Are Made in China Boots Better than Made in USA Boots?: Iron Boots Review

I know this looks like the most clickbait title of all time, but I promise you, it’s not. Iron Boots is a small boot company out of China that has been selling in Japan for a little while now, but has only more recently branched out into the North American market. “Made in China” has a lot of connotations in much of the world, especially in the United States. Most of those connotations are negative, but they are not always justified. 

China has a rich history of high quality craft goods and as I proved with my review of my Flame Panda monkey boots, a tiny family workshop in China can make boots every bit as well as a tiny family workshop anywhere else in the world. This situation is a little bit different. While still a relatively small operation, Iron Boots does have a slightly larger team than the tiny Flame Panda family workshop and is not entirely family run. 

Still, this is not some giant factory and these are not outsourced boots. The founder of the company is Chinese and the company was founded in China. There is a North American rep, but everything about the brand is from China itself. To me, that is a positive. What I personally dislike is outsourced goods. Something made with passion in the country that the company is from is what I want to own and these fit that bill. I understand that many people (especially Americans) will be averse to supporting any Chinese goods due to China’s current government regime. Personally, I think one of the best things someone can do if they do not support the CCP is support small craft businesses in China.

Iron Boots was founded in Guangzhou, China in 2015 and currently has only 6 people working on the boots, including the founder and owner, Kai with the majority of the craftspeople having started with the brand in 2015. Kai designs all of the lasts himself and has done 5 different revisions on the 5515 model already. The 5515 boot that I have is based on a US military boot from 1955 that was on a Munson last. Obviously, Iron Boots has modified the design and made the heel much tighter while still retaining the roomy comfort of the original design. The combination of slimmer ankle and heel with the looser front/toe box is meant to fit a wider variety of foot and ankle shapes. 

You can clearly see the Munson last influence in these boots.

There is a lot of craft in these boots as well. Not only is the SPI quite high, but these boots are hand welted. With that said, not everything is positive and I will tell you right now that there are some reasons that you would choose American made boots over these. Read on to find out why! 

Let’s start by discussing the materials used in these boots. Overall, they seem to be quite good. The upper leather is a vegetable tanned roughout leather from the Italian tannery Sciarda. What is most interesting about this particular leather is that despite technically being roughout, it is sanded down so much that it feels more like suede than true roughout. The tongue is actually a split part of the leather, making it softer and more flexible, but the main leather used is in fact roughout. It has a soft, velvety feel and is quite a dark brown that I would describe as an espresso or dark chocolate brown. Iron Boots does offer quite a few other leathers including box calf, grain calf, waxed bullhide, and hand dyed horsehide.

The tongue is half gusseted which I am happy to see.

The hardware is brass and seems to be decent enough.As for the sole, they use their own copy of the Dainite rubber sole. Dainite is rather famous or infamous depending on who you talk to. I am personally not a fan at all as Dainite has about as much traction in the wet as a set of drag radials. This is the third Dainite copy I have experienced and like the others, I actually prefer it to the original due to it being a little softer, more flexible, and having more grip in wet conditions. With that said, I still prefer Vibram 705 or 430 soles. Personally, I’d go with Vibram or Dr. Sole half soles because I personally really hate the look of full soles. Still, these seem to be fine so far and have not faded overly quickly given the amount I’ve worn the boots so far. If anything negative does happen with these, I will update this section as necessary. 

Above the rubber sole is the leather midsole which is a standard single leather midsole- nothing exceptionally thick or thin here. Additionally, the boots are fully lined which is something I’m not usually too fussed about, but a lot of people seem to care about quite a lot. The insole leather feels softer than most insole leathers that I have felt, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is low quality. Again, this is something that I will have to update over time as I have with other articles.

In terms of materials, these boots are made to be quite flexible and comfortable. In talking with Iron Boots’ western rep, I have learned that while the designs of these boots are based on classic work and military-style boots, these boots are specifically designed to be “city boots.” This is quite evident when you look at their leather options. The amount of calf leathers available along with the fact that this roughout leather looks and feels more like suede really shows that Iron Boots is trying to make these boots have a substantial, chunky look without the clunky feel.

For some people, this could certainly be a negative. Compared to my Nicks Robert boots on the 55 last which are nearly the same price as these, the Nick’s would certainly survive more abuse than these would. However, that does not at all mean that these boots are inferior to the Nicks. One of my biggest pet peeves is when people equate durability with quality. In some cases, durability is a sign of quality, but not always. A Formula One car is not designed to be exceptionally durable and that does not mean that it is poorly designed or poorly made at all. In fact, a Formula One car, despite being far less durable than a Ford F-150 pickup truck, is far more brilliant in terms of technical design, craftsmanship, and performance. This is actually a topic that I would like to elaborate on soon in a full article. 

Having said that, I am not saying that Nicks is the equivalent of a Ford F150 and that Iron Boots are equivalent to a Formula One car. The point is that Iron Boots is not trying to make something as exceptionally durable as Nicks, Wesco, Whites, or any serious work boot brand. Some people may prefer one or the other and some may enjoy having both types of boots in their collection. After having worn these boots quite a lot, I have to say that I enjoy having both these and some more heavy duty boots in my collection. 

My Nicks Robert boots compared to my Iron Boots 5515 pair.

This discussion also involves the discussion of the actual comfort of these boots. As always, I must remind everyone that comfort is subjective. Just because a boot is comfortable to you does not make it a good boot. In terms of sizing, I am a 10.5D on a Brannock and went down half a size to a 10D in these and they fit pretty well. They are a standard D width in the heel and through most of the boot until you get to the ball of the foot and forward where they become quite wide and roomy. I can wiggle my toes very easily in these boots, though I would not say that they feel exceptionally loose. They don’t give me heel slip either and I know I have the right size. These are just quite roomy in the forefoot/toe area. My feet have been called “liquid metal” by some of my friends as I fit well into just about every single boot I’ve ever worn, but I will say that I like the design of this boot in terms of feel. Personally, I feel that Kai has achieved his goal of having a nice and snug, but still comfortable heel area while still having the roominess of a Munson last. The boots don’t feel loose, just roomy which is nice in my opinion. 

Overall, I find these boots pretty comfortable. However, they are comfortable in a different way than many of my other boots are. My Role Club, Clinch, and John Lofgren boots feel comfortable because they fit me well and have excellent interior materials that have conformed nicely to my feet. My Nicks boots are comfortable because of the incredible arch support and high quality leather on the inside of them. My Japanese-made sneakers are comfortable because they are soft and squishy. My White Kloud boots are comfortable because of the perfect fit, unmatched materials, arch support, and knowledge of foot anatomy that Goto-San has. 

These Iron Boots 5515 boots are comfortable in a way that more closely resembles that of my sneakers. They actually feel pretty soft and flexible. There really isn’t much if any arch support with these as far as I can feel. They don’t actually feel the same as sneakers, but compared to my other boots, they do feel more sneaker-ish. I have had other boots that have attempted to go this route. Most brands that try this do so by using synthetic materials such as poron to achieve a more sneaker-like feel with their boots. I have always been against this approach because poron will flatten out and break down while leather conforms to your foot and maintains its support over time better. What is interesting about these Iron Boots is that they have that flexible feel of something like a Thursday boot while being made with actual leather instead of synthetic materials. My guess is that they achieved this with their leather selections and softer, more flexible rubber outsole along with the cushy upper leather and lining material. 

Personally, I’m actually pretty impressed at how they pulled this off. In terms of boots that I would want to wear for a quick dash to the store or anything where I am on my feet for only a few hours, these would be near the top of my list. They even fair pretty well over a full day of standing on my feet at work. With that said, there are downsides. As I already mentioned, there is  basically no arch support as far as I can tell which will be fine for some people, and an issue for others. Another problem is that after too many hours standing around, these boots will just not have the amount of leather and support under my feet to keep me as comfortable as some of my other boots do. 

As a result, these boots would not be going with me on any trip. With that said, they definitely do better at long term comfort than the Thursdays, Beckett Simonon, and Mark Albert boots that I tried. One potential issue is that the comfort could be compromised more quickly because of the softer leather. This is only speculation, but it is something that I have in my mind when I wear these. The plus side of course is that break in with these was non-existent. The only discomfort I experienced was the tongue folding up uncomfortably when I tied them. For people who are more used to sneakers, these are what brands like Thursday wish they were- a nice transition from cushy sneakers while still using the right materials and offering a bit more support. People who are really into their PNW boots with stacks on stacks on stacks of leather and insane arch support will likely not enjoy these boots as much, but there definitely is a market for this type of comfort and I applaud Iron Boots for (at least so far) pulling off their intended city boot.

The construction methods used on these boots are excellent. They are hand welted boots which is a big plus for me. In real life, most people will not see much of a difference between hand welted and Goodyear welted boots in terms of durability, but technically a hand welted boot is superior and with a shallower channel, that may explain some of the flexibility and initial comfort of these boots. 

Construction quality is also quite good overall. What is most striking at first with these is the extremely high stitch count (stitches per inch or SPI) on the uppers and even on the outsole stitch line. I’m a sucker for high stitch count so I really do enjoy looking at these boots and the gold contrast stitching against the espresso brown leather really makes it easy to stitch peep to my heart’s content. The edge finishing on the midsole and heels is also nicely executed and as smooth as an 8 ball.

The upper stitching is mostly beautiful-quite dense and neat for the most part.

The upper stitching is mostly fantastic, but there are a couple areas where the vamp meets the quarter that the stitching gets a little sloppy, especially in spots where the stitch line doubles back on itself. Also, the toe cap stitching could be a little straighter and the brogueing holes on the toe cap are not perfectly executed as several of the holes still have excess leather inside of them. Lastly, there is one corner where the vamp meets the quarter where some leather sticks out and was not cut or lined up properly. Another issue is that the stitching that attaches the welt to the midsole/outsole is not straight in several places. The spacing between the thread and the edge is not consistent which is a little disappointing.

If you look closely, you can see that the stitching where the quarter meets the vamp could be slightly better. This isn’t bad at all though. It’s just not perfect.
You can see in these pictures that the stitch lines are not straight where the welt meets the midsole.

With all of this added up, I can say that the construction quality is more than satisfactory for their price point. The boots start at around $600 at the writing of this article and they destroy any North American bootmaker anywhere near that price point in terms of finishing. You would have to go to Kreosote or Role Club to get North American boots made better than these. In that sense, yes, Chinese boots can be better made than USA made boots. Of course, that was already proven by Flame Panda, but these are a bit less custom and are supposedly going to be easier to obtain than something like Flame Panda.

You can see the not perfectly straight toe cap stitching here as well as the excess leather in the brogueing.

Lastly, we need to talk about the design of these boots because in my opinion, that is the aspect that needs the most work. I’m not inherently against chunky boots by any means. Most of the boots I own are fairly substantial. However, I do think that these are not quite there yet in terms of design. Yes, they’ve been re-worked multiple times, but I still think they could be improved. For one, the heel is a bit too low with a toe box as massive as these are. Also, I do think the toe box is just not pleasantly shaped. It’s roomy, sure, but you can achieve that while not looking as clownish as these look. Another issue is that the eyelets need to extend further down the boot. These are only a size 10 and the toe is just massively too long on these boots. If the eyelets extended further, these boots would look more balanced. As is, these boots do look like something Krusty would wear while eating one of his condor egg omelettes and signing off on a licensed mustache lady mustache trimmer. 

I don’t love how the boots look from these angles.

With that said, I don’t hate how they look. I actually kind of like them. I know that when I think more objectively, they need some work, but I personally kind of like them. They’re certainly far from my favorite boots in terms of looks, but I have better designed boots that I don’t like to wear as much as these which is interesting and I do think they look better than Iron Rangers. They’re certainly far better made. While not being a big fan of the Devil Dogs either, I am happy to report that Iron Boots has released two boots that I think are well designed since I received these. Their monkey boots look pretty nice and the new Pittman looks like a great balance of a Viberg 310 and Julian Bowery. That’s a chunky boot that I think is nicely crafted in terms of aesthetics. I would have chosen either of those models over this 5515 if I could have at the time. In fact, I still may pick up one of those pairs in the future. 

That statement alone should tell you how I feel about these boots overall. If I like a pair of boots enough to be thinking of picking up a second pair from the brand, you know that I like them. It is not often that I buy second pairs from any maker so the fact that I would even consider doing so in this case means I’m impressed.  Are they perfect? No. However, I do think they are a compelling option at their price point. What is interesting is that this sub- $700 price point is becoming incredibly competitive. 

There are a lot of brands that Iron Boots has to compete with right now and all of them have their pros and cons. PNW makers like Wesco, Whites, and Nicks have more arch support and toughness akin to a Leopard 2 tank, but are not as immediately comfortable or as cleanly constructed. There are several Indonesian makers that are usually priced even lower while still being handwelted and in my experience, have comparable or even higher construction quality (depending on the maker). Plus, Flame Panda boots start under $700 as well and they are the best quality boots that I have handled at this price point (and they beat several more expensive boots as well). The downside to Peng’s works of art is of course the wait time, but it’s worth it for many. You also have Motor at that price who offer some pretty unique boots and excellent quality as well.

Still, Iron Boots does offer a solid product, especially with their two newer designs. If you want something that has easy to nonexistent break in, lighter weight, flexibility, hand welted construction, and excellent construction quality, these would be right up your alley if you like the designs. If you’re willing to pay the relatively high price for a first pair of boots, these would be a truly fantastic initial pair for someone who is scared of boots being too bulky and “uncomfortable.” The fact that I like them despite the design not being my cup of tea shows that these are quite compelling. Iron Boots set out to make boots with a casual, work-inspired look that work as a city boot and they have achieved that without a doubt. They definitely offer something better than the majority of American boot options in my opinion. You would have to go above this price point to get something provably superior from the USA. More importantly, this is a domestic Chinese brand achieving this. The entire process from design to construction occurs not only in the same country, but ostensibly under the same roof and that is exactly the kind of thing I personally want to support. 

I am not trying to bash my own country here, but the USA really needs to up their overall boot quality control. It’s not just Iron Boots, but many Indonesian, British, and especially Japanese makers that put them to shame in terms of boot finishing and quality control. Yes, there are a couple of small makers that do an amazing job and I am sure there are some amazing hand made cowboy boots out there too. However, in terms of standard casual boots, most US makers just don’t match up to other makers from around the world and these Iron Boots are a great example of that.

If you would like to check out and order a pair of Iron Boots, you can talk to their US rep @ironboots_usa . As always, this is not an affiliate link and I make no commission of any kind for any recommendations.

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