Jim Bultsma

Jim Bultsma was born in Chicago in 1959. Jim met Jana Birdsall in 1983. They were married in 1985. Gradually, through Jana, Jim came to appreciate the work of her father, Monte Birdsall. Monte was a bootmaker, then living above and working in his store, Stockman Boot Shop in Rapid City, SD. Jim wanted to learn the trade and Birdsall was a willing teacher. Birdsall’s own two sons, Jim and Jeff, had already learned boot repair and custom boot making from him.

Bultsma made his first pair of custom boots in 1986. He also learned how to repair boots and then teamed up with Monte in 1993 to work at Stockman Boot Shop. He learned how to make regular cowboy boots from Monte and then taught himself to do build Packer boots, a lace up type of cowboy boot.

Bultsma points out that there are a few schools for learning bootmaking. These are, however, only the beginning of the learning process. “You have to pay your dues, make the boots and make the errors and figure out why something doesn’t work.”

“I’m benefiting still from my father-in-law’s knowledge,” he says, “and I’ve also done a lot of research to better my skills and product.” Since learning customer bootmaking and boot repair, he has expanded to custom saddlemaking and saddle repair.Jim took over the business in 1998. He added a new name; Stockman Boot and Saddlery to reflect the addition of saddle making to the business.

Bootmakers are rare in the United States. “Custom bootmaking appears to be a dying business,” says Bultsma. “There are only a few people who are doing it.” Part of the problem, he says, is that many people are interested only in saving money. As a result, most of the boot and shoe making has gone to China and other foreign countries. Along with that shift in the industry has gone the knowledge and the equipment. The lasts, the devices used to shape the boot to the foot, are difficult to obtain in the United States. “If we ever go to war with China, we’ll have to go barefoot,” he jokes, but only partially.

There are still enough people who appreciate good fit and will accept the extra cost to get it. This keeps a few custom bootmakers at work. Working full time on a pair of boots, Jim can complete a pair in about 25 hours. But this must be done along with other leatherwork such as building custom saddles and doing saddle and boot repair as well as making suspenders, belts and other horse equipment.

Custom Western Boots

Many western boots are worn for horse riding. The basic shape is directed at protecting the rider’s lower leg and feet and assisting him in staying mounted on a horse. Such boots must be designed with their use kept in mind, as well as the abuse and exposure they will receive. Such boots must protect the feet from, and be able to withstand the effects of, not only spring rains and summer dust, but also the acid bath of soil in corrals and holding pens.

Many people wear western style boots not for horse-riding but to somehow connect to the idea of the west. As such, the western boot must still incorporate certain elements, the high heel and high shaft around the lower leg, but beyond that, they play an important part in supporting the fashion tastes of their wearers. Some of the boots will be used by riders on horses, but many will be worn in boardrooms or on stage.

Today’s world of mass-produced items brings us, among many things, mass produced western boots at a low price. So why buy a custom-made boot? It’s a question of fitting the customer to the boot, or the boot to the customer. Mass production produces boots to fit only a few standard sizes. The mass-produced boot is designed more or less to fit feet of very specific width and length. The customer seeks a boot that “fits,” but this means mostly a boot that he fits into, thus the customer must fit the boot. If he doesn’t fit exactly, he will put up with some discomfort: pressure here, pinches there, rubbing and chafing.

In the case of the custom bootmaker, the goals are different. He starts with the customer, and then fits the boot to him. The boot is designed to fit the individual customer. This does not only mean to fit the feet, but his or her personal needs and tastes.

Factory-made boots have certain qualities that, for a limited budget, may be suitable. They tend, however, to be computer perfect, cookie cutter stamped with hundreds of boots looking essentially the same, like so many vanilla wafers. You can buy the same boot in a discount store in Houston, San Francisco or Atlanta. “They lose their regionality,” says Hot Springs custom bootmaker Jim Bultsma. The impact of regional tastes and influences that might be apparent in the work of a custom bootmaker is lost.

“Some people want something with individual character to it,” says Bultsma. “They want something that someone spent time on. Someday people will rise up against the cookie cutter world of mass-produced clothing, boots, and everything. Already I think I see signs that they are tired of it, bored by it.” The unique look of a boot made by a custom bootmaker working with an individual client is still possible. By working with the bootmaker the customer has some control over style, leather type, pattern, and color.

The construction of custom-made boots for individual clients also provides the opportunity for them to select from a wide range of leather textures and colors as well as boot styles. Fine leather, quality stitchwork, special inlay and overlay patterns may be used to help the custom boot wearer look good and speak out as an individual.

Handcrafted by a skilled, knowledgeable craftsman, a custom boot takes longer to build, often ten times as long as a factory made boot. It costs more because of the time involved to make a boot that fits the customer, and not make the customer fit the boot.