JK Boots builds on-the-job footwear for wildland firefighters, linemen, loggers, welders, mechanics, foresters, ironworkers — and more!
By Lynn Ascrizzi
Picture yourself lugging a 60-pound pack in the heat of summer, while hiking for miles across forested, mountainous terrain to reach your job site — literally, hundreds of acres of raging inferno.
There, in remote fire-prone regions like northeastern Nevada, central Utah and eastern Washington, you put in high-risk, 12-to-16-hour days. As your buddies race to hose down towering flames, you cut and dig wide swaths through the forest with chainsaw and shovel, hoping to contain backcountry blazes.
Special gear, like fire-resistant clothing, was provided by your contractor. But typically, one crucial piece of equipment is not covered: your firefighter boots!
Here’s where owning the right kind of footwear is a lifesaver. And, not just for firefighters. A rugged pair of well-built work boots that fit like a glove, don’t give you bone spurs or blisters, and hold up to grueling conditions — month after month, year after year — is a godsend.
For anyone looking to invest in high-quality, leather work boots, Spokane, Washington is an excellent place to check out. The city, the second largest in the state, hosts a number of well-established boot- making companies and boot shops.
One top-notch enterprise that you won’t want to miss is JK Boots. The company was founded in 1996 by bootmaker John Khadzhi, 53, after he moved from Bulgaria to build his dream in Spokane.
“I love this land,” Khadzhi reflected. “When I was a child and read the Constitution and the stories about the foundation of this country, I knew this was where I wanted to be.”
The small family business is based in a no-frills, ground-floor, commercial storefront space in the city’s downtown area. Its busy workshop offers an impressive line of durable, hand-built all-leather work boots. Boot repair services are also provided. A tailor shop, tucked into the workspace, is run by Khadzhi’s wife, Natalie, a professional seamstress.
For the past six years, the company has been enjoying a steady surge of youthful energy and talent stemming from the Khadzhi’s three sons, Tim, 20, Will, 24, and Jason, 28, all of whom have stepped in to work with their father. And for their dad, working closely with his sons is a dream come true. “It’s a privilege and honor to work with my boys. We want to do the best job we can do,” he said.
“My father learned European craftsmanship,” Tim pointed out. “When he came to the States, he was able to see the best of both worlds. His style of boots blends American craftsmanship with Old World techniques, training he learned as a young man. We have this awesome combination — like a beautiful marriage. Because of how good he is, we’re able to make anything. We’ve done all kinds of crazy custom work. We have versatility.”
His older brother, Jason, finds the boot-building process highly rewarding, on many levels. “I like that this is very hands-on. You get to really enjoy and appreciate the finished product. I like the details and perfecting the craft. I grew up hearing my dad talk about what our lives would have looked like in the Soviet Union. I’m so proud to be an American and to live and work here.”
When not busy handcrafting work boots, the brothers handle workshop supplies, customers and social media. “All of us know how to do everything,” Tim added. “We have very good relationships, as brothers. There are always things that come up, but we’re working with the greater good in mind. This is our family business.”
Who organizes the workflow?
“Our father runs the show, every day,” Tim replied. “He’s the boss. But, we’re all on the same team. We have an amazing father. We honor him very much. Everything we have, we owe to him because of the risks he took. The Lord put it into his heart to do this. He truly is our best buddy, our leader and our friend.”
He also gave high fives to his mom. “She offers moral support. She has local customers. She is like a local legend,” he said, of her business JK Tailors.
BOOTS THAT WORK
The ongoing commitment of the close-knit team at JK Boots, is to build top-grade, tough work boots whose every detail pleases their hard-working, tough customers.
In this business, the bootmakers make their own boots, too. “We all live and work here. We go camping and fishing. We’re in our boots all the time,” Will said.
The shop’s pride in first-rate workmanship and their considerate, one-on-one customer service, is reaping a stream of unedited, customer bravos posted at their website, and on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube — social platforms that include videos. The small number of complaints are taken seriously and get personal responses from the bootmakers themselves.
“Success to us is doing the best job. We care about each boot,” Tim noted. “If a guy has an issue, we’ll figure it out and take care of it,” Will added.
About 80 percent of their customers are men who work in difficult conditions. Their average age is in their 30s. “A lot of guys are wildland firefighters,” he said. “We also do a lot of boots for linemen, loggers, construction workers and welders. In season, we get farmers. We have a ton of farmers all around Spokane.
“All these guys put in serious hours — 10 to 14 hours a day,” he continued. “They don’t wear any other kind of boot. The work boots we make are popular, because the arch and heel are so comfortable. Pretty much everybody loves them.”
He pointed out that the high, work boot heel acts as an orthopedic arch support. “It distributes the weight of the whole body throughout the foot, so there’s not too much pressure on the ball of the foot. The arch support, together with the heel, opens up the blood flow, so your feet have better circulation and they don’t ache at the end of the day.”
Some people, however, prefer a lower heel, which naturally creates a lower arch, he explained. “Even then, some guys want a lower heel with a high arch, so they get the same comfort as the higher, logger-type heel. When you’re logging down steep terrain, this heel works well to support your feet, when you dig into the ground.”
Tim, whose work often gravitates to boot fitting and customer service, mentioned that their boots can also be reheeled, resoled and rebuilt. “If you’re wearing them every day in tough conditions, typically, they need a resole every 16 to 24 months,” he suggested.
He was happy to point out that maintaining a high level of artisanship and rapport has resulted in new and repeat customers. “We don’t lose customers. Once they come and find us, they don’t leave.”
What is contributing to the positive feedback?
“What makes us unique, is our attention to detail and the fact that our boots fit on the first try and need little to no break-in time,” he said. “They’re much more comfortable than the run-of-the-mill, mass-produced boot. They’re built for your feet. And, because of our quality build style, they have longevity and they don’t leak. They do well in mud, rain, puddles, snow, dirt, dust and gravel.”
The company’s most popular model is the Fire Inlander, a work boot specially built with the wildland firefighter in mind.
“Its Red X, Vibram soles are melt and heat resistant,” Tim explained. “We use regular leather laces, but the boot thread is Technora®, a U.S. manufactured thread. It has no melting point and is heat and flame resistant — a triple-bonded Kevlar.” The fire and oil resistant Red X sole is also a boon for mechanics, he noted.
JK Boots are made with 8-ounce oil-tanned cowhide, mostly sourced, along with lining leather, from Seidel Tanning Corp., in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “The oil tanning gives it a nice water resistance,” Will said.
Insoles, midsoles, shanks and heel bases are made of leather. The intentional absence of heat-conducting metal parts helps to keep workers, like firefighters, safer. A lineman, however, might opt for steel toes.
Most boots come with the standard 100-lug Vibram sole, which works great on all terrain. Customers can opt for a softer, Vibram “Honey Sole,” which makes walking on hard concrete or rocks easier. They work great for certain lines of work, but will not wear as long as the standard sole.
About 50 percent of JK Boot customers are walk-ins, folks who want to check out the ready-to-go boot models displayed in the workshop store area. Premade boots generally work well for men and women with simple foot shapes and sizes.
“We have boots, ready to go — all sizes and widths, in small increments. Guys can try them on as a starting point. A lot of guys will drive from far away to make a special trip to take a look at and to touch our boots,” Will said.
Customers also drop by the shop to get measured for a customized pair. “Those who order online can use a fitsheet that works really well, on the same level as if they were to get measured in the shop. They send the sheet to us in the mail,” he added.
About a week after submitting a fitsheet, customers will get a call from JK Boots. “We go over their order with them, figure out the best boot for their environment, get their fit down really well and answer any questions,” he explained.
After orders are finalized, customers will receive their boots in about six to seven weeks. “We have an individual experience with every customer,” Tim said. “We have a surprising number of female customers. They’re mostly wildland firefighters, or rancher girls or those who wear them for everyday use. They like a quality product.”
Most customers are from the US, with the majority from the Northwest. Some international sales are made in the UK and New Zealand, including Americans who have gone to fight fires in Australia.
The company’s standard model is the JK Fire Inlander, the “trophy boot” that built their reputation. “We can adjust it for customer’s needs. You can take any model of any boot, customize and change it, and make adjustments,” Will said.
For instance, “a lineman might want a tall boot with an 18-inch upper; someone living in the South, might also want that height for protection from brush and snakes,” Tim explained.
“We’ve got a lot of linemen customers,” his brother added. “After a big hurricane in Florida — a really bad situation — hundreds of linemen restored all those lines. Our work boots got to be seen by a lot of other linemen. Guys always talk boots.”
Their Lineman Inlander “offers the Red X Vibram fire sole and is built with a wide shank and patch,” Will added, referring to an extra piece of leather that reinforces the part of the boot which gets a lot of rubbing when linemen are climbing ladders. The patch makes it easier on the foot.
Another specialized model is the Ironhide, built with welders in mind. It meets safety standards, offers fireproof stitching and soles, steel toes and MetGuard, a special shield to protect the mid-foot.
The JK Honey Inlander is made with the standard, oil-tan cowhide but comes with a softer, more rubber sole. The model is recommended for roofers and jobs that require workers to stand long hours on concrete.
Other models in their collection include The North, Honey Fire, The Foreman (made of smooth leather, paired with a white, Vibram, Christy wedge sole) and Logger Caulk boots.
Smooth leather is typically used for uppers. But, a lot of their boots are built with the bottom leather turned rough side out. “The rough-out protects against scratches. It is getting really popular,” Will said.
A “Build Your Own Boot” section on their website, lets customers select the boot features that they prefer: boot color (black, brown, mocha), height, side leather (rough-out, smooth or full rough out), stitching (regular or Technora® NFPA) and hardware (brass, nickel, antique brass and black).
The workshop turns out about 30 to 35 pairs of boots each month. “Sales are pretty stable — a nice steady flow and steady growth. We’re always growing a bit,” Will said.
Their busy season tends to be in spring and fall, a time when work hours might stretch from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. “I think it’s the change of seasons. It gives people a bit of time to figure out what they need. Other times, they might be out working on fires, or other jobs, and can’t deal with ordering new boots,” he surmised.
JK Boot prices reflect the extra care that goes into well-crafted, custom-made boots. Prices range from $499 for the basic Inlander to $529 for the Fire Inlander, and from $615 for the Ironhide to $949 for the North, a handsome boot that comes with fully customizable options, a full future resole, warranty stitching and a full manufacturer’s warranty. The package includes a 16-ounce can of Obenauf’s Oil, a leather care product, also sold separately.
“We are committed to the work boot. We’re focused on meeting the needs of working men and women in America, in a time of mass production and low quality. If you buy cheap, you buy twice,” Tim said.
“Our boots hold up,” Will added. “With the right care, generally, boots last five to seven years in the worst, terrible conditions. For the average person who works in an office every day, our boots could last 30 years.”
What are their plans to keep the business growing?
“We want to focus on quality,” Will responded. “We have seen time and time again that’s what a guy is happy about. At the end of the day, it’s a handmade product. We want to make sure everything is done 100 percent. Our boots speak for themselves.”
36 East Wellesley Avenue
Spokane, Washington 99207
Facebook & YouTube
John Khadzhi, founder, owner
Will Khadzhi, co-owner
Tim Khadzhi co-owner
Jason Khadzhi co-owner