I don’t know how or when it happened, but it happened: we have turned the shoe shine into some inimitable world-class skill. Old-timey fashion blogs romantize the act like it’s an art and, no different from painting or sculpting, mastered only through thousands of hours of practice. Shoe care companies have saturated the market with products of every consistency: waxes, polishes, conditioners, cleaners, creams, balms, salves, milk, and honey.
Meanwhile, we, the common folk, are left trying to make sense of this nonsense. Do I use ALL of these products? If so, do I apply the shoe milk before or after the shoe honey? And, because I quite obviously don’t have hours of practice, is shining shoes even worth my time?
What follows is your no nonsense guide to leather shoe care — everything you need to keep your kicks looking fresh, and more importantly, nothing you don’t.
What You Will Need
Of the many shoe care products available, only a few are essential. Most shoes require a good shoe cream and some tools, while others — those worn in inclement weather, for example — require additional items. [Recommendations and links to product pages on Amazon are provided at the end of this post].
- Saddle soap – cleans dirty leather
- Shoe cream polish – conditions, shines, and protects leather
- Mink oil – protects leather from inclement weather
- Wax polish – protects leather and gives it a high shine
- Old t-shirt – cheap and effective product applicator
- Horsehair shine brush – works product deep into the leather
- Shoe tree – absorbs moisture and helps maintain the shape of the shoe
- Shoe horn – protects the back of the shoe from wearing down
How to Shine a Shoe
Step 1: Cleaning
Before applying any shoe product, it’s important to remove the dirt and dust that accumulates naturally on your shoes. Unless you’re stomping through mud puddles, all you need is a damp piece of an old t-shirt. If you are, for whatever reason, playing in the mud, then some saddle soap — a cleaner designed specifically for leather — can give you a deeper clean.
How do I clean my shoes?
- Wipe the shoe with a damp piece of an old shirt (use saddle soap if necessary).
- Wipe dry.
- Allow 5 minutes for shoes to fully dry before applying shoe care product.
How often should I clean my shoes? Weekly and always immediately before conditioning and/or polishing. The key is to prevent the buildup of dirt and dust, so frequent cleanings — like once at the end of the workweek — are most effective.
How long should I spend cleaning my shoes? 30 seconds.
Step 2: Conditioning and Polishing
Applying a cream-based polish to your shoes is the most important step to shoe care. A good shoe cream — like this one from Meltonian — is both a conditioner and a protectant. The conditioning components keep the leather supple and give the shoe that out-of-the-box look, while the polish/protectant components protect against scuffs, water, snow, and slush.
How do I apply shoe cream?
- Apply cream to your fingers. Rub it into the shoe like you’d apply lotion to your face. You can also use a rag, but your fingers will make it easier to apply a consistent coat and get into those hard to reach places.
- Wait 1 minute to allow the cream to set in.
- Using a light stroke, brush the shoe with a horsehair brush. This will work the cream further into the shoe and remove any excess product.
- Apply a second coat and rebrush. This will intensify the protective layer of polish.
- Spit the shoe. It’s time for the ol’ spit shine. Get some water on your fingers and mist the shoe. Take your t-shirt and wrap it around your pointer and middle fingers. Rub lightly using a circular motion to bring the cream forward for a healthy shine.
Do I need to polish brand new shoes? Yes. Polish protects the shoe, absorbing minor scuffs before they reach the leather.
If I don’t want shiny shoes, do I need to polish them? Yes, for the reasons above. Cream polish gives your shoes a rich and healthy look. But it won’t give you that classic mirror shine that comes from wax-based polish (which we’ll cover shortly).
What color shoe cream should I use? Black or neutral. For the most part, black is black, and any black polish can be applied to your black shoe. For brown shoes, though; I’d use neutral. There are 42 shades of brown, and the last thing you want is to try to match polish and fail, altering the color of your favorite shoe.
How often should I apply shoe cream? Once a month.
How long should I spend applying shoe cream? 5 minutes.
Step 3: If Your Winters Suck, Consider Mink Oil
Mink oil provides maximum protection against snow, slush, and sidewalk salt, but it can also darken leather.
If you live somewhere nice (good for you), you can probably skip it. But if, like me, you live in Minnesota, where you’re punished with 7 months of wintery hell every year, it’s worth it to weigh mink oil’s protective benefits against the risk of darkening your shoe color.
You’re unlikely to notice a difference with black or dark brown shoes, but a light tan might turn a shade darker. If you’re unwilling to risk color change, skip mink oil and make sure to wipe your shoes down immediately after contact with salt and slush.
How do I apply mink oil? After conditioning the shoe, apply a single coat of mink oil as follows:
- Apply using fingers
- Wipe off excess oil with the t-shirt
How often should I apply mink oil? Once every 2 months throughout winter.
Step 4: If You Want a High Shine, Apply Wax Polish
So let’s say you want a little shine. Maybe you’re a groomsman in a formal wedding and when you hit the dance floor, you want to SPARKLE. That’s cool. A wax polish gives you that mirror finish and is applied much like a cream polish.
How do I apply wax polish?
- Apply polish using your fingers.
- Apply a second coat and re-brush.
- Apply a third coat. This is the base coat, and you won’t brush it off.
- Mist the shoe and using your shirt wrapped around your fingers, rub in a circular motion to bring the polish forward, giving the shoe that high shine.
How often should I apply wax polish? As needed. In addition to shining your shoes, wax polish is your best bet to repair scuff marks and can be used to restore beat up shoes.
How long should I spend applying wax polish? 5 minutes.
Two More Tips for Extending the Life of Your Shoes
1: Use a Shoe Horn When Putting Shoes On
This will prevent the backs of your shoes from looking like this:
2: Insert Shoe Trees When Shoes are Not in Use
Shoe trees absorb moisture and maintain the shape of the leather, which prevents cracking. They also help decrease shoe odor.
Based on both personal experience and the research for this post, here is a list of recommended shoe care products and their Amazon links:
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