Traditionally constructed shoes, not least stitched ones, are almost always marketed with emphasis on the possibilities of resoling and repairing them. It often appears that they can be resoled forever. It’s not that simple, though. Here I go through the possibilities and shortcomings of the most common construction methods, as well as the conditions for re-heeling and resoling.
A re-heeling can be carried out completely free of engagement with the sole, together with attaching a rubber topy or doing a half sole replacement, or with full resole when it’s automatically required. The most important thing to keep in mind, as I mentioned earlier here on the blog, is to fix the heel before wearing down the rubber part at the far end and start wearing on the heel lifts. The top-piece rubber and leather are durable and made to withstand wear, but when you enter the lifts they are on most RTW shoes made of more simple leather (or even fibre board if you have Allen Edmonds or Alden, for example) and take damage faster, and if these need to be replaced, the cobbler must work much more with balancing and it immediately becomes a more complicated and therefore more expensive procedure.
When changing heels you can usually choose if you want a factory variant with only the back part in rubber and the rest in leather, or a whole rubber top piece (which is obviously standard if it’s rubber soles used). The former is usually a bit more expensive. Re-heeling can usually be done basically an infinite number of times, but there is a danger that is relatively unknown, and not very common, but which can be interesting to know anyway. It’s that if the brass nails used corrode with time due to moisture creeping up the heel, this can damage the insole, in the worst case, so bad that the leather becomes porous and new nails can’t attach. There are many aspects that come into play here, the alloy on the brass nails (brass is an alloy of copper and zinc, and the less zinc used the more resistance to corrosion), the quality of the insole, how the shoes are used and so on. Because of this risk, many bespoke shoemakers only use wooden pegs. However, as mentioned, this is not something you need to lay restless on, as the risk is not very imminent, even if it’s there.
Re-heeling at a cobbler is not that expensive, around €20-30 in Europe, although it costs more if the heel lifts below the top piece is worn down. Note though that these prices vary a lot around the world, this is just to pinpoint the direction.
Apply a rubber topy
To attach a rubber topy onto the leather sole is a controversial topic, some do it straight away before the leather soles even touch the ground, others could never imagine destroying their fine leather soles this way. I’m not going to get into any deeper discussion about this, more than repeating the well-used argument that it could be good to at least use the leather sole first before putting on the rubber topy, instead of letting the shoemaker grind several millimeters of a new fine leather sole to attach to the rubber wear part. If you like the feeling of a leather sole but don’t want to spend money on a resole you can also attach a leather sole topy, or to protect the tip of the toe which is most prone to wear with metal toe taps or flush metal or rubber toe taps (more about these in this article).
Worth noting, however, is that you can’t just put on a topy and then plan to just change that part to avoid more expensive resoling, at least not if it’s high-quality shoes that you plan to wear for many year. It’s not only the outsole that is worn, but the footbed that most often consists of cork paste on RTW shoes, a material that has a limited life, is fugitive and needs to be replaced from time to time, the shank (a reinforcement under the arch that is usually in wood, metal or plastic) can become loose or break, and in the worst case, the insole cracks (see more about that below).
Putting on a rubber topy costs about €20 at a cobbler.
Resoling Blake stitched shoes
A Blake shoe (for a clearer overview of the different construction methods, read this post. Here the focus is on the repair aspect) is, contrary to what many people think, easy to resole. The problem here, however, is that you need a so-called McKay machine, a special long-arm sewing machine that can reach in at the toe section of the shoe. This is not common, but a number of cobblers have one. Some manufacturers that use Blake construction also offer a resoling service in their factory. Just like welted shoes, you can do a half sole replacement on Blake shoes, where you just change the part from the waist to the toe, leaving the waist.
On the other hand, one should be aware of the fact that the number of resoles possible for a Blake stitched shoe is limited. This is due to the fact that the seam goes through all parts of the shoe: insole, upper leather and outsole. When resoling the seam must be removed completely, and then a new stitch is sewn straight through all these parts again. This means that the new stitches are put in places other than the original ones, and for each resoling, new holes and especially the upper are hollowed out like a cheese and becomes so weakened by the holes that it can no longer handle the strains. It’s difficult to say exactly how many resoles that can be done, it depends on so many different circumstances, there can be as few as one-two, it can be up to four-five. Also, since when removing the Blake stitch you don’t have anything but glue holding the upper and insole together, there is a risk that this comes loose, and in this case you ideally would need the original lasts to put the shoe together again fully balanced.
A Blake/Rapid constructed shoe can be said to be repair-wise in the middle of this category and Goodyear welted below. If only the outsole needs to be replaced and the midsole is in good condition, then it works in exactly the same way as replacing the outsole on a Goodyear welted shoe. However, if you need to replace also the midsole or even the insole, it’s the same position as for a regular Blake stitched shoe.
A half sole replacement including re-heeling of a Blake stitched shoe costs somewhere around €70, and a full resole around €130. If you return them to the factory, the prices vary a lot, but usually between €100-150.
Resoling Goodyear welted shoes
Goodyear welted shoes have excellent opportunities to be resoled many times, but a number of facts actually takes this down a bit. I will try to explain why in a reasonably understandable way, but apologise if it gets a bit confusing.
The whole brilliance of the welted construction is that you can easily change the outsole without having to touch the most important point of attachment in the shoe, the one that holds the upper leather and the insole together. The most common criticism made against Goodyear welted shoes is that the entire construction is in fact held together with glue, this being done with so cold gemming, where a canvas rib is glued to the insole (there are a few exceptions, for example JM Weston, who still sometimes still have full leather insoles but still sew with a Goodyear machine). In this canvas strip you then attach the upper leather and the welt with a Goodyear seam. The canvas rib can come loose from the insole, or it becomes worn and breaks. If it has only loosened a little, it’s usually quite easy to glue it back again, but if it has come loose over a larger area or if it’s broken, then you may need to change the whole canvas rib. Then the shoe should preferably sit on its original last so that it doesn’t loose its balance, which must then be done in the manufacturer’s factory. How common these problems are is heavily debated. I’d say they do happen every now and then, but it’s not common.
Another functional difference between Goodyear welted and hand welted shoes, except that Goodyear has glued canvas rib where hand welted has a holdfast cut directly out of the insole, is that the Goodyear machine stitches a chain stitch, instead of a shoemaker’s stitch / saddler’s stitch. With a shoemaker’s stitch each stitch is locked separately (the sole stitch which is made with a Rapid machine/sole stitching machine is stitched with another type of lock stitch which is better, though still not comparable to a shoemaker’s stitch) so if a stitch comes loose it’s not a problem since the rest keeps intact, while the chain stitch does not have this locking, so if a stitch comes loose the surrounding ones are affected. No difference in how it is repaired, but worth knowing anyway.
The main reason why the number of resoles that can be done on a Goodyear welted shoe is limited, just like with the Blake shoe, is that you risk making new holes in the material. This is partly the case with the seam that holds the welt and outsole together, which means that after some re-soles, the welt may need to be exchanged only because it has been punched weaker by new stitches, even if one has been careful and taken care of the welt well and never let it wear down in front of the toe or similar. Changing the welt is no problem in terms of new holes on the shoe if it’s done by a cobbler, as they almost always do it by hand and sews in the holes already there in the upper leather and canvas rib (very few cobbler’s have access to an expensive Goodyear machine). However, If it’s done in the factory, it’s made with a machine that makes new holes, which will weaken the upper leather. And an issue here is that when factories do resoles and refurbishments, they often replace also the welt, even if it’s not really needed (since it can actually be easier for them even if it adds a step, the rest of the resole job becomes more straight forward with a new welt).
Here we have the paradox that can in fact be said to limit the number of possible resoles of a Goodyear welted shoe. The ideal distribution would have been to let the cobbler do a number of resoles first, and then when the welt is worn down and/or even the gemming has come loose and a more proper lookover is in need, they are sent to the factory for a resole with them, where they have the original last and can put the shoe back on it. The problem here, however, is that many manufacturers do not accept shoes for factory resoling if a third party has been working on the shoes, ie cobblers. This means that in reality one has to choose between using cobblers at home who can fix the shoes relatively gently, but in the situation where major repair is needed and the original last have to be used, they are much more difficult to fix. Or you always send the shoes back to the factory for resoling, which then risks over time that the upper leather is so damaged by new stitches that it can no longer be used.
The reason why the factories have this requirement is that, unfortunately, there are far too many bad cobblers around the world, which can totally ruin a shoe because of poorly made work and radically complicate the work for the factories. If we only had good cobbler doing the right thing, the factories would have had no trouble receiving third-party repaired shoes, they could have fixed them as usual, but the bad cobblers have in a way ruined this possibility. I would hope that more factories could say that they accept shoes repaired in a good way by good cobblers, but refuse the bad ones, although I can understand the administrative challenges with this approach.
Another “lifespan-limiting” aspect for Goodyear welted shoes is that if you end up in a position where the insole needs to be replaced, it may not be possible to do so even if you have original last and even if the upper leather is in good condition at the mounting area at the bottom. This if you end up in a position where it is not possible to pull the upper leather low enough for it to reach down long enough to be able to be sewn onto the canvas rib and the welt again. Since the insoles used by many Goodyear welted manufacturers do not maintain the high quality they used to do, it may also mean that they need to be replaced and that the above problems then arise. And they are always much thinner than the insole of a hand welted shoe, this is since you want to make room for the cavity that comes with the gemming, and to keep costs down.
Now, it should be said that all these problems that I address above do not necessarily have to happen to you as the owner of Goodyear welted shoes. The vast majority of shoes can do without these potential difficulties for as long as the upper is in good condition and you still want to resole them, and then nothing that affects the lifespan of the shoe. To be frank, it’s rare that people have to discard a pair of Goodyear welted shoes since it can’t be resoled anymore, usually one feel it’s not worth the money for a resole due to it being in a too bad overall condition anyway, and one buys a new pair. However, I think it’s good to know that the number of resoles can still be said to be limited to a Goodyear welted shoe, as it is often marketed as it being possible to repair them forever and ever. Here it’s also very individual and depending on so many different factors affecting how many times it’s possible to resole a specific shoe, both in what they are exposed to, how they are made, what extent of care is made, and so on. It can be anything from just a couple of times to six-seven. But there’s no way around the fact that the Goodyear welted construction method is a way to mass produce shoes, it’s still an excellent construction method, but the opportunities for cheaper production on a large scale brings its problems.
The cost for a half sole replacement of a Goodyear welted shoe including re-heeling is about €90 at a cobbler in West Europe, full-resole about €170 (if the welt needs to be changed or if you want closed channel sole it costs more). At factories, everything between €100 and €250 (best to email the manufacturers directly and ask).
Resoling hand welted shoes
Now, some have already been said in the above section, but what makes a hand welted shoe having the possibility to be resoled basically an unlimited number of times, is just that fact that the insole and the lip / holdfast is a unit, where the holdfast is carved out of a thick insole. In order to get a strong holdfast, a good long lasting insole material is required that fits the purpose, which means that the whole insole generally always is of good quality and is also considerably thicker than on Goodyear welted shoe. Pure structural advantages are, as mentioned, that when hand welting a shoemaker’s stitch is always used and that the cavity formed between the insole and the outsole becomes thinner, which also allows the use of cork plates, porous leather, felt (which can have some advantages) instead of cork paste for the footbed.
If you need to change the welt on hand welted shoes, the seam is always sewn into existing holes, also when they are sent back to the manufacturer, which means that the material is subjected to much less strain than in Goodyear welt repairs. The outsole stitching are in some cases made with machine for RTW hand welted shoes, and cobblers who repairs hand welted shoes tend to use also a machine for the sole stitch, and in these cases the wear on the welt where it gets more and more holes can be evident. However, we have the advantage that the welt can be replaced indefinitely since it’s made by hand. If you send the shoes back to a manufacturer who sews the sole stitch by hand (so not Staint Crispin’s or Enzo Bonafé for example, but Vass, Bestetti etc, and almost all bespoke shoemakers), then existing holes on the outside of the welt are used and it’s less strain put on them.
For the aforementioned reasons, a hand welted shoe can manage its entire life with one and the same welt. Exceptions are obvious, for example, in this aspect, it is a disadvantage with a very tightly cut sole edge, since at every resole it’s necessary to sand the side with welt and sole edge evenly and thus have to take a little bit off from the edge every time. Finally, you get so close to the stitches and the upper leather that the welt has to be changed (this also applies to Goodyear welted shoes).
The cost of resoling of hand welted shoes by machine at a cobbler is the same as for Goodyear welted shoes, so about €90 for a half sole replacement, including heels, around €170 for a full resole. At the manufacturer, the price level is also very varied, everything from €150-500 depending on how much hand work and refurbishing being made etc.
I add a small section on this, as the difference compared to leather soles is that you almost always do a full resole on rubber soled shoes. Simply because you buy a whole rubber sole and you might as well change it all, also complicated to do a nice connection between old and new rubber sole, and also the heel is often worn and need to be changed anyway.
The price level is, therefore, just as in the case of the full-resole of Goodyear and hand welted shoes, see above.