We get a surprising number of questions about what is the best way to polish leather shoes. There are, of course, many different ways of doing this. Most companies will base their recommended procedure around the branded shoe care products that they sell; some individuals are able to completely transform the appearance of a pair of shoes and have taken shoe care almost to the point of being an art form. We’re not going to go into that level of detail, but there are some simple steps that will help you maintain the fine appearance of your leather shoes, increase their longevity and get the best service from them.
Some shoes made from shiny, ‘polished’ leather can be relatively easy to keep clean – a damp cloth followed by a wax polish is often sufficient.
Suede (and nubuck) requires different treatment and is the subject of a further article here.
Calf skins and other full-grain leathers can require a little more attention, but will reward their owners with far superior comfort, better appearance and longer life. So here is a short guide on how to care for your fine calf leather shoes.
In order to keep it looking its best, leather needs to be in good condition. It should be kept clean and moisturised – just like your own skin – in order to prevent it from drying and cracking. It’s a good idea to insert wooden shoetrees to help maintain good shape, and remove the laces. Clean the shoes with a horsehair brush to remove dirt and dust. Don’t forget to clean along the sole stitching too (an old toothbrush can be good for this). If necessary, you can use a warm, damp cloth to help remove dirt, but remember to let the leather dry out naturally.
Using a soft cloth, apply a small quantity of shoe cream in a circular movement, making sure that you work it into any creases and areas of abrasion. This helps to soften and condition the leather. Allow the shoes to dry for a few minutes before polishing them.
A good quality wax polish helps to restore the colour and shine that may have faded. Use a colour that suits the shoe – ideally one slightly lighter than the leather so as not to darken the tone too noticeably (unless you want to create an ‘aged’ look and patina). It’s a good idea to test this on a small part of the shoe first to see how the polish will ‘take’. here is debate about whether it’s best to apply the polish with a brush or a cloth. Either is acceptable, but my own preference is usually to use a soft cloth and apply it in a circular motion. Then buff the shoes vigorously with a soft brush (horsehair is generally regarded as the best choice). Finally, rub briskly with a soft dry cloth to bring up a nice shine.
Anyone who’s been in the army will tell you that ‘spit and polish ‘s the best way to clean your shoes, but is it really necessary to go to that much trouble? Well, of course, it’s entirely up to you to decide how much you want your shoes to shine, but every man should at least be able to do it. So here’s how to do it:
Follow the previous three steps as usual. Then, put a few drops of water (or spit) onto the leather and apply some more polish in a circular motion with a soft cloth. The idea is to rub the water into the leather with the polish and to fill up the natural grain of the leather so that you have an absolutely smooth surface. It’s important to use only a small amount of water and a small amount of polish, but apply it quite vigorously – you can build up several layers like this. Finally, buff the shoes with a clean, dry, soft cloth. Remember that, using this process, it’s actually the polish that you are shining, not the leather itself. With enough patience, and a reasonable amount of elbow grease, a high-gloss shine should emerge. The more ‘spit and polish’ time and effort you put into it, the closer you’ll get to a ‘mirror finish’.
Andrew E Loake