What Makes Leather Work Boots Actually Waterproof? [Discussed]


Leather is the time-tested material for work boots since it’s incredibly durable and flexible, but it has one big problem: it’s porous and not naturally waterproof. There are many waterproof or water-resistant leather boots on the market, but how do you actually make a leather boot waterproof?

There are several components that can be used together to make a leather boot waterproof, including:

  • A waterproof liner or bootie on the inside
  • A gusseted tongue to keep water and dirt from getting inside
  • Raised, attached eyelets (instead of punched eyelets)
  • Kilties
  • Water resistant sprays or waxes that can be worked into the leather
  • Seamed sealed construction

Although these processes sound deceptively easy and simple, there is more to it than that. And it is also important to understand that these components need to be used together to truly make a boot waterproof. Unfortunately, many boots on the market today may say “waterproof”, but may be lacking some of these specific components.

Are Waterproof Boots Really Waterproof?

Not all waterproof boots will truly be waterproof. There are a couple things to consider:

  • Brand – The brand of the work boot will play a big role in whether or not the boot is truly waterproof. Cheaper boots use cheaper materials and are less reliable. We all know this. But this can be especially true for waterproof boots. Finding waterproof work boots made in the USA might help you avoid this issue.
  • Materials – There are several components that go into making a boot truly waterproof. Some are more important than others, but if a company chooses to leave certain components out, it reduces the chances that the boot will truly be waterproof. A waterproof boot needs to be built using reliable materials, the leather needs to be treated to resist water, the seams need to be sealed to prevent leaking, and the boot needs a waterproof liner to act as a final barrier.

Let’s discuss in further detail the components that go into making a boot waterproof.


How Are Boots Waterproof?

Companies use several different materials and coatings when waterproofing boots. Alterations are made to nearly every part of the boots to ensure that water is unable to reach the interior. Although all of these components are important, the waterproof liner is perhaps the most important component in ensuring your foot stays dry.  

Waterproof Liners

A waterproof liner (often called a “bootie”) is a waterproof membrane that is placed between the leather and the boot’s interior lining. This means that even if due to poor construction water were to get through the outside of the leather, this waterproof bootie would be there to act as a final barrier to keep your feet dry.

Booties are the most important part of waterproofing a leather boot. A boot that uses only waterproof leather (and no bootie) may repel light precipitation, but to truly keep the foot dry, you will need a waterproof bootie liner inside the boot. Many cheap boot companies may market their boot as “waterproof”, but the boot does not have a waterproof liner, it has just simply had waterproofing treatment sprayed on the leather.

One drawback of waterproof liners is they can trap in heat. Most companies make these boots to be “breathable”, designing them in a way that keeps water out but allows heat to escape. This is easier said than done, and in my experience, all of my waterproof boots have been noticeably warmer and not ideal for extreme summer heat.

Gusseted Tongues, Raised Eyelets, & Kilties

Another component that manufacturers will sometimes add to help waterproof a leather boot is a gusseted tongue. A “gusseted” tongue just means that the tongue of the shoe is not only attached at the base, but also the side of the tongue is attached to the boot.

Here’s a gusseted tongue on a boot I use:

danner-vicious-gusset-tongue

As you can imagine, the laces are a tough spot to keep water out. A tongue gusset is an extra measure used to prevent leaking in this area.

Another important detail boot companies will use to prevent water leaking through is to use raised eyelets instead of punching holes in the boot. By not punching the eyelets into the boot itself, there are less holes for water to slip through.

For example, here are raised eyelets (notice, no exposed holes in the boot):

waterproof-boots

Here is a boot that is not waterproof and instead punches the eyelets in the boot itself:

non-waterproof-boot

Some companies will also use a kiltie down near the bottom of the laces to help hold out water. Here is a kiltie on one of my work boots:

kiltie

Although kilties and tongue gussets do help hold out water, one of their major strengths is their ability to also hold out small debris like rocks and pebbles. Because of this, you will often see gusseted tongues in waterproof hiking boots, and kilties in farm boots.

Industrial Water-Resistant Sprays

Companies also coat the leather itself with a water-resistant finish. Usually, this is in the form of a spray and is used to coat the entire exterior, even the soles. Leather is a porous material and water would soak through and damage it if not for this final coating. 

Typically, these sprays are too dangerous to use outside of a controlled manufacturing setting, but you can still use consumer-grade water protective sprays which we’ll discuss in more detail below.

Waterproof Sole Glue and Stitching

In addition to the spray coating, boot soles are also secured using waterproof glue or stitching to keep the moisture out underneath the foot. They are tightly seam-sealed so that water won’t find any cracks to slip through. 

The combination of all these parts is what makes a leather boot waterproof. Although by themselves they wouldn’t make much of a difference, when they work together they form a near impenetrable barricade.

Please understand that not all waterproof leather boots will use every method listed above. Some boots will not use a waterproof liner, and just instead treat the leather with a waterproof spray and use a seam-sealed construction.

Although these types of boots are more what I’d describe as “water-resistant” than truly waterproof, it is important to remember that subtracting out the waterproof bootie allows your feet to breathe easier, and might make sense in warm climates.


Two Water Resistant Leather Treatments You Can Do at Home

Choosing to waterproof your leather boots is a great decision all around. It not only protects your feet, but it also protects the leather itself and helps it last longer.

Most leather boots have been treated with some level of coating, but you can choose to take the extra step and waterproof them further yourself. The two most common options for waterproofing boots are waterproofing wax or a water-resistant spray finish. 

Both of the below methods can be done at home within minutes and will help protect your boots for years to come.

Water-Resistant Finishing Spray and How to Use it

Probably one of the easiest methods, the finishing spray uses an aerosol application method that helps maximize the coverage with less work. However, before applying it, you need to do some prep work. Here’s how:

  • Clean off any dirt and mud using a brush and remove any laces. 
  • Wash boots with a gentle cleanser/ detergent. 
  • Soak the boots in water, this helps them absorb the solution. (skip  if boots are nubuck leather)
  • Remove from water, gently pat down with a towel and set it out to dry. 

Now that your leather boots are clean, you can move on to the next step of the process, waterproofing. Even though it may seem counterintuitive to soak the boots when you are about to waterproof them, it has its benefits. The coatings can dry out the boot which will speed up its deterioration. 

Before the boots are entirely dry, apply the spray to the entirety of the boot. The compound will temporarily darken the leather but don’t panic, it will return to its original color once entirely dry. 

Once your boot is dry, it is ready to be put back in action. When using wax or balm-like water-proofing mixtures, the same steps apply for the prep, but the application differs. 

Water-Resistant Wax Application

Similar to the spray, the wax is best applied on a freshly cleaned and prepped boot. Following the same prep steps from before, wash your boots and set them out to dry. Once they are nearly dry, set up a little working station and get to it. 

Experts recommend using gloves to avoid getting the wax solution on your skin. This application process is more time-consuming and requires more attention than the prior, but wax is typically the more robust of the two solutions. 

Just gently massage the balm into the leather, making sure to coat everything. Once you’re finished applying the coating, let the boot completely dry before wearing it. 

How To Care For Water-Resistant Leather

Leather boots are usually a large investment. Because of this, it only makes sense that you take a few minutes out of your day once a week and give them some attention with a deep clean.

This process is fairly easy and can be broken down into three main steps:

  • Cleaning and conditioning: You should be cleaning and conditioning your boots with proper cleaners and moisturizers once every 2 weeks. Drop that to once a week if you work in an industry where your boots meet a lot of concrete dust which will dry them out significantly faster.
  • Re-waterproofing: No waterproofing spray or wax will last forever. If you notice your boot soaking up more water than it used to, follow our DIY waterproofing steps above to touch up the waterproofing.
  • Polish: Although this step isn’t as important as the others, experts recommend it. Polishing your boot adds more hydration and has the boot looking brand new. After cleaning off the boot, using the same cloth and leather polish, buff by rubbing in small circles to make it really shine.

Other Resources on Waterproof Leather Work Boots

We have a wide range of articles that can help you find the right waterproof boot to fit your specific needs. Here are some resources for you to consider:

PVC boots are nice, affordable option if you need something that is extremely waterproof. Just remember, if you need the best leather waterproof protection, you will want to find a leather work boot that uses a waterproof liner in addition to waterproof leather and a seam-sealed construction.

Paul Johnson

Paul is a lead content creator for Workwear Command. He has had several blue-collar jobs which have provided him a wide range of experience with tools and gear. He also has a business degree and has spent time in business casual office settings.

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