Oct 15, 2011

Heatmolds and hollows and blades, oh my!

My favorite excuse for poor skating is "blame the equipment." Seriously. Especially for adult skaters, you feel so incompetent out there, even though in your dreams you're Peggy Fleming, sailing etherearally through a misty forest in a flowing white dress (true story). It simply must be the ice surface, the mold, and most especially the skates and blades.

You're stuck with the ice surface, but I'm going to help you choose a boot and a blade that will keep you from being able to blame them (sorry).

First a word about brands. Brand is important in figure skates, even low-end figure skates. I've never seen a no-name brand that I could recommend. (This includes the ones they sell at L.L.Bean. These are the worst skates on the market.) The brands to look for in the States are Reidell, Jackson, SPTeri, Klingbeil, and Graff (help me out and let readers know 1-who I'm forgetting, and 2-any Canadian, UK, or Aussie brands that I don't know about). I know that the first three make recreational-level skates. Don't worry about blades yet (more below).

Boot and blade set. A lot of adults swear by what I call "comfort skates"-- those recreational skates that look like sneakers. If you're a brand new skater these are probably your best bet, although some adults (cough*me*cough) find that they don't feel like they're giving you enough support. Try a few brands--Reidell and Jackson brands are fairly easy to find.

For children 6 or younger a beginner recreational skate like Jackson SofTecs are the only way to go. Standard figure skates are very uncomfortable for a child used to sneakers 2 sizes too big. Children this age have an easy time switching to standard skates after a year of skating, and it's simply not worth the barrier of uncomfortable skates. Older kids I would put straight into standard beginner skates like a Jackson "Mystique." Kids over the age of 6 are going to understand the concept of fit better, and also tend to learn faster, so you want them in a skate they can wear through several levels of skills.

Higher level boots are stiffer than beginner boots, because jumps require more support. They will tend to have a higher shaft, although this is changing with a lot of high level skaters choosing a cut-down back so they can point their toes. And this is the single most misunderstood aspect of skates. Skates are padded at the sides of the ankle to support and minimize lateral movement. You want to be able to bend your ankle forward, very very deeply. High level skates actually put in things like "scallops"--little cut outs, sometimes as many as three, so that you can bend your ankle in a stiff skate. The thing for recreational skaters to remember is that it takes a lot of muscle power to "break" a skate like that-- i.e. to get the ankle to bend properly. Put a 60 or 80 pound Beta-level child in a high-level boot and they will simply not have the weight or strength needed to bend their ankles properly, which certainly affects how well they skate, how comfortable the skates are, and can also lead to injury.

Let your budget guide you--you don't have to spend a thousand dollars on skates, although you can; there are excellent choices around $200. Think of it as comparable to the cost of a decent bike.

Factors in blades are: toe pick, hollow, and radius.

Toe pick

Get a toe pick appropriate to the jumps you are doing. No jumps? Beginner blade with a small, high toe pick. Beginner jump? Beginner blade like an MK Pro, Wilson Majestic or the blade that comes on a skate like the Jackson Freestyle. Again, talk to a skate technician and be honest about your skater's level and ambition. Don't put a class-only skater in a $400 blade.

The hollow is the curved area between the edges. You can get it in different radii, from 3/8" (very deep/sharp) to 1" (very flat/shallow). Unless you're a really really serious skater, don't worry about it. I mean it. However, the technician who sharpens your skates does need to understand hollow. Never never never get your skates sharpened by anyone except a certified technician. Don't go to the local bike shop that bought a machine because they thought it would be a good sideline. If the nearest sharpener is farther than you want to travel, ask around your rink--often the high level coaches will have their own machine and be trained and skillful at this, and will not charge any more than the skate shop. And seriously, you do this twice a year, maybe 4 times if your kid skates a lot (a skater can get 40 to 60 hours of skating out of a sharpening). It is ridiculous to risk ruining a $100 blade to save six bucks or to avoid a half-hour drive.

Again, don't worry about it until you're ready for your first pair of expensive blades. The rocker is the radius of the curve that the blade is cut on; i.e. a blade is basically a little piece of a circle of either 7 feet or 8 feet. An 8-foot rocker is a little flatter than a 7-foot rocker. Beginners tend to like the 7 foot one better, although it really doesn't matter which radius you use, at any level. You should know the "profile" of your skate (basically the silhouette), but the specs don't matter that much--they all work, and the depth of the hollow and radius of the blade are entirely personal preference. Again, your skate technician needs to be able to tell which radius your blade uses-for instance, hockey blades use a very large radius, with a sharp curve at the toe and heel. If your technician doesn't know this, and doesn't reset the machine for figure skates, you're screwed (this happened to a large group of the rental skates at my rink--they sent the figure skates to a technician that gave them all a hockey grind--took the back of every blade right off. Sadly, when I pointed this out to them, they had no idea what I was talking about.)

Never put a beginner (through Gamma) in a freestyle blade. A beginner blade has a toe rack with all the picks roughly the same size, and starting high up the rocker (curve of the blade). A freestyle blade will have a larger top and bottom pick, and the whole rack is farther down the rocker, i.e. closer to the ice. The time to switch to a freestyle blade is whenever the child outgrows the pair she's wearing around Delta or low freestyle. Freestyle skates come in both boot-blade sets, and separate boots and blades.

If you buy separate boots and blades, the blades can often, but not always, be used through a couple of size changes in the boots. Talk to a skate technician at a specialty skate shop to determine whether your old blades are appropriate on your new boots.

Used skates
If you're a beginner I would simply not buy used skates from your neighbor, friend, Play-It-Again Sports, or that nice mom at the rink. You don't know enough about it. I cringe every time I see some 6 year old PreAlpha skater in a freestyle blade and heavy boot. It's like putting a new rider on an Arabian dressage horse instead of a pony. Not safe, and not fun. If you get used skates, get them from the specialty skate shop

A lot of information. How do you choose?
You can do your own research--there's tons of advice on the web. But a better way to do it is to ask a coach or a specialty skate shop. Give them your budget and your skating level, and they'll be able to steer you to a good skate. A lot of coaches will simply recommend the boot and blade that they like; this is fine. As you progress as a skater, you'll get more knowledgeable and start being able to make your own choices--my daughter skated in SPTeri's for years because that's what I wear. Then one day, about the age of 14, she decided, more or less on her own, to try another brand, and now she's a dyed-in-the-wool Reidell advocate.

A lot of coaches, even high level coaches, do not educate themselves about skates, but their advice to just buy the skate they like is still probably fine. The Professional Skaters Association, strangely, requires knowledge of boots and blades only from coaches taking the Group Instruction rating; it's not part of the Free Skating, Dance, or Moves exam, which seems utterly bizarre to me, but of course, they don't ask me.

Long story short? (Or as they say now in web parlance tl;dr-too long didn't read) It's a good idea to understand all the techinical aspects of boots and blades, but not necessary to end up with a decent set appropriate to your level. Talk to your coach or a specialty shop and you'll end up with a decent boot.


  1. Just wanted to.add Edea to the list of boots. They are becoming very popular around here.

  2. We're Canadian, and both my daughter (on a Beginner 2 Synchro team and working on her preliminary tests) love our GAMSs. They're heat moldable so it helps get the fit right (for both her narrow foot and my 40-something bunion).

    Our figure skating shop has indicated that she'll need a better blade next time; she's working on single jumps (has her waltz jump, loop and salchow and is working on her flip) and I'm told it's time for bigger picks.

    I think we'll need new skates within the next couple of months, so I'll keep the 'not too stiff' mantra in mind. I'd peg her as a serious recreational skater (2x a week with synchro team both on and off ice, 1x week in pre-competitive group both on and off ice, 1x per week in Starskate lesson with 15 minutes of private coaching). I can't see her breaking in a super stiff boot - she's all of 60 pounds dripping wet.

  3. Risport are a big make in the UK even though there Italian

  4. *cough* *cough* Dance boot discussion please.

    It took me forever to discover scallops, ankle notch, heel height difference, shaft length difference, back notch, etc. Life would have been easier if I had discovered that out earlier, rather than going through an unsuitable pair of boots

  5. I would like to add Harlick boots to the list. I have been skating in them for the past three years and I will not skate in anything else. I skated in Reidell and Jacksons for over ten years, but they never fit quite right and did not last me very well. I would often have the boot rip at the back of the ankle after only a few months. Because the Harlick boots fit my foot much better, they last me much longer than any of the other brands I have tried.

    As for other brands - I tried to get fitted for SP Teri once, but they essentially blew me off and refused to take an order for a custom boot because my ankles were too fat. I know other skaters who love them, but since I was treated so poorly I will never order from them. Lately, I have seen a lot of skaters using Edea and Klingbeil boots. I often get chided by other skaters for not switching to one of these brands, but I think that once you find something that you are totally happy with, why change it?

    I totally agree with this post though - there is no need to get high end equipment for beginner level skaters. For higher level or adult skaters I do think that finding a properly fitting boot is very important, and brand preference is very individualized to the skater. Hopefully you can find a skate shop with a knowledgeable staff - and it is totally worth the drive if it is a bit out of the way.

  6. Good stuff. I do find a lot of adults spending large amount on blades merely because they can, or because they are trying to impress someone. Really -- if you don't have any doubles you don't need a $400 blade! I've got MK Pros and I suspect I will stay in them pretty much forever since I will be lucky if I get an Axel.

    You didn't mention custom boots. If you talk to adults (that's where I'm focused, obviously) it would appear that almost everyone has funky feet that require customs. I don't know about that... but I do know that finding a good, knowledgeable boot fitter is not easy in a lot of places, but it's worth a drive. Boots and blades are a big investment and you need to get it right.

  7. I love MK pros--perfect for decent adult skaters. The picks are right for all singles, but small enough that someone with less than perfect blade control will not trip on them.

    A lot of companies won't make custom boots for random customers anymore because of the contention that heat molding makes all boots "custom;" further the first pair of custom boots I got was truly that-- shaped like my foot. Now you can only order the combination ones (for instance D front AA heel, a very common variation), but they aren't charging any less.

  8. I would like to ad klingbile to the list. yes they are custom but they are quite popular at my rink.

  9. I don't know if you get them in the USA but I love my WIFA boots - and they are made in multiple width fittings so if you have a wide foot you can still get one to fit without going to custom boots.

    Thanks for the post!

  10. Totally agree with the comment about adults spending a fortune on blades because they can!

    I have friends who already had pretty expensive dance blades, they tried switching to a higher level dance blade and hated them, total waste of money when they were happy with what they had originally (they've now gone back to them).

    I love my Coronation Aces <3 I got parabolics just cause they didn't have the normal ones in stock, so gave me them at the same price as regular ones. You really can't go wrong with the Aces, most popular freestyle blade :D

  11. Hi Xan! Love your blog. Invaluable for newbie parents like me. DD is in low freestyle and is getting ready for pre-pre moves soon. She needs new boots - what do you recommend at around the $200 range that you mentioned would be excellent choices? Coach would like her to get spteri's but they are pretty pricey. We just started this year and the skating expenses are really adding up so fast!! DD is a very small 8.

  12. I personally don't like traditional SPTeri's for Low freestyle because they're very heavily built, although the new heat-mold technologies have mitigated this somewhat. You really need to try several pairs of boots, as the lasts that each company uses are very different--what one kid loves another can't move in. But if I had to choose, I'd look at the Jackson Classique. Nice boot, decent blade at a good price. http://shoprainbo.com/shop/site/product.cfm/id/43D4CD96-9D2F-379F-DC183750B4BA1AC9