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.
These simple habits will minimize wear and tear on your leather shoes during and after wear.
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.
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, which will cause your polish layer to look dull/cloudy – not a pretty sight. In fact, we have multiple buffing brushes and polish dauber 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 a stripping agent like Saphir Reno’mat, which dissolves all build-up on the leather for easy wiping without damaging the original finish.
The Saphir Reno’mat is simple to use. Simply apply a small amount of the suspension onto a rag or cotton swab and proceed to wipe your shoe, adding a small amounts as needed. You’ll notice that any polish you’ve piled onto the leather starts to come off instantly. Leave it on for 15 minutes, before wiping off with a clean rag to reveal your shoe’s original finish! Starting with a clean slate allows you to build a good foundation for a stunning shine.
As an added bonus, the Saphir Reno’mat also cleans off any accidental stains, and removes any leather-harming compounds like silicones etc from low quality shoe care products.
Alternatively, you may also use 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. Do note that rubbing alcohol may damage the shoe’s original finish if used too aggressively, so you should only use this if you have ample experience and know where to stop.
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.
Leather is prized for its flexible and durability. At the microscopic level, leather is made up of a tangle of fibers held together with protein bonds. Natural fats and oils keep the protein bonds strong. 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 prevents this breakdown from occurring by keeping fibres throughout the leather hydrated and flexible – 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 liberally 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).
Over time, you may notice that you leather shoes start to fade and look ‘old’ primarily due to 1) microscopic bits of dyed leather falling off the surface and, 2) chemical breakdown of the dye due to light and elements. Sharp surfaces may also cause scuffs on the surface.
Cream polish is pigment-rich, and restores colour to your shoe leather. In addition, cream polish also contains nutrients and oils that are great for the shoe leather. Unlike wax polishes, cream polishes do 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 rag or horsehair applicator brush. Like the conditioner, work it into every crevice, then let it dry – 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 due to the small amount of waxes it contains.
Cream polish will never give you a mirror shine as it does not build a smooth layer on top of the leather.
A significant loss of essential oils from leather occurs when water penetrates then evaporates, leeching the oils with them. Making it hard for water to soak in is essential to making your shoe leather last.
Wax polish is an excellent product to provide your leather shoes with significant water protection. 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 or rag. 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 then buff it with a 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 shining will never get you a mirror shine since the brush bristles do not buff the polish into a smooth surface.
Alternatively, you may also use a waterproofing spray for quick protection. However, you should be careful with your selection as most utilize silicone to form a waterproof layer, which can suffocate and leech moisture from the leather. Opt for sprays like the Saphir Invulner that specifically do not use any silicones or resins instead.
If you live in a wet tropical climate, or just come into contact with water frequently, you may want to check out our complete waterproofing guide for tropical climates, which contains additional water-protection tips for areas like leather soles to prevent premature wear.
If you want to build a mirror shine on your shoes, this is the best time to do it. Because you’ve just stripped away all old polish and built a good polish foundation in the previous steps, you’ll be able to create a clear, lustrous mirror shine easily.
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 others think that a brush shine is more subtle and classy. Check out our excellent step-by-step guide to mirror shining.
When Your Shoes Get Wet
Water and salt are two of the most common reasons for leather wear and tear. They breakdown the essential oils in leather, causing the fibres to go brittle and weak. If you happen to spill beverages or get your shoe caught in the rain, it is essential to treat it sooner rather than later.
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
Lastly, we’ll want to replenish all the lost oils by giving the shoe leather a good conditioning, as well as rebuild its water resistance.
Do this by following the steps from Conditioning – Waterproofing in the complete shoe care routine above
If you’re planning to keep your shoes for later wear, or display them as part of a collection, a few simple habits can prevent their breakdown over time.
Things you’ll need: Shoe Trees, dessicant bags, shoe box, conditioner
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 To Look Out For When Building Your Shoe Care Kit
Now that you’ve got a shoe care routine, it’s time to build a kit that will keep your leather shoes in tip-top condition for decades. To make sure you do not get products that end up harming your shoes, we’ve put together a short list of things to look out for when choosing different shoe care products.
Horsehair is stiff but, as a natural fibre, not tough enough to scratch skin or leather. You can test for real horsehair by burning 1 or 2 strands of bristle: natural fibres such as horsehair produce a barbecue-y smell with a crackling fire, and reduces into brittle ash. Synthetic fibres burn to smell like chemical, and produce a hard residue.
When picking a horsehair brush, opt for the ones with dense, even bristles as they tend to buff more quickly and evenly. In terms of bristle quality, tailhair tends to be more break-resistant. We recommend one with a slightly curved handle 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!
A conditioner is meant to replenish the natural oils originally inherent in the leather. Therefore, getting a conditioner with a natural oil base rather than a processed compound will likely be more effective in keeping leather fibres supple, with less risk of harmful side effects. A good conditioner is able to penetrate leather easily and hydrate the fibres throughout.
The Saphir Medaille d’Or Renovateur is a conditioner based in mink fat, which has an extremely similar chemical structure to the oils in cowhide. Because its mild cleaner unclogs pores with old polish, the Saphir Renovateur penetrates deeper into leather than other conditioners even without prior stripping. You can feel the subtle difference in pliability of the leather as soon as minutes after application. As an added bonus, it comes in a bottle that looks more like a face cream’s, and smells really great.
The function of a cream polish is to 1) fill in scuffs and, 2) restore colour vibrancy to shoe leather. For filling in scuff marks, a thick rather than watery polish is easier to handle and distribute onto the scuffed area. Cream polishes with higher pigment concentration will also restore colour to your shoe leather more effectively with less product.
While you should choose a colour that matches your shoe colour as closely as possible, it is not essential to get an exact match. This is because the pigments do not ‘dye’ your shoes like leather dyes do, but “adds” onto the existing colour instead. If in doubt, go for a lighter shade of cream polish than your shoe. Unlike leather dyes, the effects of cream polishes can be reversed with a stripper like the Saphir Reno’mat.
The Saphir Pommadier Cream Polish, for example, has 5 different shades of brown to match the colour of your shoes as closely as possible. Just like the rest of the premium Saphir Medaille d’Or 1925 line, the Saphir Pommadier is made to be a notch better with twice the pigment concentration of its contemporaries. When buffed with our horsehair brush, it gives a nice matte sheen due to the small amount of natural waxes in its formula.
Wax polishes are mostly for aesthetics and not do much for leather nourishment. All waxes are hydrophobic and will provide water-resistance, so your choice of wax polishes isn’t as important when it comes to leather longevity. Some wax polishes do seem to stay longer on your shoes, minimizing the effort required to maintain the protective layer.
Most popular in Singapore is the standard Kiwi wax simply because it is so economical (or free for a Singaporean male) and widely available.
With higher-end shoes that you want to better protect, however, the Saphir Pate de Luxe may be preferred because its 7-wax blend helps it withstand more wear, and its all-natural composition may be friendlier to your shoe leather (and more pleasant-smelling too!)
While you are able to achieve mirror shines with standard wax polishes, there are specialty polishes that are formulated to create glossier shines with less effort that also last a longer period of time. One such example is the Saphir Mirror Gloss, which has an extremely high concentration of hard waxes that help it form smoother, more reflective wax surfaces.
One type of ‘polish’ you should never use is the liquid polish – those bottles with the applicator sponges that promise you ‘instant’ shines. Though they may give you a temporary high-gloss effect, the solvents in these liquid polishes also dissolve the inherent oils of your shoe leather and are extremely damaging.
Waterproofing sprays are a quick and easy way to protect your shoe leather from water damage. However, most waterproofing sprays use silicone to form the waterproof layer, which can be counter-productive since silicone suffocates and leeches moisture from the leather.
Another thing you’ll notice is that waterproofing sprays that promise ‘instant drying’ usually form a whitish glaze over your shoes, which can spoil the look you’ve worked hard to build up with polishing. This is because these quick drying sprays do not crystallize evenly, and the inconsistencies in the layer cause light to refract unevenly. Some sprays can also cause the colour of your leather to darken, so you may want to test any spray on a hidden part of your shoe first, such as the inner side of the heel area.
One of the few waterproofing sprays around that does not use harmful silicons nor resins is the Saphir Super Invulner Waterproofing Spray. In addition, its moderate drying time of 30 minutes makes the waterproof layer unnoticeable – perfect as a final coat over your painstakingly polished shoes.
Leather cleaners serve to remove built-up polish, as well as the dirt trapped within the pores of leather and within the layers of polish. This helps remove harmful agents, and also allows you to create a cleaner looking shine! You should choose a cleaner that is easy to control and will not affect the shoe’s original finish. Safe options are the variety of saddle soaps out there, which remove only the top few layers of polish at a time and are extremely easy to use.
For a ‘deep clean’ though once or twice a year though, you’ll want to use a stripping agent like the Saphir Renomat. The Renomat dissolves all the built-up polish and other compounds over and within the pores of leather for an easy wipe-off, so that any conditioning products you use will penetrate deeper. Because its formula does not affect leather dyes, inexperienced users can use it safely without damaging their shoes.
For full details on how shoe trees work and how to choose a good pair, do check out our sister article that talks all about shoe trees. In short, lasted shoe trees (shoe trees made from the same last that your shoe is built on) provide the best fit, but are exorbitantly expensive.
If you ask us what shoe trees provide the best balance between utility and cost we will have to (shamelessly) go to our very own Twin-tube, Split-toe American Red Cedar Shoe Trees – these are the reason we started 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, 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 find your best size with the Sizing Tool at our Shop page. Because of our lean e-commerce model and various partnerships, a pair of shoe trees that will usually cost you $50-$70 is yours for only $35.90! 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!
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Too much information to digest? If you, like many first-time leather shoe owners, are afraid that you might miss out a product that will cause your entire shoe care to fall apart, or worried that you might end up purchasing a shoe care product you don’t need, you’ll be happy to meet our Custom Kit Builder.
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