Quality work boots come in many forms, but what makes the best ones worth the investment?
Cowboys and cowgirls sitting on wooden fence prove that the western cowboy boot comes in a wide range of styles and colors.
After a decade or so of wearing boots about every single day of my life – whether my everyday cowboy boots, multiple pairs of rubber boots that take me to the woods for cutting timbers or chasing whitetail deer, still other rubber pairs I use to stomp through chicken and livestock manure, or finally my trusty pair of older, heavier lace-up hunting boots – I can tell you that a solid pair of soles beneath your feet are akin to a sharp blade in your pocket, a well-worn, protective hat on your head, an old pair of leather work gloves that conform to your hands. Trusted tools make life better, and any regular boot wearer knows it: You find yourself with a pair beneath you hurting your feet, other body parts start hurting soon after.
My dad’s pair of Northerner rubber boots made an impression on me at a young age, but nothing opened my eyes like the first time my parents took my brothers and me down to Jones Boots in Sheldon, Missouri. An entire store of cowboy boots – any style, color or brand you could imagine. We were blown away, and I know all three of us boys walked out with brand-new cowboy boots that day. Pretty sure we all three walked out with Stetson cowboy hats, too – I smile now at the memory of sinking hopes as I watched a different shop owner shape that hat about as different from Garth Brooks’ as possible. Can’t remember what the special occasion was, but other kids would have traded places with us in a heartbeat, and our parents must have sacrificed significantly for it.
Like any other tool investment, when it comes to the leather or other materials under your feet, knowing what you’re looking for and spending a little time thinking about boots will get you closer to what you want for the dollars you want to spend.
Our everyday cowboy boots have come a long way since the old days, when in the late 1800s American frontiersmen decided they needed something altogether different than the Wellington-influenced (think modern-day rubber boot) military boots that had served the calvary during the Civil War.
Long cattle drives meant they needed something more dedicated for long days in the saddle. The riding boot that closely resembles the modern-day cowboy boot was born, and soon became popular in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
In the early half of the 1900s, Hollywood’s influence meant showier boots, and the evolution continues today. But what makes for quality, in an arena where personal taste has such an impact?
First, and this overlaps with traditional lace-up work boots, is good leather. Quality bovine leather is generally used for boots that are meant to take a beating and come back for more day after day. Go on any website of a boot manufacturer today, and you’ll find exotic leathers, such as ostrich, lizards, snakes, water buffalo, and even Caiman or alligator belly – and the list goes on and on. Most types of exotic leathers are softer than bovine, and require very little to no break-in time, and to some folks’ taste, have a more sophisticated, dressier look.
But if work is what you’re after, along with longevity, comfort, and a look that makes a country boy proud, you can’t go wrong with bovine, and it comes in any range of thickness. In fact, if you go to a boot store and find comparable boots made of bovine leather, you’ll be able to feel differences in thickness. Generally speaking, thicker hides are heavier duty.
As for toes, toe shape rests a lot on style. In the old days, both extremely pointed boots and more rounder versions allowed a boot to easily slip in and out of a stirrup, but today, toe shape comes down to foot shape and personal taste. Many a rancher tends cattle on an ATV nowadays, so how a boot might fit into the stirrup may be less important. If you have a wide foot like I do, there’s no amount of looking “cool” that would persuade me to purchase a narrow, extremely pointed cowboy boot that crams my toes together. The four common shapes of toes are classic, rounded, pointed and square.
Of the multiple boot companies I reached out to for this article, Ariat’s Austin Condit, Director of Footwear Product Management in Western Men’s, says the most common current trend among folks looking to buy cowboy boots, besides durability and comfort, is that people are looking for a traditional look with a twist – but not too much of a twist. Makes sense to me. I usually look for something that looks like a rugged western cowboy boot, but I want them to feel like my boot. Boot stitching patterns are typically signature to a manufacturer, and stitching is one element where you can find your own style.
Sometimes referred to as the “Wellington,” or chore boot, modern rubber boots have come a long way in not only insulation, but comfort, durability and versatility. There’s no way my dad could have bore it to deer hunt in those old rubber boots he had without his toes freezing. Today, I hunt in rubber boots for all but the coldest of days, and my insulated rubber boots aren’t much colder than anything else I have.
A different pair of insulated rubber boots are my best chore boots for cutting and chopping firewood, and for feeding chickens. Good thing about a solid pair of rubber boots – and why I don’t have a problem with the investment – is they keep your feet both dry and warm, and that’s huge. Add comfort and durability, and a quality pair of rubber boots are a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-all-trades in my book.
Aside from good insulation, one quality I’ve found to appreciate in several boots, and even waders, is the composite shank in the sole of the boot. Walking on uneven ground, be it through piles of manure, plowed garden and fields, or creek bottoms and pond dams, a good sole with a solid shank offers much needed support when your rubber has to hit the off-road.
A well-made pair of leather lace-up work boots might be the most underrated of the common boot types. From smoke jumpers and lumberjacks to ranchers and farmers to the manufacturing plant worker, the lace-up leather boot is a staple of hardworking men and women throughout our frontier’s history.
Lace-ups are usually heavier than their western cowboy boot counterpart, because of the thicker leather that is typically used. Whereas a fairly expensive pair of cowboy boots ($150 to $200 range) might last anywhere from several months to a year – and we’re talking as an everyday work boot – leather lace-ups, manufactured by a reputable company, will cost as much or more, but are designed to take a pounding over years of service.
Find a well-made pair with thick leather, good support and the proper height. Start at 8 inches, and in most cases you’ll have the ankle support you need, and anything more than that can offer additional support for the entire leg and body.
There are generally two types of safety toe that most manufacturers offer: steel and composite. Some companies have expanded on that – aluminum, for instance – but steel toes can come in very handy when working around heavy livestock. In my conversations with boot makers in researching this article, composite toes are lighter and don’t conduct temperature in the way steel does, so in cold weather, your toes might stay warmer in composite than in steel, in some boots. The downside is that composite can be a bit bulkier, can look clownish in some cases, and it hasn’t been around as long, so might not fit quite as well as many boot styles with older manufacturers.
Take it from me, the investment in boots is one place where it doesn’t pay to cut corners – and all manner of cowboys, ranchers, smoke jumpers, lumberjacks and more who came before me agree.
Believe it or not, it's still possible to find a pair of custom-made lace-ups that are handmade of all leather. Norman Maclean, a favorite author of this article's author, named a certain boot in one of his short stories that involved lumberjacking with a pal named Jim. "The pair Jim had on were White Loggers, made, as I remember, by a company in Spokane that kept your name and measurements. It was a great shoe, but there were others, and they were great too — they had to be. The Bass, the Bergman, and the Chippewa were all made in different parts of the country, but in the Northwest, most of the jacks I remember wore the Spokane shoe."
White's Boots, in Spokane, Washington, actually began in the east, but came west, first to Idaho in 1902, and then to Spokane in 1915. Since then, they've made work boots by hand for loggers, forest firefighters and smoke jumpers, farmers and ranchers, and other professions requiring a boot that couldn't be licked. Still today, as Maclean mentioned, White's Boots builds boots to the exact measurements of your foot. Then one of anywhere from 10 to 12 boot makers that the company employs in Spokane cuts and makes the boots by hand. Most styles are 100-percent leather (except for the outsole), from the sole to the heel to the leather shank. One boot maker typically makes anywhere from seven to nine pairs a day.
You'll pay the price — a typical pair of 8-inch Smoke Jumpers might cost you around $460 — but the benefit of being all leather is that they can be completely rebuilt for less than half the cost. There are other American boot companies doing it similarly, but White's has a rich history of making a quality "shoe" that serves North American (and now overseas) working men and women.
Caleb Regan owns a pair of Northerners to this day, as well as several other brands, and is on the constant lookout for a quality pair of American-made leather or rubber boots.
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