Rockstar cowboy boot maker Lee Miller talks to his apprentice Graham Ebner in the fifth episode of the Moneyish original series Good Company
These boots are an exercise in patience.
It takes Lee Miller about 40 hours to make a single pair of custom cowboy boots in his Austin, Texas workshop. And it takes four years to buy them — if you’re approved. The only new clients who make it onto Miller’s elite waitlist are relatives of previous customers.
Miller, 64, spent more than a decade learning the craft, completing a two-year boot making course in Oklahoma before starting a nine-year apprenticeship with legendary boot maker Charlie Dunn.
When Miller first began his apprenticeship with Dunn in 1977, he felt intimidated by the high level of work going on in Dunn’s shop, Texas Traditions, which had outfitted actor Peter Fonda as its first client. But his mentor’s guidance reassured him. Plus, Dunn was also a “gold mine” of information, Miller said: Born before the turn of the century, he could tell Miller what was happening in the 1920s and ‘30s in boot making, which Miller found invaluable.
“He really helped me, whether it was learning how to sharpen a knife, or why do you do this or why do you do that,” Miller said. “Working with Charlie was like working with a legend.”
When Dunn retired in 1986, Miller and his wife, Carrlyn, bought his shop. Still hanging near the entrance of the workshop are “lasts” — models used in boot construction — of Dunn’s celebrity clients, including Arnold Palmer and Rosanne Cash, as well as Willie Nelson, Tommy Lee Jones and Lyle Lovett (Miller’s).
Texas Traditions boots are handmade with materials like calf leather, ostrich, kangaroo and alligator, and decorated with custom designs. They start at $2,900 and can run $10,000 or more, and the Millers say they craft about 100 pairs a year.
“We’re just not making boots,” Miller said. “We’re making functional art. Something that really, really fits your foot. Something that’s made right. Something that’s made using traditional methods.”
Carrlyn Miller says customers order boots to mark special events or rites of passage in their lives, or because they’re looking for the best possible fit. A recent pair ordered by a man’s wife as a surprise for his 70th birthday included details like wreaths, the number 70, and a tree adorned with his children and grandchildren’s names.
These days, Lee Miller has four apprentices of his own to help him with his backlog and make sure the boot making tradition is kept alive. He starts his students off by incrementally giving them new tasks, like cutting leather and stitching pull straps, and watching to make sure they do things correctly. He’s taken on past apprentices from Japan, Germany and Switzerland, but all four of his current students are American. And while cowboy boot making is a very Texan pursuit — the state is home to more custom makers than any other — Graham Ebner, 27, is the only native Texan of the bunch. (Miller himself is from Vermont.)
Ebner had always worn cowboy boots, and said he started “messing around” with boots and making repairs about four years ago. After looking for repair instructions online, he came across Texas Traditions, and first visited the shop to buy wax. Miller gave him a tour, and as Ebner returned from time to time, he realized that Miller could become his mentor.
“Cowboy boots are Texas,” said Ebner, who works part-time at Texas Traditions and in an Austin motorcycle shop. “It’s been a part of who we are for a really long time.”
He is working on his first two pairs of custom boots — one for himself and one for his wife — which he aims to finish by October. He described the style as classic with a rock-and-roll influence; his wife’s will have black tulips inlaid with black stitching.
“I’m excited to see how my work feels,” Ebner said. “It’s one thing to make something, but it’s another thing to use it.”
He and Miller often sit across from each other as they work, with Miller instructing Ebner and Ebner asking questions as they go. On a recent day they worked on toe boxing, adding the stiff piece of material that protects the toes and helps the boot keep its shape.
“Graham is just soaking it up like a sponge,” Miller said. “Everything that I’m giving him, he’s doing it, and he wants more.”
When Miller started his career, he wanted everybody to wear his boots. But over time, he realized that to make truly great boots, he’d need to “really slow it down, and focus,” he said. “Now, I’m making hopefully beautiful boots, but not as many.”
He told Ebner he never envisioned that someday he would be the one passing along what he’s learned.
“You can take it in any direction that you want,” Miller told him. “You’re only limited by your own imagination as to what you can do.”
Lee Miller talks to apprentice Graham Ebner in the fifth episode of Good Company, a Moneyish original series that matches millennials with veterans in their field for mentorship and conversation (watch the video).
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