Carving out a niche
Mequon resident among small group of wood-shoe carvers

By Dave Fidlin - News Graphic Correspondent

July 21, 2015

Bob Siegel Jr., a Mequon resident, is one of a handful of people who have the skills to carve wooden shoes. At age 90, he and a master apprentice still travel regularly to festivals and other shows.  
Photo by Dave Fidlin

It started as a hobby. Then it became a business.

But at 90 years old, Mequon resident Bob Siegel Jr. is handing the reins of his wooden shoe carving business off to a new emerging craftsman.

Siegel, who once appeared on the PBS program “The Woodwright’s Shop,” learned the art of wooden shoe carving through authenticity in the 1970s. He worked alongside master shoe carvers in the Netherlands. He made several repeat trips over the years.

“At that time, I was simply interested in keeping the art of wooden shoe carving alive,” said Siegel, who sold life insurance at the time.

When he retired in 1990, he decided to head into post-retirement by carving shoes on a nearly full-time basis, making creations in his basement and visiting a variety of different festivals and other venues locally and nationally.

Siegel’s hunch that master wooden shoe carving is at risk of potentially going extinct can be backed up with statistics. A century ago, there were about 4,000 wooden shoe carvers in the Netherlands alone.

 Shelves in Siegel’s studio display his handiwork.
Photo by Dave Fidlin

When Siegel earned a formal certification from mentors in the Netherlands, the number of professionals in the marketplace was notched at 57. Today, Siegel said, the number has whittled down to three.

While Siegel rarely carves shoes himself, he remains involved in the business he created, Crafts Museum. He has a journeyman and master apprentice, Oostburg resident Luke Traver, who travels with him to different shows. The duo has a number of shows planned this year, locally and nationally.

Siegel said he routinely enjoys sharing the ins and outs of shoe carving with spectators. While a high degree of precision, skill and patience are needed, only three tools are used to convert a block of wood into a sculpted masterpiece that can form around a man or woman’s feet.

Traver and Siegel crossed paths in 2007 and began a slow transition that continues to this date. Siegel said he is grateful knowing he is able to mentor an emerging wood carver.

As he closes out his career, Siegel cannot help but wax nostalgic.

“It’s fun to do, and it’s really not that hard, physically,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed entertaining people, and that’s mostly what this is about. It’s unique, and I’ve discovered people enjoy and appreciate it.”

Meeting people at a range of events, from nearby Cedar Grove’s annual Dutch festival to annual pilgrimages to Old World Wisconsin, is part of what Siegel said has inspired him to continue carving shoes for four decades.

“This is something I’ve truly enjoyed, and I’m glad I’ve been able to make it into a semi-career over all these years,” he said.