Being someone whose identity has been inextricably tied to engineer boots by others for years, I get a slew of questions regarding them. Among the most common questions and laments that I get from friends, emailers, and people on Instagram is “Where can I buy affordable engineer boots?” While I answer every question I get and usually I feel I provide adequate information, this is one question in which my answer never fails to disappoint. Technically, there are engineer boots that would be considered “affordable,” but they are not any good in my opinion. Therefore, whenever I get this question, I have to basically tell the person who asks where to find affordable engineers that they will basically just have to save up for expensive ones.
Why is this? Why out of all the types of boots out there are engineer boots so difficult to obtain at an affordable price? I am going to attempt to explain this unfortunate phenomenon and see if it is possible for good, affordable engineer boots to exist in the future. As with many of my editorial articles, much of what I am talking about will be estimation or assumptions based on my experience and knowledge. This industry does not have published sales numbers the way many other industries do so guesswork is quite necessary.
Firstly, we must attempt to define what “affordable” even is. I personally cannot stand this term, even though I have already used it 6 times so far in this article. I feel forced to use it anyway. What people can “afford” is not a set amount and it depends on numerous factors beyond a person’s annual income. My distaste for people complaining about prices of garments and uninformed discussions about “affordability” annoy me so much that I will probably write an entire article on the subject in the future. However, I will say that when someone is talking about “affordable” boots, they seem to generally mean under $300 and preferably under $250. For engineers, this is a tough ask, so I will say our price limit for engineer boots that people can “afford” is $350. This is a price that is low enough for almost anyone to be able to stomach if the product is good enough and they have the patience to save up if they need to.
When we look around the market, there really are not any good engineer boots under this price. Technically, there are brands like Frye, Chippewa, and Red Wing making engineer boots around this price, but they are quite ugly. We will get to the looks later, but even without that factored in, this is a relatively low number of makers producing engineer boots relative to the amount of brands making other boots in this price region. After having pondered this question for years and after having researched it further recently, I have found what I believe to be five reasons why there are not any low price engineer boots that boot enthusiasts want to buy.
- Engineers were not popular until recently
- Brands do not realize how popular they are
- Engineers are not seen as beginner friendly
- Engineers are expensive to make
- Engineer boots are difficult to design
The first and most obvious reason is that engineer boots are a relatively niche product, even by the already niche standards of the Amekaji-heritage style. Engineer boots were not all that popular as this movement grew in the early 2000s. While brands such as Wesco and Whites offered engineer boots during that time, they were mostly aimed at bikers. It was not until the release of the John Lofgren engineer boots and the Mister Freedom Road Champs that this style started to gain traction, especially in the west. Even then, they remained fairly niche for a while and in my opinion, it was only in the last couple of years that they have really exploded in popularity, though as I said before, I am not fully aware of actual sales numbers.
Even for brands that already made engineer boots, it took quite some time for them to adapt their models into more appealing styles. Viberg had a solid model out with their 2005 last engineers, but Wesco took longer to make a vintage-style engineer boot that appealed to Amekaji-heritage enthusiasts than it took Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to realize that Jason Garrett was a terrible head coach. In my opinion, Whites and Nicks are still lagging behind in making appealing engineer boots. I will elaborate further on what I mean by this later, but my point is that brands have taken quite some time to realize that engineer boots can sell well. Even Red Wing has tiptoed into this market. They released their 2966 in the west which did not have a steel toe, but this boot was a limited edition and is no longer available as well as being quite a bit above our price point.
With all of this said, engineer boots certainly are relatively popular and appear to be selling quite well for many brands as of now. The fact that companies such as Wesco have adapted to producing more heritage-style engineers means that there is clearly a market for them.Engineer boots may have taken some time to become popular, but they are relatively popular right now. Even Visvim is making them for crying out loud!
To me, Red Wing’s lack of a non-steel toe engineer boot as of now is a perfect example of my second point: brands still do not realize how popular engineer boots are. To be fair, this is not surprising. In my recent interview with John Lofgren, even he admitted that he was surprised just how popular his engineer boots became. I am not saying that engineer boots are as popular as most styles of lace up boots, but I do believe that they are popular enough for several brands to succeed selling lower priced models.
Not only did the Red Wing 2966 boots sell well, but John Lofgren’s engineers continue to sell well as do the vintage-oriented Wesco boots. Basically, just go on Standard and Strange’s website to see how many engineer boots they sell and you can see that there is an audience for these boots. Mister Freedom cannot restock their Road Champs quickly enough and brands like Clinch and Role Club built their names on engineer boots. Simply the amount of engineer boots that I see being posted on forums and Instagram shows how many people are buying this style of boot.
Clearly, brands that make more expensive boots are having success selling engineer boots, but why are brands that sell more affordable products not taking advantage of this? Personally, I feel that part of this is that they still see engineers as a niche product and only popular with very serious boot and vintage-style enthusiasts. Basically, despite the growing popularity of engineer boots, many people and brands still see them as only being for vintage cosplayers from Denimbro like myself.* Clearly, this is not the case, but brands are slow to adapt and of course, there are other factors present as well. Hopefully, more brands will realize how relatively popular engineer boots are and make a desirable model below $350. In my opinion, people would like engineer boots more if they saw them more and if they felt they could afford them. The way to go about it would be how Apple has succeeded: creating demand for a product that people did not even know they wanted, but want it as soon as you show it to them.
However, brands have not done this because they seem to believe that engineer boots are not beginner friendly boots. In the first place, the style is quite unique and therefore people believe that those new to boots will not like the look. Another reason that they are not seen as beginner friendly is that they are pull on boots that have quite tall shafts. This means that in some cases, they are difficult to put on and take off. It also means that their fit cannot be adjusted as well as with lace up boots. In fairness, I will admit that one flaw with engineer boots is that these issues are true and they are not quite as beginner friendly as most lace up boots. However, that does not mean that someone who is new to boots or heritage footwear cannot wear them.
My first pair of Amekaji-heritage boots were John Lofgren engineers and they were quite easy to adjust to. I had issues with other engineer boots, but none were impossible to wear. In fact, I have had more difficult break in periods with some of my lace up boots than with the majority of my engineer boots. Something else that is important to point out here is that affordable boots that have beginner friendly pricing are not always bought by people who are new to boots. I know plenty of people who have owned many pairs of Amekaji-heritage boots that are interested in trying out engineer boots, but want something less expensive than most of the options out there.
Maybe they’ve only worn Red Wings so far or maybe they’ve owned Wescos, Lofgren lace ups, and Vibergs. They want to try engineers, but they want a lower price due to the intimidation factor of engineers. I know plenty of people, myself included, who own quite expensive boots and then later start to try more affordable brands. Boots that cost under $350 are not just for people who are buying their first pairs. Therefore, engineers do not have to be beginner friendly boots. On top of that, for most people that I have talked to, they really are not that much different to live with than lace up boots and for myself, are easier to live with in some cases. Do not forget that no laces means they are quicker to put on and take off if they fit right and even pairs that are difficult to get on and off at first can break in and become much easier to work with in time.
In fact, my friend Mike @bigdudeindenim bought a pair of inexpensive Chippewa engineers to test out if he liked the style. He did like them so he bought a pair of Wescos and then sold the cheaper pair he bought. Mike is certainly not new to boots, but he did not want to invest in engineers until he was more sure about how much he liked them. He had to compromise a lot on those “practice” engineers and it would be easier for people to go through the same process as him if there were decent quality engineers under $350 that had a woodsman/logger heel and a low profile toe because to be clear, Mike sold that first pair as soon as he ordered his Wescos. A lot of people that I know that start off with brands like Red Wing and move onto brands like John Lofgren do not sell their Red Wings because they still like them, but Mike sold his first engineers, proving that they really were not all that great and not worth keeping.
So far, I have laid out 3 reasons why I believe more brands or makers do not produce more affordable engineer boots that boot enthusiasts want to buy and for each of them, I have pointed out how I believe each of these points should not prevent brands from making good, affordable engineer boots. For this next one, however, I do not have a counterpoint.
Engineer boots are more expensive to make than other boots are. There is no denying this. It is quite simple to see that they are more expensive to produce than other boots are. There is more leather required to make engineer boots and this adds a fairly significant amount of cost to the maker which is of course passed on to the consumer. From what I have gathered, buying buckles is also more expensive than buying or producing laces, eyelets, and speed hooks for lace up boots which also adds to the cost. Finally, for some companies and factories, simply making engineer boots may be more difficult and time consuming to make due to their size and their differences from lace up boots.
However, given that many brands can make boots at or under $300 means that $350 should be able to be hit, especially given that these brands will surely compromise expenses in some areas. They do not need to triple stitch anywhere, they do not have to use the greatest leather, and they can use cheaper buckles and not line the boots. Personally, I believe it is possible to make decent quality engineer boots for this price, but again, I cannot be certain of this. Mark Albert boots has an engineer model for $399 and his brand is one that I would hope would make a good engineer for under $350, but perhaps $375 is more realistic at first.
The problem is that even at $350 or even $300, I do not think that model of engineer would sell well. Why? Quite frankly, it is ugly. To be clear, this is not an issue that is unique to Mark Albert. I have never seen a new pair of engineers that cost under $400 that actually look great and yes I am including Indonesian brands. This is due to my final point which is that from what I have observed, engineer boots are quite difficult to design properly. The American and Western brands that do release low priced engineers seem to be stuck on the biker look, with massive, bulbous toes and a level of finesse that would make Imagine Dragons look like J.S. Bach in comparison.
Some Indonesian bootmakers offer engineers for under $400, but these use inferior Indonesian leather and in my opinion, are not quite right in terms of design either. They seem to go the opposite direction of the Americans and made overly-sleek engineer boots, making the same mistake that Viberg is by using their Chelsea last for engineers instead of their superior 2005 last that only seems to be made in CXL cowhide now. The Indonesian models I have seen are too sleek and look more like Chelsea boots with tall shafts and two rows of stitching rather than actual engineers. In my opinion, great looking engineer boots have to balance being sleek with being substantial. They have to be slightly refined, yet rugged. Personally, I think Clinch and Lofgren do it best. The boots both look quite different, but each looks elegant, but not dainty and I believe that this is a difficult balance to get right.
To be clear, I am not saying that I know how to design the perfect engineer boot, but just about every other engineer enthusiast that I have talked to agrees with me on this. While some brands have designed lace up boots that get close enough to Viberg’s 2030 last service boots for example, nobody has been able to match the look of the best engineers. Clinch, Role Club, John Lofgren, Attractions, Wesco, Mister Freedom and a few more all make great looking engineers, but none of the lower priced models come even close right now and in fact, many higher priced models miss the mark too in my view. Basically, someone is really going to have to put some effort into designing an engineer that people will be willing to buy at a lower price. As of now, the one that gets closest in my view is Onderhoud’s engineer, but even with cheap Indonesian leather, it is over $400 and is not easily obtainable by a wide audience.
Red Wings are popular because many of their boots have an iconic look, such as their moc toe and are already relatively low priced, with most being under $300. Viberg’s 2030 service boot is one of the most universally-liked boot models in this subculture and several brands have made boots that look fairly similar for under $300 and models that just look good on their own merits. The situation is different with engineers, unfortunately. No companies that could produce a large amount of boots have even tried to make boots that look similar to John Lofgren, Mister Freedom, Clinch, or Role Club engineers even though these are the models that people love the look of.
Is it even possible then for a good engineer boot to be made under $350? I believe that it is and I hope it gets made, but at this point, I have my doubts that we will ever see it. Personally, I think Red Wing could make what would be a pretty good looking engineer boot by using their pecos boots with the taller heels as a base and modifying them slightly into engineers with woodsman heels. This would not even be that difficult most likely and it would probably sell quite well. With that as a proof of concept, I would imagine that at least a couple other brands would make some decent engineers under $350 or at least $375.From what I have seen though, brands that make boots under $350 are happy to just make lace ups and make their money that way. A properly designed engineer may sell quite well, but margins might be lower and the effort with actually designing and producing it may not seem to be worth the risk for them. If this is the case, then engineers will remain a more niche product for the foreseeable future and perhaps that is OK.
On the other hand, perhaps it is not that difficult to design a good looking engineer boot and the issue is that people have just not put any effort into it yet. Either way, the situation is that I have no engineer boots to recommend under $350. In fact, I don’t really have anything worth recommending under $550 right now.** Based on the relatively strong popularity of engineer boots right now, I feel that if a brand did make a well designed engineer under $350, it would sell well. This is all speculative of course, but I do feel that it is an interesting situation that was worth discussing. Along those lines of discussion, feel free to reach out with any responses or ideas on this subject. I would love to hear what others think of this.
*This image of people on Denimbro is grossly overexaggerated, but even people that I respect perpetuate this idea.
**Some of the Indonesian brands make great boots, but I would recommend their other models over their engineers and I cannot recommend buying boots with Indonesian leather uppers, which are the only ones available under $550.