Some of the skates gliding across the ice this week are having a homecoming of sorts, as products of a highly specialized Minnesota company.
RED WING, Minn. - We'd love to tell you how a skate boot is made. But we'd lose you somewhere around Step 112, and there still would be 38 steps left in a top-quality skate's path from cowhide to center ice.
That intricacy is why a custom-fit boot from the Riedell Skates factory can run upwards of $700. That's why the TV cameras know to zoom in when a distraught skater storms off the ice pointing to her feet, or why commentators speak solemnly about boot-lacing rituals.
In any sport, good gear can mean success or failure. But quality takes on a particular intensity when the task is to accelerate up to 30 miles per hour across a sheet of ice before launching yourself into the air, then corkscrewing until gravity pulls you back onto the rink by way of a sliver of steel, the jolt of your return absorbed and supported by your skate boot.
Skate boots have evolved since Paul and Sophie Riedell founded Riedell Shoes Inc. in 1945. They were pairs skaters -- Paul was inducted into both the ice- and roller-skating Halls of Fame. But Paul also worked for Red Wing Shoes, rising from machinist to an assistant plant manager, all the while experimenting with building a more comfortable ice skate that would give skaters' toes more room, and thus more maneuverability.
Today, his grandsons Bob, Dan, Scott and Paul Riegelman run the company, and the ice-skating pond their grandfather tended has become a parking lot for the more than 100 employees. Over the years, the family-run outfit has made skates for some of the best on blades, including four-time World Champion Kurt Browning and three-time U.S. Champion Johnny Weir. Dan Riegelman, the company's vice president, said he expects more than 30 skaters to perform in Riedell skates during this week's U.S. championships.
But there also are the skates they've built for the occasional performing chimpanzee, bear or movie star: Riedell skates adorned funny feet in the 2007 Will Ferrell figure-skating comedy, "Blades of Glory." And the most innovative role ever played by a Riedell skate was as Tom Hanks' inventive dental tool in "Castaway."
Designing for triple jumps
A top-quality skate boot begins with a cow.
Dan Johnson, Riedell's director of manufacturing, smoothed an animal-shaped piece of leather, explaining how a hide varies in thickness and elasticity. For instance, shoe tongues are cut from the belly, across the stretch. At $4 a square foot for top-grade leather, pattern cutting is an art, trying to get the most pieces from the right places. "You make it or break it in the cutting room," Johnson said.
From there, the pieces of leather begin a weeklong journey through many pairs of hands and into the maws of incredibly specialized machines, many of which have photos of family vacations or kids in hockey uniforms taped to their sides. Little bursts of hot vapor rise from spots around the assembly room. At various stages, a boot needs to be heated or softened before it's eased into its next shape -- a step that's grown more challenging as boots have grown stiffer.
The push-the-envelope athleticism of today's skaters is driving a demand for more rigid boots, Johnson said. "It's one of the biggest changes in the past 45 years," he said. "If you're doing quads, you need more support. You try to give the boots some flex forward, but they need to be stiff side-to-side -- otherwise, skaters will blow out their ankles."
Layers of reinforcement are built up like plywood. Glue, align, press, stitch. Bevel an edge to ease a seam. Steam the leather so it folds around the heel. Johnson is always on the lookout for new materials, such as the fibrous fabric backing the eyelets that's so strong it's used in road construction.
Each layer adds weight to a boot, and while there's a tipping point, skaters in fact want their skates to weigh a certain amount. And we mean certain in the most literal sense: Skaters want their skates to be 4.5 to 5.5 percent of their body weight, because centrifugal forces help them spin in the air.
One at a time
Custom boots are all of this, and more. More measurements, more layers, more time, more money. Lee Olson is Riedell's custom shoemaker, making new patterns from measurements provided to the company by skaters. Local athletes may visit the factory, but most measurements are mailed in from around the world.
Using reinforcing layers, Olson can build up an arch, curve around a toe, or make allowances for an especially protruding ankle bone. "A little can make a big difference," he said. He cuts each piece by hand, working at a butcher block in a quiet sanctum of the factory. He's been with Riedell for 35 years, working his way up to the custom level. "You can't go to school for it," he said. He documents each step so a skate boot can be made again to the same specifications, a necessity given that a competitive skater can go through a pair a year.
Riedell's top custom boot is $680 -- and that's just the price of the boot. A top-level blade can cost again as much and is attached to the boot later by a blade specialist working with the skater.
And while Olson builds boots that have won world championships, he doesn't skate himself.
Rolling into the future
Ice-skating actually is in the midst of a downturn, Riegelman said, ticking off reasons ranging from overexposure on TV to judging scandals. But no worries. Derby roller-skating is growing in popularity nationwide. Even the legendary roller-skating scene at Venice Beach, Calif., is reviving, which is good news for Riedell, whose skate boots can be fit with either ice blades or roller wheels.
The company even brought back an old "Riedell" logo for its roller skates, because it had the retro look that derby skaters favor.
There used to be about 2,000 shoe factories in the United States, Riegelman said. That number is down to fewer than 50. In Red Wing, pop. 16,000, there are two.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185