To build a great boot, it all starts with the leather.
Leathers We Use for Our Boots
Leathers for Work Boots Only
Retan contains a lot of oils and feels waxy, so it will not polish. It is tanned to resist barnyard acids and moisture. Its extra flexibility and softness is due to double tanning (hence the term "re-tan")—first, with man-made chemical chrome tanning and then re-tanned with vegetable materials. Retan is thick, therefore some people object to its weight. It comes from a full-grown cow and has larger pores than calf would have. Retan boots often come with Neoprene soles, the favorite of feedlot cowboys. Barnyard acid will not eat away at Neoprene as it does regular sole leather. Retan needs little or no upkeep. Even under dry conditions it will last a long time, but cleaning and applying Lexol leather conditioner will extend the life of boots.
This is the same leather as the smooth retan, but reversed with the flesh side out. Rough-out retan absorbs water especially through its larger pores. For longer wear select the rough-out retan that has a soft and pliable feel, with a smoother nap, not too loose-fibered and shaggy looking. Rough-out retan must be kept clean of mud and other drying ingredients or it will crack. A brass suede brush cleans it, though it spots easily and looks dirty because of its absorbancy. Some rough-out retan is silicone treated as part of its tanning process. This does not mean aerosol silicone sprayed after it is manufactured. Leather that is silicone treated at the tannery will stay waterproof for the life of the sole.
Pigskin is used for work and semi-dress. A soft leather that has a dominant grain. The grain usually forms a triangle and is easily recognized. It has a very long life, is moderately priced, is soft and supple and conforms to the foot. Usually this leather is treated for additional water repellency. Even though it may be used for semi-dress, this boot will not take a high shine due to its full grain.
This thick leather has a soft “glove” feel. It is very comfortable for a heavy leather that will wear well. It will not hold a shine for it has a dull finish. Used hard as a work and utility boot, a glove tan boot has a tendency to stretch. Some manufacturers use this leather as a cost-saving measure.
Kipskin is also known as steer-hide should be classed as a utility boot. It has a smooth hard finish that resembles a dress calf - it takes a shine but has a much stiffer feel than calf. The hard finish tends to break down and crack. Though it is a heavy leather, it is not a practical work boot around moisture. Look for the piece of leather that has a tight grain - avoid the kind with the loose large wrinkles. Kipskin is often used as a roughout leather.
Leathers for Both Work and Dress Boots
One of the toughest leathers of them all, it is very easily recognized for its distinct grain. It is practically scuff-proof and has a long life for work and dress. Its cost makes it less popular for a work boot. To some it is stiff and hard to break in, especially for those with problem feet (corns, bunions, etc.). Recent improvements in tannage make shark more pliable than in the past. Colors in sharkskin are rich and unique. This rich color effect makes it more of a dress than work leather. Although shark is scuff-resistant and tough, it needs care like any leather. It must be cleaned of dirt, mud, manure – any material that would tend to deteriorate it – and conditioned from time to time. Shark has a water-shedding quality because of the hardness of its surface. Just because the fish swam in water does not mean that the tanned leather is waterproof.
Elephant is tanned in pieces with each piece having it own distinct grain, some heavy and some smooth. It is a very popular leather and fairly readily available from population control in Zimbabwe. Elephant is scuff resistant for work and is nice for casual wear. Since it is fairly dry, it must be regularly cleaned and conditioned for long life.
Water buffalo is one of the most popular of present-day boot leathers. A full grain leather that is both soft and supple. Many customers report that it feels like it is already broken in when brand new. It takes a beating and also a good shine. It is suitable for dress or for work. Water buffalo is a very comfortable leather for its softness yet it is tough enough to survive scuffs and scratches.
Hippo leather is somewhat of a novelty in that it was not commonly seen until a few years ago. In its original state this leather is very thick and heavily-scarred. The outmost grain is removed by sanding until some of the scars are removed. The bottom layer is split off to leave the top grain to be used in boots. Hippo wears very well under hard use but needs to be occasionally cleaned and conditioned to maximize wear. A brass bristle brush is ideal to remove loose dirt and dust from its suede-like finish.
Giraffe is a long-wearing leather for hard use, but it is fairly stiff. Those with foot problems should avoid this leather. Clean and condition this leather on a regular basis, and it will serve you well.
Leathers for Dress Boots Only
Alligator and Caiman
These are luxury leathers for dress only. How they wear depends on how they are cared for. You can recognize these leathers by the more squared-off regular checks. The smaller checks the more flexible the boot and the less likely to crack. These boots can be made up in lots of ways, with the pieced foot, or the full vamp one-piece design that is more costly. Smaller checks should go on the fore part of the foot. Larger checks go on the heel counters. These leathers are unpredictable as to whether or not they will crack. The problem occurs when the leather dries or is deteriorated between the scales. This more flexible portion of the leather gives way as the more rigid scales “work against” each other. Many recommend using a small bit of Lexol on the finger, rubbing a very thin film of conditioner into the leather, especially between the scales after wearing and removing any dust or dirt. This is good practice for all reptile leathers Alligator and crocodile take a high shine, and their hard finish holds a shine very well.
Ostrich is the softest and most comfortable of the “exotic” leathers. It wears well and resists scratching and scuffing – a combination of softness and toughness. Ostrich is naturally resistant to rotting when exposed to barnyard acid. The quill pattern determines the price of genuine ostrich boots. Where you get a full quill pattern all over the foot, you are buying a much more expensive boot. The size of quill bumps depends on the age of animal and the portion of the hide from which the leather is cut. Ostrich is that ideal combination of durability and wearability which makes it the perfect leather for boots. Always wipe the dust and dirt off ostrich boots after wearing.
Lizard skins will not wear any better than alligator, crocodile or caiman. Scales on lizard are smaller and run diagonally across the vamp. Lizard is often double-lined for shape-holding insurance and for added strength. Apply Lexol conditioner to lizard for conditioning after proper cleaning. Lizard is a very fine-looking dress boot that is much less costly than most other reptile skins.
This light-weight leather has a very fine-grained appearance. It is one of the most comfortable leathers of all. Kangaroo fibers interlock whereas bovine leathers come in horizontal layers. Kangaroo has greater strength, weight for weight. You can often detect this leather by the presence of healed tick bites on the surface. Kangaroo is somewhat “springy” or elastic in the way it fits to the movements of the foot and adjusts to the greater and lesser pressures of normal wear. Kangaroo seems to hug the foot. Even though kangaroo is not recommended for work, some customers demand the comfort of kangaroo in their work boots. Kangaroo resists the effects of repeated wetting and drying better than most leathers, but it is damaged by barnyard acids like other dress-type leathers. Kangaroo is the best leather for those with foot problems.
Camel is scarce since you only get a hide of leather when the animal dies of natural causes. Its hard finish resists scuffing but is very stiff. With hard wear camel may lose its color. Frequent conditioning is required to maximize wear.
Kidskin is very soft and supple. It has been popular for boot tops in recent years. Kidskin comes in a wide range of colors – from basic black to bluebonnet blue to celery to red and back to basic chocolate. Kidskin is great to use in tops for color but not strong enough for boot vamps.
Brush-off goat is kidskin which is colored twice. The most common color is black cherry which has a base color of cherry red over-colored with black. Special brushes are used to partially remove the black top coat and reveal the underlying cherry. This creates an antiqued look which many find attractive.
Stingray is the hardest leather of all. Be absolutely certain not to fit these boots snugly. They do not stretch. They do however look unique and appeal to many customers. Stingray must be cleaned and conditioned regularly to maximize the life of the boots.
Calfskin hides come from very young animals that have tight, fine pores. They have a very smooth appearance. It takes a very high polish and holds it. A very soft, pliable and lightweight leather, it conforms to the foot. Because the leather is soft, it will scratch and scuff, but proper polishing will fill in the scratches well. Calf has durability in that it stays intact without splitting under the toughest work conditions. This has been proven by people who continue to use the calf boot for work after it looks too worn for dress wear. Even with all of its color gone, it often holds together under punishing conditions. There is a heavy demand for true calfskin and a scarcity of skins, making it a fairly expensive material for boots. Always polish calfskin with lanoline based polish.
Leather Type Affects Fit
Certain leathers will stretch to fit the customer’s foot better than others. Calfskin, kangaroo, ostrich and elephant generally will conform better to the foot than the reptiles. Reptiles, shark and stingray won’t give much to the pressure of the foot. The reason for this is the softer leathers may "shrink" down slightly when the last is removed since they have a tendency to be more springy and stretchable. However, when they are worn, they will ease back out conforming to the foot. If a soft leather boot fits a bit tight to begin with, it will gradually become less tight. This is a good thing to remember when you fit customers with foot problems. The harder-finish leathers must be fitted more exactly. A tight boot over the instep or across the ball in one of these hard leathers will remain tight and may be painful. Boot makers insist whatever kind of leather is used in a boot, it has to be kept clean. Dirt, dust, grime and dryness deteriorate all leather. Rough-out boots should be cleaned with a brass suede brush. If any boot gets wet, it should never be dried quickly close to a heat source. Wet boots should dry gradually and slowly - preferably while being worn. Then the oils should be restored with Lexol conditioner. After conditioning, apply lanoline based colored polish to restore deep color to the leather. Spray polish or liquid polish tend to dry out the leather and should be avoided. Rough-out leathers can be sprayed with aerosol silicone material to help them become more water-repellent if desired. Silicone spray on smooth leathers tends to leave a gummy residue that prevents good shine. There is no footwear like an ALL LEATHER boot. The leather components not only allow the foot to breathe but also conform to the foot with wearing.
Outsole and Insole Leather
Leather for outsoles and insoles are vegetable tanned in pits. The leather is suspended by clamps in a pool of tannins, usually tree bark and wood-soaked water, which stop the decomposition process of the hide and allow the pores of the skin to relax. At the end of 90 days of soaking, when the leather is removed, it is put into a tanning drum and solids (starch etc.) are stuffed into the hide making it quite heavy and thick when it dries. The leather is then dried and rolled under pressure to increase its stiffness. The sole bends are taken from the center of the hide, and the insoles are taken from the shoulders and bellies. The sole leather is rolled longer and with much more pressure making it firmer than the insole leather.
These two parts of the cow are very different in structure. The sole bends are made of short, compact fibers and give long wear. The insole shoulders and bellies are of long, stringy fibers and hold the channel better on the bottom of the insole to which the sole welt is sewn. The softer insole leather also quickly conforms to the footprint, making the boots truly belong to the wearer.