With a satisfying clunk, ten nails are driven home deep into the heel of an Iron Ranger boot. The operator deftly slides the boot out and in a single motion, pulls the lever that draws the next ten nails down their tracks into position. He slides a new boot into the machine and with another clunk, yet another pair of Iron Rangers is brought to heel. This process will repeat itself all day long as hundreds of pairs of boots march towards completion. It is a process that has remained the same for the past eight decades and through several generations of Red Wing bootmakers. In a world obsessed with improvements and planned obsolescence, things that remain unchanged are rare and coveted; Our tough leather uppers and cork midsoles work as well in 2015 as they did in 1915. Not only are the boots virtually identical to those made a century ago, but the machines and processes are largely the same which means that stepping into a pair of our boots is a bit like stepping into history.
The heel nailer is one such machine. It has been doing its singular job day in and day out for over 80 years. Purpose-built to do one task, it is not a particularly beautiful machine to behold. Its cast iron frame is gray and patinated with age, strips of duct tape strapped here and there and its exposed chains and levers were designed for function and ease of maintenance, not for aesthetics. But the efficiency of its function is beautiful in itself. We don’t continue to use this machine out of nostalgia; this isn’t a museum after all, it’s a shoe factory. The heel nailer is still the best way to quickly and securely fit heels to boots.
The old machines at the Red Wing Shoe factory are reminders that “state of the art” doesn’t always mean shiny and new. It means using the best method to accomplish a task and it’s something we’ve been doing since 1905, finding ways to combine human skill and care aided by machinery. And like the boots they help make, no doubt the heel nailer will go on for many years to come.