There are few things I enjoy more than shoe care. Weird, I know.
But breathing life back into a pair of beat-up leather shoes I've scored at a thrift store is an extremely rewarding experience.
And I think if more people knew the basics of shoe care, they would agree with me.
Why restore an old pair of shoes?
For starters, they'll look awesome!
In today's throw-away society, well-built and cared for items are always noticed and admired.
It'll show you take pride in ownership of your possessions.
Next, you'll save yourself money.
New dress shoes are typically expensive with good options starting around $200, going all the way up to several thousand.
Imagine scoring a pair for $3 at a thrift store and then bringing them back to their former glory.
You can then use them in your wardrobe or sell on eBay for a profit like I did with this pair (more on that in a future post).
Finally, you'll feel a sense of accomplishment. Ever notice how a car seems to drive better after you've spent an entire Saturday detailing it?
The same goes for shoe care. Spending some time polishing your shoes before an interview or presentation can help clear your mind and give some much needed confidence by instilling a “Damn I look good!” mentality.
Shoe Care Guide
The photo above is a good illustration of two major points.
One, if neglected, your expensive leather shoes will look like shit.
Two, drastic improvement can be made using just a few widely available products.
Everything I used for this transformation can be had for around $20 with enough left over to do this 50 more times. The “after” result was accomplished without any fancy equipment, dyes, or professional services.
Below you'll see my basic shoe care kit (minus a few rags). All I used was conditioner, cream polish, a couple brushes and rags, and some good ol' fashioned elbow grease.
What you'll need
- Shoe Trees – I use Woodlore. A must-have for each pair of shoes.
- Conditioner – Allen Edmonds Conditioner/Cleaner or Lexol work best.
- Cream Polish – Meltonian is a great and widely available product that comes in an array of colors.
- Polish Applicator – Star Horsehair
- Shoe Brush – Also from Allen Edmonds. I have a Kiwi brush I bought a while back, but it pales in comparison to the Allen Edmonds.
- Cotton Cloth – Cut-up white t-shirts work great.
Step 1: Insert your shoe trees
Not just for storage, these are extremely helpful for shoe care.
The shoe trees will help hold the uppers steady while you apply your shoe care products.
Also, experience tells me that they can help reshape a badly creased shoe when used in conjunction with conditioners.
The conditioner helps the leather fibers relax and the shoe trees hold the leather taught, which helps the shoes “reset” to their original shape.
Step 2: Brush
I've yet to come across a shoe that needed cleaning with any kind of soap or solvents.
For basic shoe care, I don't even involve water in my process as the conditioner will help remove surface dirt.
Just going over them with a good horse hair brush should remove any surface debris.
Use long back and forth strokes, paying particular attention to the welt (the stitching where the uppers and sole come together).
Step 3: Condition
This is the essential shoe care step where we restore moisture to the leather.
This step also helps remove any dirt or residue missed by the brush.
For regular maintenance, I apply a small amount of conditioner with a cloth and spread it as far as it'll go.
For restoration projects like this one though, I like to get a little heavy-handed with the conditioner and work in a generous amount with a polish applicator (helps to further clean in the creases and along the welt).
After working in a liberal amount of the conditioner, wipe off the excess with a soft cloth (old white tees work great).
Now, let the shoes dry anywhere between 30 minutes and overnight.
Step 4: Buff
A lot of people will skip this step and go straight to polishing, but I like to brush the surface to make sure no conditioner residue is left behind.
Now your shoes should look like the photo below.
The surface is looking cleaner and as a result of being rehydrated, the creases are relaxing and the scratches are less pronounced.
Step 5: Cream Polish
When I say polish, I know what you're thinking. I'm not referring to the Paste polish that comes in tins, but rather a Cream polish.
Cream polish usually comes in glass jars and I use them for this step because they contains more pigment than wax polish, meaning they're better at covering up scuffs and restoring the original color to the shoes.
To apply cream polish, get out your polish applicator, dip it in the polish to remove a very small amount of product, and apply to the shoes using a small circular motion.
It's best to spread the polish as far as it'll go. Put it on too thick and it'll get all gummy and be difficult to remove.
Pretend the stuff costs a fortune and you're trying to make it last.
You should work the polish into the welt and around the sole edge (if the color matches, that is).
Once it's dry, after about 5-10 minutes, buff the shoes with your shoe brush. Don't let the polish sit longer than 15 minutes. I've made that mistake before and it left a tacky, matte film that took forever to remove.
If you aren't happy with the shine or coloring, you can apply another coat or two by repeating the same process. You won't hurt anything by applying additional coats though, so don't worry about overdoing it.
However, keep in mind that cream polish will not accumulate into a mirror or military shine.
At this point, your shoes should resemble the photo below.
Step 6 (Optional): Paste Polish
This is the stuff you think of when you hear the words “shoe polish”. You know the tin of Kiwi wax your grandpa has had since before you were born?
I say that this shoe care step is optional because it doesn't do anything to condition the leather and it doesn't have tons of pigment to restore the color.
The purpose of paste polish is to add and shine and provide a slight barrier of protection from water, dirt, and scuffs.
Paste Polish is the product you use to build up into a mirror finish with multiple coats.
NOTE: The shoes in the finished photo above DO NOT have paste polish applied, so you can see that it isn't a necessary step to achieve a nice shine. If you want to build up a mirror shine on the toe, however, paste polish is a must.
I hope this inspires you to refurbish a pair of shoes for yourself, or at least take care of the ones you already have to keep them away from the resale bin.
Shoe care doesn't have to be left to the professionals!
All the best,