Building the Perfect Boot
The 9 Step Process to Building an L.L.Bean Boot
Excerpted from Guaranteed to Last by Jim Gorman, Melcher Media, New York, New York; hardcover; 224 pages; $19.12
Making a Bean Boot today involves more automation, higher volume (1,500 pairs a day), and a much larger space than the forty-by-twenty-five-foot basement in which L.L. started making them, but the process is still virtually the same. And the boots are still made right here in Maine. Here’s how:
Step 1: Cut Leather
Half-hides of whole-grain leather arrive at the 130,000-square-foot Bean manufacturing plant in Brunswick. Cutters work around tick bites, brands, and other imperfections for the best cuts. They place each cutting form down and hit a foot pedal, and the “clicker cutter” stamps out the shape, exerting forty thousand pounds of pressure. “Leather cutters hold the most important job in the factory,” says Jack Samson, manager of manufacturing.
Step 2: “Split” Pieces
Stacks of leather parts, arranged by boot size, head for the “splitter,” a machine that planes each piece to equal thickness and bevels its edges to prevent bunching or bulged seams that might chafe the boot’s owner. Less-than-perfect sections of hide might be used for boot tongues, heel counters, or other out-of-sight parts. “Sixty-seven percent of the cost of the boot is in materials,” says Samson.
Step 3: Stitch Pieces
Sewers stitch together individual leather pieces. Air-cooled sewing machines whir at speeds up to 7,400 rpm. Machines might look new, but some date to the 1940s or earlier. Regular maintenance and rebuilding keeps the machines humming.
Step 4: Punch Grommets
The eyelet machine punches brass grommets into the leather upper at prescribed intervals. The gumshoe version of the Bean Boot receives six eyelets; the sixteen-inch version gets twenty-eight eyelets.
Step 5: Sew Liners
In Gore-tex versions, liners are sewn to the upper. Every Gore-Tex liner is sealed with seam tape applied at 365 Fahrenheit, then submerged in a dip tank while pressurized. Any bubbles coming out lead to resealing until the liner is certified 100 percent air (and therefore) watertight. Gore-tex is one of several liner options, including Thinsulate and shearling.
Step 6: Merge Tops And Bottoms
Uppers unite with rubber bottoms. The bottoms are molded out of thermoplastic rubber at a Bean plant in Lewiston. A smear of cement applied to the rim of the bottom and double-sided tape on the upper keep the two pieces together temporarily.
Step 7: Sew Pieces Together
A stitcher sews the boots with a triple-needled machine using waxed cotton thread. In L.L.’s day, stitchers made three passes with one needle. “Cotton thread swells when it gets wet, so it seals the holes,” says Samson.
Step 8: Output Final Product
Daily output of boots slows from 1,500 pairs to 1,200 when complicated versions of the Bean Boot, like the waxed canvas boot, are on the line. On a given day, the factory produces around twenty different styles of Bean boots; there are more than fifty possible styles to choose from.
Step 9: Ship To Customer
Ready to rough it. Every boot bears a ticket generated by the order department that accompanies it through the factory. New bar coding will speed the process even more. Custom boots are direct-shipped right to the customer. Batch orders go to the company warehouse. Forty-five different workers have a hand in making the boots, with an average tenure on the factory floor of eighteen years. “Quality is impeccable and our reject rate is below 1 percent,” says Samson.