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Klompen carver

EVERY Saturday night, after the Wietzes children climbed out of the bathtub, they tossed their wooden shoes in -- not to play boats, but to scrub the unwieldy footwear. ``We washed and polished them with fine silver sand and chalk,'' recollects Egbert Wietzes of the northern Netherlands. ``Then we left them out to dry overnight, and Sunday morning we had clean klompen to wear to church.''

Today, Egbert crafts wooden shoes. He's the ever popular klompenmaker (wooden shoemaker) in the village of Eelde. Although rubber boots have made inroads into the area, they've by no means edged out wooden shoes completely. Anyone passing through the countryside today in the northern provinces of the Netherlands will encounter klompen-footed farmers tending their sheep, working their fields, milking their cows. Walking through village centers, you inevitably hear klomp, klomp, klomp in the shops, along the streets. You even see bikers peddling along breezily with those impossibly big shoes on their feet.

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Egbert fashions the shoes in a workshop at the rear of the Wietzes house. Just beyond the shop is a backyard heaped with poplar tree trunks. ``Most often I use poplar,'' he says, ``because it's a tough, lightweight wood that keeps the heat well. A full-grown poplar yields some 50 pairs of average-sized shoes.''

Unlike his father, who made klompen entirely by hand, Egbert combines hand and machine work. This man with gray blond hair and clear blue eyes uses a power saw to slice trunks into blocks. Then he makes crosscuts in those blocks ``like cutting an apple into wedges.'' Next, using a table saw, he carves out the rough contours of each shoe. One by one, he places the rough-hewn shoes on a device which -- like machines used to copy keys -- makes a duplicate by tracing the master form.

The rest of the carving process -- the fine external and internal shaping -- is done at his workbench. His woodworking tools are custom made.

Once the shoes are formed, he brushes a yellow varnish on the exteriors to make them water and dirt resistant. The final touch is the Wietzes motif, painted on the ``roof'' of each shoe. ``No two klompenmakers have the same design,'' explains Egbert, who inherited his motif from his father. ``It's like a trademark.''

This shoemaker's work days vary ``according to how many clients walk in my door and what their needs are.'' He sometimes spends whole days fitting walk-in customers. And when he has no special orders to fill, he produces standard stock for his inventory. He never markets his work wholesale because, he says, ``mine is a craftsman's production, one by one.'' In fact, the only place to buy a pair of Wietzes shoes is from Wietzes himself. His most regular customers are farmers in the area, but he also crafts klompen for local children and for adults who wear them on their ``family weekends.''

Klompen, also known as sabots, Egbert explains, have nearly a millennium of history in Europe. They were the standard footwear for peasants of France and the Low Countries starting in the 11th century. Made of available material, they were ideal for walking in marshy lowlands. According to legend, when peasants were treated unfairly by their overlords, they sometimes took revenge by trampling the landlord's crops with their sabots, giving birth to the word ``sabotage.''

It was Egbert's grandfather who started the Weitzes on this craft. The first time Egbert made a pair of klompen totally on his own, he was just 15 years old. ``My father wounded his leg and was unable to work for a few days. I went at it alone in the shed.'' By evening the youth had turned out a pair of wooden shoes. ``That was quite an achievement at my age, for it was all handwork back then. Even my father, who was an experienced craftsman, could make no more than four or five pairs a day.''

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Although Egbert is not looking for tourist trade, his workshop is one that any visitor would relish stumbling upon -- for there is even more than Egbert's sure hands to watch in this shop. There is also a wooden-shoe museum.

Some 40 years ago when rubber boots and shoes came along, people started wearing wooden shoes less and hundreds of klompenmakers were forced out of business.

``Since each of these craftsmen made a distinct form and motif, when the men disappeared from the business so did their particular shoe models,'' Egbert explains. The Wietzes family started collecting samples in order to preserve them. ``For most people, a klomp is a klomp, but when they come here, they find out that is not true,'' he says. Egbert has hundreds of shoes hanging heel to toe on his workshop walls. The collection is marvelously varied, ranging from klompen carved and painted to resemble shiny black wing-tip shoes, to a set of huge wooden clogs that a farmer clamped onto his horse's hooves for work in the peat bogs.

When asked why the Wietzes family didn't experience the business decline that ruined other shoemakers, Egbert grins. ``The fact is that every klompenmaker has not only his own form and motif, but also his own quality. We became known for finely tuned work, for matching a person's foot with a precision that other shoemakers couldn't.''

To this day, people travel more than 50 miles for a pair of Wietzes shoes -- proving that when the shoe fits, they wear it.

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