How to Break in New Leather Boots
New leather boots pinching your feet a little? Tough leather Doc Martens won't mould to your foot shape? Wondering if the old cowboy trick of getting in the bath with those new boots will bring blissful relief or ruin the leather?
Blisters, squashed toes, pressure on delicate foot bones, muscles and tendons—not to mention the cramp that attacks out of nowhere during the after-dinner speech or the entrée course of your romantic date—can make new leather boots a joy to look at but a nightmare to wear. If you'd rather not be hobbling around painfully on that special night, here are a few tips to break in your new leather boots so you'll be walking on air.
Breaking in Doctor Martens and Other Tough Leather Work Boots
Doctor Martens are gorgeous, and I love mine with every fibre of my being, but they are basically tough leather work boots, and they are known for being some of the most painful and stubborn boots to break in.
If you just 'go for it' and wear them straight out of the box, your feet will be a shredded, bloody, blistering mess by the end of the day. When they're worn in, they'll be some of the most comfortable boots you ever owned, but until that joyous day, I have to agree with one forum post I saw where a woman wished that she could hire a fifteen-year-old punk rocker to break them in for her.
In lieu of that dream, this method will work not just for DMs but all tough real leather boots:
- Put your new boots on and walk to the kitchen and back a few times, and note the places where they rub – it's likely to be heels, the smallest and largest toe, and the sides of the foot that 'bump out' just a little, about where the little and big toes join the foot.
- Put padded blister plasters on those areas of the feet. Have spare blister plasters ready too, because they're likely to rub off and might need changing once or twice.
- Put on a pair of thin socks, and then a thicker pair of socks over them.
- Using a soft cloth, work petroleum jelly (Vaseline or another brand), baby oil, or specialist leather softening wax into both the inside and outside of the boots' leather upper. Note: some people believe that baby oil and/or petroleum jelly can damage the leather or the finish (e.g. patent leather). I have not encountered any problems using either one on new leather boots, including patent finishes, but if you have just spent $200 on a good pair of leather boots caution is advised and you might want to splash out the ten bucks or so for some specialist leather softener – the Doctor Martens brand does a good version with waxes that 'nourish' the leather.
- Either wear the boots after this and walk around in them – sitting around the house in them won't wear them in, so you have to walk in them for a while – or stuff them with socks and leave them somewhere warm. The second option won't fully break them in but will stretch them a little so that when you do come to wear them properly they won't be quite so painful.
- When you're ready, wear them (complete with two pairs of socks and blister plasters as mentioned) and walk for as long as you can in them without causing yourself serious pain. Then remove them and while your feet are recovering, work some more petroleum jelly/baby oil/specialist leather wax into the inside and out, and then alternate wearing and walking in them with oiling or waxing them.
How Long Will It Be Before The Boots Are Broken in?
This really does vary from pair to pair and person to person. My housemate has fewer problems than I do when it comes to breaking in tough leather boots and almost never gets blisters, but I seem to take a long time to persuade a new pair of DMs to get comfy. Between us, we think it's an average of one or two hundred hours wear before they're really broken in—which could be a month or a year depending on how long and how often you wear them.
Professional Cobblers Stretching
If the boots are rubbing and pinching mercilessly, or it seems to be taking a very long time to break them in, cobblers have a machine that can stretch leather boots just a little.
Bending The Boots to Help Wear Them in
If your new boots are just too painful to wear, bending them first might help. After rubbing leather-softening wax/baby oil/petroleum jelly into the boots, stuff them with damp newspaper – and stuff them tight. Then set in a warm place for an hour. After an hour, bend the boot (still stuffed with newspaper)—bending the toe back as if you're trying to make it touch the front upper laces.
Bend it backwards and forwards like this for a few minutes and then remove the newspaper and work some more oils or wax into the leather (again, inside and out), then re-stuff with damp newspaper, leave in a warm place for an hour and keep repeating the process. If you do this for a while every day for a couple of days, it will take a lot of the pain out of wearing them in, but you will still have to wear them and walk around in them before they properly mould themselves to your foot shape.
The Fifteen-Year-Old Punk Rocker Method of Breaking Doc Martens
Like many, many other people, I used this method when I was a fifteen-year-old punk rocker. Not sure I'd be brave enough now, but it does work.
It's simple: wear the boots for three days straight, including sleeping in them.
Leather stretches and moulds through a combination of warmth, moisture, movement, and actually being on the shape (your foot) that you want it to mould to. Wearing them continuously like this gives them the warmth of your feet, the moisture through your feet sweating, and the leather will stretch in all the right places.
If you do use this method:
- I salute you—you're a braver and hardier soul than I am.
- Take them off every now and again to check that you're not actually getting trench foot or gangrene.
- Socks and blister plasters will be your only friend and ally for these three days; change them often to give your feet some relief.
Softer Leather Boots
Most boots aren't quite so arduous as Doc Martens, but since all feet are a slightly different shape, and some are more sensitive than others, even the softest leather can sometimes rub and pinch.
The 'culprit locations' are the same as for tougher boots, and the way of breaking them in is quite similar, but a lot quicker in most cases.
If the boots are unlined, work some specialist leather wax (buy from a reputable cobbler on the high street) into the inside and outside of the boots wherever they rub, and wherever they crease and 'dig in' when you walk. Because soft boots are often patterned and the leather is more delicate, I personally will not risk using baby oil or petroleum jelly on them.
If the boots are lined, work the leather wax into the outside only of the boots.
As with tougher boots, wearing blister plasters and a pair of socks will protect you from the worst rubs and pinches (though with fashion boots socks will probably need to be very thin and sheer because the boots will be closer-fitting).
If the boots are tight in a particular place—if they press down onto the top of your feet or really pinch your toes, stuffing them tight with socks or damp newspaper after working leather wax into them, and then putting them in a warm place will stretch them a little; and if this fails, as with tougher boots you can get them stretched by a cobbler very cheaply – and if you do choose to get them stretched professionally, they'll be stretched in just the right places.
Heating Leather Boots With a Hair Drier to Help Break Them in
Some people speed up the process by providing a little extra warmth by using a hair drier on the boots, either whilst wearing them, or after stuffing them with socks or damp newspaper.
I have used this method a few times, and although the leather does become softer and more flexible for a short time, it doesn't seem to me to shorten the breaking-in period, and I do wonder if repeated sudden heat might damage the leather and cause it to dry out, and maybe cause the leather to crack at some point in the future.
Methods That I Would NOT Recommend for Breaking New Boots in!
These three methods are a bit extreme for my liking, and I would absolutely not trust my boots to any of them.
Bashing the boots with a rubber mallet.
The idea is to wrap them in a sheet and then pound them repeatedly. Although I can imagine and understand why this would soften up tough leather, I can also imagine that a violent blow in the wrong place could separate the sole from the upper irreparably and send the boots back to meet their maker (at considerable cost), or the trash can.
Setting them on fire.
Yes, people have claimed they did this. I wouldn't try it for the same reason I wouldn't panel-beat my own car by putting it in a crusher at the scrap yard. If you do want to participate in this extreme sport, do it in a field far from civilisation, preferably on a mountain-top with a fire truck on hand.
Wearing them in a bath full of water, then leaving them on until they're dry
Cowboys do this all the time with new cowboy boots, so it's said.
I wouldn't try it myself for three main reasons:
- I'm not a cowboy or even a cowgirl, and all the real cowboys and cowgirls might be winding us up about this in order to have a laugh as we hobble around squelching.
- Trench foot is caused by walking around in wet boots all day. Trench foot can lead to gangrene and amputation. I'm rather attached to my feet and want things to stay that way.
- In an episode of Malcolm in the Middle, the elder brother Francis tries this 'old cowboy trick' when he gets a new pair of cowboy boots while he's working on a ranch. The results are exactly what I would expect to happen, and I like to live my life free of agonising pain whenever possible.
Ok, that's it. That's everything I know about making new leather boots comfier. Good Luck!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.