Mar 13, 2023

Here's How to Shine Your Shoes Like a Pro

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You've invested in your footwear. You should also invest in its upkeep.

Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She'll be here every week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Email her.

I had a pair of light brown/beige wingtips repaired and shined recently, but when I got them back I was disappointed. It seems they used the wrong polish, and now the shoes have lost their color and some of their luster. Is there any way for me to salvage them? And do you have any tips for shining shoes in general?

Oh man, that totally sucks—it's so annoying to pay for a service that ends up doing more harm than good. Fortunately, this situation is easily reversible and may have the effect of getting you into an at-home shoe cleaning, polishing, and shining routine.

Before we get into general shoe care tips and the products you'll want to get if you do decide to take control of maintaining your shoes, let's talk about removing that bum polish: All you need is leather cleaner. To perform this operation, you'll want a tin of saddle soap, a dauber brush for applying the soap, and a soft cloth for buffing it away. Wet the brush, shake off excess excess water, and get some of the saddle soap on the brush by working it in a circular motion to create a lather. Then, working in a circular motion, apply the saddle soap to the shoe and wipe the lather away with a soft cloth. You should see that wrong-colored polish coming off on the cloth. Easy peasy.

Now that you've gone out and gotten yourself leather cleaner and a brush, you're pretty close to having a fully functional at-home shoe-shining kit. Why not grab a few more items to complete the package? Sure! Here are the basics of what you'll need.

Let's say that, after the harrowing experience of having a good pair of shoes maltreated at the hands of an professional shoe shiner, you want to take control of your shoe care. Good for you!

There are some basic tools and products you need to get started. (Just 5 of them, though you could certainly go in for far more specialty products if you choose.) My pals at The Sweethome put together an amazing guide detailing the best options for both tools like brushes as well as leather cleaners, conditioners, and polishes, so do check that out if you want specific product recommendations.

Shoe brush: A shoe brush serves two functions: It will allow you to brush away dirt and dust prior to cleaning and polishing, and will be your tool for applying cleaner. You'll definitely want a wide shine brush, such as this style from Kiwi, and you may also opt for a dauber style for use with leather cleaner. Some say that you should apply polish using a dauber, but I find cloths to be a more sensible tool for the job, because you would need a separate dauber for each color shoe polish you use, as well as for leather cleaner. But if you want to be super serious about things—and hey, great for you if you do!—go ahead and get a dauber for use with all of your polishes.

Soft cloths: At an event I was hosting a few years ago, someone asked me to define a "soft cloth" and I was so caught off guard that I sort of stammered like an idiot, until I realized that the easiest way to describe what Clean People mean when we talk about soft cloths is T-shirt material. And actually, old T-shirts are exactly what you should use for shoe polishing purposes; just tear 'em up into strips. Doing so also has the added benefit of reminding you to review your undershirt stash from time to time, which in turn will help you to cull out the grottiest of the bunch for inclusion in your rag pile.

Leather cleaner and conditioner: It's tempting to compare these two products to shampoo and conditioner, but really the better analogy is to think of leather cleaner and conditioner as being to our shoes as soap and moisturizer are to our own bodies. Leather cleaner will remove dirt and other staining, as well as old polish, while leather conditioner will keep the leather from drying out and becoming brittle or cracked.

Shoe polish: Shoe polish is going to lend color and/or shine to the occasion. Cream polishes are for imparting color, whereas wax polishes will create shine.

Now you've got all these nifty new tools and pastes and polishes, and you'll be wanting to know how and why to use them. When working with shoe polish, it's always a good idea to put down newspaper, as the polish does have a tendency to get on everything and it will cause staining.

Start by using your buffing brush to dislodge dirt from the shoe. If the shoes are very dirty, or have polish build-up that needs to be removed, use leather cleaner on them. Otherwise, simply wipe the shoe using a soft cloth dampened with water. Do the shoes have laces? If so, remove them. Now the shoe is ready for its beautifying routine.

To the clean shoes, you'll first apply a thin layer of leather conditioner using a soft cloth. It will be verrrrrrry tempting to use a lot of conditioner—and you should resist that temptation with all the will power you've got, because a little goes a long way. After applying the conditioner, let the product absorb for 10-20 minutes; one good way to maximize your time is to tend to a few pairs of shoes in one sitting, so that as one pair rests with its conditioning treatment, you can be working on another pair. This is a good activity to perform in front of the TV.

Now the shoes are ready for some polish. (Woo-hoo!) Using a fresh soft cloth, pick up a bit of polish and apply it to the shoe in a circular motion. Just like with the leather conditioner, use the polish sparingly, especially when it comes to lighter colored leathers. If, after applying the first thin layer of polish, you feel that the shoe needs more, go ahead and put on a second thin layer. Then, allow the polish to dry by setting the shoes aside for 10-20 minutes.

The final step in polishing is to buff the shoe vigorously using your brush, which will help to work the polish into the leather and remove any excess, as well as create a bit of a shine.

However, if you want super shiny shoes there's one more step you need to take. First, you should opt for a wax polish over a cream polish if you want to achieve a highly shined look. Then, you can either give the shoes a going over with a chamois or other clean soft cloth OR you can perform an actual spit shine. To do that, you'll follow all of the instructions and just add one last step to the process: Using either water or actual spit (which is really the better option), dampen the shoe and then apply another thin layer of polish, working both the polish and the spit into the leather using a circular motion. Repeat as needed until the shoes have reached the desired level of shininess.

If you're brand new to cleaning, polishing, and shining shoes on your own, you may want to check out some video tutorials. YouTube has no shortage of such clips, and I would definitely recommend checking one or two of them out to get a hang of the techniques described in this column.

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I had a pair of light brown/beige wingtips repaired and shined recently, but when I got them back I was disappointed. It seems they used the wrong polish, and now the shoes have lost their color and some of their luster. Is there any way for me to salvage them? And do you have any tips for shining shoes in general? Shoe brush: Soft cloths: Leather cleaner and conditioner: Shoe polish: