a pair, you feel different, more confident. You might be in a boardroom all week, but on the weekends you put on your boots and you’re a rebel.”
Woodward, a former SoCal policeman turned Nashville songwriter turned footwear craftsman, never dreamed his life would take such an artistic turn. “Growing up, I never even drew a picture,” he says. “We had no art in the house, not even photographs. My parents were Depression-era people— my dad was a fireman. They thought an artist was someone who was lazy and didn’t want to work.”
But one day, while performing at a club in Nashville, Woodward met a fiddle player who was wearing a pair of really elaborate Western boots. “We became friends, and it turned out he was a boot maker and shoe repairman. One day he told me his apprentice had quit and he had too much work, so I offered to help out. He said, ‘Well, if you’ll come in and do my repairs, you can look over my shoulder and ask any questions you’d like.’ A week later, I knew that boot making was what I wanted to do with my life. I’d start doing repairs at 5 in the morning, and after-hours work on creating my own boots.”
Woodward’s songwriting experience in Nashville helped. “I learned a lot by being in the music business,” he says. “When people buy records, they don’t buy notes and lyrics; they buy how a song makes them feel. It’s the same way with boots. I noticed early on that when a customer put on a pair of boots, he’d first look at himself in the mirror and then look down at the boots. Customers cared about whether the boots made them feel good—gave them more self-esteem.”
When Woodward left Nashville to return to San Diego (like most aspiring musicians, “I came to Nashville in a Porsche, and left in a Taurus”), he had little to his name: a 50-year-old sewing machine, $165 in his pocket, a pair of gorgeous boots he had handcrafted and a dream. After working his way from one shoe repair shop to another, he landed in his own place in 1997 above the Hard Rock Café in La Jolla. It was there that he had a life-changing moment.
“I had bought this full-size taxidermy horse that was in a bucking position and put it out on the balcony,” he says. “People were out there all day. One day, after about the 15th drunk person of the day tried to climb on the horse, I told my son, ‘I need to get rid of that thing.’ He suggested we try to sell it on this new thing called eBay, and a day later it sold for $5,000. I thought, ‘If I can sell a dead horse for that amount on the internet, I might be able to sell my boots, too.’”
The rest is website history: Over the next 15 years, Woodward not only created a thriving boot business (including a big celebrity clientele in Los Angeles) but expanded into belts, wallets, handmade silver or gold belt buckles, bags and other accessories.
Three years ago, realizing he could do his work from anywhere, Woodward and his wife moved to north Boulder, where he has a huge two-story workshop next to his house. With country music playing in the background, wild deer peeking curiously into his studio windows, tidy sets of tools (from Japanese knives to French rasps) hanging on the wall and his golden retriever, Rocky, keeping him company, Woodward fastidiously crafts his custom boots (he’s never made two pairs alike) out of leather, suede, python, alligator, ostrich and stingray, often hand-dyeing pieces to get just the right shade and adding handcrafted sterling silver accoutrements and even precious jewels.
“Making a pair of boots is like anything else—you take things apart and figure out how to do the work well,” he says. “It takes 200 to 300 steps to make a pair of boots, and you need a really deep understanding of how a boot is made.”
Other than giving him a vague idea of what they want (and often flying in to get their boots custom fit), most customers leave the final designs up to him. “If I can draw it on paper, and it fits within the size of a boot, I can do it,” Woodward says. “There are really no limitations. I refuse to make ugly boots, I guarantee my boots for life and I’ve never had a customer not like a pair of boots I’ve made. I put my heart into these boots.”
JOHN ALLEN WOODWARD
What: Custom cowboy boots and accessories
How much: $3,500 to $10,000
Find them: johnallenwoodward.com