Shoe care 101

Hi! This is an off topic post, absolutely not sewing related. As somebody who wears only leather shoes, mostly boots, I get asked how I care for my shoes. Now, it’s not like I’m the depository of any sort of received wisdom, but over the years, and thanks to a husband who loves classic menswear I can experiment with, I’ve developed a routine to make sure my shoes stay in top condition. Of course, these are just my own opinions.

The following steps and tools required may seems like a lot, but I assure you these tips will help you in the long run and also make you spend less money at the cobbler.

Note for the products: I use several products by Boot Black. This is a Japanese shoe care brand (they don’t pay me, but they should, hahah). In case you cannot source is, I recommend Saphir, which is a heritage French brand with a strong repute.

Important note before we start: get shoe trees. This is good to your shoes and good to you, as it makes cleaning much easier. It is also a good idea to rotate your shoes, and give them a rest of at least one day between wears.

Daily maintenance 

Brush before and after wearing with horsehair brush to remove dust. After wear, insert shoe trees immediately (any wooden tree is best). Spring type trees are cheap but they may deform your shoes with time, so if you have a pair of shoes you care about I recommend buying shoetrees which… actually resemble feet.

From left to right: inexpensive spring shoetrees, average shoetree, and lasted shoetree.

Biweekly maintenance (or weekly depending on wear) 

Horsehair brush.

I’d recommend you do this also with new shoes: there’s no telling how ling they have been sitting in the shoe department (or in somebody’s closet, if you are like me and buy them secondhand).

Also, “biweekly” is a rough estimate: if you do it more, that’s totally fine!

Brush with horse hair brush. I also recommend removing your shoelaces in this case, so you can clean the vamp and the tongue of the shoes too.

Apply a few drops of cleaning lotion (I like the Two Face Plus Lotion by Boot Black) to a rag, NOT directly to the shoe – unless you want to take the color off, haha. It Rubs the shoe [gently] with the rag.

Next, apply shoe cream.

Pick the color according to the color of the shoe – or the color you want the shoe to get. Apply with a different brush or your finger, basically rubbing it as you were giving the shoe a massage. You want to follow the direction of the creases, and along the welts.

Applying shoe cream along the crease.

At this point, take a pig hair brush and brush the shoe again in the direction of the creases to make sure there is no cream stuck in the creases (very important to avoid breaking of the creases due to the cream caking), and then in all other directions.

Rub the cram with a pig hair brush.

Finally, take a clean rag and wipe down the shoe to remove any excess cream that wasn’t absorbed.

A note on brushes: horse hair is better for general cleaning because of its softer bristles. Pig hair is stiffer, and therefore better for the “real cleaning” with shoe cream. If you are against the use of natural bristles, I know there are synthetic brushes out there, but I don’t have any recommendation for you as for which brands to purchase. Ask your cobbler if they have ideas, and if you know, hit me up in the comments!

Shoe care over!

High shine

Ok, full disclosure, I’m still learning to do this properly, mostly because it is a very time consuming procedure. If you are shining your shoes for the first time, allocate about one hour to the process.

Take your shoeshine paste, like in the picture below, and fill the cap with water. I use a special water dispenser, but filling the cap works just as well.

Shoes, wax, water, cloth, and a lot of patience.

Take a piece of flannel – this fabric works best – roughly 6cm wide by 60 cm long, and wrap it around two fingers like shown.

Apply some drops of water and then one coat of shine paste in circular motions to the toecap and to a lesser extend the heel (never do a high shine one any other part of the shoe, as the layers of polish can cause areas which bend to crack over time. One coat of polish over the entire shoe is OK). Rub a bit, and then add some water when you feel a sort of roughness while polishing, and rub more, in circular motions. Repeat ad nauseam, until you achieve the amount of shine you desire.

If you are committed to a high shine, I recommend this video, featuring Hasegawa Yuya, the owner of BriftH here in Tokyo. He explains all the details (with English subs).

For Docs/work wear boots with rubber soles

The shiniest pair of Docs the world has ever seen…?

Use mink oil on the welt stitching, let sit, and buff off with a cloth. This helps maintaining the water resistance of the welt. The soles, being rubber, don’t require particular care, but you can clean them occasionally with a toothbrush.

I’ve tried a few vegan alternatives to mink oil, and none of them where satisfactory. The coconut variety even cracked my boots instead of hydrating them, so I cannot recomend it. Note that this step is not absolutely necessary, so you can skip it, as long as you still condition/use shoe cream your shoes.

I can totally use this to reapply my lipstick.

For leather sole shoes (occasionally)

One possible routine is to make a mix of vinegar and water (¼ vinegar in water) and dip a cloth in it, such that the cloth is damp but not wet. Wipe down the soles to get off the dirt and gunk. Then while the sole is still a bit damp, take another rag with mink oil and rub on the sole, especially along the sides. This keeps the sole supple to avoid cracking. Let the mink oil sit for a bit, wipe excess, and let the shoe dry very well before wearing/inserting shoetrees. Let dry on the side, not on the sole (this is true in general of leather shoes when drying!). Be careful when you walk on smooth surfaces with a clean leather sole…I’ve fallen many times!

Another option recommended by Saphir is to simply brush the sole (with a pig hair brush) and then apply sole oil (which they sell) with a rag.

The “ain’t nobody got time for that” version

I get it, we are all humans, and we all have a life, which takes priority, as it should be. Shoes can fall into disrepair. You may also have recently discovered a pair of old shoes in you cellar you have forgotten about, or your grandpa’s boots which happen to be exactly your size, and look like they just survived nuclear fallout. But fear not, you can save most shoes, even when they are cracked, dried, have lost all shine, moved out and filed for divorce.

The Saphir Renovateur works wonders for dry and cracked shoes in need of love.

In this case, I recommend the Saphir Renovateur. This works wonders. Apply (somewhat) liberally on your shoes with a cloth, massage the shoes, especially if you notice creases and scuffs. Let sit and buff, then proceed with the steps above.

Special care: Suede

Suede can be a pain, but it’s also pretty! For your suede shoes and boots, I recommend brushing with a specialized suede brush biweekly.

Steel (top) and pork hair (bottom) suede brushes.

I use a combo steel and pork brushes, which is a bit harsh, but works well if you operate it gently. If I notice stains and dirt, I use the M. Mowbray Suede Cleaner. I then generally use the Boot Black Suede Spray (which helps with fading too) to nourish the boots. To do so, just spray the product and let sit for 10 minutes, then brush. Brushing at this point is important to revive the glorious nap of the leather. If a lot of fading and/or discoloration is evident, may need to retouch the color with a suede restorer such as the one in the picture below from Famaco, in a color which matches my shoes.

Retouching color with a Suede Restore liquid.

This may be an unpopular opinion, but I don’t like to use the various gums to “erase” stains from my suede boots. In my experience, they just make things worse, and I’d rather use a generous amount of cleaner. There are also “suede shampoos” out there, which I’ve never tried, but if you are willing to experiment I recommend buying from a reputable brand like Saphir. If you are afraid of stains, be it water, oil, food, foundation (been there done that), or you name it, you can waterproof your suede shoes using a specialized waterproofing spray. The down side to that is that waterproofing works both directions and so your suede shoes won’t breath (allow perspiration out) anymore. A better option (IMHO) is to use a cleaning stray which also adds water resistance (such as the Boot Black one mentioned above) and then avoid wearing your suede shoes on days were it is raining like hell.

Special care: Patent leather

So, this is my opinion, but patent leather gets too much praise. I get it, who doesn’t love the shine of patent. Unfortunately, most times this is achieved by coating the leather in plastic (!!!). Patent shoes are also harder to take care of properly, and may crack much faster than other shoes. But fear nor, I’ve got your back, as I also own a pair of patent oxfords (they are gorgeous and I regret nothing!).

In this case, clean your shoes as you would normally, in my case using the Two Face Plus Lotion. I find that applying mink oil on the creases and letting it sit for a while before removing it helps too, but this is a controversial opinion. After nourishing and cleaning your shoes, apply a shoe cream specific for patent leather, like the one from Boot Black in the picture below.

Rub and buff as described above, though in this case I’d avoid using pig hair brush, and only use a cloth.

No need to shine the shoes in this case, lol.

What if it’s raining?

If you come home after a day around in the rain, or just accidentally fell into a swimming pool, dry your shoes with a cloth, having removed the shoelaces beforehand. Stuff the shoes with paper (old newspapers for example) and let dry overnight. Then insert shoetrees. Do not, in any case, dry under the sun or next to a heat source. Ever. Not that there’d be sun on the day you got soaked, but just sayin’. After complete drying, apply shoe cream to nourish the shoes.

That’s all! Special thanks to Husband-san, whose hands (and shoes) are feature in this post.

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