How to Shrink Leather Boots – Dos & Don’ts

Wondering how to shrink leather boots? Before you read if you’re planning to shrink your leather boots because they are too big, you might want to think again.

There just isn’t anyway to make a pair of boots smaller. You can shrink the leather in some areas of the boot, like the uppers in cowboy boots, and they might break in faster, but more likely you’ll end up with wrinkly boots that still don’t fit. Many cobblers don’t even offer a “take in” service to shrink boots.

But there is good news: if your boots are too big in certain places, you can fill the extra space inside the boot.

giant red wing boot

Why You Should Never Shrink Your Leather Boots

Even the best cobbler can’t shrink leather boots to make them smaller. The rubber sole prevents shoes and boots from getting any smaller. If they are too big, you need to adjust the volume or get a new pair.

Do:

  • Fill the excess volume with insoles, socks, and pads
  • Consult a trained cobbler

Don’t:

  • Soak your boots in water
  • Apply heat or rubbing alcohol
  • Add elastic bands to the boots by stitching them if you’re not experienced

red wing iron ranger vs blacksmith walking

How Your Boots Should Fit

We wrote an entire article about how boots should fit. To sum it up, your boots should fit snuggly. You don’t want your toes to feel cramped in the toe box, but you also don’t want your heel to move or your foot to slide forward as you walk — you want as little movement as possible.

[Learn More: The Ultimate Guide to How Boots Should Fit]

Volume and foot shape

If your boot is too big, it’s good to understand exactly what that means. Are they too long? Is the instep too high? Is the heel cup too round? Which part of the boot is too big will determine how and if you can get a too-big boot to fit your foot.

Whites Perry Insole

How to Make Your Big Boots Fit Better – Dos

Speaking as someone who has fit hundreds of boots for people, including mountaineers and ultramarathon runners, there are a few tried and tested ways to get a pair of slightly too small boots to fit better.

Decrease the Volume

People have differently shaped feet. A pair of boots might fit well in the length, but your narrow foot swims inside the boot. Or you may have collapsed arches with way too much space between the top of your foot and boot. In both cases no matter how much you tighten your laces, you can’t get a good fit. Both problems occur because the boots have too much volume.

If you have a hard time finding boots that aren’t cavernous, you can follow the methods below to fill in that extra space and still leave room for your toes in your boot.

rhodes dean boot laces
CHUP socks peeking through some Rhodes Dean boots

Thick Socks

The simplest way to fill up the extra volume in a pair of boots is to wear them with a thick pair of socks.  

This is effective because the socks will fill up the extra space between your foot and the boots. They will only help if the boot is only a bit too big — say, half a size.

[Related: The Best Men’s Boot Socks You Can Buy (CHUP vs Smartwool vs Darn Tough)]

Tongue Pads

You can also buy inexpensive tongue pads. The tongue of the shoe is that the part of the of the boot immediately beneath the laces. A tongue pad is a pad that is self-adherent and is placed on the undersurface of the tongue of the boot. Most tongue pads are relatively thin, ranging from 1/8″ to 3/16″ in thickness. They can easily be doubled in most boot for an improved fit.

[SHOP TONGUE PADS HERE]

Arch Cookie
An example arch cookie from Amazon

Add an Arch Cookie

You can also add an arch cookie. These are like the ¾ length arch support pads sold by Dr. Scholls. An arch cookie is a type of arch support shaped like a fortune cookie or human ear. It is glued in your boot at the arch area. It fills the space in the instep of your boot and helps keep your foot from sliding forward. A ¾ length arch support does the same, it takes up more volume.

[SHOP ARCH COOKIES HERE]

Heel Pads and Heel Liners

This is a great solution if the boot fits pretty well in other places but the heel is slipping a lot, which can cause a shearing motion in the heel that can cause blisters. Leather and gel heel backs or heel counters can be made of various thicknesses of leather and other materials — depending on how loose the boots are you can add two on top of each other. Dr. Scholls makes a comfortable gel version

[OR SHOP LEATHER HEEL PADS HERE]

best insoles for work boots
“Walking Shoes for High Arches Support” by gm.esthermax is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Insoles

If you want to fill the extra volume in your boot, you can buy a pair of insoles. Most aftermarket insoles are thicker than the removable stock insoles that came with your boots. If you add an insole like Superfeet or Dr. Scholls, you can fill up the extra space in the boot. If you don’t want to splash out for expensive insoles, you can buy inexpensive insoles like the Spenco Comfort Replacement for about $15.

[Check out more insoles here]

Ball of Foot Cushion

Ball of foot cushions are also called metatarsal pads. These are primarily used for people who suffer from a type of foot ailment called metatarsalgia or pain in the tender ball-of-foot area. These cushioned pads relieve stress on the metatarsal by distributing the pressure as you walk.

They also have a secondary effect of adding volume to your leather boots. So instead of shrinking your boots, add a bit of comfort and make them fit better with a metatarsal pad.

[SHOP BALL OF FOOT CUSHIONS HERE]
rider boots wet

How to Shrink Leather Boots – Don’ts

Instead of decreasing the volume, you might have a very good reason that you want to shrink the leather on your boots, so here are a few ways you can do that. But remember that doing any of these methods may ruin your boots. Boots shrink because the leather uppers contract, but boots shrink only so much.

If you have a new pair of boots that are slightly too big, think about trying an insert or socks first. If that doesn’t work, you can try to sell them on eBay or Grailed, or donate them. But please don’t wreck a perfectly good pair of boots out of desperation!

[Learn More: How to Break In Boots]

Stitch In an Elastic Band

Stitching in an elastic band into your shoes is frequently recommended online. Personally I’ve never tried this and wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re good at stitching and don’t mind puncturing the leather in your boots, making them less water resistant.

It’s a fairly straightforward process. Take a thick sewing needle and an elastic band and sew through the leather.

Instead of doing this, we recommend using a heel grip.

Soak Your Boots in Water

Soaking your boots in water to shrink them is often touted to break in a pair of boots quickly. This does work, but it’s probably no better than any of the many other ways to break in boots.

Plus when water evaporates, it strips the leather of the oils and waxes that were added during tanning to keep the hide from becoming dry and brittle. If you soak your boots in water, you also strip the leather of these oils.

Also, walking around in wet boots and socks isn’t a great idea. There’s a lot of friction, and wet, soft feet are prone to chafing, blistering, and even infections.
salt stains in boots

How to Shrink Boots with Water

You soak your boots in a bucket, shake off the excess water, then put on two pairs of dry socks — one thin and one thick — and wear your boots for 6-8 hours. The boots will shrink over time as they dry. At the end of that process, you will have boots that are slightly more broken in and form fitting than a brand new pair of boots.

I’ve worn wet hiking boots for 6-8 hours and it’s not fun. Your boots may form to your feet form regular wear anyway, so I don’t really like this method as a way to make your boots significantly smaller. You will break them a bit, but you’ll likely get blisters.

Truman Java Waxed Flesh boot patina
Very dry, very unconditioned Truman Java Waxed Flesh boots

Wet Your Boots and Use a Hair Dryer

Don’t do this. The heat from the hair dryer can damage the leather even more than just getting your boots wet.

This is also a common method recommended to stretch your boots, so take it with a grain of salt. If you want to test it, you’ll need an electric blow dryer and a shoe tree. Soak your boots in either a bucket or sink. Once they’re completely wet, put them on your feet or you can insert a shoe tree.

Use the blow dryer on low heat to dry your boots while you wear them. Make sure you keep the temperature on low, as the leather may degrade. Let them dry on your shoe tree to keep the shape.

Also, keep the dryer at least 6 inches from the leather to avoid (unnecessarily) damaging it. After you finish, add leather conditioner.

[Related: The Right and Wrong Way to Stretch Calves of Leather Boots]

Fiebing's Shoe Stretch It
Shoe stretching spray is just water and alcohol — but there’s no such thing as shoe shrinking spray.

Spray On a Mixture of Alcohol and Water

Another method to avoid is to spray a mix of alcohol and water on your leather boots. It’s claimed that this method can stretch them. Like water, alcohol will strip the oils out of the leather, so make sure you have leather conditioner handy.

You’ll need isopropyl alcohol (this is also called rubbing alcohol), water, and a spray bottle. After you spray your boots, the alcohol will help evaporate the water quicker, and your boots will dry faster.

In your spray bottle, mix a 25% alcohol to 75% water ratio. Spray the leather upper until it’s wet and wear your boots or put in a shoe tree until they dry. The evaporation will shrink your boots as the water dries. Remember again to use leather conditioner to repair the damage from the alcohol and water.

[Leather Conditioner Review: Venetian Shoe Cream vs Saphir Renovateur]

Wrapping Up

If your hiking boots or work boots are too big and you have to fill in extra volume to shrink your boots, don’t soak your boots in water and walk around in wet socks, don’t use a hair dryer, and don’t fill a spray bottle with alcohol.

If you try any of these methods, make sure you have leather conditioner on hand to repair any damage the heat, water, and alcohol might cause.

Unfortunately, there is no magic solution to make your boots fit better. In desperation, it might seem like a good idea to put wet boots on your feet and hope that you will get better fitting boots, but you should instead look to fill the extra volume with the methods described above. 

After all, you can always do with a thick pair of socks.

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Karl Wasson

Karl is an IT product manager living in South East Asia who gets a kick out of durability and dependability. He believes form and function are not mutually exclusive. When he's not working, he's searching for the best bespoke menswear in South East Asia and beyond.

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