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How Are Climbing Shoes Made?

Updated By Sam on 10th Nov 2023

Have you ever wondered how your climbing shoes are made? They look relatively simple, but I bet you’ll be surprised at how much work goes in to creating climbing shoes.

At first glance, climbing shoes may seem like a simple creation —a few layers of fabric, some rubber, and a touch of Velcro. But in reality, our specialized shoes are one of the most complex tools in our kit collection. While they may resemble mere rubber slippers, don’t be deceived—shoe manufacturers invest huge sums of money to develop these finely tuned sending machines.

La Sportiva, for instance, undertook extensive research on gorilla prehensile abilities and the sensitivity of feline fingertips before crafting the Theory, their bouldering-specialist shoe. Then there’s Tenaya, dedicating two years to studying foot biomechanics to perfect the design of the Oasi, ensuring it moves in perfect harmony with your foot’s natural motion.

There’s a good reason why climbing manufacturers put so much effort into perfecting their products. Climbing shoes can have a huge impact on your ability to climb at your best. Few can argue that the evolution of climbing shoes has undoubtedly played a role in some of the amazing achievements we have laid witnessed to in the last few decades.

How are climbing shoes made
So iLL climbing shoes are being handsewn in California

Another crucial reason for the meticulous attention to the design and development of our shoes is due to the ridiculous level of durability they require. Our shoes need to be able to put up with a serious amount of abuse, regularly expected to withstand the immense amount of force applied whilst standing on those barely-there edges or jamming in a granite crack.

What are climbing shoes made of?

What are climbing shoes made from
The Tenaya Masai is a relatively simple shoe, using a lined synthetic upper.

Before we talk about how our shoes are made, first we need to talk about what our shoes are made from. At their most basic, climbing shoes are made up of materials uppers, rubber soles, and rubber rands. The material uppers can be made from leather, vegan-friendly fabrics, or a combination of both. These material uppers can also be lined or unlined, depending on what characteristics the manufacturers want their shoe to inherent.

The rubber rands and outsole are then glued on top of the material, which gives our shoes structure and durability. Again the shapes, sizes, and thickness of the rands and outsole vary drastically depending on the shoe’s intended use.

How Climbing Shoes Are Made: The Complete Manufacturing Process

The art of designing and manufacturing climbing shoes has been refined over more than four decades of trial and error. While innovative shoe designers like Heinz Mariacher have introduced enhancements to the performance and comfort of climbing shoes, the manufacturing process itself has remained largely unchanged. Given the intricate designs, manufacturing climbing shoes is a labor-intensive process, with most shoes being crafted entirely by hand.

The eight-step procedure outlined below is the standardized process that nearly every climbing shoe undergoes, regardless of the model or brand.

Step 1: Choose The Last Shape

climbing shoe manufacturing
The Mad Rock Redline on a shoe last

The process of creating a new climbing shoe always begins with perfecting the shoe last. A last is a 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, 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 are 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

Making new climbing shoes
The uppers used on the La Sportiva Solution

Once the design 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 have 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 lasted 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 construction method 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 tightened around the last in order to adopt its shape and size characteristics.

In the video above, you can see Scarpa using the board and slip-lasting methods for some of their climbing shoes and hiking boots.

Step 3: Add The Midsole

climbing shoe midsole
The minimal midsole used on the Scarpa Veloce

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 climbing 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 stiffer 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.

climbing shoe factory

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 acts like an elastic band, forcing the shoe to remain securely on your foot while 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.

Climbing shoe outsole

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 protection to high wear and tear areas or that help give the shoe a performance boost, like larger toe patches or reinforced heel cups.

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 pieces 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 ground and polished by hand 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 brand’s sponsored athletes.

Testing can go on for months, or even years, depending on how many revisions or issues are identified from testers’ feedback. Some shoes might even need to return to the drawing board and be reimagined entirely based on the tester’s feedback.

Despite all the technological advancements in modern manufacturing, creating a new climbing shoe 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.

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