Red Wing Shoes: A Century of Craftsmanship

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Craft Culture explores the storied history, and promising future, of Red Wing Shoes.

Photos ©Barbara O’Brien Photography 2014

There are some brands that are practically inseparable from the place where they originated. If there’s one fact the public knows about these brands, it’s where they were born. This phenomenon is actually quite common in the beer industry–how many breweries named after a place can you list? This phenomenon is just as true in other industries. One such brand is Red Wing Shoes, the iconic shoe company that has been making shoes in Red Wing, Minnesota, for over 100 years.

Founded in 1905 by Charles Beckman, the company initially focused on footwear for farmers and ranchers. But heavy-duty Red Wing Shoes are now commonplace in the construction and manual labor fields. The company was the primary manufacturer of footwear for the U.S. military in World War I and continued making boots for soldiers in World War II. While Red Wing no longer makes military boots, it still supplies much of the leather used in the construction of military footwear.

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The technology at the Red Wing Shoes factory has changed since its early days, but the change has been perhaps less drastic than you’d imagine. Sure, the company now features innovations with names like Forceshield Impact Resistance, Dynaforce Insoles, and the BOA Closure System, but its overall methods of craftsmanship are the same as they have been for generations. To get a sense of how Red Wing Shoes approaches the craftsmanship of its products, we spoke to Red Wing Shoes CEO Dave Murphy, who has been overseeing the company for the last 13 years.

Murphy was happy to give us an overview of the company and walk us through the Red Wing Shoes manufacturing process. He explained that the company sells footwear in 110 countries and operates two factories in the U.S., one in Red Wing and one in Missouri. In addition to the Red Wing Shoes brand, the company also offers the Red Wing Heritage brand, which offers “fashion footwear with the Red Wing DNA,” the Irish Setter hunting footwear line and the Vasque hiking and trail running brand. But what truly sets Red Wing Shoes apart is a company it owns called S.B. Foot Tanning Company.

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S.B. Foot Tanning Company makes the leather used in Red Wing Shoes. Founded in 1872 by Silas Buck Foot, the company began supplying leather to Red Wing Shoes in 1905. The Foot family passed the business down through the generations, running the tannery until it was purchased by Red Wing Shoes in 1986. While the technology has changed over time, the basic techniques of tanning are still largely the same now as they were in 1872. That adherence to time-honored traditions, said Dave Murphy, is what makes Red Wing Shoes the best on the market.

“We really have, in short, the best footwear made from the best leather, the best service, the best educated folks in our stores,” said Murphy. “It’s quality footwear and the service to go with it.”

Murphy went on to explain the simplified process of how Red Wing Shoes are made, focusing on the major steps rather than listing all of the roughly 250 steps required to make a single Red Wing Shoe. He began with the leather. “The starting point is that every cowhide is different,” said Murphy. “They’re like snowflakes. There are no two ever that are exactly alike. Their weight, their size, even the season in which that cow lived makes a difference. The craft of tanning is made of two basic parts, with highly skilled expertise required to do both parts right.”

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The first step is to turn the hides into “wet blues,” a term that comes from the chemical process used to preserve the hides. No matter the original color, the chemicals turn the hide a bright royal blue. The hides are kept wet and placed into massive wooden drums filled with oils, tanning agents, and dyes. The longer the hides soak in the drums, the more the chemicals permeate the material. S.B. Foot could use metal drums for this step, but Murphy said they use the old wooden barrels for the same reason brewers do—the qualities the wood itself can impart.

“Every hide is tanned by hand,” said Murphy. “It’s done in batches, but it’s done by hand. We load them, we add our chemicals in old wooden casks that have absorbed over time and allows the balance of chemicals to blend properly. All of that is done by a master tanner. There’s a tremendous amount of craftsmanship that goes into the tanning process because there is this living, breathing dimension to the hides. When it’s all done, there’s no material in the world that’s better for footwear than leather. It’s the best combination of durability, comfort, and breathability. It can be molded to your foot, it can be still durable despite stretching it and bending it to shape, and it breathes. That’s why we own our own tannery. We have total control of this very important part of the craft. We’re the only company that really does that in the U.S. anymore.”

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