Shopping for Used Boots and Blades

Boots and blades for competitive ice skating are not cheap. One way to economize on equipment costs is to make use of used equipment. This is especially true for young skaters with rapidly growing feet, who outgrow their equipment long before it wears out. When purchasing used equipment, however, the warning "buyer beware" should be taken very much to heart since the buyer must be concerned not only with proper size and fit, but also with the true condition of the equipment.

Unless they have been very well taken care of, used boots will always have some scrapes and nicks, but these in no way affect the utility of the boots. However, except perhaps for minor punctures in the tongue, boots which are cut, cracked, or ripped completely through a layer of leather either on the exterior or the interior should be avoided. Also check for damaged eyelets or loose hooks which may require repairs.

Check the conditions of the heels and soles very carefully. Soles that have dried out and cracked, or are soft and spongy from decay will not hold a screw well. Boots with either condition should be re-heeled and soled, and waterproofed before mounting blades on them. The cost of this should be taken into account before deciding whether or not a given pair of used boots is a good deal.

When assessing the condition of the heels and soles check the locations of the screw holes for the blades you plan to mount on the boots. The mounting pattern for the blades should overlap fresh leather, and not previously plugged holes - except, perhaps, when the boot are for very small children. Blades mounted into plugged holes will come loose faster than blades mounted into fresh leather, the time it takes for this to happen depending on the weight and ability of the skater involved.

Next, carefully check that the boots were broken in evenly and have not been deformed due to a bad previous blade mounting or bad habits of the previous owner. The creases in the ankles should be fairly uniform on each side of the ankle, and the seam up the back of the boot should still be nearly straight and perpendicular to the heel and sole. Boots which do not provide adequate support on both sides of the ankle or have a deformed back seam have had a long, hard, and abused life, and should be laid to rest on boot hill.

On the bottom of the boot, check the impression left where the previously mounted blades settled into the heel and sole. For a light skater there may be no impression at all, but for a heavier skater a very clear mark will be left after the boots have been used for several months. Blades which are correctly mounted on properly manufactured boots will leave a relatively uniform impression over the course of time. For several reasons, however, (none of them good) the blade may settle in unevenly. In extreme cases, it will be necessary to shim the blades subsequently mounted on boots in this condition in order to get a correct mounting. Similarly, if the heels and soles are not parallel (or nearly so) shimming will again be necessary to set the blades correctly.

Some of the problems discussed above are irreparable, and boots which have them should be avoided. Others can be easily fixed at relatively small expense. Most boot manufacturers will re-heel and sole a pair of boots, replace the tongues and in-soles, and repair the hooks for about $50 to $75. For slightly more they will completely rebuild the boots. Even with the cost of repairs, a pair of used boots at the right price can serve just as well as a new pair, at far less than the cost of a new pair.

When looking at used blades there are three thing to think about; were the blades manufactured correctly in the first place, have they been ruined by bad sharpening, and how much life do they have left in them.

The two most common fabrication errors in blades are heel and/or sole plates not welded perpendicular to the blade, and blades which are bowed along their length. Blades which are severely bowed should not be purchased. It is virtually impossible to sharpen them correctly, and the error cannot easily be adjusted for. Blades with tilted heel or sole plates should also be avoided; however, by shimming them this can be corrected for when they are mounted. This error is sometimes inaccurately referred to as a bent stanchion. A true bent stanchion is extremely rare, although the effect of the problem and its solution are the same as for incorrectly welded heel and sole plates. In general a blade will rip out of a boot long before a skater's puny attempt to bend it will be successful. Also rare, though still possible, are cracks in the heel or sole plate welds. Pass up blades with any sign of even small cracks in or near the welds, or substantial corrosion in those places.

In general, the types of problems you are most likely to find are the result of cumulative sharpening errors. Blades are chrome or gold plated everywhere except along the bottom 1/8 inch near the edge, to inhibit corrosion. If the blades have been correctly sharpened throughout their life and have not been purposely altered, this unplated band should be uniformly wide along the length of the blades. The width of the band remaining can be used to estimate the life left in the blades and to judge their condition.

Carefully handled blades can be sharpened up to about 40 times before they are ground down to the chrome. Although blades can, in fact, be used further, by this point the first toe pick has become too large relative to the original rocker, and very likely the shape of the rocker will also have been altered. In this case the first toe pick should be reduced in size to bring it back into correct proportion to the rocker, and the correct rocker should be re-ground into the blade if necessary. Even blades which have been carefully sharpened should have the first toe pick reduced to correct proportion at about half way through their life; unless, of course, the skater prefers the reduced range of motion at the toe and the greater associated ease of getting up on the toe pick (note that this is one parameter in the design of ice skating blades that manufacturers vary from model to model).

After repeated sharpenings, it is unfortunately common for blades to end up ground down farther at the heel and toe than elsewhere along the edge. So long as this is limited to less than about 1/32 inch along no more than about one inch at each end of the blade this is not a significant problem. Greater variations from the original shape of the blade, however, will result in a different feel of the blade on the ice, and different handling characteristics than one would obtain from new blades of the same type. In extreme cases the tangent point can be moved far enough from its proper location to cause a troublesome shift in the balance point. Even blades that have been sharpened only a few times can be adversely altered in shape if the sharpener does a hack job, so don't assume a blade is problem free just because it may be fairly new.

All the blade errors resulting from sharpening errors can be corrected by re-grinding the blade. In some cases, however, this will require the removal of a significant amount of metal which corresponds to a significant loss in the useful life of the blade. Nevertheless, a skilled skate sharpener can restore any blade to its original shape at nominal cost. If the cost of purchasing the blades and re-grinding them is in line with the life remaining in the blade there is no reason not to buy them.

For the rare skater who is still involved in skating figures, one final aspect of the used blades market is the practice of converting used freestyle blades into patch blades.

To convert a pair of freestyle blades into patch blades, three changes must be made to the contour of the blades if they are to truly mimic the design of patch blades.

The first and most obvious change required is the removal of the first toe pick which extends below the extension of the rocker on freestyle blades but does not on patch blades. This must be done carefully, without overgrinding the rocker at the toe. Secondly, converted freestyle blades should have a proper patch rocker ground into them. Even if the blades have not had their shape altered in a way that would otherwise require correction, the shape of the rocker for freestyle blades is different from the shape for patch blades. Thus, a blade with a correct freestyle rocker, even with the toe picks removed, will perform differently on figures than a blade with a patch rocker. Finally, when grinding the blades, the freestyle hollow (typically 0.5 to 0.75 inches in radius) should be replaced by a patch hollow (typically 1.0 to 3.0 inches in radius). As in free skating, the optimum patch hollow varies from skater to skater depending on their size, weight and technique. Regardless, a skilled skate sharpener can provide the skater with the size hollow they prefer and any shape rocker they want. Moreover, they can reproduce it exactly from one grind to the next. Note, however, that while a skilled skate sharpener can convert freestyle blades to patch blades, truly skilled sharpeners are few and far between; and with the greatly reduced activity in skating figures in recent years a plentiful supply of used patch blades is available on the market.

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