Friday, October 12, 2012

Never Buy Used Hockey Skates (but if you do, read this first)


Never say Never

Generally, it’s tough to find a good pair of used skates. Kids skates tend to go both directions. While they can sometimes find a pair that hasn’t been beaten to within a hair of their life, many used skates have been handed down so many times they should have hit the scrap heap 10 years ago. For adults it’s pretty rare to find a decent pair. While it makes slightly more sense for kids than adults, I don’t generally recommend buying a pair of used skates for anyone. The problem is that someone else’s feet have been in there. Used footwear is one of the reasons that I gave up bowling for hockey (that and apparently body checking opponents while bowling isn't acceptable).

Avoid skates made in the Soviet Union. 


But even if you don’t care what sort of foot fungus or flesh eating toe jam the previous user of a pair of skates might have left in your newly acquired used skates, there is the problem that a pair of used skate often doesn’t fit properly. You see skates form to a player’s feet over time. Once broken in, they aren’t going to fit a second pair of feet as well. This is one of the reasons that rental skates are one of the most evil instruments of torture the world has ever devised. The aforementioned toe jam and foot fungus would be another.

Now that I’ve mentioned a couple of the bad things that about used skates, I will say that once in a while there actually is a killer deal available. A guy recently offered to sell me a pair of skates he'd owned a week. I almost bought them because they were the model I wanted at less than wholesale price and he hadn't broken them in. You might find a pair that someone use two or three times before realizing that all their athletic ability resided in their imagination. You could find a pair that was incorrectly sized and returned. You might find the pair that belonged to the guy who was horribly injured from running into the guy who imagined he had athletic ability. The goal of this article is to help you determine what is important in a pair of used skates and how to judge their condition.

Fit 

Anytime that you look at skates, new or used, fit is the single most important factor to consider. Different brands and models of skates have unique boots that will fit certain foot shapes best. This is even more important in a pair of used skates. You don’t want to end up in a pair that was broken in for someone who has vastly different feet than your own. I’m not going into the details here of how to fit your skates as that’s an article’s worth in itself (one that I already wrote). Please read my previous blog entry Hockey Skates Demystified if you haven’t already.

Judging the Condition 

Sometimes it’s pretty easy to tell that a pair of skates has done a few laps around the rink. Other times, it can be difficult. The bulk of the remainder of this article will focus on how to judge the condition of a pair of skates. I’m going to break the skates down, part by part and tell you things you should look for.

Something like this might be worth a lot of money, but likely won't skate very well (even if you do need extra ankle support)

Runners 

Replacement runners cost about $25 each for hockey skates. So not judging the condition of the runners properly on a pair of used skates could drive the price up quite a bit. Another thing to consider is the type of runners as they are normally an indication of the original quality and price of the skates.

Runner Type 
There are two basic types of steel used in hockey skate runners. These are carbon steel and stainless steel. Stainless is harder and generally found on the more expensive skates. I wouldn’t bother with a pair of used skates that have carbon steel runners as they were likely under $100 anyway. If you can buy a new pair for $50 or $75, why bother with used? Or maybe that’s just me. Another factor is that most carbon steel runners are not replaceable. Once they are worn out, it’s time for a new pair of skates.

Telling which type of steel is on a pair of skates can be a little tricky sometimes. Many brands stamp “stainless” right on the runner. While this is a pretty good indication, the lack of the obvious doesn’t really mean they aren’t stainless. Often with sharpening and use, the logos and text on the side of the steel runner wear off. The more telling sign is that carbon steel blades have a chrome finish on them. Sometimes the chrome is even flaking off around the bottom of the blade which makes them very easy to identify. Sometimes the chrome has a brushed appearance to it. Once you compare a few pair you shouldn’t have too much trouble identifying what type of steel is on a pair of skates.

If you do have issues identifying the steel, you can probably hire a welder to come along with you. They’d be able to tell you which is stainless and carbon steel. Of course at the cost of $100 an hour or so, you might not do as well on the used skate price as you hope. Maybe you have a friend who works in a steel mill, that might help too.

Alternatively, you can look for screws that attach the runner to the plastic blade holder. CCM, Reebok and Easton all have two screws that are pretty obvious. Graf skates have a single screw in the heel of the holder. Bauer is the trickiest as they hide the screws. Bauer’s screws go through the sole of the boot. You can check these by looking under the insole for a small plastic access cap in the heel of the skate. In most cases stainless runners are attached with screws and carbon steel runners are permanently bonded to the holder.

Runner Condition 
Some factors are more obvious than others when looking at the condition of the steel. Obviously you don’t want any cracks or breaks in a pair of runners. Rust can be a problem as well. Even stainless runners can rust if they aren’t properly cared for as most skates do not feature marine grade stainless. Still, stainless won’t typically reach the cancerous levels of rust that might plague a pair of carbon steel runners.

A small amount of rust on a pair of stainless blades will normally come off once they are sharpened. However, pay attention to the sides of the runner. If there are small dark dots on the side and the bottom of a runner, it can be an indication that rust has penetrated the entire runner. While this isn’t the end of the world as far as runners go, it will slow you down slightly on the ice and could lead to premature breakage of the runner. More importantly it can be an indication of how the skates were cared for.

Perhaps the most important and tricky part of judging the runner quality is determining how much steel is left. Each time a pair of skates is sharpened some of the runner gets used up. There are two problems which eventually occur as the runners get shorter. First, on hard turns the boots will hit the ice. When boots hit the ice in a turn, the player wearing them falls down the players on the near bench tend to make some sort of wise remark, like, “Careful, there’s some ice there.” The second issue is that eventually the skates can no longer be sharpened. Of course if you wait until they can no longer physically be sharpened, you’ve been spending a lot of time falling down on the turns.

Another thing that you can tell by the runners is how much use the skates have seen. If the steel is down to about half of its original height, the skates are probably pretty well used. It is possible that they were just sharpened quite often, but generally players who sharpen their skates are doing it because they are using their skates.

The best way to tell how much steel is left is to compare the used skates to a new pair with the same type of runner. Most skates within the same brand use the same type of runners. If the difference is significant, you might consider a different pair of skates. Things start getting marginal somewhere around the point where 2/3 or less of the steel is remaining.

Holders 

The holder is the plastic piece that attaches the boot to the blade. Holders sometimes break and, like runners typically cost about $25 to $35 each to replace. Look for any cracks along the holder and around all of the rivets. Check to make sure that the holder appears to be square to the bottom of the boot as sometimes the holders are improperly installed or replaced. If you can see that it isn’t square, it’s pretty bad.

It’s also a good idea to make sure that the blade isn’t loose in the holder. While having your runner fall out on the ice is always good for a laugh, it’s a laugh at your expense my friend. If a runner is loose, check to see if you can fix the problem by tightening the hardware. (You will need a special tool for some Bauer skates to do this). A little blade looseness will often occur over time and can cause issues with skating. However, both Bauer and Graf skate holders do sometimes have issues as the result of over-tightening which cannot be corrected without replacing parts.

The overall condition of the holder can tell you something about how much use the skates have had as well. If it looks like a doggie chew toy that you’d find in your neighbor’s yard, the skates have probably been used pretty long and hard (or chewed on my a dog). A few scuffs and nicks are normal for even a short amount of use, but major deterioration, numerous gouges on the steel and chunks of missing plastic indicate a skate that has seen many, many hours on the ice.

Rivets 

There are two types of rivets in most skates: steel and copper. Some skates only use steel rivets, but I don’t know of any that use only copper. Rivets are relatively inexpensive and quick to replace. They typically run about $1 each and can be done while you wait. However, most skates have 14 rivets each. So, if all of them are bad, it’s going to run around $28 a pair to fix them. Further the rivets can be another good indication of how well the previous own took care of their skates.

Check the copper rivets on the bottom of the skate. Make sure that the washer (technically called the burr) is in place on each of them and isn’t loose. Sometimes you can see that some of the steel rivets are popping up. If a steel rivet isn’t flush, it is bad. The best way to tell the quality of the steel rivets is to look under the insole of the skate though. Once you pull out the insole, you can see the “flowers” of the steel rivets. A small amount of rust here is normal. But skates that have seen better days will often have a gob of rust where the flower used to be.

Skates with more rust than metal indicate two issues to me. First, the insoles were likely never removed after use. Taking out the insoles is easy and the best way to take care of your skates. It allows things to dry out. Significant rust on rivets that will likely need to be replaced soon is just one of the issues it creates. The accelerated breakdown of the boot through trapped moisture is another.

As long as you have those insoles out, take a look at what was under them. If the plastic footbed inside the skate is cracked, the odds are good that the skates are on their last legs. Once the plastic starts cracking, repairs are often difficult to impossible on everything below that portion of the skate. Also check the insoles themselves how are they? Is that something you want to have your feet on? I once had a customer drop off a pair of skates to have new holders and steel installed. When I took out the insole there were dozens of tiny centipede-like worms crawling around under it. I told him we couldn’t fix his skates. If you see centipedes, you might want to look for a different pair (or it’s possible that I’m just squeamish when it comes to sharing my footwear with dozens of bugs). Still, it it were me I might shop at another used skate store.


Outsoles

Many skates currently use composite outsoles. These tend to look like fiberglass (and often are). Some contain graphite, carbon fiber or some other top secret compounds. While these are lightweight and strong materials, they also tend to break without any sort of warning once in a while. However the main issue that you will find in composite outsoles is splintering edges. If the edges are pretty badly frayed, the skates might have serious mileage on them. Minor fraying can be checked with a small amount of clear silicon caulk. Serious fraying is going to be impossible to repair and will continue to deteriorate.

Other issues to check are gaps between the outsole and the boot. Many models of skates tend to separate here when they get older. This can be a little tricky to determine since the skate blade holder and rivets often hold things in place. However, if there are major gaps at the toe or around the arch of the skate it is a potential problem. Large gaps might indicate that the outsole is ready to completely separate from the boot. Small gaps aren’t uncommon in new skates, so don’t worry if there are small gaps and everything seems tight. Again, I recommend a little bit of silicon caulk to keep moisture out and help keep things in check here.

Eyelets 

The laces aren’t something that I’d worry too much as about $4 will get you a new pair. The only important thing with the laces is to make sure you know what size you need. If the pair in the skates are the proper size, measure them so you know what you need when you pick up a new pair. They come in 1 foot increments and the most common sizes are 120, 108, 96 and 84 inches.

While laces are cheap, a lot of eyelets are not. You should check all the eyelets. Make sure to check both side of them as well. The back should have a flat washer. I’ve seen some skates where the inside of the eyelet had completely disintegrated on every single eyelet. Also make sure that there are no sharp edges as these will shred your laces (which is inconvenient and expenseive). New eyelets will run about three bucks each. Count how many you need and do the math. With 20 eyelets on most adult skates, you could spend more than the cost of a new pair of entry level skates on repairs.

If eyelets are missing or torn out I’d probably skip the skates. While replacing a couple eyelets isn’t a big deal, if a skate has been used without the eyelet for a while, the hole is often stretched out and will no longer hold an eyelet. Eventually the hole will tear out without the reinforcement of an eyelet and the repair will cost anywhere from $20 to $50 to repair. Even if the hole isn’t stretched, it takes a lot of miles and moisture before eyelets pop on most skates. A missing eyelet is an indication that a pair of skates has seen either considerable use or was poorly treated.

Lining


Check the lining of the skates carefully. Tears and holes in the liner are only going to get bigger. Any type of hole or tear has the potential to be a very annoying issue as well. These will repeatedly rub you and can cause blisters, bleeding and even profuse swearing.

In one pair of skates that I owned, the lining tore because the plastic support inside the skate had poked through it. It literally stabbed me the last couple times I wore them and ended up bleeding both times. The scary thing is that at only three months old the skates looked (and were) almost new. With a $450 retail price tag on a new pair, a skate like this might make the market and sell for a pretty high price. It would be sad to not notice the tear only to have their new-used skates stab them repeatedly and painfully in the foot.

If you end up with a pair of skates that needs to be re-lined, the cost is well over $100. I charge $160 to do this at my shop. Again, it doesn’t make much sense to do on a used pair of skates.

General Breakdown


Look for any serious creases in the skates. These are most common in the ankle area. If there is a crease where someone might have wrapped the laces, it’s a good bet that most of the support in the skates is shot there. (By the way wrapping your laces is one of the worst things you can do to your skates). Creases anywhere in the skate indicate that the skate is going to bend there more easily then it should, essentially the boot is worn out if it has creases. Skip any skates that have any creases in them. The only way to repair these is a rebuild and re-stiffen which will cost over $120.

Large bulges or indentations are signs that the skates have been heavily punched (fitted) for an odd shaped foot. These indications may or may not have a bearing on how well used the skates are. However, they do indicate that the skate might not fit you as well as it should. Certainly, there isn’t going to be much left to break-in to your feet if they’ve been punched to where you can see them. Break in makes your skates bigger in spots, nothing I know of can make them smaller.

Check the tongues for creases as well. Many players fold their tongues down to fit shin guards under them. If the tongue creases, it can create a pressure point and lead to a painful skating condition called lace bite. It’s essentially where the tongue digs in to your foot and causes it to swell painfully. It isn’t something that normal people want or enjoy. You can replace tongues on skates, but again it isn’t cheap. A new pair of tongues is about $70, labor to install them another $20.

Check the stitching all around the skates. The stitching around the top edges of the boot isn’t too hard to fix, but lower areas can range from difficult to impossible. The areas just behind the toecap on either side of the skate are problematic in some models of skates and nearly impossible to fix, so pay particular attention there.

Tendon guards can be another major issue on skates. The stitching around tendon guards is an area to check carefully. Also check the bottom of the tendon guards for any tears. There are a lot of skates where this is a weak spot. The lining and the outside of the skate are prone to tearing at the tendon guard. Most importantly, check to make sure the tendon guard is still stiff. While a small amount of flexibility is inherent, the tendon guard shouldn’t be floppy by any stretch of the imagination. Most importantly make sure the edges of the tendon guards are not torn. Depending on the skate design and extent of damage, repairing a tendon guard will typically range from $20 to $50 a skate. If there is just a little stitching of the boot liner around the tendon guard, the repair might not be too bad. If the tendon guard is broken or there is tearing, it may be prohibitively expensive to fix.

Parting Thoughts 

If you buy a decent used pair of skates there are a few things you should do to get them ready to go. First, spray them with copious amounts of disinfectant. You don’t know where those things were or who perspired in them and you’re going to put your feet in there.

Next, have your skates sharpened before you use them. The odds are that used skates weren’t sharpened recently. Even if they were, who knows where they were last sharpened? Further, if there is any rust on them, a quick sharpen will take care of it. If you found a pair in good shape, I see many used skates that were never sharpened (I wonder why they gave up?)

Take care of your skates by picking up a pair of terrycloth blade guards. When you’re done playing, wipe the snow off the runners and put the terrycloth guards on the skates. These will help to wick the moisture off the runners and keep them rust free. Rubber guards are for walking in, not storing skates in as they promote rust.

Lastly, remember to take out the insoles when you’re done playing. This is the single best way to take care of your skates and to keep them free of centipedes.



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© 2012 Scott Noble
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