There seems to be a growing interest or at least a subculture around traditional boots. However, there’s also a lot of talk about the dreaded break-in period for heavy leather boots with welted insoles. Some people swear by them and say their Red Wings are the best most comfortable footwear and they’ll never use other, but pretty often you can also read remarks about horrible blisters and occasionally people even selling or giving their boots away because they were just so uncomfortable and they just couldn’t hack it.
As a solution to this problem occasionally you can read comments about wonder cures for quicker break-in, like soaking them wet with hot water or rubbing alcohol and the like, or just wearing them and using liberal amounts of boot oil or mink oil to soften them up and speed up the process (examples in the comments section of this here blog post). Let me tell you a little story about my boots to illustrate. It’s going to be a bit long-winded, so grab a seat and a good cuppa, and lean back.
I’m going to talk a lot about Red Wings, but that’s only because I’ve dealt with them recently. This should apply just as well to Wolverines, Danners, and just about any other brand of real leather boots.
I first bought a pair of Red Wings from a sale 5 years ago because I wanted to try the work boot look on, not that I was terribly informed about Red Wings or similar boots. It was a pair of 6” dark brown moc toes, as in moccasin toes (Style no. 8138 in Briar Oil Slick). I don’t remember much about the break-in as such, maybe because I tended use them occasionally because I had a bit of trouble trouble with the actual soles, as in them being rock hard and making my feet ache. I continued to wear them though, regularly greasing them up with some sort of leather balm I happened to have laying around. After the first couple of years though I got tired or getting aching feet and I invested in a pair of quality insoles. It happened that the pair of boots I bought was a bit generously sized since it was one of the last left in that particular sale. The size was never a problem for me and the No. 8 last is a bit on the narrow size so the extra size as such was only welcome. And by happy coincidence it meant I could fit the thickest pair of Superfeet insoles in and it only improved the fit. This also to a large extent solved my problem with aching feet. What I did learn though, was that too regularly blaming my boots made them too soft and the oils in the balm actually started to seep through the leather and metastasise in the fibres on the inside. That’s the first two lessons, don’t be afraid to use insoles and you might be actually hurting your boots by taking care of them too well.
My second pair is Iron Rangers (Style no. 8115 in Copper Rough & Tough) I bought about half a year before starting to write this, again from a sale, and I definitely remember the break-in. However, I didn’t get any of the dreaded blisters because I wasn’t stupid about it. Based on what I read, a decent amount of people just throw on their new boots and go about their daily business and find being crippled by sore feet, blisters, whatnot. You see the thick, hard hide needs some persuasion to mold around your feet, and I suspect your feet also will become accustomed to the particulars of the boots. The boots of course felt great on the showroom floor, but coming back home and walking around, at first especially I noticed how them being incredibly hard and unforgiving in the sole, the shanks and particularly the bellows or gussets in the tongue made my ankles incredibly uncomfortable after a while. I proceeded to add in brand new Orange Superfeet right away to take care of the first problem.
To take care of the others, I started wearing them little by little, lacing the boots a bit loosely at first to give the tongue and my ankles a bit of time to mold together. I think for the first couple weeks I only wore them for a quick trip to the supermarket or the mall, where I knew I wouldn’t be walking all too much, or I’d wear them while commuting and take the boots off at work, and if I felt significant chafing or hot spots I gave it a day or two using other footwear in between. When I started feeling comfortable and I wasn’t getting any more chafing or hot spots, I ramped up use from an hour at a time to a couple of hours, then a few, added more walking gradually. It might have helped that I accidentally happened to get myself into a situation a couple of times where I’d wear them walking around in the rain for a few hours. In fact I intuitively followed the rule from an old maker of mountaineering boots I’ve forgotten the name of, might have been John Calden or Limmer, that you shouldn’t be suffering in your new boots, rather you keep chipping at it and break them in little by little. And voilá, I have comfortable boots.
I cannot tell what or when exactly was the tipping point, but I’d say around 3 months of use I can say they’re comfortable and I can wear them all day on my feet without special complaints. In October for example I pretty much rotated between the moc toes and Iron Rangers 6 days out of 7. 3 months probably sounds like a loong time but these aren’t my only pair of footwear and there was the summer in between when I didn’t necessarily want to wear heavy leather boots with a 6” shank all the time just for the sake of it, while I know many people do, and I say more power to you boot lovers. So here’s the third lesson, unless you want to deliberately ‘harden up’, don’t beat yourself up by instantly wearing your new boots days on end. Ease into it, and your feet will thank you. Another thing is that if we’re honest, while the boots are now comfortable, if you wear sneakers or good shoes for a few days and pull you boots back on, they’re not as comfortable. It’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
As for boot care, I learned my lesson. For the new boots, I’ve only applied any product once, and it was in late summer when I got my feet wet the first time, and noticed the stitches were leaking like crazy. At that time I washed the mud off with some saddle soap, let them dry out well and applied a liberal amount of Atsko Sno-Seal, that is a bee’s was based product and contains only a moderate amount of oils, especially to the stitches and left them on the balcony in the warm late summer sun for a day. The Sno-Seal was nicely absorbed in the warmth of the sun and I proceeded to polish any excess off with a brush. Since then I’ve only brushed them. Or maybe once I washed them with a rag and saddle soap another time I got my feet wet. In fact, about that, your Red Wing Heritage-line boots are not waterproof, but resistant they are. When nicely Sno-Sealed it took me about four hours in light to medium constant rain before I got my socks really wet. You might ask what I was doing for four hours in constant rain, and I’ll tell you it was an airshow, thank you very much.
I can also attest that if your boots are not downright dirty or muddy, you can do wonders with a simple horse hair brush without needing to resort to any product. My error with the older boots was that each time they started looking a bit scuffed and dusty, I sponged them up with the oily balm up to once a week, which of course nicely returned the sheen, but it was just too much of a good thing. In stead, now I just brush them whenever they need some help and if that doesn’t fully do the trick, or I just don’t have the patience, I rub the scuff-marks off with my fingertips and finish with a brush. Of course nowadays it seems to be the fashion to speed up the coveted patina and have your boots scuffed, but I still like a bit of shine on them so I brush.
The point of this ramble was to talk about breaking in your new heavy and uncomfortable boots, that will hopefully become your trusted friends. The bad news is that I don’t have any magic tricks, and I don’t want to endorse any special technique for somehow softening them up, although I’m sure that can be done. In stead, I’d like to advocate taking a steady progress approach, starting from wearing the boots a little loosely laced and an hour at a time first and ramping up the wear gradually to soften the leather up and get your feet used to the boots as well. While I understand how somebody would like to wear their new fancy boots as much as possible as soon as they buy them, I don’t necessarily see any sense in powering through blisters and hot spots.
Which brings us, I suppose, to the good news, once you’ve broken them in, you’ll have likely several years of wear in them. My first pair is coming on 5 years, and they’re not much worse for wear so I’m expecting another 5-10 at least out of them at this rate. Granted, I haven’t worn them all the time everywhere year round, so your mileage may vary. I don’t want to wax all lyrical about the joys of Real Leather and Goodyear welt here, but these here boots are made of couple of millimeters, that’s between 1/16th and 3/32s of an inch, thick full grain hide, proper heavily stitched and resolable or rebuildable so in the absence of grave user error or accident, these should take you much farther than any fashion shoes around. And I can tell you, I’ve paid approximately the same in the past for a pair of fashion shoes that have been completely done in by year 4 or 5 with reasonable care, than I’ve paid for either of my sale Red Wings.
To finish off, so you can keep enjoying the boots, while caring for them is a topic for a whole another article, I just want to say neglect is obviously bad but don’t go around smearing oily products on them every fortnight. Brush them regularly, wash them when they’re dirty and proof them with a wax-based product rather than an oily one as needed, but in regular street wear likely not multiple times a year. You know when it’s cold and you have chapped skin on your hand, and it feels sort of thin, dry and papery? When you get the same feeling off your boots, that’s when they need some product on them, not necessarily otherwise. Although if you want to spit shine them, that’s a different matter and then there’s shoe polish and various techniques just for that.