Shoes are built over a form called a last. Since you first pull the leather/fabric tight over the top of the last and then attach it to the sole, the shape of the last directly informs the shape of the resulting shoe. If you want to create a pointy-toed, high-heeled shoe, you’ll need a pointy-toed last shaped for the desired heel height. And if you want to make a size 9 wide shoe, you have to use a size 9 last—a size 6 won’t fit—and you might have to modify it to make it wider than it is. As they say, the last comes first.
Built to last–there’s another little pun courtesy of shoe makers. One more: Lasting impressions. Groan.
Lasts are hinged so that when you’re finished making the shoe, you can get the last out from inside it.
You can find lasts on ebay, of course, but that’s not the place to go if you want an entire run—every size in every width for a given model. I’ve bought new lasts from Jones & Vining, and used lasts from Shoedo.com and George Barta Hide Company. I haven’t yet gotten lasts from Dick Anderson, but I’m told he’ll let you get a pair on trial to see if they work for your needs. I’ve also come across Shoe Last Shop online; I haven’t ordered from them but via email they said they have many more styles available than are present on their website.
Lasts can be made of wood or of plastic. I don’t personally own any wooden ones, and all of mine are for making sandals, flats or very low heels.
I would consider these 8 1/2 Bs fairly narrow. I would guess they’re fairly old, from when women were as a general rule more petite than nowadays. Note the squared toe.
Here’s the same style but much wider, in a 9E. I’m a B width in contemporary shoes, but an E in this style, which is why I think it’s an old last. The one on the right was altered by adding some leather at the top to produce a roomier shoe over the arch.
I’m told this style was designed for loafers or moccasins (I’m not sure why the latter would need to be lasted, so that might have been wrong). At any rate, these lasts are perfect for sandals to fit my own foot!
Front view of a turquoise last that I think was developed for an athletic shoe of some type because (a) it’s unhinged, (b) it has a bulbous toe, and (c) I bought it from a small company in Colorado that designs athletic shoes or shoes for cyclists. The off-white last is designed specifically for sandals.
Viewed from above. The slit in the one at the top is for making flip-flops or other thong sandal styles.