Polishing Shoes

This is a subject ruled by more folklore than reason. On the fantasy end of the spectrum are the elaborate rituals of Mme. Olga Berluti’s embarrassingly parvenu Swan Club black tie dinners where its members polish shoes with “special” creams and drops of champagne, wonderful grist for the fashion pundits’ mill, but as questionable as Berluti’s shoe fashions themselves. Somewhat more practical are the “bulling” of boots in the British Army, something I do not wish upon either of us, the organic method using a banana peal (it works), setting the polish on fire to aid in absorption (counterproductive), and the time-honoured “spit-shine’, using a cloth, polish and water (or champagne when no source of water is available). About these you can read at leisure on the Internet. What I will offer below is a practical guide to polishing shoes, sans ritual, sans regalia and sans religion. Follow these instructions and with very little time invested your shoes will look lovely and last indefinitely.

Leather finishes differ, of course, and the level of gloss that you prefer will dictate the polish that you use and how you apply it. Creams will not give you the high-shine of wax polishes and only a painstaking cloth and water shine will give you the highest gloss military shine. But, in my view, leather should emit light, it should glow, not reflect. And for that warm and still perfectly shiny finish, I recommend the following simple techniques. With your purchase, I will include my favourite cream polish in the correct colour to start you off right.

As a rule, New Shoes should be polished before wearing outside -you can try them on and walk around the house but before they see dirt or wet, they should be protected by polish. New leather is very absorbent and, with the exception of the toes to which you can give a little more attention if you wish, applying with a cloth as is often recommended will make it difficult to apply cream evenly. Instead, use one of the small round brushes intended for the purpose, apply a small amount of cream to the brush and, moving very quickly, spread the cream evenly, continuing to work until it is absorbed. If you stop the swirls of polish will be absorbed unevenly, so keep moving and spreading.

I have experimented extensively with various polishes and have settled almost exclusively on creams (as opposed to wax polishes). But wax polishes are suitable for shoes that are really going to get wet or very dirty. Also, I have found that the lightest reasonable colour of polish is the best to use. With the exception of black shoes on which I use black polish and cordovan on cordovan, I have been using a light tan polish on almost every brown shoe. The oils make the shoe darker anyway and if you want to preserve the light colour of a shoe use tan. Of course, if a shoe is scuffed or the colour has gone out for some reason then match the colour with the appropriate shoe cream.
Again, from the beginning; after cleaning your shoes thoroughly with a stiff horsehair brush, let them dry thoroughly if they are damp, remove the laces and insert their shoetrees. I strongly prefer to polish with trees in; it is easier to spread the polish evenly, brushing or buffing is more thorough and if you let the shoes rest with trees in for a day or two after polishing the shape of the shoes is restored and creases are minimized.

Spread the cream with a round bristle brush meant for the purpose, (you should own 2 or 3 brushes for different colours) moving rapidly and applying modest amounts of polish to all surfaces, in all the nooks and crannies, and to the welt and the tongue. Pass the brush over and over until the cream is evenly distributed and is beginning to dry. Set the shoe aside for 15 or 20 minutes and then polish with a large soft horsehair brush. If you are concerned that some excess polish may be left on the surface, or if you would like a slightly higher shine, use a shammy (Chamois) cloth or a strip of Turkish toweling to give it a final going over. Oh, and polish the soles occasionally too; just clean your applicator brush off on the soles. They are leather too and need a little feeding from time to time. Now, if you have devoted more than 5 minutes (not counting waiting time or cleaning) you have exceeded my instructions.

You might experiment with polishes, using a lighter or darker polish on the cap, for instance, to enhance the patina over time. Do so without concern; you are hardily likely to change the colour of your shoes in one application of a foreign colour.

An additional word about Shell Cordovan Shoes; this leather suffer as much from the application of too much polish as from not enough. When cordovan shoes are new and still “sweating” oils from the tanning, they require only a vigorous brushing and no polish. Later, when you do use cream, the tiniest amounts will suffice. Again, brushing is the key to preventing the build-up of excess polish on this tight-grained leather. Skip Horween, the present owner of the great Chicago tannery and premiere purveyor of cordovan in the world, in a phone call recently, recommended that I take the back edge of a pocket knife to the built up deposits before polishing….and it works! But use the minimum amount of polish on cordovan and you will not have to resort to such extreme measures.