In today’s installment of our review series, Is It Worth It?, we take a look at Red Wing boots, which have long been a staple in American workwear. We’re now starting to see people wear them in more fashion-forward contexts, but in either application, are they worth the price?
History of Red Wing Shoe Company
Many people now recognize the over 100-year-old company as a family-owned business that was launched in 1905 in Red Wing, Minnesota. However, in 1873, prior to the inception of the Red Wing shoe company, Red Wing, Minnesota was known as one of the most efficient producers of wheat in the United States of America. Soon after, the discovery of natural clay beds in the area launched a healthy stoneware industry.
During the turn of the century, Red Wing, Minnesota was seeing massive success from its river port and businesses were springing up all over the place. European immigrants were creating factories and workshops all over the city.
At that time, Charles Beckman, who happened to be a shoe seller and a very wise businessman, would watch the carpenters and the blacksmiths walk throughout the city and noticed that they had ill-fitting boots and shoes on. He came up with the idea to have something that was specific to a certain job.
As Charles struck out to launch this new venture for shoes and boots that would fit people appropriately, he initially found that manufacturers were not willing to work with him. Thankfully, Charles didn’t have to wait forever. He was soon joined by other investors and they began launching the Red Wing shoe company in 1905.
By 1912, Red Wing shoe company was seeing massive success with its new style, the “Black and Brown Chief.” This boot was created using manure-proof leather to assist farmers while working on their land. This boot also carried the likeness of the legendary Dakota chief Red Wing on the sole of the boot as well.
Red Wing Shoes in WWI
During World War I, as the men who would have worked in the factory went to war, women entered the factory to help with the creation of boots. In particular, the 1088 Pershing boot was one that gained a lot of popularity. Red Wing shoe company continued to make the 1088 Pershing style until 1965.
Over the years, Red Wing shoe company has become known for more than just shoes or boots for wartime or marketed just to farmhands. In the ’60s and ’70s, there was an adoption of Red Wing shoes and boots by a much broader audience.
In more recent years, a partnership with a popular company J.Crew helped launch the Heritage Collection around 2007. It was advertised initially as being a collection that would bring together both the standard Red Wing boots along with a more modern aesthetic for a broader audience.
Today, we are seeing Red Wing boots appear in the classes of very fashion-forward individuals. Those who choose to wear the brand casually and opt to wear the more fashionable heritage collection are often branded as hipsters.
What has become one of the most iconic styles from the Red Wing Heritage Collection is their Classic 6-Inch Moc-Toe boot. Over the years as fashion rules have softened, we see that many more people are willing to shell out the $200+ for these popular boots.
The Red Wing shoe factory produces up to two million shoes each year and has seen over four generations of shoemakers. Red Wing boots doesn’t only design and manufacture shoes under its own brand! It also produces footwear under Irish Setter boots, Vasque, Carhartt (discontinued in 2011), and Worx brands. Some of these non-Red Wing brands include a variety of models that were manufactured in the People’s Republic of China.
A Tour of The Factory
The over 100-year-old factory is located at 315 Main Street in Red Wing, Minnesota. I can say from experience that the amount of history that it holds is incredible.
Many years ago, I had the privilege of going on a tour of the Red Wing Factory in Red Wing, Minnesota and I had an absolute blast. There’s so much history and passion behind this brand and I really enjoyed seeing how something that’s over 100 years old and located in a small town is helping people all over the world.
The tour lasted a number of hours but the people working there were extremely welcoming and I could tell that they were extremely passionate about what they were helping to create. My favorite part of the tour, and I had a few, included seeing the leather being dyed and the boots being stitched together with the soles.
How Red Wing Shoes Are Made
It takes a large team of dedicated people who have a critical eye to produce a high-quality boot from beginning to end. Many of the shoes are actually hand-stitched; this is done because much of the technology that’s available today does not stitch components of the shoes together to Red Wing’s standards.
It all begins with leather, in the beginning, Charles Beckman partnered with the SB Foot Tannery to get the best and most durable leather for the Red Wing shoe company. In 1986, Red Wing shoe company acquired that tannery.
To begin the construction process, first, the leather is tanned, stretched, and then rolled. Then, the leather is cut into patterns and then fitted. Another fun fact: the fitting department actually holds 30 different steps the leather has to go through before it’s able to be transferred to the next department.
The leather is then sent to the lasting department, this department holds over 30 different styles and hundreds of different sizes in which the boots and shoes can be made. From there, the footwear is sent to the bottoms department, this is where the soles are applied.
Finally, the footwear is sent to the finishing department. This is where each shoe and boot is reviewed, shoelaces and footbeds are added, and things are then prepared for distribution all over the world.
One of the best things about Red Wing boots is their soles. The lug sole was invented by Vibram. This hole provides a lot of traction. Meanwhile, Traction Tred is a non-marking outsole and one of the most iconic elements in Red Wing boots.
Our Chosen Styles – Iron Ranger 8111
This style was originally built for iron miners on the Minnesota Iron Range in the 1930s. Each pair of boots take on a personalized fit through to the cork midsoles and the leather insoles that form to the wearer’s feet. The style features a Goodyear welt, a steel shank, and a puritan triple stitch construction. Also, there are brass speed hooks for precise lacing.
This Iron Ranger style is made with a Vibram 430 mini lug sole. According to Red Wing, the Iron Ranger style should fit comfortably tight on your foot while still allowing for enough room for you to freely move your toes. The Iron Ranger style was built on the No. 8 last. This boot designed features a bump toe which allows you to freely move your toes. This style fits a variety of foot shapes and retails for $330.
Classic 6-Inch Moc-Toe
The classic moc-toe has gained a lot of popularity over the years in part because of the Goodyear construction and also, the contrasting sole with Traction Tred. This boot was created using Red Wing’s No. 23 last. This was developed in the 1950s and is arguably one of the most popular last styles.
The style provides extra room in the forefoot and instep to be able to fit a wide variety of foot shapes. It is sold by Red Wing in eight different color options, and Red Wing actually recommends that you size down ½ to 1 full size when making your selections.
Both the Iron Ranger style and the Classic Moc-Toe are available in sizes 7 through 14 and widths D and double E, but please be advised that not every style and color combination is available in every size.
Depending on the color and/or leather style you choose in your purchase, it will determine whether or not you’re going to need a leather protector and/or leather oil to maintain the appearance of your boots.
Many of Red Wing’s boot styles are known for their work functionality. The authentic work boots from Red Wing that are used by construction workers and others are specifically designed to withstand moisture, paint spills, mud, and some styles even have the ever-popular steel toe installation to protect your toes from being crushed while on the job.
Red Wing Shoe Experience
A number of years ago while I worked for Brooks Brothers, we temporarily sold shoes and boots out of the Red Wing Heritage Collection. At that time, I was offered a sizable discount and I decided to purchase two pairs of boots. The amber-colored Iron Ranger and the light brown 6-inch Classic Moc-Toe.
Out of the box, I distinctly remember noticing the quality and the craftsmanship of the boots. The clean precision mixed with the handmade details was fantastic and the scent of the leather reminded me of the long history of this great brand.
From the beginning, I was told to make sure that I took time to break in the boots. I thought I was well aware of the process of breaking in shoes as I had been through this process with other footwear purchases. In the end, I found myself wishing that I had taken much more time for this break-in period. I decided to wear my brand new boots to work all day long and I immediately regretted that footwear choice. Over time, my feet got used to the boots, the leather softened, and they have since become some of my favorite boots to wear.
Personally, one of the main aspects of the boots I didn’t really enjoy was the laces. The boots arrived with a leather lace option as well as a traditional braided style. I found that the boots felt tighter and much more secure on my feet when I used that braided style. By after nearly 10 years of pulling and tightening, the laces have started to look much more weathered, however, I understand this is nothing really to complain about. Other than that, I had no major issues except the laces, that’s pretty fantastic!
As the boots have aged, the weathered look has started to work even better with my personal style. In the future, I’m planning on purchasing the taller 8-inch version of the moc-toe boot, as well as the Muleskinner Iron Ranger.
These boots have never had any major quality issues, no tears in the leather, nothing wrong with the soles at all. In nearly 10 years of wearing these boots, the main issues stem from my neglect and not caring properly for the leather and also, wearing the soles down so much and forgetting to have them resoled.
10-Year-Old vs New Pair
For the sake of comparison, we actually have a brand new pair of Iron Rangers similar to the ones that I brought in today. These happen to be fresh out of the box and comparing this brand new pair to my nearly 10 year-old pair, the first thing I’m noticing is how sturdy these boots are–and I’m amazed at how much of that sturdiness is still represented in my older pair. The attention to detail is immediately noticeable and things like the stitching, the sole trimming around the perimeter of the boot, and the distinctive coloration in the toe which blends darker in the further back into the top of the boot.
If you look closely, you can see minor fractures in the leather color, as well as stray leather from the raw edges. These subtle details add a human element which further enhanced the character of the boots over time.
The pliable leather upper has a unique coloration and the color seems to even shift as the leather is being bent. The leather upper also hold on the interior and stitch tag referencing the branding, the style name, and the fact that it was made in the USA. In this particular tag, we see that this is style 8085. The oil resisting Vibram sole is securely stitched and offers a great deal of traction.
As I previously mentioned, there are a handful of things that they could have done differently to further extend the longevity of my two pairs of boots. During my visit to the factory, I was given specific information on how to best care for my boots. Unfortunately, I did not listen! To return my boots to their former appearance and any capacity, I will be sending them back to Red Wing to be cleaned and in the case of my Iron Rangers, to be resoled. Needless to say, I have certainly learned my lesson and I will definitely take better care of my future pair.
Leather Care & Maintenance
On that note, there are a number of things to think about when it comes to leather. Each type of leather may require a different type of cloth, brush, or oil. For example, Red Wing recommends that their all-natural boot oil be used on their Iron Ranger. At the same time, any product designed to help you care for calfskin leather would also work well.
While we’re on the subject of care, Red Wing shoe company also offers repair services. For $125, you can have the boots resoled, replace the welting, recondition the uppers, and receive a full-size container of leather conditioner. You can also pay for a la carte repairs, as well.
Other Boot Options
Before we reach our final verdict and whether or not Red Wing boots are worth it or not, let’s take a look at some similar options that are also in the same category.
- They offer a similar style to Red Wing’s classic moc-toe, their men’s 6-inch Loaders, which they sell for $105.
- They offer their classic 6-inch waterproof style for $198.
- Chippewa offers a variety of styles many of which are sold for about $280 or less.
- On the more expensive end of the similar, the brand Wesco offers subtle different customizations you can make to your boots, but many of the boots start out at about $599.
As is often the case in this series, whether or not Red Wing boots are worth it for you, really depends on how you’d like to wear them. If you’re looking for a heavy-duty boot that could withstand and run through say, Jurassic Park, Red Wing actually does make boots that are designed for people who work outdoors.
As there are many different options available from brands that are also made in the USA, some family-owned and some bigger than others at varying price points, it’s easy to see why some people prefer one brand over another. But if you are more fashion-focused individual and you enjoy the offerings of the Heritage Collection, you probably aren’t planning to wear your boots outdoors hiking or at a construction site.
It would be great if Red Wing offered its boots at a lower price point but we need to remember where Red Wing is making its boots, here in the USA. Production costs here in the USA happen to be much higher than they would be overseas. As previously mentioned, elsewhere, the costs of calfskin leather are rising globally and often, manufacturers have to make up this cost in their retail pricing. After visiting the factory myself and seeing the time and care that is poured into this product, I can understand why the price point is such.
Overall, I have found that through my nearly 10 years of ownership of Red Wing boots that they are worth it. These boots are worth the investment due to their quality construction, durability, and versatility to be worn with many things throughout the year.
What are your experiences with Red Wing Boots? Share with us in the comments below!
Red Wing Boots: Are They Worth It? – Men’s Iconic American Work Boot Review
Are Red Wing Boots worth the price (either as workwear or a style piece)? Find out what we think!
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