KEEN’s Kicks Go (Really) Old School With Vintage Vulcanization Machines

The rubber vulcanization process involved with making shoes can be smelly and inefficient. Vulcanization with sulfur requires high temperatures, long heating periods–and that nasty chemical smell. So Portland, Ore., based footwear company KEEN decided to try something new with its Santiago Collection of shoes: they’re bringing back Desma’s hand-operated direct vulcanization machines. The only catch is that these machines haven’t been made for 60 years.

Desma’s German-made machines stopped being manufactured because of the arrival of quicker chemical vulcanization processes. But KEEN CEO James Curleigh went on a worldwide hunt to find them–in part because the hand-cranked machines make for a healthier environment for workers. 

“With these machines, the shoes don’t smell at all,” explains Linda Tom, KEEN’s marketing manager. 

The Desma machines are the size of a small dryer, and can make shoes in a couple of minutes using heat and pressure to directly attach rubber to the canvas on KEEN shoes. It’s a little bit slower than more modern vulcanization methods, but it’s also more hands on–one machine makes the shoe, instead of having it sent along a production line.

Now that KEEN has refurbished dozens of Desma machines, the products have been sent to KEEN’s new factory in the Dominican Republic for use. “The Dominican Republic has a long history of shoemaking, but factories are at low capacity or are not being used at all. We wanted to revitalize that [history],” says Tom.

The Santiago Collection goes on sale next year. AS