Whether it is your SAF military boots or a fine pair of hand-crafted full grain leather dress shoes, a pair of well-shined toe caps is dressy and sophisticated – a mark of a meticulous individual. Our shoe care experts at ShoeTree Project have put together one of the most comprehensive mirror shining tutorials around: It doesn’t just detail the mirror shining procedure, but also explains the mechanics behind a mirror shine as well as the best tools and products for that clear, high-gloss, long-lasting military mirror shine.
What creates a mirror shine?
It is important to have an understanding of what the mirror shine process aims to achieve so that you may adjust your technique according to your results.
While your leather shoes may seem smooth to the naked eye, leather is actually an uneven surface full of pits and pores that make up the leather ‘grain’. This unevenness scatters light in different directions, creating reflections that aren’t clear and making the surface ‘matte’.
Hard waxes can fill in the pits to form a smoother layer over the leather grain. This creates a glossy look, which is essentially clearer reflections on the shoe surface. As more hard wax is added, the surface of the shoe becomes smoother and the reflections clearer, creating an impression of ‘shininess’. A mirror shine is created when enough wax has been added to fill up all the pits in the leather grain to create a level surface layer of wax on top. The wax will also have to be worked into a perfectly smooth layer using a soft cotton rag rather than the stiff bristles of a brush.
Wax polishes typically come with a small amount of solvent in them like turpentine, which keeps the wax content mold-able. As it comes out relatively soft out of the tin, it is not possible to create a mirror shine in one layer. Instead, several ‘base layers’ of wax polish have to first be applied, molded to fill the grain of the leather surface, and allowed to dry and harden – each one after the previous has dried. This is then followed by several thin top coats of wax polish worked into a perfectly smooth ‘mirror’ surface.
Things you’ll require
Have these on hand before you start as you’ll be working there for a long time!
Tools and equipment
- Shoe trees*
- Horsehair buffing brush*
- Horsehair dauber brush*
- Cotton rags or pads (no synthetic fibers!)
- A quality wax shoe polish*
- Leather cleaner or stripper*
- A dish of water
- Rubbing alcohol
Mirror shine steps
Follow our simple but detailed tutorial to get the most pristine mirror shine on your dress shoes!
1. Prepare the shoes or boots
Remove the shoe laces from the shoe or boot so that you can access the entire surface of the shoe. Insert a pair of shoe trees now to make the shoes easier to handle, as well as provide a firm surface to work the leather on.
Lay newspapers on your work area – shoe polishing will get messy quickly.
2. Clean your shoes / boots
For the clearest mirror shines, it is best to start afresh with the original finish of the leather. Dust and old polish chips from previous polish layers can become trapped in the new wax polish you apply, creating a cloudy layer.
Use a horsehair brush to get rid of dust on the shoe and within crevices. Follow this up with a damp rag until all dust has been removed. Next, use a leather cleaner like Saphir Reno’mat with a rag to strip off all existing layers of polish on the shoe leather. The Saphir Reno’mat dissolves old polish so it can be wiped off easily, and you’ll start to see the leather grain exposed again.
3. Apply leather conditioner and cream polish if required
Since most leather cleaners also strip some of the essential oils from leather, you should follow up with a leather conditioner like Saphir Renovateur if you are working on a pair of leather dress shoes instead of military boots. With all substances on top of the leather removed, this is when the conditioning oils will gain maximum penetration. If any part of your leather shoes require recolouring, you should also apply your pigment-rich cream polish before the next step.
4. Apply a thick base coat to fill in and level the uneven surface
Base coats fill in the pits and pores of the leather grain quickly and form the foundation for your mirror layers.
For speed, use the horsehair dauber brush to pick up a liberal amount of polish and spread it in quick circles all over the shoe, making sure the entire shoe is covered evenly and thickly. Allow the wax to dry completely for at least 30 minutes and until no polish comes off when rubbed lightly with your finger. Once dry, brush at this layer in light, quick strokes – also known as “buffing” – with a horsehair buffing brush. This creates a little heat and smoothens the wax layer to create a slight shine known as a “brush shine”. Most people stop here as the shoe would already look brand new – but you’re going for the ultimate prize: a parade mirror shine!
5. Build more base coats over the toe caps until leather grain fades
You should only attempt to mirror shine the hard toe caps of your shoes and boots, and only until just under the area where they crease when walking. This is because mirror shines consist of a thick layer of hard wax that will crack when bent if applied over the creases.
Repeat step 4 to build more base coats over the toe cap area to be mirror shined. Do this until you see the leather grain start to noticeably fade compared to the rest of the shoe, indicating that the pits of the leather have been filled considerably. You might find it easier to limit the application area by using a rag wrapped tightly around your finger to apply the polish, then buffing with a dry cloth. This typically takes about 10 coats using regular wax polishes, but could be done in as little as 3 coats using a harder, specialty wax polish like Saphir Mirror Gloss.
6. Water shine / “spit-shine” the toe caps
In this step, you’ll finally be polishing the wax layer into a smooth surface to create a mirror surface. There are many things to take note of in this step, so we’ll break it down into a few parts:
Picking up the wax
Wrap a fresh part of the cotton cloth tightly around your index finger and secure it. A rubber hand maybe be helpful here. Add 1-2 drops of water onto your fingertip, then get a minute amount of wax on the wet fingertip.
In contrast to building base coats in the previous step, using as little amounts of wax as possible is key here. This is because the fresh wax still contains solvent – using too much will make the wax take longer to dry, allowing the solvent to dissolve and remove the foundation base coats we worked so hard to build up.
Applying the wax
Apply this wax in small quick circles onto the area to be mirror-shined. Using an extremely light touch is crucial in this step as you do not want to be rubbing off any partially dissolved existing wax polish layers, but allowing the small amount of wax on your fingertip to slough off onto the hardened polish layers instead. Imagine tracing the surface of the leather with your fingertip, the fingertip should not dent from the pressure. These light, quick circular motions will work the thin layer of wax you’ve applied into a smooth layer.
Working / buffing the wax
As you work the wax, you’ll notice that friction between your finger and wax starts to increase until it becomes hard to continue circling with a light touch. At the same time, the area would’ve turned matte and cloudy. Don’t worry – you haven’t ruined your hard work! This is when solvent in the wax has dried and the wax is hardening. It is crucial to continue shaping the wax into a smooth layer at this stage.
Add a drop of water onto the polish as lubrication and continue with your light circles, adding more drops of water whenever friction becomes too much. Do this until the matte finish disappears to reveal a shine. You’ll notice that this shine is much glossier than those from buffing the base coats. Congratulations – you are almost there!
Allow the wax to dry completely and harden
Let this wax layer sit for 10-15 minutes. Rushing to apply the next layer will only prevent further wax layers from being built – patience is key to mirror shining.
Repeat until desired level of gloss is achieved
Add more thin layers of wax polish in minute amounts until the desired level of clarity is achieved in the wax. A few things to take note of:
- Use the minimal amount of wax required to just cover the area to be mirror shined.
- Be patient – allow each layer to dry and harden completely or you’ll never progress.
- Have realistic expectations: Mirror shines will have very tiny surface scratches when viewed as closely as you do while polishing them. Because you are polishing the wax by hand, the surface will not be perfect so reflections may appear distorted close-up. These are unnoticeable when worn in the street.
- Specialty waxes like the Saphir Mirror Gloss can achieve clearer shines than regular wax polishes.
- Countless thin layers are required – don’t count them. Just have your desired level of finish in mind to know when to stop.
7. An aficionado’s trick
Even when your desire level of shine is achieved, you may notice some water streaks clouding the surface of the mirror shine. After the wax dries completely, wrap a fresh part of the cotton polishing cloth around your index finger again. Place a tiny drop of rubbing alcohol on the finger tip and run it over the mirror shine in the same light circles as before. This dissolves the top layer of polish very slightly and works away the streaks.
Voila! A clear, high-gloss military mirror shine that will surely impress!
8. Maintaining your mirror shine
A mirror shine is extremely delicate and notroiously hard to maintain. This is why we recommend only mirror shining for special occasions or black-tie events. That said, here are some tips to make your mirror shines last longer:
- Stay out of the sun, heat makes the wax softer and more easily scratched.
- Use a specialty wax like Saphir Mirror Gloss. The concentration of hard waxes in Saphir Mirror Gloss is much, much higher, making the mirror shines it produces much harder and durable. It is also easier to create a mirror shine with the Saphir Mirror Gloss for the same reason.
- After every wear, clean off use a mild cleaner like saddle soap to remove the topmost polish layer where dust and dirt may have become stuck. Replace this with a thin water shine layer as in step 6 to fill in any scratches from the day and refinish the mirror layer.
Eventually, the mirror shine will still degrade in luster, crack, or meet an irreparable scratch and you’ll have to rebuild one from scratch.
How to choose the best products for mirror shining
The polishing cloth is the tool used to shape the wax into a smooth, reflective finish so the material used is crucial to the clarity of your shine.
- Use a cloth made of an organic fiber – the most common being cotton. Never use synthetic fibers like microfiber. Though soft to touch, the polymeric chemical structure is “hard” and will scratch softer organic materials like leather.
- Choose a soft, finely woven variant of cotton like flannel. Avoid coarser weaves and knits like twill, denim, and canvas.
- Use a thin cloth to gauge and control pressure more easily.
- Choose cloths without raised or stray fibers as these will leave lint.
The best polishing cloths can be cut from old shirts (made of 100% cotton). They are thin, smooth, and the fibers are usually long so they do not break off and leave lint.
Wax shoe polish
As the substance that creates the smooth, reflective mirror layer over your toe caps, the wax shoe polish used is the most important factor in determining how quickly you create the mirror shine, and how long it lasts.
- Choose wax shoe polishes with an extremely high wax-to-solvent ratio. These waxes are harder and drier, making them easier to mold into thick layers that level the unevenness in leather surfaces. They also create longer-lasting mirror shines. These are usually specialty wax polishes for mirror shining.
- As a large amount of polish will be coating the mirror shined leather (relative to the rest of the shoe), you’ll want to invest in a quality wax polish that uses natural agents. Many conventional wax polish brands use synthetic solvents, resins, silicones, and petroleum-based waxes that are very drying to leather.
- Use a neutral wax (or black for black shoes) if you want to maintain the original colour of your shoes. Because a large amount of wax polish will be on top of the leather, pigments in a coloured polish add up and tend to slightly darken the mirror shined area. Some people do prefer this darkening, however.
So far, the only ones who have figured out how to make super-high concentration wax shoe polishes using natural waxes and solvents is Saphir, who have incorporated this knowledge into the Saphir Mirror Gloss. Not only does the Saphir Mirror Gloss use a natural pine-based turpentine solvent. It also uses a blend of multiple natural waxes (such as beeswax, montan, and carnauba) that help it stand up to a variety of conditions.
A good buffing brush helps you clean dirt and buff base coats quickly without damaging the leather or removing any polish.
- Choose a buffing brush with natural bristles like horsehair. Natural bristles are soft enough not to scratch leather or remove polish while generating enough heat to buff the polish.
- Make sure to use a buffing brush with high bristle density for more effective cleaning and buffing.
- Some shoe owners prefer buffing brushes with a slightly curved handle that accommodates the natural brushing motion.
ShoeTree Project’s Horsehair Buffing Brush uses 100% horse tailhair, which is more robust and break-resistant than regular horsehair bristles. In addition, we also incorporate an ergonomically curved, handcrafted Schima hardwood handle with finger holds that makes buffing a comfortable motion.
A dauber brush (aka applicator brush) consists of a head of horsehair bristles and a spatula-style handle. In mirror shining, they help to apply base coats of wax polish quickly and evenly. They are also useful for applying other products like conditioning creams, cream polishes etc. while keeping your hands clean.
- Like the buffing brush, choose a dauber brush with natural horsehair bristles.
- A high bristle density helps apply polish evenly.
- Make sure to use a separate dauber brush for each colour of polish. Sharing the same brush across multiple colours will cross-contaminate the polish colours, and also leave streaks on your polished shoes.
Like our buffing brush, our dauber applicator brushes also use horse tailhair. Because we are strong believers in the Saphir Medaille d’Or collection, we have sized the head of our dauber brushes to fit nicely into their polish jars.
Strong leather cleaner
A strong leather cleaner, also commonly called a leather stripper, which dissolves all polish layers on top for removal. This allows you to build clean and clear foundation layers so your mirror shines don’t look cloudy.
- Make sure that the leather stripper used doesn’t contain ingredients harmful to leather.
- Choose a leather stripper that only removes the layers of polish and impurities above the leather, and not the original dye finish.
- Test the leather cleaner on a less visible portion of your shoe like the inside of your heel to make sure it doesn’t remove the original finish.
We recommend the Saphir Reno’mat Leather Cleaner, which is also an effective stain remover. It is powerful enough to remove 6 months of build up in a single session, and also works on harmful silicones and resins.
Mild leather cleaner
A mild leather cleaner removes only the topmost layers which tend to stick up dust and dirt. This prevents the impurities from being trapped under a new layer of wax polish, which makes the mirror shine look dirty. This is useful when adding wax polish layers to maintain a mirror shine.
- Like the leather stripper, your mild leather cleaner also shouldn’t contain ingredients harmful to leather.
- It should be easy to control as you don’t want to end up removing too much of the wax polish you worked so hard to build up.
The Saphir Saddle Soap is a great option: being solid, it is really easy to control the amount of product applied and the area treated. It is also glycerin-based so it removes a limited amount of polish each time.
The only qualm we have is that it comes with a synthetic applicator sponge, which might not be good for leather. However, you can easily substitute this with a horsehair dauber brush or clean cotton cloth.
Shoe trees support the leather from inside the shoe to provide you a firm platforn to work polish into the leather. You can stuff your shoes with newspaper, but it makes much more sense to use a purpose-made pair of shoe trees that will also drastically prolong the lifespan of your leather shoes. We rank a quality pair of shoe trees right along a good leather conditioner as the most important products towards wearing your leather shoes for life.
- Choose shoe trees that are shaped similarly to feet rather than generically shaped ones. This will fit more closely to your shoes, provide a better platform for mirror shining, and keep your shoes in their proper shape.
- Avoid shoe trees with a ball at the end of a spring rod for a heel – a budget feature. These place too much pressure on a small spot and will distort the heel area quickly. Instead, choose shoe trees with fully articulated heels.
- Choose shoe trees with spring-loaded components that automatically adjust to fit a variety of shoe shapes well. These provide good support for applying polish onto the leather and, more importantly, uncrease the leather upper better. Deep creases indicate lines where the leather fibers have broken, and they are prone to cracking.
- Shoe trees made of unvarnished wood help absorb moisture from sweat that has seeped into the shoe lining, preventing lining rot. We recommend American Red Cedarwood, which has a natural pine fragrance that acts as a shoe freshener and insect repellent.
- Avoid plastic shoe trees – instead of absorbing moisture, they prevent ventilation of the shoe interior and increase the risk of lining rot.
Shoe trees are our flagship product: We handcraft them out of fresh American Red Cedar heartwood (the strongest part of the tree) for its fragrance and moisture absorption power. Not only will they fit any shoe shape, we make them in a whopping 12 unique sizes so you get the best fit. This is why ShoeTree Project clients entrust their new shoes to our shoe trees time and again.
Follow the tips above to make sure you have the best tools for creating that coveted mirror shine, or you could get all the above (and skip the trouble of vetting for quality) in ShoeTree Project’s specially curated Mirror Shine Kit – at a discount too!