Our Menswear Dialogue Series returns with a discussion on leather and footwear from Red Wing Shoes Master Tanner Mr. Andy Rhein.  Both Red Wing and Mr. Rhein have storied backgrounds and we're happy to share them with you.  Enjoy.

Image Granted - What is your title/profession/trade?

Andy Rhein -My professional title is Technical Director of Operations at S.B. Foot Tanning Company and I am also trained and certified as a Master Tanner through the German Masters apprenticeship program.

IG - "Master Tanner" seems like a pretty big deal.  An even bigger deal at an institution such as Red Wing.  How does one go about earning the title of master tanner?

AR - Training as a Master Tanner is something that a person can only receive in Germany. That is because Germany is the only country in the world that certifies professions at a Master level through both University and Apprenticeship programs. To earn certification as a Master Tanner a person must go through an Apprenticeship of some kind under a Master Tanner. This is the training methodology that has been in place in Germany since the conception of the Master professions and it is the same way with all the other Master professions, whether you want to be a Master Plumber or a Master Electrician or so on. Being a Master means that you are an elite in your trade and are able to train apprentices. In pursuing this certification I also attended University at the West German Leather Center where I studied as a leather engineer  and a protein chemist, ensuring that I am as knowledgeable as possible in the field of leather tanning.

IG - What are your daily responsibilities?  If you had to guess how many hours have you spent tanning leather in your career what would you estimate?

AR - My primary daily responsibilities have to do with the general processing of the leather. I am very involved at all levels of processing throughout the tannery, all the way from inspecting the incoming hides to the final shoe manufacturing duties. To give an idea of what that encompasses, there are about sixty steps between having a quality leather hide and developing it into the final product. I am intimately involved in all those steps because I want to make absolutely certain that things are coming out the way they need to.

As for how many hours I would guess I’ve spent tanning leather, that’s a bit of a difficult number to come up with. My estimate would be about a quarter million hours and that’s due to the twenty-four-seven nature of my job. The chemical processes involved in leather tanning and the care that these hides require doesn’t allow you to just go home and turn yourself off. Beyond that, though, is the passion that I have for this craft and the passion that other people in my position have. Once you’re in and that passion is in your blood it never leaves you alone.

IG - Please walk us through the process of selecting and processing the leather used for Red Wing shoes.  We know only the best leather is used but how is it sourced?  How is it processed once its sourced?

AR - First, we need to know what kind of leather we’re looking for and what kind of qualities we want that leather to have. So, before we even look at the leather to figure out what type to use for a new boot style, we need to meet with the design team at Red Wing Shoes. What we discuss with the design team is obviously what the boot needs to look like, but we also discuss how the finished boots need to perform. Do we want a waterproof boot? A shock resistant boot? When it comes to selecting leather we have very specific guidelines for durability and style type, such as whether the boot will be a hiker or a logger. All of these specifics determine how the leather needs to be designed. From there we determine whether the leather will be oiled or non-oiled, what the thickness needs to be, what the color scheme will be and so on.

As far as sourcing for quality, we have a selection process where each hide is individually inspected for defects and only the best are selected for Red Wing Shoe products.

IG - How many hands are involved in the process of making one of your heritage collection boots?

AR -I would have to guess that a Heritage style boot would be touched by about two-hundred hands before the boot is complete.

IG - What is the dichotomy between tanner and designer?  It seems almost like the chicken and egg debate. Without a tanner there is no quality leather for the designer to create beautiful pieces.  Without the designer there is no beautiful product to be brought to life from the leather.  How close is this relationship at Red Wing?

AR - I would describe the dichotomy between the tanner and the designer as the same type of dichotomy as a race car driver has with their mechanic. The driver tells the mechanic, this is what I want the car to do and this is what it should do and the mechanic then has the instructions and can go forward and make a product that meets those requirements. It’s very much like that. The designer says, “do this for me and make sure the boot has these specifics,” and then the tanner can create a leather that meets those standards.

That relationship creates a synergy. I, as the tanner, want to know what the boot will do and with that knowledge I will help build it. But the relationship doesn’t end there with the designer and the tanner, at some point we also have to get the shoe manufacturing guys involved.

This is where Red Wing Shoes is absolutely unique. The synergy that is involved in the boot building process, from the design to the tanning to the manufacturing, is something we all are involved in. For instance, the designer understands the tanner’s job and we all know enough about each other’s jobs that we complement one another during the development. What that means is that we aren’t going to design something that has to be reengineered once it gets to tanning or manufacturing. We control the entire boot making process, from the cow hide to the final product and I don’t know if there is anyone else in the world like us in regards to that ability. We make it, we control it and it is designed to accommodate the product line.

That is very cool!

IG - What is the succession plan at Red Wing?  Do you have a replacement when you're ready to hang up your boots?  Do you think the art of tanning is alive and well or in danger of dying out like old world tailors?  If it's dying, how do we keep this art thriving?

AR -At this point we do have people who have been trained in-house to understand the intricacies of leather tanning, the chemistry behind it and the incoming processes of hide selection. But we don’t have anyone else who is a Master Tanner or who is in training to become one.

The Master Tanning art is dying out. The tanning school I went to in Germany was closed last year due to a lack of students and that was the last leather tanning school in the country. I believe the last group of Master Tanners to graduate from University was in the 90s. There are very few of us left. I would estimate that there are only about one hundred Master Tanners alive and only twenty to thirty who are still working.

In order to keep the art alive we need to do exactly this! We need to get the word out about this rare and unique craft and make sure people know about the art and know how valuable and important it is.

This is a magnificent field of study and an exciting job. Even with all my experience I am still learning new things nearly every day and seeing ideas and processes that no one else has ever seen before. It’s what makes me come back every day and every day I leave work thoroughly excited to come back the next morning.