When you saw the term steel shank, were you thinking of one of those cool old gangster style boots where you stomp down and a knife comes out of the toe?
That was the first thing I thought of, but that’s not what a steel shank in a boot is at all.
Steel shanks—really any boot shank—all serve a similar purpose. And there’s a lot of confusion about what they’re supposed to do and how necessary they are.
So I’m breaking down exactly what a shank is, what it does, why you probably want one in your boot, and the downsides of steel shanks compared to a different material.
What is a Shank in a Boot?
Most boots feature what’s called a shank. Boot shanks don’t have to be made of steel, but steel shanks are the most common.
A boot shank is a small strip of hardened material like steel or nylon that get cemented into the boot beneath the footbed and above the outsole. It’s placed right at the arch of the foot.
Bootmakers add shanks so there’s less flex in the center of the boot when you’re standing or walking.
He’s a good example of what happens if you don’t have a shank in your boot:
There are a few things that can go wrong if your boot is flexing in the middle like the above pic. The most common issue is that the heel block can start to bother the front of your heel (toward the middle of your foot).
This can be super uncomfortable and even painful for flat-footed guys, but even if you have decent arches in your feet, too much mid-foot flexing can be problematic.
Linemen especially need shanks in their boots, or really any profession where you’re doing any climbing—if you rely on the arch of the boot to hold you in place and use the heel to lock you in (motorcyclists do this too) then a shank is necessary.
Despite what a lot of people say online, a steel shank is not for protection. I mean, I guess it could help stop a nail from busting through the bottom of your boot, but boot shanks are usually about three inches long and a half-inch wide, so it’s not like it covers a ton of space. I personally wouldn’t go walking on a bed of nails just because I had some boots with a steel shank.
Are All Shanks Made of Steel?
Steel is the most popular material for boot shanks, but plenty of brands use different materials. And you’d probably be surprised to find that some of the best boots in the world don’t use steel at all.
Boot shanks can be steel, leather, wood, nylon, composite, or carbon fiber. I’m sure there are a few other materials brands use, but the above are by far the most common.
A lot of work boots use steel shanks because they’re relatively inexpensive and very easy to source. And plenty of more fashionable boots use a steel shank as well. For instance, the Thursday Captain has a steel shank in it, which helps keep that arch strong.
The Thursday Captain is an excellent deal. Made with Thursday's Chrome leather from Le Farc tannery (often compared to Horween Chromexcel), these boots are still holding up well after five years of wear. When (if?) these ever wear out, I’ll be getting them again.
Some high-end brands like Nick’s and White’s use a leather shank, which is basically a hardened piece of oak-tanned leather that breaks in with the boot and isn’t heat-reactive like steel is (which is important for woodland firefighters—a huge part of Nick’s and White’s customer base).
Allen Edmonds uses a wood shank, at least for their Higgins Mill boot. I don’t know of any other brand that uses wood, so that’s pretty unusual, but Allen Edmonds is also a pretty huge brand.
And when I took apart my Ariat WorkHog boots, I found a nylon shank in the middle, which is necessary for the boot to get rated for electrical safety.
Ariat gave these an apt name. These waterproof work boots are tough. Combine that with Ariat's ATS comfort system, and suddenly working on your feet for 10-12 hours straight is much easier.
How To Tell if a Boot Has a Steel Shank
Some manufacturers don’t always advertise steel shanks, so sometimes, you’ll need to look for key indicators. A boot has a steel shank if it has:
– An arch support
– More rigid midsole material
– An overall stiffer feel when you walk, run, or jump.
The easiest method is to check product descriptions online or consult your local shoe store owner for guidance.
Why Do You Need a Steel Shank for Your Boots?
Generally speaking, I recommend getting a boot with some kind of shank. Usually, it’s one of several marks of a well-built boot.
There’s a notable exception for wedge-sole boots—those usually don’t have a shank in them because the entire sole is always in contact with the ground. That means boot companies can build the arch support into the footbed and a steel shank isn’t necessary.
1. Shanks Offer Support and Stability
The primary purpose of a shank is to provide stability, support, and balance when you’re wearing your boots. It’ll help keep the middle of the boot from flexing too much, which would eventually cause discomfort and potentially make your boots unwearable.
Boots without shanks are fine for standing around, but when you start walking and hiking, you might experience a lot of bending at the “waist” of the boot, which can cause a pinching sensation toward the front of your heel.
2. Boosts Durability of Your Boots
Because boot shanks reduce flexing, the welt and the upper will bend and crease less. Less creasing and bending equals longer lifespan.
Usually boots with shanks tend to use better construction methods and be made with better materials, so it’s hard to tell if boots with shanks last longer because of the shank or because they’re generally better all around. But a steel shank certainly doesn’t hurt.
3. Aids in Weight Distribution
Often overlooked, shanks are necessary for keeping your balance and distributing weight evenly. A good pair of boots without proper shanks can lead to foot fatigue over time.
When your feet hit uneven surfaces, they move around quite a bit. The shank helps control their movement and prevents them from having to bear too much weight at once.
The Downside of Boot Shanks
It’s not all roses with boot shanks. There are a few downsides to getting boots with a steel shank, and though they’re few, there are a couple scenarios where a steel shank might be a deal breaker for you.
1. Steel Shanks Set off Metal Detectors
Metal shanks might not be able to get you through security checkpoints at airports and government buildings without setting off metal detectors. This scenario can cause delays, which nobody wants when trying to make it on time for an important meeting or appointment.
If you regularly go through metal detectors and you’re looking for the extra stability and arch support a shank provides, look for a boot with a fiberglass or composite shank.
2. Shanks Add Weight
I wouldn’t worry about the added weight of a shank unless you’re an avid hiker who’s doing a long distance trail and you need to measure and optimize every ounce you’re carrying. In that case, a hiking boot with a carbon-fiber shank is a better option than steel.
3. Electrical or Fire Safety
ASTM rated boots often feature a non-reactive shank material like nylon or composite. Similarly woodland fire boots often use leather, which doesn’t hold heat like steel.
It’s almost always the case that if you’re shopping with a work brand for a specific trade, the brand is already using materials that are safe to work with.
Types of Boot Shanks
The steel shank is the most common type of boot shank. It is a hard metal that runs through your boot’s sole, right under your foot. Steel shanks are durable, strong, and long-lasting, which means they can provide more arch support.
These are shanks made from hard plastic, which helps protect boots against wear and tear while maintaining an affordable price point. They’re more flexible than metal or wood shanks but aren’t as durable.
Plastic is also common for boots with higher heels because it’s cheap and easy to mold into different shapes. While they won’t be as durable as more expensive options, they can still last several seasons.
While manufacturers make most boot shanks from molded plastic and steel, some high-end units have a fiberglass rod to provide stiffness. The benefit of using fiberglass is that it’s more rigid than plastic, allowing more flexibility.
Fiberglass is also lightweight, aiding in reducing fatigue during long training sessions. The potential downside is that fiberglass isn’t as durable as steel shanks.
Wood shanks are rare, but some heritage brands, namely Allen Edmonds, still use them. Wood shanks still give structure to the boot, but they’re lightweight and won’t set off metal detectors.
Many DC guys like wearing Allen Edmonds because they’re always going through security, and the wood shank becomes an asset in that scenario. Wood shanks are the least durable of all types.
You’re not likely to break your shank, but if you accidentally soak your boots through, it can cause rot in a cork midsole with a wood shank. You’d probably instantly know if the shank in your shoe snapped.
This shock-absorbing design absorbs impact while leaving a trail that stays together even when you walk faster or over rougher terrain. When you need stability and flexibility, nylon boot shanks are what to look for.
The nylon shank is becoming more popular on dress boots, but you can also find it in more casual styles for added strength. The shank prevents over-flexing of a style’s sole, which could result in permanent creasing or cracking.
Ready for a Boot Shank?
In most cases, you want a shank in your boot. But I don’t really think it matters too much what materials your shank is. There are some minor differences here and there, but for 99% of what you’ll be doing in your boots, any kind of shank will do the trick.
Note that most wedge-sole boots don’t feature a shank, and that’s fine. For instance, the Red Wing Classic Moc Toe doesn’t have a shank, but it’s still a fantastic boot. Because wedge-sole boots have complete contact with the ground, no shank is necessary.
The original Classic Moc. The 875 is built on the iconic No.23 last that leaves a lot of room in the toe, and the upper is all S.B Foot Oro Legacy leather. If you like a fine patina on your leather goods, there are few better choices than the Oro Legacy leather. It'll pick up oils and darken a decent amount throughout its journey with you.
But if your boot has a heel, a boot shank will help them keep their structure and make them more comfortable over time.
Why do boots have steel shanks?
Steel shanks add additional arch support so your weight doesn’t cause the middle of the boot to flex too much when walking or standing. Generally, boots with steel shanks offer more arch support and last longer.
What is the purpose of a shoe shank?
Not many shoes have shanks in them, but high quality dress shoes with a heel should have some sort of shank in them to prevent flexing in the middle. A shoe shank will increase the durability of the shoe by reducing flexing and will also make your shoes more comfortable over a longer period.
Are nylon shanks good?
Nylon shanks in boots are fine. There’s very little practical difference between a nylon and a steel shank as they both serve the same purpose.