The debate—whether it’s advisable to add sole guards to your shoes—has been raised many times on the forum. I wanted to share my insight on the topic from years of experience. There are several angles to consider.
First, many people refer to sole guards as “Topys.” Topy is a brand that makes sole guards and has done a great job marketing their name, attaching it to a product until it became the accepted generic. In the same way, people refer to galoshes as Totes. Galoshes are a product. Totes is a brand name. Many brands, patterns, thicknesses, and colors of sole guard are available on the market today.
Next, shoe manufacturers are very protective of whats become a secondary market for them. That is, the ability to re-sole their own brand. This helps them in three ways: sales, customer loyalty, and profits. I have heard salespeople are instructed to advise against sole guards. They are trained to explain that it prevents the sole from breathing.
Clearly, rubber soled offerings are becoming more popular on the high-grades these days. On a Goodyear-welted shoe, the construction on a rubber soled shoe vs. leather is largely the same. The only difference is, on a leather-soled shoe, the sole is stitched to the welt. With a shoe finished with a factory rubber sole, a midsole is stitched to the welt, and the rubber sole is cemented to the mid-sole. The cork footbed is made of the same mixture of rubber cement and cork. Both elements are flexible, but barely breathable.
So, if the claim is made that a thin sole guard prevents a leather soled shoe from breathing, why are they offering rubber soled high-grades?
Some also claim that sole guards make the shoe less flexible. In 35 years, I never heard one complaint from a customer regarding inflexibility of shoes with sole guards. So, I can’t give this argument any merit.
Some might say sole guards throw the shoe off balance. Most sole guards are slightly thicker than a credit card. The leather sole needs to be roughed before applying the sole guard, likewise the under-skin of the sole guard. The net difference of a shoe with a sole guard vs. one without is very close to the thickness of a credit card. So, you can test it yourself. Before you decide on sole guards, put on your new shoes, with one, step on a credit card (under the ball of your foot), the other on the bare floor. If you feel an uncomfortable significance in the balance, opt out on the sole guards.
I have also heard concerns that when a sole guard is being applied its necessary to sand down the new sole, potentially damaging the sole stitching. My comments are based on using a reputable cobbler. Yes, there are butchers; but I’m talking skilled cobblers here. Most high-grades are stitched with in a channeled sole—that means the stitching lies below the surface of the sole. No cobbler worth his salt will hit the stitching while prepping for sole guards. Further, Goodyear-welted shoes are stitched with a lock-stitch. That means each stitch is independent of itself. Even if one or two stitches are accidentally nipped (very unlikely) the stitching won’t unravel.
Now, to the pros of sole guards. Aside from traction and waterproof, the biggest benefit of using sole guards is their value. A thin sole guard will generally twice outlast a leather sole, in many cases, more. Say, for example, a leather sole lasts you a year and it costs $100 to replace; in two years you will have spent $200. Replacing a sole guard costs $30 to $40. Plus, with a sole guard replacement, you can get your shoes back in a day or so.
I have also heard comments like “If you are spending hundreds of dollars for a high-grade shoe with a leather sole why would you want to cover it with rubber?” As an example, we recently added guards to two pairs of J.M. Weston 180s in croc. Two different customers, both wanted sole guards, for shoes that retail at over $3500 per pair. For those that just like the feel of walking on leather, I have no debate for you. For everyone else, there are other things to consider.
Lastly, a word of caution… the purpose of sole guards is to prevent leather from wearing out, they are waterproof, nonskid, and can present value over time. If your existing shoes have soles that feel spongy or are severely worn, DO NOT put sole guards on them. Even if your cobbler tries to talk you into it. They are intended to be preventive maintenance, not a cure for damage.