Your fancy leather shoes have probably been gathering dust for the past 18 months. The more they wait, the harder it will be to clean them, so even if you’re not returning to the office just yet, it may be time to get them presentable.
But properly polishing and caring for your oxfords, wingtips, loafers, or even your classic Dr. Marten boots can be confusing. Let us help you put your best foot forward.
Start by getting a shoe tree
Preston Soto, founder of The Elegant Oxford, a premium shoe-shining service company in San Diego, says the first step is to get a shoe tree.
Leather is a porous material that absorbs a lot of the humidity generated by your sweaty feet, making it soft and malleable. So when you come home at the end of the day, you want to take off your boots and dry them out as fast as possible to help them maintain their shape.
This is what shoe trees are for. These foot-shaped forms go inside your footwear and help them keep their structure and prevent bacteria from thriving by wicking away moisture. They come in handy when storing your loafers and Chelsea boots, but also when you polish them.
Every shoe polishing kit needs a brush. Horsehair is preferable, as the soft bristles remove dirt efficiently without damaging your oxfords. If you’re working on snake or crocodile skin, gentle won’t do. The nooks and crannies of textured leather are perfect for grime and debris to accumulate, so go for a stronger boar-hair brush instead.
You will also need a piece of cloth to apply the products. Kirby Allison, founder of the shoe care company of the same name, uses cotton chamois cloth but says an old tee shirt will do just fine.
To complete your shoe polishing kit, you will need a leather conditioner, cream polish, and wax. If you get overwhelmed by the wide offering out there, rest assured that brands like Kiwi will do a good job without breaking the bank. But if you want to go all-in, you can opt for something from the French brand Saphir, which dates back to 1925, and Allison and Soto swear by.
Leather conditioners keep the leather soft and supple, preventing creasing and cracks. Soto says conditioning the leather is the single most important step, as there’s no way to repair cracked leather.
Cream polishes also help keep the skin soft and hide any scuff marks, while also giving your shoes some shine. Colored polishes can do double duty and restore the pigment, so pick one that is similar to the color of your boots. Don’t worry if it’s not exactly the same, though—unlike leather dying, the color isn’t permanent. If you want to avoid any mistakes, then colorless polish is the safest bet.
Wax polish will add some water resistance and durability to your shoes where they are most vulnerable to wear and tear, like the toe. This product is also responsible for that high gloss, or mirror shine.
Master the shoeshine process
Before you start, a warning—if you’ve picked up a pair of cordovans (Spanish horse leather shoes), something exotic like snakeskin, or some suede boots, you will need to look into the specific care needs to avoid ruining them. These instructions apply to cow leather, which is the most common in footwear.
Soto says polishing is really the last step of shoe care, so get ready—you’ll do a lot of buffing before you can see your face on your beloved oxfords.
First, start by removing your shoelaces, inserting your shoe tree (or newspaper), and using your brush to remove any dirt or debris.
If your shoes are really dirty, you may need saddle soap. Commonly used to clean horse saddles, this cleanser comes as a paste and it’s commonly available at grocery stores. Saddle soap contains softening agents such as lanolin to help moisturize the leather. To use it, work up a lather by rubbing a damp, clean cloth on the soap, and then rub it into your shoe to remove dirt. Finish by wiping the leather with another damp, clean cloth, and let your shoe air dry completely before you move on to the next step.
With clean shoes in hand, take a small amount of leather conditioner on your soft cloth and rub it into the shoe in a circular motion, using moderate to firm pressure. If you really want to get your hands dirty, Soto prefers to apply the product with his bare fingers, as it gives him more control. Let it dry for 15 minutes and then buff the conditioner off using your brush.
Next up is your shoe cream. Taking a small amount on a clean spot on your cloth, massage it into the shoe. Both Soto and Allison caution that the most common mistake is using too much, so keep in mind that a little goes a long way. Let the cream dry for five minutes and then buff off any remnants.
Now it is time for the wax. Find a clean spot on your cloth and apply the product in the same way you did the cream. Again, less is more. Wax polish dries faster than leather conditioner or cream polish, so you’ll need to work quickly. Finish by buffing off any extra with your brush.
At this point, your shoes will be clean and protected, so you can stop here. But if you really want to stand out, you can go shinier.
How to get a mirror shine on your shoes
Being able to see your face on your fancy oxfords takes a lot of arm grease. And don’t think that because your shoes have been waiting in a box unworn they don’t need a good ol’ polishing.
“I think a lot of people don’t know that they should shine brand new shoes,” says Allison. He warns they can take longer to shine, as it’s not as easy for new leather to absorb products.
So get your cloth, your wax, a small cup of cold water, and all of the patience you’ve got. Start shining your shoes by concentrating on the hard surfaces, like the toe or heel. Avoid the areas where the leather flexes, like the top part of the shoe that creases when you take a step, also known as the vamp. If you don’t, the wax will crack and flake off as you walk.
Repeat this step adding small amounts of wax and rubbing vigorously to prevent getting any product caked on.
Historically, people spat on their shoes between wax layers to achieve a true mirror shine (hence the term “spit shine”), but you can use a few drops of water if you don’t want your saliva on your fancy brogues.
Soto warns that the process for both shoes will take you anywhere between 20 minutes and two hours, so make sure you have the time and the muscle to complete the task. Some people recommend cutting corners by using baby oil, which will provide an instant shine. But Allison cautions strongly against them, as they deteriorate the leather over time.
Polishing is caring
Now that your shoes are polished, you’re ready to hit the town. But don’t think you’re done caring for those nice boots. Depending on how often you wear them, you’ll have to repeat the entire process from time to time.
Fancy pairs you exclusively wear on special occasions only need a shine before you put them on. After you’ve worn them, clean and polish them before you store them away. But if you wear your shoes every day, Soto recommends cleaning and polishing them once a week.
Allison says that once you get a feel for it, you’ll be able to tell when your shoes need some love. “If they look like they need a shine, it’s time.”