Introduction: That Polished Appearance – the Shoe Maintenance Guide

It is said that you only have 7 seconds to make a first impression. One thing is for sure and that is that there is no second chance to make one. So don’t let anything hinder the making of a good first impression… especially anything as easy to avoid as scruffy shoes!

Not only will a well maintained pair of shoes look smart and give you that polished appearance (no apologies for the pun) but their lifespan will be greatly improved. I heard that HRH The Prince Of Wales wears a pair of John Lobb Oxfords that he’s had since the early 70’s – something that is only achievable by good shoe maintenance.

So, how should we go about maintaining our shoes?

I have an old pair of Loake Oban leather demi-brogues that are in desperate need of a little bit of love. Fantastic shoes they are and have posed excellent value. However this pair have, I hate to admit it, been slightly abused. They are approaching a decade old and have been resoled once or twice and the uppers have seen better days. But not to worry, that makes them the ideal pair of shoes to demonstrate how we can polish some life back into a pair of slightly neglected shoes.

The process does take some time but the results are worth every bit of time spent and the whole process is both relaxing and rewarding.

First of all the shoes are dry which is essential before a clean and polish. In order to maintain a happy household it is essential to lay out newspaper on the surface that you are polishing your shoes on. My mother was never impressed when I’d polish my shoes on the dining table as a small boy, so learn from my experience and lay out a newspaper. My recommendation is to use the Financial Times but the Telegraph will do.

Step 1:

The shoes are not particularly dirty. I see shoes in a worse state on the feet of chaps in the office, but you can see that they are by no means highly polished. They have been polished regularly over the years but have layer upon layer of old polish on the surface and could do with a good feed.

The first thing to do is to get a good shoe brush and brush all the dirt off the shoe. If they needed more than just a brush to remove the dirt I would wipe them with a moistened cloth to remove the dirt and then leave them to fully dry before moving to the next stage.

Next, I want to remove all of the old polish. Now, this might seem a little scary, but bare with me… I remove the old polish with some acetone (nail polish remover) soaked on some cotton wool pads. You can find this easily in the medicine cabinet of your girlfriend, wife or mistress.

Step 2:

To do this apply some acetone to the cotton wool pads and rub lightly over the surface of the shoes to remove the old polish. Do this fairly lightly as not to remove the actual finish of the leather or to soak the pores of the leather as there is the potential for the acetone to take out any natural oils in the leather. Sparing application is the key.

Disclaimer – at this point I point out that these shoes are leather so the acetone will not harm the shoes (acetone is a solvent and can dissolve some polymers). If in doubt then test a part of the shoe that is not very visible to make sure that no damage will be done by the use of acetone (testing the tongue of the shoe is a good idea as that is mostly hidden so if it did have an affect on the finish then it would not matter so much). You could also use rubbing alcohol to remove the old polish instead of acetone.

You can see the old polish on the cotton wool.

Step 3:

Here you can see one shoe (the upper most) with the old polish removed and one before the removal process (the lower). The difference is obvious.

Step 4:

When both shoes are done the next stage is to feed the leather. Leather is a natural product and needs feeding to prevent it from drying out and eventually cracking. To do this you can feed the leather with a leather balm, a leather conditioning cream, mink oil or saddle soap. This will prevent the leather from drying and eventually cracking. On black shoes this is very easy, with light shoes (light tan for example) this process can darken the leather slightly so again, if unsure test a discreet part of the shoe or just accept that the shoe may darken slightly.

Step 5:

When doing this I use a leather conditioning cream applied with a soft cloth. Again the mantra is sparing application, you can always add more. Don’t be afraid to rub fairly hard as you want the conditioner to penetrate the leather. Leave the shoes for 10 minutes or so then buff any excess off with a soft cloth.

Next we need to get the shoes looking shiny and want to bring out the colour of the shoes. This is done by the application of a wax polish. First of all get a welt brush and dab some wax on the brush and really work it into the welts of the shoes (the bit where the uppers meet the soles) to get all the stitching and welts coated with wax.

You will notice that i have taken the laces out of the shoes. To be fair I should have done this earlier on in the process (right at the beginning) as it allows you to clean the shoes easier and get at the leather under the laces. It also prevents you getting polish all over your laces.

Step 6:

Next I like to apply wax to the rest of the upper of the shoe, along with the sides of the sole and heel, with a soft cloth. Again don’t be afraid to rub hard as you want the wax to fill the pores of the leather.

Once the wax has been applied to the whole shoe you must now do something really important. You must leave the shoes for a good 10 minutes so allow the wax time to soak into the shoe and for the volatile components in the wax polish to evaporate.

Step 7:

It is important not to skip this stage. This is an ideal time to make a coffee, read one of the supplements from the newspaper or to read your favourite blog ( obviously).

Once your 10 minutes is up give the shoes a good buff with a shoe brush and make sure to brush the welts well to remove all excess wax. After brushing the shoes should have some shine to them and will start to look better. I like at this stage to buff the shoes with a soft cloth.

Step 8:

I like to repeat the waxing stage a second time to make sure that a good base coat of wax has been applied and that no area was missed.

Now, the man on the street would probably be happy with this shine. However, you are not the average man on the street! You are not happy with just a shoe shine, you want a proper polish.

A proper polish will take things a step further and differentiates the men from the boys. A good polish will transform the shoes by filling the pores of the leather with wax and will make the leather smooth like glass and with a glossy polished finish that cannot be rivalled.

So, how do we do it? Well, it is not difficult, but does take a little time. First of all gather your materials. You will need your wax shoe polish, a soft cloth and some water. I find that hot water works best and also find that putting it in your mother’s best china teacup is preferred (although not obligatory by any means).

Step 9:

Next I wrap my two fingers nearest my thumb on my dominant hand (in my case the right hand) in the soft cloth and twist the cloth as to tighten it and wrap the rest of the cloth around my hand or wrist to keep it in place and to allow it to stay in place (not easy to explain but hopefully you can see what I mean in the next photo).

Step 10:

Now, this is the part that takes some time. It is also the part that is most difficult to explain. This process is as much about the feel of the surface of the leather against your finger tips as much as it is about the theory. I will try to explain what the process is but it is something that you will have to try and you will develop your own technique as you gain experience.

First apply a smallish amount of polish to the cloth on your finger tips and start rubbing the shoes in small circular motions to apply a thin layer of polish to the surface. Keep rubbing then apply some of the warm water to the surface (only a single drop at a time applied with one of the fingers of your free hand – in my case my left) then keep rubbing in small circular motions. This will start to give a deep glossy shine as it lubricates the wax and allows for a very smooth wax layer to start being built up. Apply more wax, remembering to rub in small circular motions, to build up the wax layer applying droplets of water as needed (you don’t need much water, so drop by drop is best – if you do apply too much water the leather will start to get wet and you will have to wait for it to dry out before continuing).

Step 11:

You will see the shine starting to form. Keep going, build the shine layer by layer. How quickly this will take will depend on many things from the level of shine you are going for to the quality and finish of the leather. It might take five layers, it might take twenty five. It is not something that is achieved quickly, but we should be strive for excellence of finish and not speed.

Step 12:

As the glossy finish forms keep the cloth lubricated with the droplets of water. It is important at this stage not to use your brush as this will ruin the glossy finish, and don’t buff with any other cloth as it will by dry and could drag the finish making the surface less smooth and you will lose your superb finish.

You might, if you have brogued shoes, see a build up of wax in the punched holes and this can be cleared out with the point of a wooden cocktail stick.

Step 13:

One last point that I should not have to mention, but I shall anyway in case this article is read by some unscrupulous cad or bounder who might choose to use this shoe polishing method for acts of moral turpitude. The reflection in the highly polished finish on the toe cap of your shoes should never, and I repeat never, be used to look up ladies skirts at cocktail parties. That would be a breach of manners and not the sort of thing that a gentleman would do.

Enjoy wearing your shoes and don’t let them get into that state again!!