Intro: How to Make Your Leather Boots Last Forever (Or at Least Longer Than the Next Guy's)
Good boots are not cheap. Cheap boots are not good. As a utility lineman, I spend a lot of time outside under harsh conditions at work. My boots, while tough (they have to be), often pay the price as I slog through mud, water, snow, salt and rocks, not to mention the beating they take while wearing steel climbing hooks and abrading against a telephone pole. There is, however, a way to delay the inevitable and preserve your boots to survive at least as long as this crappy economy. NOTE: This 'ible is for regular tanned leather boots only-'rough outs' or suede type boots like UGGs, etc. will not respond as well to this treatment.
Step 1: The Basics. Start With Oil.
Maintaining your boots is not difficult or expensive, but it needs to be done at regular intervals. I have found a good pair of steel-toed work boots (like those made by Red Wing and other work boot specialty companies like Hall's Line Supply) will generally survive a year and a half to two years with good care under rough line work conditions. Your boots or shoes may not be subject to such harsh conditions, and may go much longer. If you are just looking to make your Doc Martens last longer for more concerts, etc. you could expect to double the life of them by doing regular maintenance. A friend of mine had a pair of Doc's shoes for five or six years, wearing them nearly every day, and through regular oiling (and I think at least one re-soling) was able to keep them until they fell apart at the seams, literally.
Here's what you need:
Neatsfoot Oil-there are plenty of oils and creams out there that all promise to do various things. For my money (and probably yours if you are on here, we are a thrifty lot!), nothing is better than good old Neatsfoot Oil. My company supplies us with Fiebing Brand, and we keep a bottle in the office to work on our boots when we have the time. Additionally, I keep a bottle at home, as I like to oil them right after I dry them overnight. The 32 ounce size shown here will probably last a lifetime unless you have an army.
Store your oil bottle in a zip-loc bag-the design of the bottle creates dribbles and it always ends up on the bottom of your bottle, leaving a nice oily rectangle wherever you put it down. NOTE:it is important to know that Neatsfoot oil will darken the finish of your leather-if your Docs are that perfect shade to match your handbag now, oiling them will change the shade substantially.
Step 2: Brush.
A cheap plastic brush-use this anytime you have dried mud or dirt on your boots or shoes to clean off excess grit. You don't want to be rubbing dirt into the leather as you oil them if you don't have to.
A towel, blanket, or lots of newspaper-this is a messy job, and unless you can work outside where it won't get on carpet or fancy floor coverings, you'll want one of these to protect your floor.
Vinyl or rubber gloves-Neatsfoot oil has a unique smell-not real stinky, but unique enough that once you smell it, you always know what it is...your friends, family or significant other may not be privy to your regimen here, so gloves can be worn and then disposed of to keep the oil off you. It will not hurt your hands, but it may take some time to wash out the smell, and you may feel greasy until you do. NOTE: If you are a utility lineman or ever want to be-DO NOT USE these GLOVES-They are for wussies who worry about the smell on their hands. Be a man, even if you are a woman.
A boot dryer-This is a lifetime investment if you buy right-capable of drying a pair of heavy leather boots overnight, this item is also good for your gloves, hats, etc. that get wet in either rainy or winter weather. If you have a lot of gear, or you have more than one family member that spends time outside in bad weather, you may owe it to yourself to get more than one. My model is made by Peet (shown) and was $39 over ten years ago (yes, it has lasted me that long so far, and is on almost all the time!). A recent Ebay search yielded plenty of these, as well as the obligatory Chinese knock-offs. Govern yourself and your cash accordingly. Remember, good usually ain't cheap, cheap usually ain't good.
A Good Shoe Repair Guy-A decent shoe repairman is not always easy to find-most nowadays are second or third generation, and have vowed to not work as hard as their father did at fixing shoes. As a result most will now want to sell you a new pair of shoes or boots instead. However, some are still out there, and a good shoe guy will be able to tell you when you can fix your shoes (like having them re-soled) and when it's time to replace them. He can also tell you ways to make them last longer, and can make little mods based on the way you walk, etc. to help extend the life of your shoes.
Check your local listings for shoe guys-if you are lucky enough to live in a town near a military base, there is probably more than one to choose from. Otherwise, ask around. Often, it is worth even a half-hour drive to find one in a nearby larger town or city. Often, the older the guy the better, though this is not a hard and fast rule.
Step 5: Get Started.
Pull your laces out of your boots. Put the boot over your hand, just like in the photo (yes that's my arm, not my calf-I have Popeye forearms from work). Put your palm down along the insole of the boot until your fingers are where your toes would be. Using your other hand and your plastic brush, brush away any dirt or residue. Note the second photo-the white residue is road salt along the seam where the upper meets the sole. Brush this off as well as you can-we want to concentrate on this area, as the stitching will fail if the leather is not kept supple here.
Step 6: Be Liberal (just Once, Though)
Don't be afraid to use a fair amount of oil here-pour some into the seam area-if it is enough to run, let it run while turning the boot around, all the time keeping it in the narrow channel where upper meets sole. Once you have oil in the entire area, you can carefully rub it into the seam. This helps to keep the leather supple in one of the most failure prone spots. If you work in winter, realize it is getting assaulted (or perhaps more descriptive would be "a' salted") from the inside from perspiration and from the outside with road salt or God Knows what other chemical your state uses on the roads.
Utilizing the excess oil left over, you want to work your fingers up on to the upper. As you run out of oil, pour on some more and keep on rubbin'. If your boots have leather tongues, make sure to get them as well, and into the stitching for the same reason you hit the stitching in the soles. Under rough condtions, your stitching stands up to abuse as it is (see photo-the stitching wear is from climbing with hooks on) so you want to maintain that as long as you can.
Step 7: Dry. Wipe. Maintain.
Take your boots and place them in a quiet corner overnight-most of the oil will soak in, leaving just a little residue by morning. If you like, you can wipe off the excess with an old cloth towel or paper towel, either one will work.
Oil your boots regularly. I try to get to mine at least once a month, but sometimes I am working enough that it gets hard to do, so I slack off to every other month. This has generally netted me a year and a half to two years out of my boots, under some of the worst work conditions for boots. Your mileage may vary. I've done this for ten years now and it's inexpensive and seems to work. Decent boots run me about $175-$200 for work so you can see the desire to keep them in top shape as long as one can.
When your soles are worn, take your boots to your shoe guy-he should be able to replace them for way less than $50 in most cases and places. If you need resoling, and have no local place, Resole America (www.resole.com) can do them for you, though you will have to send them out and be without them until they are done.
You also want to dry your boots out as often as you can-a convection dryer like a Peet will do this and not over-dry, leaving you to have to do this process all over again. As I have mentioned, even a day's worth of perspiration can do damage. Drying near a fireplace or other heat source is too much heat too soon, and will eventually lead to premature cracking of your leather. The Peet works slowly with convection heat and prevents premature failure of leather and stitching.
Hope this was helpful. Walk tall, work safe.