Few things are more personal than boots.
Perhaps the deep emotional attachment many people have to their rugged footwear stems from the fact that feet are our primary attachment to Mother Earth, barring any unintended face plants from overindulgence or clumsiness. Or maybe it’s a result of the activities we do in our boots: work, hike, hunt, shoot, walk, run, sleep (sometimes), and who knows what else.
In any case, plenty of us have a love/hate relationship with our footwear. I hate shoes, but I love boots. My feet just aren’t comfortable in anything else. Some people laugh at me because I wear my Danner Tanicus boots almost all the time. They think I’m trying to be all G.I. Joe, but the real reason is that it feels good to wear those giant pillows on my feet—I don’t care if I am wearing shorts or a suit.
My boot fetish led me to seize an opportunity to tour the Danner boot factory in Portland, Oregon a few weeks back. One of my favorite parts of this job is touring factories, seeing how products are made, and meeting the people who make them. Danner didn’t let me down. Who knew that the process of making footwear could be so darn interesting? Seeing all that goes into the making of my boots also explained why a great pair can cost a few hundred bucks—and be well worth the money.
We’ll focus on the classic stitch down styles that are generally made right here in the US of A. Why stitch down? Because those fancy leather upper sections that you work so hard to break in just right can be reattached to new soles when you wear those out. They also provide a more durable and stable platform on which to walk. We’ll talk more about that later.
Let’s walk through the manufacturing process. Ha! See what I did there?
Call in the cows
Come on, we can’t talk about a classic boot that’s not made of leather, right? When I toured the Galco Gunleather factory, I was blown away by the amount of leather they use. Now I’m not so sure who uses higher-quality hides—Danner or Galco.
Each and every half-cow hide is hand inspected and areas with blemishes or other irregularities are marked so they aren’t used as a boot upper. Cosmetics are important, but you really don’t want a weak spot in the leather to be used in your boot. Testing is done on each hide to grade its thickness, tensile strength, and adhesion of any colorings or coatings.
Specific leather is chosen for each part of the boot. For example, softer, thinner leather is used for the tongue as it needs to be flexible, but thick, tough leather will be hand-picked for the toe area.
Chop, chop, chop!
Once the leather is inspected and graded, an experienced cutter uses custom cutting dies and a massive press to cut pieces that will be sewn into completed uppers. The cutting process struck me as an art form as the cutter considers production requirements, available leather, thickness, and grade to optimize usage of each and every hide.
When I fix a button, you can spot my sewing hack job from 30 yards away. Sewing is hard! From what I could see, the three-dimensional sewing that Danner folks do is some type of magic voodoo. Freshly cut leather pieces are joined by needle and thread (albeit industrial strength needle and thread), and a boot takes shape. I found it mesmerizing to watch employees create the boot upper with inner boot, tongue, body and heel sections. The sewing process gets the upper close to its final shape but does not determine the exact size, just approximate size. We’ll talk about exact sizing in a minute.
Many of Danner’s boot styles include an entirely separate lining, which is also sewn together “in 3D.” It might be a hot lining, Gore-Tex, or perhaps an insulated inner boot. Most of the linings are sewn using an “around the world” technique. This means there is only one long seam, which makes for more effective waterproofing. There are a number of water tanks in this area so booties can be tested for water seal. When the lining bootie is complete, it’s sewn into the upper exterior shell.
Pieces and parts
Before the upper and lower are put together, other things may need to be done. Hardware like eyes and hooks are installed. Many models have heel cups or arch supports that need to be placed and of course metallic or non-metallic safety toes are installed. Regardless of the material they’re made of, safety toes have to pass identical impact and pressure tests.
You’re first if you’ve got lasts
There’s a secret to making a perfectly-fit boot time after time. That secret is investment in lasts. A “last” is a fake foot, made of some indestructible material that’s used as a mold (for lack of a better word) for each and every boot. Danner has an almost-uncountable number of lasts. The reason they have so many is to account for all the sizing variables. Length is easy, but Danner accounts for half sizes too. Then there are different widths for each length. Then there are different shapes designed for each length and width combination. For example, one style might call for a larger toe box or narrower heels. As we’ll see later, lasts take a beating as a boot is constructed.
Secret stretching scenarios
I was sworn to secrecy on the specifics of how this is done, but just before leather uppers are sewn to the soles, the leather is stretched over the lasts to create a specific shape and size. Ever notice how the toe section of your boot is nice and smooth and not all baggy and wrinkly? It’s because of a frightening custom machine that stretches the bejeepers out of the freshly constructed upper section. The first part of this process is called toe lasting—that’s what makes that nice, pretty toe area.
Depending on the specific boot style, an insole may be glued to the bottom of the upper. This is not intended to be a hard bond, just a temporary step until the upper and lower are firmly stitched together.
Rubber cement bonding
You’ll notice that most Danner boots have multi-layer soles. Different layers, based on style requirements, are bonded together into a single sole using some type of top-secret rubber cement. It smells…interesting.
Danner stitch down
Not many companies are doing stitch down boots anymore, so it’s kind of a Danner trademark. Not only does the stitch down style look cool, it’s exceptionally durable. However, the real value comes later, far down the road when you’ve worn your boots into the ground. Strong as the stitch down bond is, it can be removed in order to replace the outsole completely by fitting and stitching a new one.
Of all the scary equipment, the finger eater creeped me out the most. After stitch down, you end up with an oversized sole that has to be ground down to the desired size. Workers hand shape each boot using giant grinding wheels that somewhat resemble a wood chipper. It’s a multi-step process where finer wheels are used to get to a finished product. The rough pass eats rubber at a stunning rate, while the finer wheels and belt sanders smooth out the nearly-finished sole.
The torture chamber
While testing occurs throughout the construction process, like submerging waterproof liners, the last stop is the quality control lab where samples are tested in all sorts of cruel and unusual ways. Evil-looking machines pound and crush to test safety toes. Medieval torture racks pull boot strings over and over and over. Dunk tanks hold boots under water until they cry uncle. There’s even a machine that tries to draw and quarter your boots. Gross! It’s kind of a scary place. Don’t worry, Danner doesn’t torture the boots you’ll be getting—just periodic samples.
Earlier I talked about the benefit of stitch down boot design. One of the reasons it’s a good thing is that uppers can last forever, and the longer you wear them, the more comfortable they get. It’s the lower part that wears down with use. Why not send in those beat-up boots for a refresh?
Danner promotes its most experienced cobblers to the Recrafting Center, where customers send their old and weary boots for rebirth. As craftsmen are responsible for boot refurbishment from start to finish on any given pair, they need to have expertise at every step in the boot making process, hence the requirement for only the most experienced.
The cost of recrafting varies with the job, but is usually a fraction of the new boot price, and the boots are already perfectly broken in. The before and after comparisons are nothing short of miraculous.
These boots were made for walkin’
As I write this, I’m wearing a pair of Danner Mountain Light II hiking boots. Winner of the 2011 National Geographic Gear of the Year award, they’re a classic stitch down design that offers form fitting leather upper, Gore-Tex waterproof liner, and a wide, stable outsole. My business partner (and bride!) and I are putting these and a pair of Mountain Light Cascade women’s hikers through a five-mile-hike-per-day trial. We’ll report back on that later. I’m already seeing the benefit of perfectly fitted and constructed boots in my three-miles-a-day break-in period. No blisters, no rough spots, and most importantly, no pain—just lots of gain.
I think I’ve found my official SHOT Show boot. While there’s little rugged terrain, SHOT accounts for (what feels like) thousands of miles of indoor walking. This year, I plan to wear a Fitbit, just to see. Hmmm. We might have to have a “guess the miles” contest just for fun.
Tom McHale is the author of the Insanely Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way. His books are available in print and eBook format on Amazon.
Images by Tom McHale