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Picture courtesy of Shoegazing Blog

The older I get the more my Shoe Snobbery evolves and thus wises up to the reality of everything you see and read and hear from the blogs, to shoe salesmen to the brands. Having spent the last 15 years of my life surrounded by shoes. And I mean all manners of shoes from the cheapo’s to the top grade shoes of the industry. Having not only handled them personally but owned everywhere from Meermin to Bespoke G&G’s to my own makings, I can tell you that some things that are often discussed simply just don’t really fricking matter. And one of those things is the quality of the Heel Stiffener and how that supposedly affects your heel. And I saw that first hand not only from experience but from people cocking up on how they swear one was better than the other and then foolishly proving themselves liars when swearing by the so-called ‘inferior’ one when they thought it was the ‘superior’ one. I love when that happens.

Therefore allow me to break down what you find in the industry. I won’t get too deep into the technicalities of each one as I really don’t think that it is necessary but here are the three commonly used heel stiffeners of the industry.

  1. Leather – real actual cut leather, like your lining leather but stiffer and thicker. This is typically used in real handmade shoes, ones that are hand-lasted as you can’t really use proper leather in a production facility as materials there need to be streamlined and pre-cut. Leather is not that. It is created by the maker and skived with a knife and skill of the hand.
  2. Leather Board – a leather composite pre-molded and cut to be in the shape of a heel stiffener. This is supposed to be the closest thing to leather and what most people that like to discuss shoes via the internet like to claim as the best and if a shoe does not have this then it is not top rated
  3. Thermoplastic/Celastic – This is what you will find on the majority of shoes made in this world. It is the mass-produced version of the leather heel stiffener created most likely for a lower cost and ease of use in a large production facility. Of course, being in the bottom here, it means that it is the less of quality and hence used most.


Photo courtesy of Lusocal

Using actual leather is of course the best but it is far and few between and usually only done by the bespoke makers, so the argument is generally between Leather Board and Celastic heel stiffeners, found on most ready-made shoes. The Snobs of the world say that celastic is hard and doesn’t form to your heel and once it breaks, it’s done. They then say that leather board is soft, molds to your heel and stays strong.

After having first used celastic in my own shoes and then upgrading to leather board a few years back, I can personally tell you that if you don’t have particularly sensitive heels it doesn’t really matter and all of this back and forth is really just hogwash. The fact of the matter is that they both start out stiff and both age pretty much the same. Yes, celastic might be somewhat more rigid (and maybe there are worse grades of celastic) but this only really matters if you have sensitive heels. I get blisters on all of my oxfords on the first day (no matter who the maker) and tell you what, the worst of them on my bespoke, super handmade and well quality material shoes. Of course, over time they do break in the nicest. In consequence, you don’t really notice the difference between all of them, in the beginning. And celastic doesn’t just break prematurely, like canvas ribbed gemming neither. If it did, the entire world wouldn’t be using it. They all start stiff, they all break in and well, they all age pretty much the same. And the people that say they are so inferior often lie and I have seen it first hand. Remember, the mind can make you believe anything, hence the placebo effect. Let me share you this story below.

There used to be a guy that would always come to a trunk show that I had in one city, 3 shows to be exact. Each time he would come and try a bunch of shoes and never buy anything. During the first two trunk shows I used celastic in my heels. Between the 2nd and 3rd trunk show, I changed production to leather board. He used to tell me that he could not wear celastic as it would damage his heels. So he never purchased. On the 3rd trunk show, sure enough, he came back in and I was proud to tell him that I had changed production and was now using leather board. He was looking for a specific boot and we had something that was exactly what he wanted and sure enough the sample shoe (just one) was in his size. We had also had some stock, the new stock with leather board in the heels. He tried a pair of stock boots and was telling me that they felt good, but a little stiff (of course, they were brand new). He then tried the sample pair. He said it felt so comfortable and that it fit perfect and the heels felt great. Little did he know that this sample was made during the time of celastic use in my heels. And I secretly smiled to myself thinking that I got him.

Funny enough, even though I didn’t share my dirty little secret (as his new pair would have had leatherboard anyway), he STILL never bought even though he was ooowing and awwing on how comfortable they were.

The fact of the matter is, this stuff really doesn’t matter on the grand scale of why you should buy a shoe (unless of course you truly have issues in your ankles that really prevent you from have stiff shoes). We as people are often truly tricked into believing things not real. We do it daily with the news. Why do so many Americans wear orthotics and less than 1% of Europeans do? It’s fucking marketing and sales. That’s why. Leatherboard, celastic, real leather. They are all stiff, they all break in, and they all become softer. That’s the only real truth there is. And many of your shoes, even your good ones, are using celastic. Therefore, it should not really make or break your decision to buy a pair of shoes.  You buy them because they look good, fit well and feel comfortable. Not because they have leather board. And that is the point of this post. I am not bashing leather board. My shoes have it. But it doesn’t make a shoe that doesn’t have it, a bad shoe.

If you have sensitive heels, most likely no matter what a welted shoe is going to cause you some discomfort until that heel counter truly breaks in. There are manual ways of doing this, so best to learn those. But for you guys, I understand that the more rigid molding of celastic is not ideal.

***EDIT: For all of those reading this post and misunderstanding what I meant, which is maybe my fault, allow me to clarify. Is leather better than leather board? Yes, it is. Is leather board better than celastic? Yes, it is. Would I personally prefer to have leather heel stiffeners? Yes, I would. Do I prefer leather board over celastic? Yes, I do. Does this post have anything to do with handmade shoes and bespoke shoemakers? No, it doesn’t, a full leather handmade shoe is superior to all. This is about ready made shoes.

So what I the heck am I on about? The idea that just because a shoe has celastic means it’s poor quality or that you shouldn’t buy it. That’s the point. And for the fact of the matter that 95% of people truly won’t know the difference so it’s really not something to start over thinking about. Therefore, arguments online about such and such shoe having celastic and therefore being inferior, well, for me that really doesn’t play out because of the fact that all heel’s start stiff, some mold better than others, yes, but what affects comfort most in reality is all subjective. Therefore, no I am not 100% right here as I am stating my opinion. But my opinion will be the same for 90% of people. 10% may truly be affected by celastic heel stiffeners. But those 10% should not try and convince the 90% that they need it too. That’s the point. And I am not trying to convince the 10% that they are wrong, just that the 90% don’t need to over think the hype about which is ‘the best’.

Spread the knowledge and share this post. Get off Instagram for a second and actually read. Here I am dedicating myself towards the spread of knowledge again. Let’s us spread it more and come back to script and not this world of imagery that often confuses us.

-Justin FitzPatrick, ‘The Shoe Snob’

23 thoughts on “Things that Truly Don’t Matter in Shoes – Don’t Believe the Hype. Part 1 – Heel Stiffeners”

  1. With all due respect Justin, I totally disagree on your conclusions here. First of all, there’s lots of variations in between the various groups of stiffeners, there’s really (I mean REALLY) stiff celastic/plastic heel stiffeners, and there’s some celastic that are bettter and more close to leather board, then there’s various quality leather board stiffeners and various quality leather stiffeners.

    But, if you are to generalise, the general view that celastic is in general harder, shape less to your feet and if it breaks it’s broken is IMO true. Leather board in general shapes easier, is less rigid but if that brakes it’s also broken. Real leather can be quite hard depending on thickness and which paste that has been used when making, but it always shapes and if it breaks, it can be fixed, and it is the only living material of the three so it can also be re-shaped.

    I believe you have quite insensitive feet and for you the difference in stiffener material might not matter that much, but for a person like me with very sensitive feet I am yet to find a celastic/plastic stiffener that I can wear without experiencing more or less pain. AND, it’s not because of any placebo effect. For example, a famous brand used to make shoes with leather board stiffeners and I had pairs that worked fine, then my two latest pairs from the brand started to hurt my heels, even if the lasts was the same as previous pairs. I didn’t understand why, until I found out they had switched to celastic stiffeners. In the same way I have tried shoes without knowing the material, and with no exception the celastic stiffener shoes was the ones that didn’t work for me, while leather board ones did.

    If you have good celastic stiffeners and not too sensitive feet it’s no problem with that, especially if you find lasts that have a shape that works for your feet, but for people like me (and similar views I know many others experience as well) with sensitive feet celastic stiffeners can often be problematic (they can work as well, if shape of the heel is very good for you etc).

    So to be honest, with this post, stating a conclusion like that so black and white, I think you are the one spreading disinformation.

    1. Justin FitzPatrick

      I have edited the post to make my point more clear and say that of course, for people that truly are hurt then I get that, but most people truly don’t even realize or notice or will ever know or realize and that overthinking the stiffeners to then make decisions on purchasing for me is wrong, as I do believe other factors play more important roles into buying a shoe. That was the general point that maybe i didn’t convey well enough the first time around.

  2. Buenos dĂ­as,
    Voy a expresarme en español pues sin duda lo hago mejor.
    Mi opinión es absolutamente contraria a lo que dices Justín. Yo comencé a la inversa, al principio hacía zapatos goodyear, con contadores y topes sintéticos , sin embargo he terminado haciendo zapatos handwelt con contadores y topes de cuero. Incluso compré una máquina de moldear contadores, para hacerlo con cuero autentico (pero el secado rápido) hacía quebradizo el cuero, como el cartón.
    Para mi ha sido una obsesiĂłn, por esto me parece interesante este asunto.

    El contador sintético se adapta a un molde de aluminio similar a la horma (pero no igual a todos sus numeros) , es resistente y se deforma como todos los materiales, pero le ocurre algo más importante para mí, se quiebra y como dice Jesper no puede recuperarse.

    El contador de cuero, como bién sabes se moldea sobre la horma, por tanto se adapta perfectamente a la horma, puedes moldearlo asimetrico, de tal forma que el enfranque interior llega más adelante para dar apoyo al arco (en el sintetico no ocurre esto)

    El contador de cuero es moldeado como sabes con humedad y golpes , por tanto se reactiva con humedad (el piĂ© produce humedad) , sin embargo el contador sintĂ©tico o cuero prensado , es moldeado con calor rápido y en algunos casos solo se reactiva con disolvente….esto hace mucho más agradable el cuero.
    Para mĂ­ no es importante que el contador se ablande y pierda su forma original, para mi es importante Âżcomo? se ablanda y hacia donde pierde su forma. Igual que un zapato o una persona deben envejecer, lo importante es Âżcomo lo hacen? .
    Espero continuar el debate.
    Un saludo

    1. Justin FitzPatrick

      Gracias Enrile, yo creo que no me explique bien la primera vez. Yo no trate de decir que el celastic es como el piel. Y en realmente no estaba hablando de zapatos hechos a mano. Estaba diciendo que 90% de la gente no entiende de este cosas y que no deberian pensarlo demasiado cuando quieren compara un zapato RTW porque realmente para mi, hay cosas mas importantes de los contadores que se affectan el bueno de un zapato. Espero que entiendes. -Justin

  3. Dear Justin,

    I love your blog. It’s by reading your writings that, first and foremost, I have become more knowledgeable of the world of shoes. And probably, one of the most important lessons that you have taught me is precisely that of getting informed and not to fall prey to prejudices. Unfortunately, I confess that this time it is your article that I find a bit prejudicial and, more importantly, based upon mere personal considerations rather than strong objective evidence. The comments above point in that direction, IMHO.

    Furthermore, although in passing, you associate the “myth” of heel stiffeners to that of ‘gemming’. Yet you know better than me that things are not as simple as you allude to here. Just to name two well-known shoemakers, who explain in details the problematic nature of gemming, I would like to mention Stephane Jimenez and D.W. Frommer II. You can read a wonderful interview of the former on the Parisian Gentleman blog, and numerous posts by the latter on Styleforum. They both discuss, in a more persuasive way than by simply saying “everyone does it and hence it must be good”, pros and cons of this technique. Off course, I do not want to mention Meccariello, as one might think that his Argentum construction is simply a marketing move (although, for the sake of impartiality, it must be said that someone else might argue that Meccariello’s Argentum line offers, at half of the price, a better built shoes than any other high level RTW model using gemming).

    You have raised us so as to become more self-aware shoe lovers. Precisely because of this, perhaps you should be more careful in proclaiming yourself a “spreader of knowledge” on such highly debated issues.

    With great admiration,

    1. Justin FitzPatrick

      Thanks for sharing Nicola. I appreciate your support. I have edited the post to better explain what I meant and of course, give credit to those that actually suffer from heel issues. If you re-read it maybe you will understand better what I was trying to get across. And of course, everything I write is subjective as is everything in reality. Fit will always be subjective as will comfort as will quality as will most things when discussing someone’s idea of what something else means.

  4. I think you’re probably right that leatherboard would feel indistinguishable from celastic. Real leather is indisputably superior to both; this is under-stressed in this piece.

    On a stylistic note, I find that profanity in writing, like the word “very”, reveals a lazy author. Profanity in speaking is effective when used in the appropriate amount, but there are always better alternatives in written English.

    1. Justin FitzPatrick

      Thanks for sharing. I am a lazy author as I am not an English major or claim to be a good writer. I studied Entrepreneurship and write about shoes because I care about the education of them. But I will never be a great writer and I tend to write as if I am having a conversation and in real life I curse a lot more than in writing

      1. I get that. I just wanted to point out that curse words come off differently in speech than in writing. Everyone’s different I guess.

      2. Justin, I think you are a better writer than you think, and your polite response to Tim exposed you as a bigger man than your critic.

  5. I’m confused with equating orthotics to marketing BS. Are you referring to custom orthotics measured and molded by a doctor or store bought crap? Or both?

    Having messed up feet I need orthotics, without them my feet ache.

  6. A thought on Europeans vs. Americans on orthotics — most American cities have had pretty much all walking engineered out of them in favor of driving between driveways and office park/strip mall parking lots, whereas a significantly larger proportion of Europeans walk to mass transit to work and walk around their neighborhoods. Which means the Europeans ‘use’ their feet a lot more, and they might well be in better shape for it.

  7. A very informative article, Justin! I’ve actually read this multiple times over the past year or two, and I learn a little more each time. One other thing I’ve thought of is the environmental impact. I prefer at least leather board, so that after I’m gone, I can leave behind less. Yes, rubber soles and some other components won’t go away, but I like to try to minimize my environmental footprint (no pun intended). I wish more shoe manufacturers were upfront about what they use, so I could make a more informed purchase. Thanks again!

    1. Justin FitzPatrick

      Hello Drew,

      Thank you for your comment. Glad that you enjoyed the article. I would just assume they are using celastic unless otherwise stated. Unless they are handlasted, then chances are it is actual leather

  8. Cobbler Bob Powers

    I love your material. Another insightful and honest article from someone putting truth ahead of making a buck. Thanks!

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