When you reach the upper echelons of any market, the differences between each offering become markedly more subjective. What makes a pair of Samurai Jeans better or worse than a pair of Onis is almost all up to personal preference. At the lower tiers, however, manufacturers are much more likely to cut corners and deliver an objectively inferior product to their competitors.
Such is the case with Goodyear Welted boots. A Goodyear Welt is a method of attaching the upper of a shoe to the sole. It’s an old-world, labor intensive process, but ultimately makes for a more durable and waterproof piece of footwear that can be resoled several times and drastically extend the life of a shoe.
So, how did we narrow the field? First off, we only considered boots with a Goodyear Welt for this test, as they are easy to recraft, more weather-resistent, and there’s a good variety of workboots out there for purchase. Second, we also wanted something that was relatively affordable (sub $350). Welted boots are expensive, but their longevity often allays at least some of the cost. Third, we wanted something was was relatively accessible–available year-round, pretty much always in stock, and available to try on and return if not in person but easily through the mail.
Given those qualifications, the four boots we tested were the Red Wing Iron Ranger, the Thorogood 6″ Soft Toe, the Chippewa Service Boot, and the L.L.Bean Katahdin Iron Works Engineer Boot.
We tested these boots on their fit, construction, materials, and aesthetics. Aesthetics is the design and overall look of the boot. And let’s be honest that these are boots you’re buying for appearances–if you wanted a boot for real work, you’d get something ugly with a safety toe. Fit entails how comfortable and supportive the boot is to wear and how intensive the break in period was (I wore each pair for a week straight). Construction encompasses not only the techniques used to put the boot together but also the quality control behind them. And finally, Materials covers the quality of the leather, sole, welt, thread, shank, and lining of the boot.
All of these boots are fine products, and you can’t really go wrong with any of them, but what’s the fun in not ranking them? Let’s see how our first competitor did they did in our toe to toe challenge!
4. L.L.Bean Katahdin Iron Works Engineer Boot
The L.L.Bean Katahdin Iron Works Engineer is a solidly constructed boot at a decent price, however its brutal break-in period, low-end interior materials, and questionable country of origin put it in last place for our test.
- Name: L.L.Bean Katahdin Iron Works Engineer Boot
- Materials: Water resistant oiled leather, cork nitrile sole
- Welt: 270 degree Goodyear
- Made in: Design and assembly USA, materials USA and imported (questionable)
- Unique Features:
- Cap toe
- “Nut” eyelets
- EVA insole
- Available for $224 at L.L.Bean
The Engineer Boot is relatively inoffensive looking. It has tonal stitching, a cap toe, brass hardware, and matte brown leather. That said, it doesn’t particularly stand out either. The leather has hardly any depth and much less patina potential compared to the other boots we looked at. They don’t scream workboot, but they don’t look particularly slim or dressy either.
These were, without a doubt, the most difficult to break in boots in the test. After a week of wear, I felt like I was just barely beginning to make progress on the leather around my ankles and begin to mold into the footbed. The latter, however, was very difficult because L.L.Bean opted for a man-made rubber insole. So the gradual molding that happens over time on a traditionally leather insole will be much less pronounced here. Fit is true to size.
The boot was also made on the Munson Last, which was anatomically designed to accommodate the greatest number of feet but fails to truly serve any of them. The last had great grip and fit around my heel, but loosened up significantly around my mid and forefoot. Even laced as tight as they would go, the ball of my foot shifted slightly with each step, something that compounds quickly to blisters.
That said, I have worn more uncomfortable boots, but these were clearly the poorest fitting of the ones we’re looking at.
The construction on the Engineer boot was admirable: there weren’t any egregious quality control errors, the highly stressed parts of the boot are quad-stitched, and all the seams appeared clean and even. The 270 degree Goodyear welt with a closed heel was a nice bonus for a boot in this price range.
One thing that did raise a huge red flag, however, was a “Made in China” stamp on the inside of the toe–something only visible if you destroy the boot as we did.
The L.L.Bean website claims the Engineer is “Design and assembly USA, materials USA and imported.” This could mean that only the toe liner is made in China, but there were no other markings on the boots that declared otherwise. These boots are made by Chippewa for L.L.Bean and they have production facilities in the US, so it could be that this boot does not meet the minimum 70% assembly mark that you need for the label. We have not reached out for comment yet. Regardless, construction is pretty good!
As mentioned above, the leather is a bit plain but very thick and sturdy. The cork/rubber Vibram outsole has a minimal lug so it still has a good bit of traction while maintaining a low profile. Looking inside though, is where you can start to see the cut corners.
Rather than the standard cork filling that shapes to your foot, they instead opted for a synthetic insulation type foam. You can see it close up attached to the shank below. This may provide more immediate comfort, but it will not have the same longevity or “molding potential” as cork. But as mentioned above, these boots don’t provide immediate comfort, so it kind of defeats the purpose.
The shank itself is coated steel attached to a piece of cardboard, the insole below the rubber however is not leather but something synthetic and papery.
These materials should hold up well for the vast majority of wearers, but it’s these sort of details that separate out boots from a higher price range.
Check back tomorrow to see the next boot in our showdown, the Chippewa Service Boot.