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Related pages on our web site:
Buying Dance Shoes
Suede Soles Maintenance
Dancing on bad floors




Do-It-Yourself
Suede-Soled Shoes
or Sneakers

Letting the pros do it. For the faint of heart or muscle, you can have suede soles put on by a skilled shoe repair person. We recommend Jimmy's Shoe Repair in Central Square, Cambridge (on Prospect St., between Mass. Ave. and Bishop Allen Dr.). Price was $40 for suede half-soles (that is, excluding the heel); $50 for suede soles and heels, when we last checked way back in 2004, so expect higher prices now. For best dancing, we recommend suede soles and heels. In New York City, try Dino's at Columbus Circle. It's a bit expensive at $65 for "full soles" (soles and heels) as of December 2012, but it's where all the theater, dance, and rich people go. Or try the shoe repair shop on the top floor of the Port Authority Bldg at 8th Ave & 42nd St. Be aware that there are an infinite number of really bad shoe repair shops, especially in NYC, where they will charge you full price but totally kill your shoes.

Suede-soled shoes are great for dancing, because on almost any floor, for almost any dance, the suede gives just about the right amount of slip-vs-grip. Reasonably good on carpet, too! Suede-soled shoes are the universal norm for Ballroom dancers and for an increasing number of Swing and Salsa dancers.

The nifty thing about suede-soled shoes is that you can create 'em yourself with minimal skill. This means that you can put suede on the bottom of anything you wear on your feet -- including sneakers. You'll save money over buying a pair of Ballroom shoes (but, of course, you won't get the same feather-weight, extra-cushioned, steel-tang-supported, high quality construction).

The following detailed instructions also work perfectly for replacing the suede when it finally loses all its nap (about one to two years for most hard-dancing dancers) -- just pull off the old suede with pliers and muscle, and then do the following.

You may want to print this page for easier reference while shopping for supplies or while working. It beats getting glue on your computer screen.


THE PERFECT SOLUTION
(December 2012)

We are loving the pre-cut adhesive-backed (peel-and-stick) soles from SOLES2DANCE.COM after six months of personal testing. This is a new, little company created by Johann Borenstein, a dancer who is also a professor of mechanical engineering. His soles are superb. He gives you very high quality suede, and use a terrific 3M industrial adhesive that does not let go -- until you want to change them for new soles. And the prices are amazingly reasonable at under $20. You can barely buy scrap suede and Barge cement for under $20, and he saves you all the time and hassle, plus you get top quality suede. Just clean your current soles so that the adhesive will stick to your old sole and not to dirt that will flake off, then peel off the backing and stick on your new soles. Trim if they are oversized. Works on shoes or sneakers, even running shoes with weird treads (which is what we have been testing them on). Wonderful. We recommend that you get the "PRO" version, which has a perforated circle around the ball of the foot. You can pop out the suede circle and replace it with other materials (supplied with the PRO version), such as rubber for better traction on slippery floors. This is a very clever system that we discovered works superbly in the real world, giving you a lot of mix-and-match options for too-slippery or too-sticky floors.

He also offers stick-on soles for rough indoor or outdoor floors, even cement and asphalt, using abrasion-resistant plastics. For rough floors, we recommend trying the "low friction" (LOFRI) first because the "super low friction" (SULOFRI) really lives up to its name -- it is super-slippery even on outdoor asphalt paving tiles! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED after six months of personal testing.

We are going to go with Soles2Dance for all of our sole replacements in the future, as soon as our own supply of suede is used up.

However, if you still want to DIY from scratch, here's how.


SUPPLIES YOU'LL NEED
IF YOU STILL WANT TO DIY FROM SCRATCH

You'll need shoes of some sort, of course, or sneakers. We recommend against gluing the suede directly to your feet.

Pre-cut (almost) approach: You can get approximately-precut leather and glue kits at stores that caters to the hard-core Ballroom Dance crowd. (You'll still need (c) through (g) below, though.)

Or:

(a) Suede leather. You will have to find some. "Chrome" leather is the almost no-nap suede that is used on ballroom shoes, and is a good choice. Moderately fuzzy suede -- the kind often sold in bargain priced scraps -- is an even better choice, in our opinion, especially if your favorite dance places have "fast" (slippery) floors. You can try any place that local leather-working hobbyists like, such as a Tandy Leather outlet, or your local Michaels arts & crafts shop, or you can buy suede leather scraps for about $10-20 (good for a few pairs of shoes) from most cobblers.

Non-leather alternatives? Our friend Wendy Wenck of Virginia Beach has experimented with several non-leather materials including vinyls, and says that BY FAR the best was a microfiber upholstery material bought at an upholstery shop. It will make your soles quite slippery, especially after you've worn it a while. But if you like slippery soles (many lindy hop dancers do), it's the material you want. Glues well, stays in place, long lasting. Vinyl and similar fake leathers from fabric stores, on the other hand, are terrible and fall apart almost instantly: avoid them. (If you have other good suggestions regarding materials you have tested and found satisfactory, please let us know, and we'll post the info right here. Thanks!)

(b) Adhesive. Spend another few bucks at any shoe repair place on a tube or container of Barge Cement, or stop into any stationer's for a bottle of contact cement. They're almost the same thing, but Barge is designed as a leather cement and is a bit "rubberier," which means it stays on the surface of the suede better without soaking in, and is therefore considerably easier to work with. An excellent alternative is Petronio Shoe Products' "Master Quick Drying All-Purpose Cement," available in 2 oz tubes, or their slower-setting "Petronio's All-Purpose Cement" available in one-gallen containers (if you are planning to open a shoe repair shop).

(c) Brush. If the adhesive can/bottle/tube does not have a built-in brush (Barge doesn't), you'll need to buy one. Any cheap, stiff throwaway brush that can fit into the container's mouth will do. Better to buy a cheap brush and throw it away, than to worry about cleaning a good brush. You're just smearing on glue, you know, not painting the Sistine Chapel. Most hardware stores carry little packages of 3 or 5 brushes for $1 or $2, just for such uses. You should buy brushes with bristles, rather than the sponge 'brushes.' Contact cements have an amazing number of high-powered solvents in them that will instantly dissolve certain kinds of foam. A fine alternative is to find a used toothbrush around the house, or simply borrow your least favorite family member's new toothbrush. (Note: Contact cements are poisonous - do not brush teeth with them.) [used toothbrush tip, thanks to Augusta R. of Michigan]

(d) Knife. You need a VERY sharp knife, not just a kitchen knife. Put a fresh blade in the ol' utility knife or Xacto knife -- that'll set you back a whopping 15 cents or so (or about $4 if you need the whole knife). Or use a single-edged razor blade very carefully. Blades and knives are available at any stationer, any hardware, any art supply (such as Pearl Art or Utrecht's), or any chain-store or pharmacy that sells school supplies.

(e) Scissors. For the initial rough cut, a good pair of sharp-edged Fiskars will do. Don't even bother with dull scissors: leather is tough stuff. If you have a pair of leather shears, great, but if you do then you are probably well beyond needing anyone to give you tips on working with leather!

(f) Cardboard. Tip: put cardboard under everything (cut up an old box). The glue will almost certainly drip, and contact cements are almost impossible to clean off. Cardboard is better than newspaper because it stays put even when your shoe or leather is sticking to it slightly, whereas newspaper comes up, flaps around, and adheres to everything.

(g) Rubber gloves, optional. Contact cement doesn't like to get off your hands! You might want to pop a pair of rubber gloves on during the gluing phases of things, just to keep the glue off ya.

(h) Window. The adhesives you will be using are potent and fragrant in an evil way. Do all this near an open window.

 


STEP-BY-STEP INSTRUCTIONS

For those who like a detailed STEP-BY-STEP guide, here's one way to go about it. This may look like a lot of steps, but remember that even a simple cut-and-paste on computer takes about 6 steps to describe in complete detail. The following is really just Trace, Cut, Glue, Trim, with tips to help you get it right the first time:

(1) Trace. Do an oversized tracing of your shoe on the leather, allowing maybe 1/4 to 1/2 inch extra all around. (A ballpoint pen is a good marker). Make sure you put the shoe on the WRONG side of the leather for tracing, that is, on the side that ISN'T going to touch the floor when you are dancing. Reminder: the fuzzier side is the "floor" side, and the smoother side is the marking and gluing side. Because your trace marks will disappear when you cut out the leather, also boldly mark "GLUE" on the side that gets the glue, and mark each leather piece "R" or "L" -- it's amazingly easy to screw it up if you don't. (This is the Voice of Bitter Experience talking at ya.)

(2) Cut out the leather. A good pair of sharp Fiskar scissors will work fine, but you're pushing its limit so go slow.

(3) Gather together all of the glue-up stuff: leather pieces, shoes, adhesive, brush, optional rubber gloves, cardboard. Give yourself enough room that all the pieces can sit and air-dry next to each other, without touching, after you put glue on them. Put cardboard down underneath everything to protect the whole area. Put on the rubber gloves, if you have them. Open a window.

(4) Glue, part 1. Apply glue to both the leather AND the shoe [or sneaker] bottoms, covering completely. Be sure to get full coverage right to the very edge in all directions, especially the toe area. If you are using Barge cement, apply a thin but definite layer with no dry or half-dry spots. If you're using regular contact cement rather than the Barge version, don't be stingy -- the suede will soak it up pretty thirstily -- so apply it almost like you are spreading peanut butter on bread. How do you hold the leather down without sticking a finger in glue? One way is to stick your utility or Xacto knife point into it, and then brush around it. (You can just throw that glue-covered blade away afterwards, or carefully rub the dried glue off later.) But be careful NOT to drip any glue onto the visible parts of your shoe! Contact cement is almost impossible to clean off!

(5) Glue, part 2. Let everything air-dry APART until dry-tacky to the touch (about 10-25 minutes). Do not rush this phase. (This is the standard way to use all members of the contact cement family: apply to both surfaces, let dry, then stick 'em together.)

(6) Glue, part 3. Press the two glued surfaces together -- keeping in mind that you have almost no chance for a second chance, so aim carefully. One good technique: you can put the leather down flat, glue side up, and then carefully press the shoe onto it.

(7) Trim. Carefully, with an extremely sharp blade (leather is tough stuff), trim off the excess leather edge. A new utility knife blade or Xacto knife blade works fine; so does a single-edged razor blade. You can also use your Fiskars again, but you'll have trouble getting a smooth edge.

(8) Finish, part 1. You can do a final high-pressure adherence with a mallet, or a hammer, or simply by putting on the shoes and walking around.

(9) Finish, part 2. If you don't like the light gray/brown edge of the leather, grab a magic marker or Sharpie and color it.

Voilà! Suede or leather bottoms on any pair of shoes or sneakers you have. They should last about a year or two.


MAINTENANCE

Suede soles are durable, but they definitely need a bit more care than regular soles. We have a separate Suede Soles Maintenance page, where we even include a picture of the recommended wire brush. We wouldn't want all your brilliant do-it-yourself'ing to be wasted!



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Page updated 10-12-2000
Pete's in New York info added 5-14-2006
Microfiber non-leather info added 6-26-2006
Window recommendation added 8-3-2011
Soles2Dance.com info addeed December 2012.
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