Carved out of wood

By Annewil Schippers and Juliane Glahn

Blue, pink, black, small and large – clogs of all colors and sizes decorate the shelves of the Van der Meulen shoe store, located in the small Dutch village of Eenrum, in the north of the province of Groningen. Here, we meet Robert van der Meulen, who has been making the traditional Dutch footwear for over 30 years. He leads us through his workshop, where he turns tree trunks into wearable clogs (called “klompen” in Dutch) nearly every day.

The first thing Robert does when he goes from the front of the store to his adjoined workshop in the back, is to take off his regular shoes and slip into his own pair of black clogs. “Otherwise, you’re permanently vacuuming the store,” he jokes. Wood shavings and dust cover the floor and stick to the shoes of whoever sets foot in the workshop.

Countless wooden shoes are stashed here: they are stacked in small piles on the floor, placed on every table there is, and lined up on the shelves. Robert estimates that he makes “a few thousand” wooden shoes every year.

A piece of history

Though many think of the clog as typically Dutch, the wooden shoe has its origin in the north of France. For centuries, the footwear was popular in countries throughout Europe, such as Norway and Italy. Clogs made their way into the Netherlands in the 16th century and reached their peak of popularity in the early 20th century.

The Van der Meulen Klompenmakerij (clog workshop) is a family business. Four generations have mastered the clog making craft. In 1900, Robert’s great grandfather, Douwe, opened the shop. His son joined the business once he was old enough.

In 1920, he went to Germany and brought back machines that helped produce the shoes. “He was one of the first in this area to have machines,” Robert explains. The use of machines severely sped up the process and reduced the amount of work that had to be done by hand.

Robert himself started making clogs in 1985. Together with his father, who is 79 years old, he still makes the traditional wooden shoe to this day.

In this video, he shows us part of the clog-making process.

A disappearing craft

Wood from the neighborhood, mostly willow, is used for the clogs. “We go through several trunks per week,” he says. Once Robert gets to work, the room is filled with the sound of machines whirring to life, and metal scraping wood. Robert cuts the blocks into the desired size, and (with a bit of help from a machine here and there) forms them into the typical shape. He then polishes them, and adds some carvings. For one pair, he needs roughly 45 minutes. As a finishing touch, he adds different colors. “Red is frequently sold, blue is frequently sold, pink, purple… and even black.”

The wooden shoe might be a stereotype of the Netherlands, but the amount of people making them is quite low. “There are around ten companies that still produce clogs to wear,” Robert says. Others make smaller versions as souvenirs or produce the wooden shoes for museums. The Van der Meulen Klompenmakerij is the only clog workshop in the province of Groningen.

People who still buy clogs wear them for gardening or handiwork. Robert makes shoes in all sizes – for adults, but also for little kids. “These clogs are often given as birth gifts.”

After Robert, who is now 55 years old, the family business might stop: “I don’t think anyone will follow after me,” he says. For now, however, he and his dad continue the craft and do not plan on stopping anytime soon.