Shoe Care Guide
Leather is skin. And like your skin – it’s tough but still fragile relative to rough surfaces and needs protection and care.
Unlike your skin – which is alive and receives nourishment from the body – the leather on your shoes only receives the nourishment you give it. It can easily dry out, over-absorb water, or be damaged in other ways but cannot repair itself.
If leather loses its natural oils and moisture, it loses it’s flexibility and its fibrous interweave will start to crack and eventually break down. Once this happens it is lost and needs to be replaced.
Here is a comprehensive guide on how to care for your expensive leather shoes sorted according to frequency and occasion:
Before you slip them on for the first time, you should get toe taps installed. These are usually small metal plates that are nailed into the tip of your sole.
The front edge of your sole is always subject to more abuse than the rest of the sole e.g from tripping, stopping the door with your shoe, the way you walk and hence wear out faster. That means you may have to replace a perfectly functional sole just because the tip has worn down to the threads. Toe taps prevent this premature wearing from happening and helps you achieve the full lifespan of your sole. They are available for as low as $10 a pair in Singapore.
I am personally not a fan of Topys, which is a rubber sole glued onto the leather sole, supposedly because it is tougher. I find that leather soles stretch when the shoe flexes with your step, which helps reduce pressure and creases on the vamp. However, the stiff rubber sole prevents this from happening – imagine 2 pieces of thick cardboard glue together, and when you bend them, the outside piece exerts pressure on the inside piece, causing it to crinkle and crease badly. This is what happens to your shoe upper, which cannot be replaced. I would rather wear down the soles, which can be cheaply replaced.
Next you should get the leather upper fully conditioned and treated with this routine, which should be repeated every few months.
Putting them on
When wearing your shoe, you should always make use of a shoe horn. These are thin pieces of plastic/metal/wood that guide your heel into a well-fitted shoe.
Stuffing your feet into your shoe without a shoe horn will often result in bending the counter, damaging it over time.
Taking them off
After taking your shoes off, always get a pair of shoe trees in as soon as possible. This is because the leather interior has been absorbing your sweat for an entire day and will start rotting if not dried quickly. Quality shoe trees made of porous cedarwood will absorb this moisture and also fill your shoe to dry in the correct shape. This prevents lining rot and creases from destroying the leather upper.
Every Few Months
The routine outlined here is essential to maintain your leather in tip-top condition and make it last a lifetime.
Before you proceed, you’ll want to remove the laces and insert the shoe trees into your shoes. The shoe trees are like the skeleton of the shoe, providing a firm surface so that you can apply the shoe care products more easily. The knob also helps you maneuver the shoe to target hard to reach places.
Using a clean horsehair brush, clean off the dust and dirt that has accumulated in the crevices of the shoe, as well as flaking layers of polish. I recommend using a separate horsehair brush than your polish brushes, otherwise, you’ll end up having dust trapped in your polish when you apply it on – not a pretty sight. In fact, we have multiple brushes in our Shoe Care Kit: 1 for cleaning, 1 for each colour of cream polish, 1 for each colour of wax polish, 1 for buffing.
It is crucial to use horsehair (or some variation of natural hair), and never synthetic fibres. Synthetic fibres are too hard and will cause micro scratches on your leather. Pick a horsehair brush with dense fibres and perferably with an ergonomic curve for easy use.
You can skip this step if you have never treated or worn your shoe before. The purpose of stripping is to remove built up layers of wax and polish over your shoe. Otherwise, the layers will start flaking and cracking, and ruin the suave look. To strip the layers of polish, you’ll need rubbing alcohol (also known as isopropyl alcohol) which is available in many local pharmacies such as Guardian and Watsons for less than $10 a bottle.
First, apply some of the alcohol onto a clean, dry cotton rag. Apply this rag onto the shoe in firm, circular motions while periodically adding more alcohol to the rag. You’ll notice that the wax layer starts to develop a dull glaze. As soon as this happens, use a wet cloth to wipe away the glaze, and repeat the entire process with the alcohol rag until you most of the wax and polish is gone.
You can never remove all the polish, and it is sufficient to just see the grain of your shoe leather again.
Leather is prized because of its flexible and durability. At the microscopic level, leather is made up of a tangle of fibers held together with protein bonds. Fats and oils keep the protein bonds from breaking. If leather loses its natural oils, it loses it’s flexibility and its fibrous interweave will start to crack and eventually break down. Once this happens it is lost and needs to be replaced.
A good leather conditioner is designed to be readily absorbed and will restore flexibility in the fibers, preventing this breakdown – in some cases leather products well over 100 years old are as usable today as they were a century ago because the leather has been properly preserved.
Apply the conditioner with a clean, dry cotton rag – do not be afraid to use excess as you will only be doing this once every few months. Would you rather waste a few cents worth of conditioner or take a few years off your fine shoes?
Make sure to apply thoroughly onto every inch of the leather, including the tongue and outsole. For hard to reach places, use an applicator brush. Let your shoes sit overnight for the conditioner to soak in before proceeding to the next step. The next morning, use a cotton rag to wipe off excess conditioner (optional, but helps you achieve a better shine).
Cream polish is pigment rich, and rejuvenates the colour of your shoe. As such, it is important to choose a colour of cream polish close to the colour of the leather. In addition, cream polish also contains nutrients and oils that are great for the shoe leather. Unlike wax polish, cream polish does not give your shoe a glossy shine. Rather, it will give a matte sheen similar to satin when buffed.
Apply cream polish liberally with a horsehair applicator brush. Like the conditioner, work it into every crevice, then let it soak in – it will look duller at first, but do not worry! After 3 hours, you can use a buffing brush to brush at the shoe and you will get a elegant matte sheen like this:
Cream polish will never give you a mirror shine as it does not build a smooth layer on top of the leather.
Making it hard for water to soak into your shoe plays a big part in extending its lifespan, because a significant loss of natural oils in the leather occurs when water penetrates and then evaporates. There are waterproof sprays around, but I haven’t tested them because I felt that the compounds they use will suffocate the leather and cannot be removed. How are the conditioners going to penetrate this waterproof layer and reach the leather if it is supposed to keep water out? – but that is just my opinion.
I use a thick layer of wax to waterproof my shoe as they can be stripped. In addition, they also i) fill scuff marks and scratches on the shoe and, ii) form an excellent base coat for a mirror shine later on.
As with the cream polish, choose a colour close to that of your shoe and apply a thick coat of wax all over the shoe with an applicator brush. For the odd angles, you can hold the shoe by the knob of its shoe tree and rotate. Let it sit for an hour or so and you are ready to buff it off with the buffing brush to get a slightly glossier sheen than the cream polish! If you drop some water on the shoe, you’ll see that they form droplets on top instead of soaking in.
You can repeat the brush shining process a few more times to add a few more layers on. However, a brush will never get you a mirror shine.
A mirror shine is entirely optional and does nothing to protect your shoes – it is purely for aesthetic reasons and is up to your preference. Some people insist that a impeccable mirror shine is a sign of a meticulous man (as it is laborious to achieve and maintain), but I think that a brush shine is more subtle and classy.
To achieve the best mirror shine, you’ll need water, a cotton rag (soft natural fibres), shoe wax from before, and shoe trees to prevent the leather from flexing away under pressure. The principle is to fill up the pores and grain of the leather layer upon layer of wax, until it forms a smooth glossy layer on top. I have covered the specifics of mirror-shining in a sister article, so I will not be going over it here.
That said, it is not acceptable (nor practical) to mirror shine your entire shoe! Not only will it take days, it will ruin the formality of the shoe. If you want a fully glossy shoe, get patent leather (cheap leather covered in a layer of plastic) instead. You should only mirror shine the toe box.
You should also never use liquid polish – those ‘instant’ solutions with an applicator sponge – on any quality leather shoes as the solvents in the liquid polish will dissolve and remove the essential oils in the leather.
When Your Shoes Get Wet
Things you’ll need: Old Newspaper, Shoe Trees, Silica Beads, Cotton Rags, Horsehair Brush, Leather Conditioner, Cream Polish, Wax Polish, Water
Dry out excess water
As soon as possible, use old news paper to wipe down your shoe and stuff it into the interior to soak up all excess droplets of water. Leave it there for about an hour. NEVER, at any point in time, attempt to dry your shoes by placing near a heat source, blowdrying, or placing it in direct sunlight. This will cause the essential oils in the leather to dry up as well and weaken the leather upper.
Dry the leather upper
After the newspaper has done its job, throw it away and insert shoe trees made from unfinished cedar along with some silica beads. This is to dehumidify the interior of the shoe and further absorb the moisture that has been taken up by the leather. Doing so will prevent the leather fibres from weakening and also prevent lining rot. Again, never place your shoes near a heat source in an attempt to dry it faster as this will just ruin the leather upper and cause it to crack easily.
Treat the leather
Do this by following the steps from Conditioning – Waterproofing in the complete shoe care routine above
Things you’ll need: Shoe Trees, dessicant bags, shoe box.
Treat the leather
Do this by following the steps from Conditioning – Waterproofing in the complete shoe care routine above
Store in Shoe Trees
Leather shrinks if unworn for extended periods. If you are going to be storing these shoes for more than a month, insert and leave shoe trees in them – the spring loaded componenets will help maintain the size of your shoes so they still fit when you don them again.
Keep them dry and dust free
It is essential to remove moisture from the shoes. Apart from shoe trees, you can consider adding silica gel bags into the shoes to prevent mildew from growing. Keep the shoes in a shoe box to prevent dust buildup.
Every few months, take the shoes out for a liberal application of leather conditioner to keep the leather supple. If you are not going to wear them, you’ll not need to polish or spiff up its looks.
What We Recommend
We are shoe aficionados ourselves, and we’d love to share with you the best products in our opinion and from our experience!
Horsehair is stiff but, as a natural fibre, not tough enough to scratch skin or leather. When picking a shoe brush, we recommend one that is slightly curved to accomodate natural brushing motions, which helps prevent nicking the shoe with the handle edges by accident. Over here at the ShoeTree Project, we craft 100% horse hair brushes with an ergonomic curve with fingerholds in the handle – they just feel great in your hand!
When picking a horsehair brush, opt for the ones with dense hair as they tend to do the job better
For Conditioner, we use Saphir Medaille d’Or Renovateur which comes in a glass bottle that looks more like a face cream.
It smells good, and does an excellent job at keeping the leather upper supple and hydrated. Because its mild cleaner unclogs pores with old polish, the Saphir Renovateur penetrates deeper into leather than other conditioners. You can feel the subtle difference in pliability of the leather as soon as minutes after application. What’s more – it is easily available for just $29 with FREE delivery when you purchase online!
For cream polishes, we use the Saphir Pommadier Cream Polish, also from the premium Saphir Medaille d’Or 1925 line. In this case, I chose it because the brown matched that of my Berlutis very closely, and quickly expanded into the black as well. It does a fine job of moisturizing the shoe leather as well as rejuvenating the colour subtly. When buffed with our horsehair brush, it gives a nice matte sheen.
For wax, we use standard Kiwi wax simply because it is so economical (or free for a Singaporean male) and widely available. With higher-end shoes that are admired more than worn, however, the Saphir Pate de Luxe will be able to work up to a visibly better high-gloss shine due to its higher concentration of hard waxes.
This one will have to (shamelessly) go to our very own Twin-tube, Split-toe American Red Cedar Shoe Trees – otherwise we wouldn’t have started the ShoeTree Project in the first place. We really trust our product, and we genuinely believe it to be the best – let us explain why.
The ShoeTree Project spawned out of the frustration of two shoe collectors who couldn’t find shoe trees that were made of good quality cedar, were correctly sized, and did not take weeks to arrive (as in mass orders).
The shoe trees we developed for ourselves are made with heartwood (the strongest part of a tree trunk) from the American Red Cedar, which has a refreshing pine fragrance as compared to the pungent Incense Cedar ones from China.
In addition, they are:
- Ergonomic: Shaped like our feet to maintain your shoe in the proper shape
- Able to exert Biplanar Pressure: To both unfurl your sole along the shoe and stretch out the leather across the shoe, thereby minimizing all forms of creases
- Porous and absorbent: Dries out your shoe interior to prevent lining rot
- Resistant to decay: They can last forever
- Available in individual sizes: From EUR 35 – EUR 46, we can find the ideal fit for your shoe instead of a generic S/M/L/XL size tier
- Protected by a 6-Month Warranty: A guarantee of quality, which you can read about here
- Shipped to you for FREE
With a recent size recalibration, our Shoe Trees are closer to true sizes* than ever, and you can even determine your own size with the Sizing Tool at our Shop page. They have also been downpriced from $50 to $35 in the process! If they do not fit, don’t worry, simply exchange them for the right size!
If you have not got a pair of Shoe Trees, you’ll find it difficult to carry out the shoe care regimen prescribed above properly, so do pop over and give our Shoe Trees a look!