What to look for in a pair of shoe trees, and where can you buy affordable, high-quality pairs?
What's the big deal with shoe trees?
Shoe trees are a boring but vital part of your shoe collection. If you're anything like me (and if you're on this blog you probably are) then they are a wrenching thing to splash cash on - they are undeniably dull items compared to the shoes themselves, and I'm not going to argue otherwise.
But this an attitude that can set you a course for disaster. Shoe trees are essential for maximising the lifespan of your shoes. They allow the leather to rest after wearing while being shaped into the original, ideal shape of the shoe. This will help to mitigate leather creasing (although not eliminate it entirely), and prevent the formation of issues like excessive toe spring, where the front of the shoe increasingly curls up away from the floor. They can also help to prevent toe collapse, especially important for pairs with an unstructured toe box.
Ideally, a shoe tree will serve much of the same function as the last did during the shoe's construction - it should take up as much internal volume as possible without stretching the shoe too much.
They also help to absorb the moisture that naturally collects in the leather shoe linings during a day of wear. The porous nature of wood helps to pull this moisture from the linings, and prevents them from becoming... well, gross and sweaty over time.
That's why cedar is often favoured - it is relatively affordable, and its natural oils combat fungal and bacterial growth. This also accounts for why makers don't just use cheaper materials like plastic for trees - while very simple to make on a technical level, without a porous material, the trees will just create a breeding ground for bacteria and mould in a recently worn pair.
What are the main types of shoe tree?
There are 3 main types of "off the rack" shoe tree, outlined below.
The most basic tree features a shaped section at the front to support the toe, and a spring serving as the body to push against the heel. The flex of the spring means these are pretty one-size-fits-all, and they can be bought in bulk very cheaply.
My personal preference is to avoid these - the section at the rear of the spring can put a lot of pressure on a small point of the heel, without spreading any of this tension around the rear of the shoe and just concentrating it all at one point. If used consistently on one pair, this can deform the shape of the shoe at the topline. And forgive my shallowness, but I also think they just don't look that nice.
The advantage with this style is they are very cheap - you can probably pick up 5 or 10 pairs for the price of one listed below.
Similar to the above, but with a simple handle at the rear. These are a bit more ergonomic than the spring ones (the handle is much easier for carrying), and spread the surface area of the tension a bit better, although it's still not ideal - most of that pressure forms a vertical line against the heel of the shoe. But not a bad choice if you can buy in bulk.
This is more the type of thing you should be looking for if serious about your shoe care. These models feature spring-loaded barrels in the middle section - you slide them into the shoe, and the barrels expands to fill the shoe properly. Many models are also adjustable in width at the front too. You might also see a variant with a curved wooden handle instead of the brass knobs above, which is largely an aesthetic choice unless you find one much easier to carry.
What about lasted trees?
Fully lasted trees are the endgame for shoe-care, and clearly the best option if money is no object. They will often not require springs, as they are specifically made for the shoe last and size they pair with - they will just be hinged in the centre to allow them to be slid into the shoe.
The main downside with lasted trees is actually their lack of versatility - they are only ever going to be useful with the pair of shoes that they come with. Not a problem if you have lots of shoes and lots of trees, but lasted trees will often be useless on shoes that don't match their last, either not fitting in at all or actively deforming the uppers if they do. So if you are ever selling your shoes, sell the lasted trees with them - in the case of a high-end bespoke pair, I think it's a bit of a tragedy to separate them!
This pair of trees came from a bespoke pair of George Cleverley's - note that the tree has been intentionally hollowed, so it provides the best shape support while being very light. You can also see how distinctively shaped and asymmetrical they are - they would be useless for a RTW pair of shoes.
These are from my Saint Crispin's - they fit superbly in those shoes, but would be useless for a lot of other pairs, noticeably around the instep which could deform another pair.
What size of shoe tree do I need? How should they fit?
This is often a vexed issue for newcomers. The rule of thumb is to size down if you are a half size, and to order in the same size otherwise. You should be able to insert and remove shoe trees relatively easily, and if they require forcing into your shoes then they are putting undue strain on the shoe itself and might actually shorten the shoe's lifespan, with a risk of breaking stitches or even tearing the uppers. It's also an easy way to trap your fingers rather painfully when trying to get them in!
If the tree is spring-loaded, it should need a bit of compressing when inserting into the shoe, and then have a bit of room to spring out again to get the optimal fit. If there is no room for the spring to expand once inserted, they are probably too large for that particular shoe. As well as the point above, this is partially one of convenience - it's kind of a pain to jam them in and then extract them again in these cases.
There shouldn't be any "wobble" room once the trees have been inserted - if there is any lateral movement possible the trees are too small.
What about the manufacturer's branded trees?
Most makers offer branded trees for their shoes. They are a nice add-on sale for a shoemaker, and I confess I'm a sucker for the simple act of matching the branding of the shoes with the branding of the trees (especially when they have the logo on a nice little polished based plate, like the Dovers pictured below!)
The downside is that a manufacturer's trees will typically be very expensive compared to a generic pair of spring-loaded trees, which can be had for around £25. Edward Green's trees retail for £95; Crockett & Jones are £80; even Loake are £46. That might be worth it to you if the branding is important, or if the fit they give is so superior. But broadly most of these makers will sell "generic" trees for their lasts, and chances are these will fit about as well as the much cheaper ones will. Often they are the same basic shoe trees with the relevant branding applied.
The only exceptions are for very expensive pairs that have a specially lasted tree (especially if the last itself is rather eccentric), or of course for bespoke pairs.
And what is a "travel" shoe tree, exactly?
Good question! "Travel" trees are generally lighter, and thereby better for when you might be packing where a weight limit is a consideration. They will tend to have a more basic shape, with only key support provided by the tree sections. They probably won't have a metal handle or anything that adds weight.
They may also intentionally use much lighter materials for construction - Gaziano & Girling offer travel trees with a foam front section to cut down on weight, as shown below. The foam is dense enough to hold its shape, but far more lightweight than wood.
With bespoke shoes, some makers will intentionally make the trees as light as possible (as with the George Cleverley pair mentioned earlier) while still offering maximum shape support by hollowing out the wood - a very time-intensive process that is hard to replicate outside the rarefied costs of bespoke shoemaking.
Where can I actually buy them, then?
Well, this is easy if you're buying from the shoe's manufacturer - just order them at the same time, in the same size as the shoes you are ordering.
There used to be an easy assortment of good quality, spring-loaded trees on Amazon. This is diminished somewhat now, and was frankly not always a consistent experience as different manufacturers could provide a very different fit for the same label size of trees. If you are going down that route, I would always recommend buying one pair first to check the sizing is as you expect.
If you're based in the UK, I actually recommend buying from Cathcart Elliot as the best current source, pictured below. The wood is well-finished, and the pairs I have bought have been consistently sized.
They offer a wide range of shoe care products, but their trees, in particular, are good value - if buying multiple trees they can be had for £23 a pair. I have five pairs now, and the quality has been very consistent. They also offer personalisation options like engraving, which is a bit beyond my needs, but welcome for some I'm sure.
Cheaper options, particularly of the more basic types that I highlighted earlier, can be found easily on Amazon. I'd personally consider them a false economy though - if you are serious about your shoes then at the very least the Cathcart Elliot ones are a fair investment, and £23 to keep a £500 or more pair of shoes in good condition is just common sense.
So how many pairs of trees do I need?
This really depends on how much you want to spend. As mentioned above, lasted trees are only really good with their associated shoes.
A lot of people try to get away with one or a couple of pairs of trees, and just rotate them between pairs as they wear them. I'm not going to act like that's the worst thing in the world - for me personally I find it just too much of a pain to keep rotating them in and out, so my preference is to have a pair of trees per pair of shoes. Even with the Cathcart Elliot pairs above that's a £100 surcharge per 4 pairs of shoes you buy. If those numbers are okay with you, then go for it.