The secret to a soft landing

Times Staff Writer

When I was young, I associated kneepads with a kind of stoop labor that didn't catch my fancy. I related to cowboys then, and cowboys didn't wear kneepads.

My conversion occurred a few years ago when I had some brickwork done. For several days I watched a 69-year-old Louisianan report to work at 7:30, get down on his knees and stay in that position just about continuously until 3:30, with an hour break for lunch.

When I asked how he maintained his rigorous work habit, he pointed to the kneepads. They were the kind sold at contractors' supply stores, made of double-thick leather with felt padding.

I picked up a cheap foam pair to see for myself. I was astonished by what seemed like a resurgence of youthful strength. I discovered that their utility is not so much in averting pain as conserving energy. They spare the wearer the wasted effort of scrunching from spot to spot in the awkward catcher's stance or flopping sideways with legs extended.

With kneepads on, I can drop to the ground as often as I want, regardless of whether the surface is concrete, gravel or bramble. I can apply leverage I wouldn't have the will to use while straining with knees raised an inch or two off the ground.

While I work, my kneepads are now permanently attached. Fashionwise, they may not complement my classic Levi's and tapered cowboy shirts, but they have a kind of frumpy style that works. They slide off the knees when I walk about, coming to rest on the upper calf. It's become a reflex to slip them up into place before I go back to work. I've gone through several pairs, some far better than others. The $5.99 model I started with was quickly abandoned. They probably weren't up to rough treatment, but I never found out because they invariably slipped out of place just before contact occurred.

Garden stores and catalogs tend to push those paddle-shaped rubber pads for knee protection. I'm skeptical of the ads showing happy gardeners in shorts crawling among the rosebushes. More important, I find a fatal flaw common to all tools that must be carted from one spot to another: Too often they're in the wrong spot when needed the most.

The best knee wear hasn't made its way into the big retail stores because of cost, said Nancy Young, vice president of Idaho-based Barwalt, which manufactures one of the better-known brands. Prices start at more than $20 and top out at $120 for custom-fitted leggings that cover down to the shin. They're popular with workers such as miners, especially those who disdained kneepads until their joints gave out.

"How much they'll spend depends on how old they are and how much pain they're in," Young said.

Each trade has its own style of kneepad. The ones capped by rigid white cups are good for air-conditioning contractors who have to move in the dark over angular surfaces and carpet layers who skate across floors on their knees. They weren't for me, though. I didn't care for the Brunhild look, and on concrete they made me slide around like a hockey puck. I also didn't like the Velcro straps, which quickly got fouled by grit.

My wife, who occasionally brings home gardening finds the way our cat brings home lizards, found a pair of Barwalts for a giveaway price at a closeout store. I have worn nothing else since. They have an indestructible vinyl shell backed up by tough foam pads. The rubber straps stretch over pegs on top and bottom for a snug fit. There's an accordion cowling that deflects debris and helps keep them in place when I stand, without digging into the knee.

Though this model was originally designed for tile setters, I find it suitable for most activities in the yard and garage.

Other companies, including Patella, Nailers and Bucket Boss, sell variations of this design for prices ranging up to $50. The use of silicone gel can add to the cost, as can the trend toward techno designs.

But beware of the purely fanciful. A tire tread design hit the market recently but didn't last.

"It looked really cool, but it didn't work very well," Young said.

All these products can be purchased on the Internet, but it's a dizzying field, filled with obtuse model names like Nailers' 60200 G1 Gel Swivel and Patella's 2010 Mens Soft Cap with Supra Strap. Without touching and trying on, it's difficult to choose either a brand or a price.

An imported version of the tile setter's kneepad has hit the shelves at Home Depot for less than $20. It's not as tough as the professional models but it's probably adequate for weekend use. I bought a pair as a backup because the straps on my Barwalts are about to give out.

I needn't have. Young told me I can buy replacement straps at a tile store. When I go, I know I'll be tempted by the high-end leather make, despite Young's dismissive judgment that they're a "product of the past." The leather is uncomfortably stiff when it's dry and limp when it's wet.

People like bricklayer Bob still use them, Young said, because that's what their fathers or mentors used.

"They won't let go of them," she said.

Maybe I won't either. At labor, I like the feel of leather on my hands and feet. Why not my knees?

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