If you are reading this article, you’ve probably bought, or are considering to purchase, your first pair of fine leather shoes. Being the best dressed in your circle means that you have nobody to ask for tips – like how to make sure your $500 investment in a pair of full-grain calfskin shoes does not get wasted due to cracks in a year, but last for decades like stories abound.
The cost of shoe care products aren’t cheap (though cheaper than replacing shoes over the same period), and you wouldn’t want to spend on an exotic dressing you’d probably never use. In this guide, we’ll go through how to build a shoe care kit for beginners all the way to full-blown shoe connoisseurs.
Saphir Medaille d’Or
In this guide, we’ll be using mostly creams and conditioners from Saphir in our discussion as we believe that they give the most bang for their buck. However, you are free to replace them with whatever brand you like – most work relatively well!
Made in France from only natural raw materials, Saphir shoe leather conditioners, creams and polishes is the preeminent choice among shoemakers and leatherworkers worldwide. In fact, the “Medaille d’Or” (“medal of gold” in French) in the Saphir Medaille d’Or range, refers to the gold medal awarded to this Saphir range for its quality during the International Fair held in Paris, 1925.
Maintenance shoe care kit
This rudimentary shoe care kit is for the lazy, and will prevent your shoe leather from cracking after just a few months, or from just a single rainy day. While it may prolong the lifespan of your shoes, it will not prevent them from looking old and worn over time due to the lack of polishes.
- Raw cedar shoe trees: perhaps the most important item in any shoe care kit. Shoe trees are to be inserted once you take off your shoes, as they work their magic over the night by unfurling your sole from a whole day of flexing and restoring your shoe leather to a taut, crease-free state. Uncreased leather is stronger and does not crack easily.
- 1 horsehair brush per colour: for cleaning, applying polish, and buffing. Brushes made of any natural fibre should work well, though horsehair is the most common. NEVER use synthetic brushes (like those issued by the Armed Forces) as leather is microscopically more delicate than plastic and will be scratched.
- Shoehorn: shoe horns guide your heel into a well-fitting shoe without crushing the counter (heel of shoe). Repeated bending at the counter will cause the leather fibres there to weaken and crack.
- Saphir Renovateur Leather Cleaner & Conditioner: a leather conditioner restores the natural oils in leather that become lost over time. Lack of these oils and nutrients makes the fibres become brittle and weak.
- Saphir Pate de Luxe Wax Polish: wax polish forms a protective layer on the surface of your shoe leather, protecting it from water and salt damage.
Beginner – the basic shoe care kit
The beginner’s shoe care kit consists of just the bare essentials to achieve 2 most important goals of shoe care:
- keep your shoe upper nourished and supple so that it lasts decades
- keep your shoes looking like the the thousand bucks you paid for them
This is not to say that the additional items in the Connoisseur kit are frivolous, but rather that the products you’ll find in your basic shoe care kit will be responsible for 80% of your shoe’s longevity.
- Raw cedar shoe trees
- 1 horsehair brush per colour
- Cotton rags: unlike a brush, cotton rags will allow you to work wax polish into a mirror shine. Only use 100% cotton as synthetic fibres are too rough for leather.
- Saphir Renovateur Leather Cleaner & Conditioner
- Saphir Pate de Luxe Wax Polish
- Saphir Pommadier Cream Shoe Polish: unlike wax polishes, cream polishes contain oils that nourish the leather like a conditioner, which helps you save on the costly conditioners. The high concentration of pigments in a cream polish also helps restore colour to your shoe and conceal scuffed areas. When used as a base coat to fill in the pores, a cream polish helps you achieve a better mirror shine with wax polish.
- Saphir Reno’mat Leather Cleaner or Saddle Soap: leather cleaners remove old polish and dirt build-up on your shoe leather, helping the conditioners and creams reach and nourish the leather fibres. They make your shoes look renewed, and should be used once every few polishes.
Connoisseur’s shoe care kit
If your shoes are works of art, you should treat them as such. The Connoisseur’s shoe care kit protects your shoes against most elements, and restores them to their finest state
- Raw cedar shoe trees
- 1 horsehair brush per colour
- Cotton rags
- 1 horsehair applicator brush per colour: if you own many pairs of shoes, chances are that you spend a significant amount of time maintaining them. Applying polish with an applicator brush instead of a rag allows you to cover a larger area faster. Just like the buffing brush, any natural fibre bristles will work.
- Saphir Renovateur Leather Cleaner & Conditioner
- Saphir Pate de Luxe Wax Polish (can be replaced with Mirror Gloss)
- Saphir Pommadier Cream Shoe Polish
- Saphir Reno’mat Leather Cleaner or Saddle Soap
- Saphir Mirror Gloss: impress with clearer and longer-lasting mirror shines that you can count your teeth in. The Saphir Mirror Gloss has a much higher concentration of hard waxes compared to standard wax polishes, creating smoother, more reflective surfaces.
- Edge Dressing: as you repeatedly scuff the edges of your outsoles while walking, they may become discoloured over time and make your shoes look old. Edge dressing recolours the welts and outsole, concealing the degradation and keeping it looking new.
- Saphir Super Invulner Waterproofing Spray: stronger and more complete protection against water and stains, especially over areas where less wax polish is used.
- Sole Guard: your leather sole is constantly in contact with water and salt, which will lead to it losing its natural oils and becoming less resistant to friction. The Saphir Sole Guard is a natural vegetable oil that soaks into leather soles to make them waterproof.
Personalizing your own shoe care kit
While the 3 shoe care kits above are great quick solutions for most, nothing beats building your own shoe care kit in terms of achieving your desired effect and cost-efficiency. By assembling a kit yourself, you can pick only the products that are best suited for your shoe type and wearing habits, ensuring that all corners are covered and not a penny is wasted.
It goes without saying that customizing your own shoe care kit requires that you be familiar with what can be possibly achieved with shoe care products, and have an understanding of how each shoe care product works. This knowledge is usually acquired with time and experience, through speaking with masters of this esoteric field.
Luckily for you, we have put in both the time and the effort – and come up with an intelligent assistant that builds a personalized shoe care kit for you, even if you are a complete amateur. By finding out your shoe type, habits, and desired look, our proprietary algorithm is able to recommend a complete curation of essential products you’ll need, saving you a whole lot of time speaking to sales assistants or acquiring the knowledge yourself.
Best of all – it’s completely free!
Just like we’ve been making shoe care more accessible to you with a modernized shopping experience, we hope that our latest marriage of traditional industry and modern technology will make knowledge of shoe care more easily available to you. Try the ShoeTree Project’s Custom Kit Builder now!
Our picks for shoe care tools, conditioners, and polishes
Now that we’ve gone through the components of different shoe care kits, it’s time to start building one. We’ve curated the best of each product to start you off.
When picking shoe trees, you should choose a pair made of a raw, unfinished wood because the material also absorbs moisture from soaked up by your shoe leather during the day. This prevents lining rot, foot odour, and a plethora of nasty conditions. If a fragrant wood like cedar is used, it has the added bonus of freshening the shoe interior as well.
A lasted shoe tree, which is a shoe tree in the exact shape of your shoe that is purchased from your shoemaker, is the best there is. However, those are costly. Split-toe variations provide a nice compromise as the front of the shoe tree can fit a variety of shoe lasts, wide and narrow.
We might be biased, but our choice pick for shoe trees will be our very own Twin-tube, Split-toe American Red Cedar Shoe Trees. They’re made from the heartwood of the sweeter-smelling American Red Cedar (as compared to the pungent Chinese Incense Cedar), and incorporate both split-toe and twin-tube spring mechanisms, which helps them stretch out the shoes length- and width-wise. Not only that, but they come in a whopping 11 sizes rather than the generic S, M, L, XL, which means you’ll be getting only the best fit for your shoes.
We set out making our own shoe trees because it was really hard to find shoe trees that fit well and were made of a premium material like American Red Cedarwood, and customers have given us rave reviews! They’re only half the price of shoe trees of comparable quality, so do check them out!
Choose a horsehair brush with dense bristles so that you can clean more dirt with every stroke, and buff polish into a shine quicker. The bristles should also be evenly distributed so that you work the polish evenly when brushing. For the handle, we’d prefer something that is slightly curved to accommodate natural brushing motions. Otherwise, you could accidentally nick the shoe polish with the shoe handle when brushing too quickly.
The ShoeTree Project makes a great horse hair buffing brush made with 100% horse tailhair, which is stronger and more resistant to shedding.
Dauber / applicator brush
Dauber brushes make applying shoe polishes quicker and keep your hands clean. However, you should stick with a rag if you are looking for a mirror shine since brushes can never get you a mirror-smooth surface. Since a dauber brush is for convenience, make sure that the head of your horsehair dauber brush is sized correctly for your shoe polish container.
When it comes to shoehorns, there is really no preference for a particular material. As long as the spatula guides your heel in easily, it makes a great shoehorn. People who wear tailored pants may find it hard to bend at their knees to reach their shoes, so a shoehorn long enough for you to use just bending over would be a better option.
Shoehorns can come made of plastic, metal or wood. If you are looking for a more aesthetic version, we make a 40cm long shoehorn made of elegantly varnished Japanese Oakwood.
If you are looking for a gift, or just want to treat yourself to a luxury item, check out our one of a kind shoe horns handcrafted from genuine ox horn! We’ve even retained the horn-tip as a decorative handle.
There is near unanimous agreement among professional shoe shiners that the Saphir Renovateur from the Saphir Medaille d’Or range is the best leather conditioner in the world. The Saphir Renovateur has a mild cleaning effect that removes old polish from the pores of shoe leather so that the oils in the conditioner can penetrate through the entire layer of leather.
Saphir Renovateur is an all-natural product made with a mink oil base, which is very chemically similar to the oils naturally present in skin that keeps it supple and strong. Professional shoe shiners have also noted how it was much more spreadable than other conditioners, which means each jar lasts much longer (at least 100 uses per 75 mL jar).
There are several great cream polishes around, such as the Collonil 1909 and Tarrago options. However, the Saphir Pommadier Cream Shoe Polish contains twice the concentration of pigment as in other shoe polishes, which makes it more economical considering that they’re all similarly priced. The Saphir Pommadier is a really rich cream polish that covers scuffs and restores colour very effectively. In fact, some have complained that the Pommadier was a little too rich which made them overuse the product.
Thanks to the shea butter content, the Pommadier also has a moderate conditioning effect on shoe leather, which saves the more costly Renovateur for more occasional use. Because of the slight beeswax content in the polish, it buffs into a soft, refined sheen – sort of like the surface of a leaf.
Wax polishes have a higher concentration of hard waxes, which provides some water resistance and is also responsible for the mirror shine effect. Our favourite is the Saphir Pate de Luxe Wax Polish because it works into a longer-lasting shine. This is due to a proprietary blend of 7 unique natural waxes: beeswax nourishes and softens the leather, vegetable waxes provide an enduring shine, and mineral waxes provide water resistance.
Also notable is how the Pate de Luxe does not contain resins and silicones that lower end wax polishes have. These man-made compounds can dry leather and prevent it from breathing.
If you are one for mirror shines, you may achieve better results with the Saphir Mirror Gloss. It is specially formulated with a much higher concentration of hard waxes than standard wax polish, allowing you to create clearer, longer-lasting mirror shines in less layers.
While silicone waterproofing sprays may be widespread in fabric use, you should avoid using these on your leather shoes as the silicone layer suffocates and leeches moisture from the leather. Instead, opt for waterproofing sprays such as the Saphir Super Invulner, which is formulated with alternative proprietary compounds that aren’t harmful to leather.
When it comes to leather cleaners, stripping agents such as the Saphir Reno’mat or rubbing alcohol are both options. Both compounds dissolve old polish so that they can be wiped away easily with a cloth. The Saphir Reno’mat is removes polish without affecting the shoe finish, but there have been some accounts of the Reno’mat stripping some of the dye of cheaper shoes as well. Rubbing alcohol is a little harder to control, and will definitely strip a shoe of its dye if used after the protective polishes have been cleaned off. However, it is also cheaper than the Reno’mat, so the trade offs could be worth it if you are a cautious person.
Both products are relatively drying to shoe leather, and should be followed by a deep conditioner like the Saphir Renovateur.