The Engineer Boot’s Place

100th Anniversary Editions of Wesco’s engineer boot

In his book “True Style”, G. Bruce Boyer devotes an entire chapter to boots, and while it’s excellently written, it does stand out as a little odd.  Now, hear me out: while the majority of the book centers around more formal, even esoteric, aspects of menswear such as dressing gowns and ascots, he does spend a little time on the casual wardrobe, writing about shorts, denim, and boots.  In that particular chapter, besides a passing sentence or two on dress boots, the bulk of the text centers on what he calls “prole gear”, which is amusing, not because it’s disingenuous or inaccurate, but because it elevates the myth of the blue-collar worker by describing us with a word most have never heard of, much less use in everyday speech.  Take this as it is, but purely from anecdotal experience, I can count on one hand the number of construction workers familiar with either the Roman proletariat or the Orwellian prole — the only class in Oceania that remained human.  To which I say to Mr. Boyer: thank you for holding laborers in such high regard.

Within the prole gear category, engineer boots do have a place, but like putting one on, it doesn’t slide in easily.  The term “engineer” is a bit of a catch-all designation in construction, and includes a number of crafts, such as operating and maintaining tractors, bulldozers, and elevators.  Back when the engineer boot appeared in the 1930’s, the story goes that the boot was born for the dual purpose of protection and ease due to the high shaft and lack of laces. Those same characteristics, however, do not facilitate walking; indeed, few professions, such as coal shovelers and welders, who remain relatively stationary while they work, really call for such a design.  Therefore, even within the building trades, they were not as ubiquitous as, say, the lighter moc-toe boot.  Why wear something that heavy if you didn’t have to?

In the garage.

Enter the motorcycle enthusiast, post World War II.  More rugged than a cowboy boot, and no laces to get caught in gears, chains, or pedals, engineer boots became the de facto standard for motorcycle riders, remaining so even today.  And so, once I purchased my lovely Triumph Thruxton, it wasn’t long before I picked up a pair myself: the only question was from where?  
After much research, I decided upon one of the last American engineer boot manufacturers, the West Coast Shoe Company, otherwise known as Wesco.  Red Wings make an engineer boot, but it takes months to break in.  Wesco’s boots are surprisingly comfortable from the get-go, due to the heel and arch support built up by layers of leather, rather than cork or foam.  White’s Boots also makes several models, but they were sold a few years ago to LaCrosse Footwear, which itself is owned by ABC Footwear of Tokyo.  Wesco, on the other hand, has remained a family-owned company since its inception a century ago, founded by the fortuitously named John Shoemaker. Needless to say, the fact that the company has never changed filial hands doesn’t necessary equate to a better product, but it does appeal to me on several levels, not the least of which is admiration for a business that has survived over 100 years of economic rollercoaster rides, kept pace with ever-evolving methods of distribution, and has maintained relevance to vendors and customers.

Wesco’s sales manager Chris Warren spoke with me about the company and his time there.  He knew of the brand from his father, who always rotated two pairs of Jobmasters as a millworker in California.  When Chris moved to Portland, he saw that Wesco was hiring, and after years of working in the shop making boots, took his current position.

“My dad swore by these boots,” he says.  “I wasn’t really looking to work here, but when I saw they were hiring, I thought, why not?  That was a couple of decades ago, and I’m proud to say I’m glad I made that decision.”  Chris is not unique; many employees stay past the 20-year mark, as they are taken care of quite well by the company: in addition to a fair wage, they get paid vacation, have most of their health insurance covered, and are given a profit-sharing account funded by the owners.

Wesco’s old standard, the Boss, is by far their most popular and is exactly what comes to mind when you think of a classic engineer boot: black leather, tall shaft, a strap at the top and instep, a nubby-tread Vibram sole, and a round, roomy toe box (Chris said the motor patrol last came later).  My own pair came with two notable deviations: two straps at the top and a Christy sole, both to facilitate movement on the jobsite.  Although never uncomfortable, they were stiff at the beginning; after all, the upper leather is a robust 7oz/2.8mm.  Just the 4.5oz leather lining alone at 1.8mm is thicker than most boots’ outer leather, so you’re getting quite a burly boot.  However, in a few short weeks, they became my favorite work boots, not only because they double for motorcycle gear when I take the Thrimph in, but because the arch support, made from leather instead of cork, cradles and buttresses your foot like a stout pillow.

My Wescos with original black Christy sole and classic work last

Sadly, even with rotating them off and on with other boots, those comfy Christys have a short lifespan, and after a year or so I decided to send them in for resoling.  And then I read of Wesco’s rebuilding.

Wesco boots lined up for recrafting

Instead of a simple resole, Wesco offers one of the most comprehensive reconstruction programs I’ve ever seen.  Since everything is stripped down to the upper and re-lasted, you can pretty much change anything you want, so…I went a little crazy: 

  • Lowered heel
  • Swapped the Christy sole to #705 heel and half sole
  • Remove instep strap and replace with one 2” longer
  • Changed the outsole stitching from white to black
  • Re-shaped the boot over the motor patrol last
First day on the job with the new boots

After a few weeks, the boots came back looking practically brand new. Besides fresh heels and soles, the upper was stretched over a new last, and almost all the previous wrinkles were smoothed out.  After wearing them for a day, though, I noticed some of the nails on the sole beginning to come out, so I contacted their returns department.  Wesco provided a return label, fixed the problem, and shipped them back again, this time with no issues.  With new insoles and outsoles, I had to break them in again, but now that they’ve nicely molded to my feet, they’re pretty much perfect, and will only get better.  

Standard & Strange of Oakland, California

Neil Berrett of Oakland’s Standard and Strange has been stocking Wesco boots pretty much since the beginning. “My first pair of Wesco boots were custom steel-toed Jobmasters for my previous career in radiation cleanup work,” he relates. “I worked long hours in them and they were the most comfortable boots I had ever worn. Not only was the quality superlative, but I loved how they were built to take a beating and then some. Besides my personal experience of wearing them, Wesco’s rich history and their flexibility — they will make damn near anything you want — it was a no brainer to stock them.”

Due to engineer boots’ lack of laces or zips, it can be hard to nail down a comfortable yet secure fit, especially online. “I don’t recommend cross-referencing your Wesco size based on other boot sizes if this is your first pair of Wesco boots, especially their engineer boots,” warns Neil. “Their 7400 and 7500 models are a great starting point and are always in stock. If you want to do the custom route, you can fill out their foot tracing form to get a more accurate and precise size recommendation, but it’s best if you can try a few pairs on to see how they fit your foot.

Neil himself has quite an enviable collection of boots from various makers, and his Instagram showcases the evolution of them as they age. “My favorites are definitely my Knuckle Draggers, a Boss engineer boot in olive waxed flesh we did as a collaboration with Wesco. The leather is really incredible and goes from a very dark green, almost black, to avocado green in high wear areas. It’s been one of our all time best selling boots at Standard & Strange as well.” Personally, I dig the Van Cleefs, made from Horween Essex in natural, an undyed vegetable tanned leather, which really comes to life as the boots age with wear.

In addition to the Wesco’s, I’ve got a pair of horsebutt Vibergs with a lower shaft and slight almond toe for a more rock-n-roll vibe. Mister Freedom’s Road Champs have an intricate multi-layered dye job that quickly patinas, Brian makes each and every pair of Role Club engineer boots himself, and the Japanese-made collaboration from Standard & Strange and John Lofgren in dark cherry Shinki horsehide are simply stunning.  If you’re not careful, one purchase will lead to another, and another…

Changing the tire after some bananahead knived my tire 11 times in the Tenderloin during work.
Boots are Viberg horsebutt engineers

My one recommendation, for whatever model you choose, for whatever reason, practical or aesthetic, is: don’t baby them.  These were made to be beat up and run down, dragged under and run over.  Wear those scratches or scuffs with pride, for in each and every one lie noble tales of scars suffered, trials endured, or at the very least, a life lived. Just like a prole.

Further reading:

Standard & Strange’s visit to the Wesco factory
Division Road’s visit to the Wesco factory
Wesco employees, 1950
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Peter works in construction, but has an extensive collection of custom suits which he gets so that he can wear suits on the weekend. Even though he lives in San Francisco, he has never used the word "impact" as a verb. He writes about classic menswear and is one fedora away from being a complete dork.

15 thoughts on “The Engineer Boot’s Place

  1. Why didn’t you mention steam locomotive engineers? It’s widely believed that the boots were designed specifically for them. The laceless design protected them from ash and sparks when they were standing near the firebox. Construction workers don’t come into it.

    Another omission is the popularisation of engineer boots by Marlon Brando and James Dean.

    • Forgive me Nick, this was not meant to be an exhaustive list of all engineers that stood to benefit from these boots. As to which field they were designed for, there is no reputable source indicating specifics. Certainly anyone who wants a boot with these benefits, from coal shovelers to professional s’mores eaters.

      Regarding Brando and Dean, while not spearheading the style, you make a valid point in that they influenced many, all the way to today, to adopt it.

  2. Nice piece. Love the boots. Love Standard & Strange too. Great guys with great stuff.

  3. You have a typo in the following sentence: “Wesco’s boots are surprisingly comfortable from the get-go, due to the heel and arch support built up by laters of leather, rather than cork or foam”

    Otherwise, great article!

  4. Great write-up, Peter! I had my eye on some of the Japanese repro engineers but they certainly don’t have the tough-as-nails durability of the Wesco’s. I imagine if I (knock on wood) took a spill on my moto then their reconstruction program can probably take care of it. And though I love S&S’s makeups, they’re a bit out of my pricepoint at the moment, I’m saving for one of their stock models.

    • You can’t go wrong with one of their stock models…then when you redo them, you can go nuts with options. Just an FYI the unlined shaft breaks in faster 🙂

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