How Are Climbing Shoes Made?
The impressive 8-Step process of every climbing shoe goes through.
At first glance, you might think that your climbing shoes are pretty simple pieces of equipment; a couple of layers of fabric, a few pieces of rubber, and a little bit of Velcro is all there is to them, right? If only it were that simple.
In reality, specialized climbing shoes are some of the most complex tools in your kit bag.
Sure, they might like simple rubber slippers, but don’t be fooled, shoe manufacturers pour thousands of hours and vast sums of money into the development of these finely turned sending machines. Take La Sportiva, for example, who did extensive research into gorilla prehensile abilities and the sensitivity of feline fingertips before developing their Olympic bouldering-specialist shoe, the Theory. Or Tenaya, who spent two years studying foot biomechanics and perfecting the design of the Oasi to work in perfect harmony with the natural movement of your foot.
There’s a good reason why manufacturers put so much effort into perfecting their shoes. Perhaps the most important reason is that shoes can have a huge impact on your ability to crush hard. The evolution of climbing shoes has undoubtedly played a role in the never-ending progression of grades that have been achieved in the last several decades.
Another important reason why so much time and effort is put into the development of new shoes is that they need be able to put up with a serious amount of abuse, more so than any other shoe in your wardrobe. Climbing shoes regularly need to withstand the immense amount of force applied when you stand on those barely-there edges or jam your foot into a crack.
The art of designing and manufacturing climbing shoes is a process that has been refined and developed for well over four decades. While outdoor manufacturers, and shoe designers like Heinz Mariacher, have offered innovations that have offered a boost in the performance and comfort of climbing shoes, the manufacturing process that every shoe goes through has remained largely unchanged.
Due to the complexity of the design, manufacturing climbing shoes is a pretty labor-intensive affair, with most shoes made completely made by hand. The eight-step process below is the procedure that almost every climbing shoe will go through, regardless of model or brand.
How climbing shoes are made: The Complete Manufacturing Process
Step 1: Choose the last shape
The process of creating a new climbing shoe always begins with perfecting the shoe last. A last is the term given to the plastic foot-shaped mold that a shoe is built around. This is one of the most important steps in the entire process because the finished shoe will ultimately inherit all the characteristics of the last it was built on. Everything from its size, downturn, and asymmetrical shape, width, and heel fit will be dictated by the last.
Every shoe manufacturer creates their own range of shoe lasts, some creating over 10 different last shapes for their shoe line. This is the reason why the shape and size of climbing shoes across brands is often very inconsistent. The process of perfecting the initial last shape is no easy task either. Design teams can spend weeks melting, cutting, and grinding prototypes to finely tune the mold to achieve that optimal shape.
Step 2: Pick the Upper Material and Lasting Method
Once the team is happy with the last, it’s time to start constructing the shoe around it. The first layer that is added is the upper material.
The choice of upper materials is usually between leather or synthetic fabric. Leather uppers offer brilliant breathability and will mold perfectly to the shape of the climber’s feet, however, they do a tendency to noticeably stretch throughout the lifespan of the shoe. Synthetic shoes are a vegan-friendly alternative that virtually won’t stretch at all, but they aren’t as breathable, and often retain more odor than their leather counterpart.
Many modern climbing shoes opt to use a hybrid of both leather and synthetic materials through the shoe to make the most of the strengths of both materials.
When the upper fabric is chosen, manufacturers will cut out the shapes from sheets using stencils. They then need to decide how they want to start building the shoe around the last.
There are two methods of lasting a shoe; board and slip lasted construction. Board lasting was the common method of construction in the early years of shoe manufacturing. This required manufacturers to secure a stiff heel-to-toe “board” to the bottom of the last and sew the uppers to this board, creating a thick and unyielding under-foot feel.
Today, almost every climbing shoe is built using the slip-lasted method. Boreal first introduced the world to this method of construction with the Ninja in 1985 and paved the way for sensitive and cambered climbing shoes. For slip-lasted shoes, the uppers are sewn to a thin footbed, creating a fully-enclosed upper that resembles a sock. This is then “slipped” over the last, and tighten around the last in order to adopt its shape and size characteristics.
You can see Scarpa using the board and slip lasting for some of their shoes in the video below.
Step 3: Add the Midsole
After the material uppers are secured to the last, the midsole is then attached to the bottom of the shoe. The midsole plays a large role in dictating the rigidity, sensitivity, and edging ability of your shoes. The shape and sizes of midsoles vary from shoe to shoe, depending on their desired sensitivity and characters.
For neutral shoes that are designed for beginners or longer styles of climbing, a thicker full-length midsole might be used. For soft bouldering shoes, a thin midsole under the toes might only be required, allowing for greater sensitivity and flexion of the forefoot.
Step 4: Attach the Rand
When the midsole is secured in place, the rubber rands are then attached. Rands play an important role in the shoe constitution. Not only do they help maintain the shape and characteristics that were inherited from the last, but also assist in protecting the high-wear areas from abrasion and act as a platform for the rubber outsole to be secured onto the bottom of the shoe.
Perhaps one of the most important roles of climbing rands is their ability to create tension throughout the shoe. Climbing shoes rely on a tight fit in order to maximize precision and prevent the edges from rolling when standing on small edges. The tensioned rubber that runs around the sides and back of the shoe act like an elastic band, forcing the shoe to remain securely on your foot whilst in use.
Step 5: Fit the rubber outsole
Once all the rands are fitted, the outsole can be applied. This is the final piece to be added to the shoe and is glued over the top of the rand.
The type of rubber and the thickness again depend on the model of the shoe and on its desired purpose. Some manufacturers like Evolv, Five Ten, or Mad Rock opt to use their own proprietary outsole rubber, whereas others, like La Sportiva, Scarpa, and Tenaya make the most of Vibram’s “Climbing Performance” compounds.
Regardless of whether a brand uses its own compound or opts to use a third party, most brands will have various types of rubber, all suited to different surfaces and styles of climbing. Softer compounds offer higher friction properties, whereas thicker rubber compounds are more durable and offer additional support on small edges.
At this point, many manufacturers also choose to add some additional patches of rubber that offer additional protection to high wear areas or that help the shoe a performance boot, like larger toe patches or reinforced heel cups for an extra performance boost.
Step 6: Machine Pressed
After all the layers of construction are applied to the shoe, the shoe is then pressed in specialized machines in order to ensure that all layers are secured to one another and a seamless finish is achieved.
Step 7: Drying and Final Polishing
The finished shoe is then left for serval days so that the glue has sufficient time to dry and strengthen. After the glue has had an appropriate amount of time to set, the shoe is then handed ground and polished to create those crisp edges and polished finish to the sole and rands.
Step 8: Testing and Revisions
Once the manufacturing process is complete the finished shoe is sent out to the testing teams to provide feedback and offer insight into any alterations that need to be made. Testing is usually done by both the development team, as well as the brands sponsored athletes.
Testing can go on for months, or even years, depending on how many revisions or issues that are identified from testers’ feedback. Some shoes might even need to go back to the drawing board and be completely reimagined based on the tester’s feedback.
Despite all the technological advancements in modern manufacturing, the process of creating a new climbing shoe still remains a long and rigorous process. Many steps in the process still require human input and skilled shoemakers in order to create the performance-orientated sending machine we all take for granted.