By Rachel Muenz
I take off my shoes and socks, roll my pants up to my knees, pull on a pair of thin nylon stockings and put my left foot into what Ken Brubacher calls “the magic box.”
Brubacher is one of only a handful of custom shoemakers left in North America and, once he’s gone, his knowledge would have been lost. Until now.
Brubacher says shoemakers are vanishing partly because the trade is looked down on by the general public and because it is not being passed on to family members, who tend to go to university instead. But, with such a large aging population, there are more foot problems than ever.
Luckily, the box can help.
The “magic box” is the Otabo foot scanner and, in tandem with computer aided design and manufacturing systems and an exhaustive database, is the most sophisticated way of making custom shoes in existence.
Brubacher is showing me how the unit works from his shop, Brubacher Foot Comfort, in Collingwood.
He closes the lid of the box, which has a circular hole on top for my leg.
“It [the scanner] doesn’t like outside light so what we do is bundle the baby up,” Brubacher says, wrapping a blue towel around my knee where it emerges from the box.
He clicks a button on the monitor attached to the box and the scanner emits a high-pitched hum. Cameras move along a track beneath the glass, capturing data from 200,000 points on my foot using laser video technology.
A grey, 3D image of my foot begins to appear onscreen from heel to toe.
Brubacher repeats the process with my right foot and checks the data. There’s a hole in my left foot, which Brubacher says was caused by light.
“If a bit of light got in, and it [the scanner] doesn’t like that, then it will lose a bit of the data in the shaft of your leg,” he says.
Brubacher fills in the missing section with a quick stroke of the mouse, then clicks back to the grey model to show me the hole has disappeared.
A customer’s scans are then sent to the computers on his desk where Brubacher makes some more adjustments before the data is emailed to a factory in Guangzhou, China. Here, a plastic model of each foot, called a last, is made in a CNC milling machine and from those models, near-perfect right and left shoes are made. The shoes are sent back to Collingwood where Brubacher does the finishing touches and makes more adjustments based on feedback from the customer.
“It’s as close to perfection as anything that has ever occurred on the face of the earth, by far,” Brubacher says of shoes made from the scans.
Perfection comes at a price of around $1000 for the shoes, depending on what inserts and fine-tuning are required. But, the grey-haired craftsman says, if it is a case of “it’s either me or the wheelchair,” the shoes are a worthwhile purchase.
The new technology is also helping a small number of shoemakers tackle the public’s growing need for custom shoes by allowing them to serve more customers at a higher speed, says Rob DiFelice, a custom shoemaker in the Niagara region.
“With doing things by means of computers and all this new technology it’s going to totally be able to take over what the shoemaker had done . . . at a faster pace,” says DiFelice whose father taught him shoe repair. “And the product looks beautiful.”
DiFelice says he got into custom shoes because of the huge demand in his area.
Brubacher taught DiFelice how to use the scanner and computer systems in Collingwood and DiFelice still goes there frequently for more training.
He says Brubacher is a very enthusiastic and meticulous teacher.
“You can tell he really loves what he does,” DiFelice says. “He’ll tell me things in his teachings that he’s already told me five times over again.”
“He doesn’t even realize it . . . and he’s as enthused about it as he was from the first time he told me about it,” the younger shoemaker adds. “He likes to make sure you understand what he’s talking about, so he’s very thorough in his teachings too.”
Though Brubacher grew up watching his own father repair shoes, he taught himself how to make shoes and use the scanner and computer systems later on.
“My teacher is fixing my mistakes at night, for free,” he says, looking down his nose. “That’s a stern teacher. You listen to that teacher.”
Brubacher is also passing those teachings on to his daughter, Angela.
She agrees new technology like the foot scanner will replace the dying shoemaker but someone with shoemaking and orthopaedic knowledge and experience, like her father, will still be needed to properly serve those with foot problems. Technology will bring those skills to more people, she says on the phone from the family’s Elmira location.
“It’s much easier for him to teach somebody new, like myself, in a shorter period of time how to use all of that knowledge and the technology,” Angela says.
Brubacher says he’s lost a lot of money investing in the new technology, but he says the greater ability to help people walk in comfort has made up for the loss.
“It’s cost me my fortune but it’s worth it,” he says. “People come in, after the fact and they say, ‘You know, it’s just been an amazing, amazing, miraculous difference.’”
“We’re not dealing with covering up the feet here. We’re dealing with the quality of people’s lives.”