Unless you sleep in your clothes, or wear your underwear outside of your pants, you’re going to spend more time in your shoes than in any other piece of your visible wardrobe. It makes sense then, to take the time to love on them with regularity. Most of the advice you’ll hear is about waterproofing or properly shining a shoe (and what the hell is a shoe tree?), but there’s more to it than that. Sometimes a shine turns the shoe a color you don’t like, too dark or too shiny, or makes your broken-in pair boots look like you’re about to go to a funeral. Nobody wants to look like they’re going to funeral, unless they’re literally going to a funeral. So I’ll take you, step by step, through my process of taking care of my leather shoes, show you how I get them to look the way I like them to look, and give some pointers on how you can get the look you want.
The first step is cleaning. If your shoe is pretty dirty and you don’t want to lock in any dirt or oil, use saddle soap or your preferred shoe cleaner to remove all that excess grime. If mine are muddy or heavily caked, I’ll use a stiff kitchen brush and a little water and vinegar. It’s really good to let your shoe dry out after this step. It usually takes about 30 minutes to an hour, but give it more, around a day, if you want to maintain the color of your leather before you continue.
Personally I don’t like to clean my shoes. I will remove excess grit and grime with a brush before, but I like to lock in all the beer spills, oil stains, grit and grime. It makes the leather show its age and its travels.
The next step and first rule in shoe care, despite what anyone says, is conditioning. This is crucial if you want your shoes to age with grace. You should condition your leather shoes as soon as you buy them and before you wear them. Shoes don’t come pre-conditioned. Sometimes that leather has been in a warehouse for a while before it got turned into a shoe, and then that shoe sat in a warehouse, then it sat in a store before you put them on. Wearing a shoe before it’s been conditioned is the easiest way to get premature cracks in the leather. Once that happens, there is no going back.
I learned this lesson after visiting my shoe guy in Portland OR, a Ukrainian gentleman who has a shop in a basement on NW Sandy Blvd. I took him a pair of vintage Rockports and he said they were finished. Done. “You can’t fix,” he said. “There is tiny cracks coming from sole.” One might read into this statement a deeper, more prophetic and spiritual meaning, but I had made the mistake of wearing them without first conditioning them.
“Next time, you use this,” and he handed me a bottle of leather conditioner.
“You put little bit on towel, and you rub, 20, 30 times,” he said as he demonstrated on my broken shoes. “Then you do whole shoe like this. You leave it. You let dry. This make leather soft, like skin.”
the shoe in question
He is so right. It makes the leather soft, like skin. After applying the conditioner, you should let them dry at least an hour, so that it doesn’t affect the shine. The conditioner can soak some of the shine down into the pores, giving you a dull looking shine.
The only drawback to conditioning is that it darkens the leather. It’s not going to turn your brown shoes black, but it will turn tan or raw leather a couple shades darker. Letting your shoes dry longer can prevent some of this; a day or two will return them closest to their original color.
To me, this change is a good thing. Again, it shows the graceful age, and looks traveled, sort of like a baseball mitt getting a good oiling. Plus, after a little wear, and a couple of conditionings, it’ll start to feel like a good ball glove too.
The next step is the shine. This is something that varies by technique and skill, but I’ll tell you how I do it. First I rub a terry cloth hand towel in the tin, getting enough polish on the rag to coat a quarter to an eighth of the shoe at a time. I like terry cloth because it’s a little course and helps hold a little more of the polish. Then I rub the polish into the shoe. Once applied to one shoe, I set it aside, and do the other one. Once both shoes are polished, I wipe the first shoe down with a smooth cloth, removing excess polish and massaging the polish into the pores. Then I use a soft brush to buff the polish to a nice sheen. I then repeat the process on the second shoe. If you want to get a really glaring polish, use a spritz of water or spit and rub with another clean smooth cloth to buff up the polish before using the soft brush.
Working both shoes at the same time allows me to utilize my time better, and gives each shoe time to soak up some of the polish. I don’t do the ‘spit shine’ step, because I like my shoes to have little glints of shine and an oiled look, not a parade-boot gloss.
The last step, and second most important, is waterproofing. Most water-proofers are applied the same way as polish or conditioner, but there are also waterproofing sprays. I have tended to go with wax-based water-proofers in the past, but I’m looking forward to trying mink oil or Otter Wax next time I need to waterproof something. I’ve been told to avoid silicone-based water-proofers, as it can affect the shine and ability to shine in the future (some areas keep the silicone and others lose it, making the pores of the leather inconsistent). The bonus with silicone: it won’t ruin the color of the leather, because it doesn’t get absorbed into the pores.
Here at Satchel and Page, we love when things age well. We love making things that age well. We love things that get better as they go, and a good leather is one of the rare pieces of design that gets better with age. You can’t really say that about most of the products we’re surrounded by on a daily basis (skip to ~2:30 and listen to David Kelley or watch the whole thing and get enraged by the guy with purple glasses).