Boots — Choosing Quality

Blackjackpython09I sincerely appreciate that several people wrote to me after my blog post titled, “Not the Ordinary Gay Guy’s Blog,” with suggestions about what I can write about. Stephen commented,

You being an authority of choice on all things “boots,” however, I would welcome further commentary on, well … boots! For example, the qualities of various leathers, how they wear, how to care for them, which are appropriate for particular kinds of boots, how different brands are made and how they compare in terms of their specialty niches. How various leathers are treated, and with what for particular purposes.

Of the email that this blog and my website generate, the vast majority of questions are about boots. Over the years of growing my boot collection and wearing boots daily, I have learned a thing or two. Here are some of my experiences and what I have learned about boots that may be of interest to you.

One caveat: my comments are about men’s boots. Most of what I write can be applied to women’s boots, but not about fashion boots. I’m not into fashion; I am into function.

1. Boot Leathers (See this later post for much more detail).

Chipfire302Most men’s boots are made of thick, durable, cowhide leather. Quality boots expose the outer skin, or “top grain” of the leather. There are some boots that expose the inside, or “roughout” side of the hide. Those are called “roughout” boots. Suede is made from the same side of the skin, but is buffed to a velvet texture.

What you want to look for is an indication of the use of top grain leather, which is the most durable part of the hide. Top grain leather boots when cared for well will last for years. Beware: it is what the label or descriptive information does not say that you have to watch for. If it does not say “top grain,” then boots could be made from cowhide splits, which are less durable. (Splits explained here).

You also should be concerned about the source of leather for boots. Seldom is the source indicated, but if boots are made in China or Pakistan, then it is likely that the leather is sourced from countries where the animals whose hides are used for the boot leather are not cared for well. If the animal is sick or malnourished, then its hide will suffer. Less collagen (what leather is made of) is produced and therefore the leather is thinner. Sores on the animal’s hide results in blemishes and thinner parts of the hide, which results in less durability and discoloration. Laws and/or customs that protect the health of animals are followed in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Australia, the U.K. and most of Europe. Italian leather is among the finest leathers in the world. Leathers from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia … well, my experience has been that leathers from there are to be avoided due to their irregular and poor quality.

Also beware: If it says “leather upper, balance manmade” then beware that the shaft is made of plastic, not leather. Run, don’t walk, away.

2. Exotic skins

Skins from a variety of animals have been used to make boots. Ostrich, lizard, snakes (python, rattlesnake), alligator, crocodile… you name it, it’s probably been (tried to be) used for boots. I will discuss exotic skins for boots in a future post. There is a lot going on with these hides that deserve separate attention.

Wharnessthumb43. Leather lining

Boots that are lined with leather, as most cowboy boots and some motorcycle boots are made will stand up on their own and not flop over. Further, leather-lined boots are more comfortable and actually do not get as hot as boots that are unlined. It’s also likely that lined boots will not chafe the sensitive skin on your calfs.

4. Stitching and construction

Stitching on a pair of boots must also be of good quality. Double-stitching of the sole and on the shaft seam is a must. Decorative stitching on the toe, foot, or shaft is an aesthetic feature and a purely personal choice.

5. Soles

The sole of a boot makes a difference if you require traction for certain activities such as motorcycling. Smooth leather soles work fine in an office environment, but not for wet conditions where the soles could cause the wearer to slip and fall.

Crepe soles are not nearly as good as a durable Nitrile or Vibram sole, and some men have reported that boots with crepe soles have required frequent resoling because that material wears poorly. The same is true about soles made of soft rubber compounds such as the “alpha” soles on Chippewa patrol boots or many of the boots made by Ariat. Unfortunately, there is not a way to determine the “hardness” of a rubber sole just by reading a boot promo ad. You can be confident that soles made of “ten iron leather” for cowboy boots or nitrile or Vibram (brand) for motorcycle boots are very durable.

PeggedIn a cowboy boot, look for a pegged sole — where small wooden pegs are driven through the outsole to the insole (see image, left). Pegs add durability and generally speaking, are a sign of a high quality boot.

If you are not accustomed to wearing boots, then choose boots with a heel similar to a shoe. Roper boots have a low heel, and are the most common boots worn in the American southwest.

If you prefer a traditional cowboy boot, look for a “walking heel” which is not as high as a riding heel, and provides more surface upon which to walk. Boots with these soles also make the distinctive “cowboy boot clunk” sound when you walk in them.

LegendarythumbSome fancier cowboy boots have riding heels and may have a spur ledge (what spurs rest on so they don’t fall below the heel). Riding heels look great and add height for guys who want to stand tall in boots. However, heels of two inches or higher are harder on the foot and more difficult to walk in. Hi-heeled boots may be a fashion statement to some, but some men have reported having trouble walking in them and foot pain, as well as being more likely to trip while wearing them, especially when climbing up stairs.

Lugsole3For motorcycle boots, I strongly prefer a Vibram sole with “minilugs” (Vibram 430) or big lugs (Vibram 100). These soles provide great traction, especially on pavement where oil droplets may have spilled.

Insole (footbed)

Look for the type of insole built into the boot. “Cushion insole” or “gel flex insole” may be used in advertising and marketing — for good reason. Boots that come with qualilty cushion insoles will feel better, last longer, and be more comfortable. You can purchase insole inserts for boots from a third-party provider such as Dr. Scholls. If you do, choose gel insoles rather than foam-only insoles that tend to wear flat quickly. Beware: inexpensive boots that suggest they have orthotic inserts probably only have a plastic insert in the heel, which provides absolutely no orthotic support.

I am sure there is more… there is always more. But this will have to suffice for now. Check back for future posts that will address more of Stephen’s questions.

Life is short: wear boots!

3 thoughts on “Boots — Choosing Quality

  1. Thanks for explaining what “leather upper, balance manmade” means. I never knew if that referred to the shaft being manmade or what.

    A word about heels: I actually find riding heels really comfortable to walk in. They take a bit of getting used to. With stairs: don’t put the whole boot on the stair, only the flat part. Keep the heel off the stair and you will be walking flat instead of on heels. This obviously only works going up stairs.

    Also, about pegs. BE CAREFUL. A lot of cheaper boots are being made with nails that LOOK like pegs. Use a fingernail and kind of dig into a peg. If it is rock hard, it is a nail. If it is “softish”, it is a peg. Check all rows of pegs too. Some boots have one row of nails and one row of pegs.

  2. I’m relatively new to boot-wearing but since I’ve gotten into them I’m noticing more and more boots that have no pegs or nails at all, in particuar the Milwaukee series from Dan Post and a number of Americana boots from Tony Lama. Those lines are value-conscious but I was still surprised to see that step down in quality in those two boot brands.

    A number of the Dan Post boots are nailed and not pegged, as well.

    • Thanks for your reply, Marc. Unfortunately, more boot manufacturers these days take shortcuts in quality craftsmanship to keep the costs down, though the ultimate end-price to the consumer does not reflect the actual savings they get from such things as gluing a sole rather than traditional pegging.

      Further, it appears to me that the “more American” sounding a name (Milwaukee, Americana), the more likely the boots are NOT made in the USA, reaping even larger profits to the manufacturer. Be careful and check these things before you buy.

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