In the shoes of a bootmaker

From First Up, 5:34 am on 2 November 2023

Once upon a time, Aotearoa was home to 100 bootmakers, now there are fewer than 10.

One is the small Northland business Lastrite Footwear which has been in Neville Brunker's family for over 70 years.

Today, Brunker is a one-man band, crafting boots in the garage of his beachside home near Whangārei.


Lastrite Footwear, which was set up by Brunker's late father, peaked in the mid-90s, he says.

For about six years, it was "really going off" and Neville had nine guys helping make steel-toe boots for Japanese forestry workers.

But then the heat-resistant synthetic fibre Kevlar came into vogue as a boot material and the NZ dollar rose against the yen.

Eventually, Brunker became the last man standing at Lastrite.

"My nephew was semi-keen to take it on but he decided he wanted to go back to farming. So I bought it home. Kept my sewer. She took the sewing machines home and I would take the uppers into her for her to sew it. So I'd cut everything here and I'd make and finish and send out [the boots] from here.

"In the end, the sewer left and I had to jump back on the machine … It took me a little while to get my head around that but, as you do, you do it."

The Tussock Hob Nail Boot by NZ handmade shoe company Lastrite Footwear

The Tussock Hob Nail Boot by NZ handmade shoe company Lastrite Footwear Photo: Steve Sharp

Brunker's bootmaking workshop takes up half of the double garage beneath his beachside home. Inside, well-used machines and tools hang on the walls, there's a smell of adhesive in the air and boots sit in various stages of completion.

Many of the 'lasts' – foot-shaped forms which the boots are constructed around – are of a "good width" for a particular reason, he says.

"The New Zealand feet are quite broad because we run around in jandals a bit. Most of them have a bit of width to them. It's just individuals... I've got photos of people's feet that they send me. I always make [the person send a photograph] if I'm making them [boots]. If they say 'I've got broad foot' I'll make them take a shot looking down at their feet and take a photo of it. And I can visualise… see it and broaden the last."

Brunker says that because he's never working on the same pair of boots all the time, it's hard to say how long a pair takes to make – but if cement dried quicker it might be two hours.

At the moment, he's in a steady routine of producing six made-to-order pairs per week.

"That's two pair a day and then I cut and sew the next two days for the six pair for the next week.

"There might be a pair of forestry boots, there might be a pair of jodhpurs, there might be a pair of gussets, there might be a pair of shoes. It's all quite different products that we're making and they're all different to do. So it's interesting on that scale. It's not mundane."

In fact, it's often "very, very rewarding" to craft someone a custom-made pair of boots, he says.

"Just the satisfaction of someone ringing you up and saying, Wow, I love them and just emails coming back, testimonials".

Brunker reckons he'll probably work another couple of years before calling it a day, and hopes Lastrite might last.

"Yeah, it's gonna be sad but at the end of the day, there's time you've got to let go. Hopefully, we'll be able to sell it to someone who's got some experience to be able to purchase it. It's not a simple task to start. I'd like to see it carry on but if it doesn't well, that's the way of life."