I have received some emails from various people asking general questions about boot comfort and the feel of the stiffness or softness of leather (or skins) used on shafts of boots. Following are random thoughts based on experience from wearing boots exclusively as my choice of footwear for more than 47 years.
1. What type of leather is softer or harder (stiff)?
This question is hard to answer because the stiffness of a boot shaft is related to three issues:
a) Lining: if boots are lined with leather, they will be more stiff. Essentially, there are two layers of leather on a boot shaft rather than one.
b) Thickness: leather thickness is directly related to how stiff it feels. (See leather thickness chart here). Most cowboy boots have thickness in the range of 5 to 7 oz. Most decent quality motorcycle boots have thicknesses in the range from 7 to 9oz. The thicker the leather, the stiffer it will be.
c) Tanning: Leather tanning is an old but complex process. There are various methods used for tanning skins to produce leather. Most boot tanning primarily uses Chromium as the base element in the process. The resulting product is durable, less likely to be broken down by bacteria, and stretchable to conform to make boots. During the tanning process, enzymes may be used to soften the leather. That is the big thing: softness of leather is related to how the hide is processed during tanning. Some leather is softened by enzymes longer than other leather, so sometimes the leather is more stiff and sometimes it is more soft.
Generally speaking from experience, I have found that cowhide and calf leather are moderately soft. Kangaroo skin has been softest. Goat, buffalo, or elephant skin has been stiffer. But it varies. There is no standard. You just have to try on various boots to find out how they feel to you, and whether you like them.
2. What is “oil-tanned” leather?
Actually, that is a misnomer. Boots labeled as “oil-tanned” are infused with natural oils like neatsfoot oil or mink oil. These oils repel water and make the leather last longer. Upon exposure to water, snow, or salt, a thin application of neatsfoot oil (after the boot dries and is clean) will preserve the boots for ongoing and longer wear.
3. How long does it take for tall boots to sag at the ankle?
Ankle sag is common and expected for tall boots. But the answer to this question is also elusive. Most boot shafts are attached with a seam along the back of the boot. Most tall boot seams overlap. When the overlap is thick and double or triple-stitched, then the sag at the ankle is less.
But to answer the question: if a boot is made of real leather (rather than synthetic materials such as “Dehcord” on stock Dehner patrol boots), then the shaft should begin to sag after the first hour or two of wear. Usually, a full day of wear while walking (or better yet, riding a motorcycle) will result in the fullest sag that boot will develop.
4. Considering softness-vs-harness of leather, are there some boots that are more comfortable than others?
In this case, I am considering how a boot feels on the leg, not on the foot. Some people really like how a stiff boot feels, while others do not. Most good quality cowboy boots and motorcycle boots are leather lined. The lining adds to comfort, and actually makes the boots feel less hot on the legs (I do not know why, but that has been my experience. Leather lined boots just feel cooler.)
When a boot manufacturer takes short-cuts in production, for example uses less leather to form the shaft so the calf circumference is narrower, then those boots often feel much less comfortable because the legs feel squeezed.
Some manufacturers of quality boots sometimes have more narrow-than-average calf circumferences, such as Lucchese Classics and Tony Lama Signature.
Other boots, such as tall Chippewa engineer boots, are very soft and even though they are unlined, they feel very comfortable on the leg because they have a slightly wider calf circumference. These boots never feel hot on my legs, even if worn with pants over them rather than tucked into them.
Also, while on the subject of boot calf comfort, I have to say once again that Wesco Boots are not all that comfortable on the calf. Even having them custom made to size — leather-lined Wesco motorcycle boots feel stiff and hot on the legs. Wesco Boss or harness boots are the ultimate premium motorcycle boot, but they are hell to wear in warm weather (at least to me — your experience may be different.)
5. Summary Recommendation
The only way to know how a boot feels to you is to try it. If you don’t want buy boots and return them, try finding a boot store (not easy in some parts of the U.S. or the world, I know) or ask a friend who has a pair to try his boots on. Some guys even arrange to swap boots (I don’t, so please do not ask.)
Ultimately, boot comfort is a personal thing. I like to feel boots on my legs, so I don’t mind that they feel stiff. I do not like my legs being squeezed by boot shafts (I like to feel them, but not be calf-strangled), so I have experimented to learn that some boots are fine and some are narrow, some are really stiff and some are so soft they flop over. Years and years of experience tells me what I like and what I don’t.
As I said, your experience and preferences are probably different. The feeling of boots is a personal thing.
Life is short: enjoy and wear boots that you like.