A major benefit to most quality leather footwear is the ability to have it resoled, extending the life of something you love. But when SHOULD you get them resoled? When the time comes, what do you need—and not need—to get taken care of? And when is a boot just sadly, sadly gone?
To get the straight story, I talked to Isac, a third-generation cobbler who works out of a cozy little shop in Govik, a couple of hours north of Oslo, Norway. I spent a full day with Isac while he resoled my Wolverine 1000 Mile boots, and while he worked, we talked about the art of the resole (it truly is a fine art).
What kinds of boots should be resoled? What kind of boots should not be resoled?
Price is a good guide here. Just as you wouldn’t put performance tires on a rusted-out lemon, you don’t want to throw good money after bad with your resole.
It goes without saying…but I’ll say it anyway! If you’ve worn out the soles on a $50 pair of sweatshop boots held together with nothing more than adhesive, you can leave them on the side of the road without a second thought.
If you’ve spent less than $300 or so on your Goodyear welted boots, you’re in better shape, but there’s a good chance that the welt isn’t made of strong enough stuff to stand more than a single resole (perhaps two).
If you’ve spent $400 or more on your boots, you’ve probably got something on your hands that can last for a very long time (provided that you take care of the uppers). Theoretically, you can keep resoling these forever.
What are the signs I should look for when considering a re-sole?
There are four big issues that you should look for when considering a re-sole.
Hole-y Soles: If you’ve managed to wear your shoes long and hard enough that you can see cork or—even worse—the underside of the footbed, you’ve let it go far too long. You’re going to be looking at a much more expensive repair job if you let things go much further, so stop wearing them! Take them to your cobbler—and brace yourself for some vigorous tsk-tsk-ing.
Uneven wear pattern: This is usually most obvious at the heel, where less and less of the heel makes contact with the ground. At the very least, this means it’s time for a new rubber heel cover. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should be looking at a full resole, but it does mean that you should be bringing them to the cobbler for a once-over. A worn-down heel is rarely an isolated issue.
Paper-thin leather: For your Goodyear welted boots to stand the test of time, you’ve got to keep some distance between the welt and the road. Whenever you condition or polish your boots, take a quick look at the leather or rubber on the bottom of your boots. Are there any places where you’re walking (or nearly walking) on the welt? Get thee to a cobbler!
Comfort: It’s overused, but I’m still going to go with the old frog in the boiling water analogy. If we’re only wearing one pair of boots, we might forget what a comfortable and supportive boot feels like. They get a little worse each time we wear them, but the difference is so small that we don’t notice it.
As a general rule, you can also just let aesthetics be your guide. If the underside of your boots are an unsightly mess, it’s probably time for you to consider a re-sole.
Remember, if you let it go for too long, you’ll be allowing moisture and grit to penetrate the sole. The footbed will dry out and shrink. That great feeling of a boot perfectly moulded to your foot will disappear, and the soles will start to feel like a thin layer of stone beneath your feet. You’re walking the uncomfortable path to much costlier repairs. Take the nearest exit.
Should I replace the worn-out sole with something identical?
If you want to restore your boots so that they look almost exactly like they did the day you took them out of the box, yes, you should find a cobbler who has access to the same soles that you’ve worn out.
However, if you purchased a relatively inexpensive pair of boots (like my Wolverine 1000 Miles), you’ll be missing an opportunity to upgrade your boots. I’ve gotten my 1000 Miles to the point where I want to keep them forever. The leather is butter soft, and the burgundy undertones are pouring through the surface. I’ve got my uppers right where I want them.
Everything below the welt, though, has started to deteriorate. I could replace the factory sole with something identical or at least similar, but I decided to go with a Dr. Sole rubber/leather combo. The helicopter view of the boot remains essentially unchanged, but, from below, it’s an entirely different boot.
If you’re replacing Cat’s Paw or Role Club soles, by all means, replace like with like. If you’ve got the opportunity to upgrade, though, jump at it. Ask your cobbler about what options are available.
When you’re considering your options (full leather sole, full rubber sole, half sole, rubber sole cover, etc.), give some thought to how you use your boots. Many of those who replace their soles reach for the same material almost reflexively. If, for instance, you’re replacing the sole on a Red Wing 3345 Blacksmith, it would seem logical to use a rubber sole, but a double leather sole would create a striking urban boot—a perfect fit for the exclusively urban Red Wing owner.
When can you get away with a half sole or simply a rubber sole cover?
A leather half-sole is a cheaper alternative, and it makes sense if you don’t want to spend a lot, but it really takes an expert cobbler to make the transition from the old sole to the new half-sole. The point where the old sole and the new one connect will be a stress point that might start to give out before its time.
If you’re not a hard wearer of your boots, a half-sole might be the perfect option. A rubber sole protector will also help if you find that your leather soles are slippery (particularly if you live in a country where the temperatures regularly drop below freezing). If you’ve got a leather sole, a lack of grip is not necessarily a sign that you need a new sole (only that you need to add some kind of rubber protector).
For durability and aesthetics, there’s just no beating the full re-sole. Everything else is a half-measure.
When is a boot beyond repair?
The short answer is never. If you’re head over heels in love with your utterly destroyed boots, an expert cobbler can dig them out of their grave (no matter how deep you’ve buried them). These repairs might be more costly than the boots themselves, but, if you’ve got a long history with a single pair, giving them a new life might be worth this investment.
If you’re not in this category, the best guide will be the uppers and the welt. If the upper leather is dried and cracked, it’s probably time for a new pair. Same goes for the welt. If it’s dried and cracked, it will probably have to be replaced. If you’ve taken your boots in for a re-sole or two, and if the cobbler hasn’t been extremely careful to stitch through the existing holes, your welt might not be able to stand the strain of yet another re-sole. Again, these are costlier repairs, but they might be worthwhile if it’s a much-loved pair.
So what’s the biggest takeaway here?
The best advice I can give you is to go out and find a top-rate cobbler. For years, I’ve been using local guys in Hungary. They’ve done a fine job with the repairs I’ve given them, but I always suspected that I was only applying band-aids to the problem. I went out of my way (three hours each way to be exact) to get expert advice and expert repairs. The results speak for themselves.