Updated March 2020 by Tony Bleak
You’re a logger who just paid $300 for a new pair of work boots with composite toes. Your work buddies say the best way to break them in fast is to douse them thoroughly with hot water and then wear them inside your home until they’re dry. The salesman told you to coat them with boot oil and wear them gradually until they are comfortable. Whose advice is worth taking? Is there 1 best way how to break in work boots and avoid the pain associated with new boots?
How To Break In Work Boots Effectively & Avoid Damage
In this short article we discuss why breaking a pair of work boots in properly is as important for your boots as it is for your feet. We’ll also address the most effective ways to quickly break in your new work boots.
In doing so, we’ll have to contradict some of the drastic methods that are touted by lots of people. The problem with some of these pragmatic methods is that they do work, but only for the short term. In the process, they seriously damage the boots and shorten their useful life.
Unless you want to break in a new pair of leather work boots, quickly wear through them, replace them, and start the process again, you’re better off to avoid these methods.
Breaking in Work Boots Quickly: Top 7 Do’s and Don’ts
Here are the 4 Top Tips for breaking in your new work boots and the 3 worst myths:
- Do…start with a pair of boots that fits well
- Don’t…dunk your boots in hot water (or cold water)
- Do…plan to break your boots in incrementally
- Don’t…heat the boots artificially
- Do…apply a heavy dose of mink oil
- Don’t…use ice to stretch a boot
- Do…use a boot stretcher for a specific area that is causing pain
Do…start with a pair of boots that fits well
A poorly-fitting boot is never going to be really comfortable. A heel that’s too narrow for your foot may stretch with time and be less uncomfortable, but it’s always going to be narrow for your heel. Maybe the toe box in your new pair of work boots is so roomy it lets your foot slide around so that the tips of your toes rub the end of the boot. That problem is likely to get worse as your boots stretch. Starting with a good-fitting boot is the best means of quickly having a pair of comfortable boots.
There’s not a direct, 1-to-1 correlation between price and fit in men’s work boots, but generally you’ll find that a quality boot fits better. If you’re fortunate enough to find a cheap pair of boots that fits you very well, then you are a step or 2 (pun intended) ahead of most guys.
Don’t…dunk your boots in hot water (or cold water)
….to soften them unless you want to replace your boots very quickly.
We’re not sure who was the first one to recommend the dunking method of softening your boots. We do know that there are lots of variations on it. Some say to soak the boots overnight and then wear them the next day until they are dry. Others tell you to put the boots on, douse them well, and then wear them until they are dry. Still others say that wearing your boots with a pair of wet socks will soften the boots quickly.
As we mentioned earlier, this method will soften your boots. However, it ignores a fundamental characteristic of leather. Leather and water don’t agree. Water stiffens and shrinks leather. Leather that’s thoroughly soaked and dried quickly is apt to crack. This method is likely to result in boots that are quickly comfortable and equally quick to fall apart.
Do…plan to break your boots in incrementally
This seems counter intuitive in an article about breaking in work boots fast. However, incremental doesn’t necessarily mean slowly; it just means that you’re allowing your feet to adjust to the boots, and the boots to adapt to your feet at a comfortable pace.
When you get them, wear your boots for as long as you comfortably can without causing blisters or painful rubbed spots on your toes. Then change into your old boots. The next day, repeat the process, trying to extend the length of time you wear the new boots. Be careful not to injure your feet with blisters or open sores. This will slow the process.
If you notice sore spots starting to develop, try our 3rd or 4th DO recommendations below, then wear your new boots again the next day for a long as possible. If your boots fit you well when you purchased them, they should break in quickly if you use this method.
Don’t…heat the boots artificially
If you live in the Arizona desert and want to break in your new boots by wearing them while you water your yard, you’ll certainly give your boots a form of heat treatment. That’s very different from the heat treating methods touted by some.
Folks who recommend heat treating suggest that you put your boots in the oven, apply heat with a blow dryer, or even steam them. Heat treating may yield softened leather–for a time. But heat dries leather and tends to make it brittle. Dry, brittle leather is uncomfortable to wear. It also tends to tear or crack, neither of which is an outcome you want. Avoid the temptation to whip out the hair dryer the first day you wear your new boots.
Do…apply a heavy dose of mink oil
… or other boot oil to any spots that are rubbing or painfully stiff, and leave it on overnight.
Boot oils are designed to condition and soften leather. Applying a thick layer of oil at night to the troublesome areas will allow the oil to work slowly to soften the leather in that particular spot. This will allow it to mold to your foot better. Note: unless your boots are black, you may notice that the color darkens when you apply the oil.)
The next morning, rub the excess mink oil into the rest of the boot before you put it on. This way your whole boot is being conditioned and the trouble spots are receiving special attention. Additionally, boot oils benefit virtually any leather boot, whether they are winter boots, slip-on boots or lace-up boots. You have shortened the break-in period without damaging the boot.
Don’t…use ice to stretch a boot
This is actually another variation on the water method. In this method you place water in 2 zip-top bags. You fill each bag full enough that the water-filled bag oozes into the whole foot of the boot. Then you place your boots in the freezer overnight or until the water has time to freeze completely.
As the water freezes, it expands and stretches the boot. Proponents of this method note that it does not subject your boot to actual moisture and that the stretching occurs gradually as the water freezes and expands.
This method could work well, IF you need the whole boot widened equally. However, If only the heel is snug, and you use the ice method you may find that the heel fits well afterward, but the foot bed is now almost too roomy. While not as harmful to the leather of the boot as the water method, the freezing temperatures can make the leather more brittle and inclined to crack over time.
Do…use a boot stretcher for a specific area that is causing pain
Boot stretchers are adjustable, so they can stretch the leather a bit at a time. This is better for the leather. Boot stretchers allow you to stretch your work boots only as much as you need them stretched. They also permit you to stretch only the specific area that’s giving you pain.
Boot stretchers don’t damage waterproof boots. They can be used with insulated boots. You could use them on rubber boots, but the results would probably be negligible since rubber intrinsically returns to its original shape.
The most important first step how to break in work boots is to buy a pair that fits well and then incrementally increase the amount of time you wear your new boots. People who do that are much more likely to have a pair that is comfortable right out of the box, regardless of whether the boot was made by Carolina, Wolverine or Timberland.
If you’re an ironworker with a new pair of Irish Setter wedge sole safety shoes, or a construction worker with heat-resistant welding boots, you may want to hasten the process by applying boot oil or using a boot stretcher to target any difficult areas
These methods may not be as quick as some of the other methods we discourage, but they are the best because they won’t damage your boots or cause them to fall apart quickly.
Could you give advice about how to break in steel toe boots?
I’m assuming that you purchased steel-toe boots that fit you well. To break the toe of the boot in, you may want to do any or all of these things.
- Wear the thickest socks that fit you comfortably. The sock will gently stretch the boot as you’re walking.
- Use a broom handle to apply pressure to the boot if the toe area is rubbing. With the handle inside the boot, position the rounded end right on the trouble spot. Apply pressure and slowly stretch the tight area.
- Until your boots are fully comfortable, put a bit of moleskin on your toes where rubbing occurs. This prevents blisters and increases comfort.
How long do work boots take to break in?
There’s no hard-and-fast rule here. Some companies, like Red Wing, have the reputation of manufacturing very durable boots from stiff, thick leather that breaks in slowly.
Read reviews about lightweight work shoes made by Nike, Keen or Sketchers. Then read a few more from men who purchased, heavy-duty puncture-resistant, non-slip boots from Thorogood, Diehard, Carhartt or or a dozen other companies.
If there are more than just a few ratings, you’ll probably see some comments that say the boots were comfortable as soon as the customer put them on. Others may find that the boot took 2-3 weeks of wearing before it was comfortable.
Red Wings can take 5 weeks or more before they are really comfortable, depending upon the style. Knowing what customers say will help you plan.
It is true that breaking in Red Wing boots can be a lengthy–and sometimes painful–process?
Yes, Red Wings have the reputation of being very uncomfortable during the break-in period, and very comfortable afterward. Their boots are made a stiff, heavy leather that requires time to soften and mold to your foot. After that, they fit very well and are quite durable.
Red Wing understands that their boots require a break-in period. They recommend that their customers wear Red Wing boots around the house first, possibly with an extra pair of socks. They advise using a good conditioning oil, and easing into wearing new Red Wings at work.
Do you have any tips for breaking in Danner boots?
If you have a new pair of Danner boots, the company suggests that you–
- Plan for a break-in period. You may find that you’re one whose boots are comfortable right out of the box, but most people face at least a short break-in time.
- Are absolutely positive you’re going to keep your new Danners, before you wear the outside. If you’re not, then you should wear your boots indoors for a few days before you wear them outdoors. Don’t treat the boots with any oil or spray. This way, you’ll still have the option of returning them, if you must.
- Understand that Danner boots with a gusseted tongue may take a bit longer to break in.
Are there are special tips about how to break in cowboy boots compared to other leather work boots?
A good fit is important for any work boot. Good fit is particularly important with men’s and women’s cowboy boots since the boot covers the ankle and part of the lower leg as well as the foot. Poorly-fitting boots could rub your ankles raw or chafe your lower calf in addition to causing the issues common with a regular work boot.
Read through several websites for tips about breaking in cowboy boots and you’ll find several suggestions about ways of heating and soaking boots. We don’t recommend any of these because for short-term comfort you seriously reduce the life of the boot.
Aside from those suggestions, the best options are to–
- Wear thick socks, or 2 pairs of regular socks. This is potentially painful if your boot has anything less than a square toe.
- Use western cowboy boot stretchers. These fit the contour of cowboy boots and allow you to stretch the boots in very small increments.
What’s your take on breaking in Ariat boots?
If your Ariat boots are pull-on cowboy boots, then read through the answer to the previous question about breaking in cowboy boots. If your boots are lace-ups with a moc toe or square toe, then read through the suggestions for breaking in Danner boots.