Shoes that hit the sweet intersection of cost and quality require a discerning eye to spot. How do you know whether a pair of shoes is worth it? Generally speaking, if you want your shoes to keep kicking for years and years, they’ll most likely run you at least $250 or $300. That’s a chunk of change not everyone has or is willing to put down enthusiastically.
While there’s an entire universe of cordwaining nerdery that can go into a pair of shoes, we’ll be focusing on the baseline of what makes a pair of quality shoes. For us, that means a really good bang for your buck; a high cost-per-wear and that comes down to two fundamental components: sole construction and the upper.
Before looking at anything on a boot, look at the sole construction. This will tell you whether or not a boot is even worth considering. The soles will give out long before anything else (in theory) and if you want your investment to go the literal distance, making sure a boot can be resoled is imperative.
Shoes that use stitched sole construction can be easily resoled. There are a variety of stitched methods including Goodyear welt, Blake stitch, stitchdown, Norwegian and more, each of which will be able to handle several resoles before the shoe gives out entirely. Generally speaking, Goodyear-welted construction will last longer than Blake stitch construction because the welt adds another layer of protection between the sole and insole. Stitchdown construction, as the name implies, features an upper stitched down to the midsole. On the other hand, Blake stitch construction stitches the sole directly to the insole and the upper. This results in a lighter shoe with a sleeker profile that is still able to be resoled, however, it cannot withstand as many resoles.
Contrary to what’s been spouted online, cemented shoes — those with an upper glued to the sole — can be resoled. But there are notable downsides. Because the soles are fixed to the upper, detaching them can be tricky. The equipment required to detach and resole cemented shoes isn’t as common in shoe repair shops. And, the lack of capable cobblers to perform the operation is accompanied by the fact that the price of repair almost negates the resole since most cemented shoes are significantly less expensive compared to stitched styles. So, while you could theoretically get a pair of Vans sneakers resoled, it would be cheaper to just buy a new pair. Broadly speaking, as unsustainable as it is, people don’t buy cemented shoes to have them resoled.
Be wary, however. Some shoe manufacturers will make shoes that look like they have a welted or stitched construction but are actually just cemented. They’ll do this by adding decorative stitches or welts. If a shoe looks like it has a stitched sole, but doesn’t come from a reputable manufacturer and is priced lower than $120, it’s probably too good to be true.
The upper is perhaps a shoe’s most important component. While the soles should be the first thing you consider, soles can be repaired, replaced and upgraded. If the upper is ripped or if it develops a hole, there’s not much a cobbler can do. You want to make sure that a shoe’s upper is made from quality leather. Good leather uppers will literally last decades with proper care, so you shouldn’t skimp here.
After a hide is tanned, it can be processed into several different grains of leather. Full-grain leather is the best grade of leather you can get and will last a lot longer than lower grades of leather. The hide is minimally processed and includes the natural texture of the animal’s hide. Full-grain leathers will develop patina and age much better than other quality of leathers. Shoemakers are sure to point out that they use full-grain leather because it is definitely a selling point.
The next tier of leather is top-grain leathers. They have had the top layer sanded down to smooth out any imperfections like scars in the leather. These leathers are a bit thinner than full-grain leathers and don’t feature the hide’s natural grain. Though top grain leathers can still last a long time, they tend to not age as gracefully as full-grain leathers.
Split grain leather follows top grain leather and is the portion of the hide that is literally split away from the top-grain or full-grain leather. Split grain leather is heavily processed and pigmented, and often has an artificial grain texture added to the surface to give it the appearance of a higher quality leather.
If a shoe brand doesn’t label their leather shoes as either full-grain or top-grain, you’ll probably see something generic like “genuine leather,” “vero cuoio,” or “bonded leather.” These terms are marketing terms to mask the fact that they’re inferior quality products. These materials are often made using scraps of leather that have been ground down to bits and glued (i.e. bonded) together. The result is a material that will not stand up to the test of time and will eventually fall apart.
The gamut of shoes that fulfill these two main requirements for quality shoes is wide. Typically, you can expect to find a pair of well-made Goodyear welted shoes with full-grain uppers for at least $250 from brands like Red Wing, Wolverine and Lucchese. For Blake-stitched and stitchdown shoes with decent leather uppers, the point of entry is a notch lower at around $125 from brands like Clarks and Frye. Check out a few of our favorite styles below.
Desert Boot by Clarks $130
Bitflex Boots by Astorflex $195
350 Cutter Boots by White’s $560
Boondocker Boots by Viberg $670
Blake Stitched Styles
Seam Shoes by Wild Bunch $195
Walker Cap Toe Oxford by Jack Erwin $225
Fondeghee by Velasca $285
Tavernelle Boots by Oliver Sweeney $459
Goodyear Welted Styles
875 Moc Toe Boots by Red Wing Heritage $260
Roper Boots by Tecovas $245
Traveler Penny Loafers by Grant Stone $320
Kenton Leather Cap-Toe Boot by J.Crew $248
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