When I got my first pair of quality shoes, I was a bit confused by all the conflicting advice on the internet. Is mink oil good for your shoes or is it bad? Does lanolin ruin leather or is it moisturising? Should I polish my boots weekly or monthly? I was also pretty busy so I didn’t have time to spit-polish my shoes every weekend. So here is a fairly comprehensive list of my shoe care habits (and a little bit about my mistakes along the way) in a 2-part series. I don’t want to pretend it is only right way, but it has kept this time-poor dad’s shoes looking schmick.
General day to day
Always use a shoe horn to put on your shoes. Seriously it doesn’t need to be made of mammoth horn with a silver handle (I still use my crappy plastic one I got for free with a pair of Aquilas years ago). This prevents the heel counter from being crushed to oblivion every time you put on your shoes. This creates ugly creases on the back of the shoe and ruins the overall shape and, so I’ve been told by a decent cobbler, is not easily repairable.
Don’t wear the same pair of shoes every day. This may be counter-intuitive to you buy-a-pair-of-ugly-black-work-shoes-and-wear-it-to-the-ground crowd but you need to allow the leather to dry out as it will degrade faster if it is permanently wet. If you buy two pairs of shoes and rotate between them, this will last longer than if you buy one pair, wear it to death, then buy another pair. Moisture is the enemy of leather, which leads me to shoe-trees. Shoe-trees are your shoes’ best friend. They help to absorb moisture after a day’s wear and retain the shoe’s shape. I have a pair from Florsheim which are much nicer than most of the stuff on eBay. There are other options from overseas such as Woodlore, but they normally cost quite a bit to ship.
Brush your shoes with a horsehair brush after wearing them. This will keep your shoes looking shinier and cleaner between polishes. I generally use a stiffer brush for this as I find it is better for getting dirt off. Mine is just a Kiwi brush I picked up from the supermarket but you can also get one as part of a kit.
My first two pairs of decent shoes were both work boots. Work boots are usually made of tougher leather than dress shoes and probably are among the lowest maintenance (the lowest maintenance being my suede chukka boots). I obsessively researched leather care when I first got my boots and the product I settled on was Huberd’s Shoe Grease. It is still the product I use today (in fact I’m only halfway through my original 7.5 Oz tin). Huberd’s is basically beeswax with a small quantity of coal tar mixed in, and it does a fantastic job of conditioning and waterproofing the leather. You basically just undo the laces and put the boots somewhere warm but not in direct sunlight to relax the pores. Put some shoe trees in to keep the leather taut (trying to condition or polish leather without a shoe tree is like trying to put sunscreen on a shar pei). Brush off any dirt, especially in the creases and welt (I usually have one brush for the dirt and a different one for polishing). Apply the Huberd’s with a cotton cloth then wait about 20 minutes for the grease to dry and buff off any excess wax with a stiff horsehair brush (the last step is not on the can but I find the leather looks shinier if you do it). And that’s it! When I first got my boots, I fastidiously greased them every week with the tender loving care of a new parent. But then I noticed unsightly white streaks appearing on the creases – this was the excess wax squishing out of the leather when I walked and drying again on the surface. You don’t need to wax them too often as boot leather is usually already quite impregnated with oils. The other thing that happens if you grease too often is that the leather darkens very quickly. These days I only do it about once a month, or when they look very dry. Beat up work boots look good, and then when you do wax them, you get this lovely patina.
Other product very similar to Huberd’s is Obenauf’s. It is also beeswax-based and will do a similar job to the Huberd’s. I have also heard really good things about Red Wing’s Boot Oil. Some people use their mink oil but I have also read that animal fats like lanolin and mink oil can go rancid if you use them too often and smell funky. There is also the claim that overuse can soften the leather too much. I have not yet had such an experience but I do use it very very sparingly… as with most things, less is more.
Check back later for Part II: calf, cordovan, and suede…