It’s one of life’s little chores and can often seem like it’s more trouble than it’s worth, but learning how to polish shoes really can transform an outfit. From drab, cracked, lifeless leather to gleaming beacons of success, a well-shined pair of Oxfords or Derbies is often overlooked, but put in the work and not only will your wheels look the part, they’ll also last exponentially longer.
Polishing is not just for worn shoes, though. You should also polish your shoes when they are new because doing so will provide a thin layer over the top of the leather to help protect them against rain and dust. Despite being hard work, polishing your own shoes can be quite therapeutic, so roll up those sleeves and get grafting.
How To Shine Shoes
Granted, shining shoes isn’t rocket science, but like cooking a steak, specific techniques simply work better than others. Plus, the products you use have a huge bearing on the end result, and it’s not quite as easy as slapping on whatever polish you picked up in the bargain bin. Follow these steps though and you’ll never look back, or indeed, down at your shoes in dull disappointment again.
- If the shoes have laces, remove them and brush off any surface dirt. If the shoes are wet, allow them to dry naturally away from any artificial heat first. If the shoes are particularly dirty, you can wipe them with a damp cloth.
- Use an old rag to apply a thin layer of shoe cream all over and allow to dry. This nourishes the leather, keeps it supple and prevents cracking. Ensure you match the colour of your shoe cream to the leather, or you can use a neutral cream, which won’t provide such an intense colour-enhancing shine but will do the job.
- Once dry, buff with a light brush or by rubbing gently with a cloth. You will now have a subtle sheen to the shoes.
- It is vital that you clean the welts of the shoe. This is where the uppers are attached to the sole, and on better shoes there will be visible stitching (known as Goodyear welting). They are dust traps and should be brushed regularly. If the edges of the soles are scuffed, you can repair them with shoe cream as part of the steps above, or a marker pen.
- Apply a wax polish using a brush or cloth, paying particular attention to the welts. This will give your shoes a deep shine but will also create a protective barrier from the elements. As with cream, you can use the same colour as your shoes or apply a neutral shade.
- Once the wax polish has set, remove any excess with a brush or cloth. This should be done quite vigorously to create a good shine. At this stage you can put the laces back in safe in the knowledge you’ve done your job correctly.
Bonus Tip: The Military Shine
How much shine you want on your shoes is a matter of personal choice, but if you would like an army-approved cap shine to go with your on-trend military haircut, you need to re-apply small amounts of polish in small anti-clockwise circles. This is achieved best with your cloth pulled tightly over one or two fingers.
A small amount of moisture is required to break the polish down. This is what is known as ‘spit and polish’, though it’s best to use tap water over bodily fluids. Dab the cloth into the water (very lightly as you do not want to wet the shoes excessively) and apply several layers of polish. Allow it to dry by working on alternate shoes.
A mirror-like shine will appear over time, but this is a task that requires patience. Always shine the heel too. For a final buff, remove any excess polish with a cloth. Some suggest that using a pair of ladies tights for this task will give your shoes the perfect finish.
Why Shining Shoes Is Important
With proper care shoes can last decades, but it is often the uppers that break down first. Regular polishing nourishes the leather, keeping it subtle and preventing cracking, which in turn will extend its shelf life. A fact also worth remembering when it comes to your leather jacket.
Beyond that, well-shined shoes naturally work well with tailoring – the formality of the shine is an ideal pairing for nine-to-five tailoring. Even the most expensive bespoke suit will be ruined by dirty shoes, but shined shoes are not just for tailoring; a well-polished pair of dark brown Chelsea boots will lift your weekend jeans and sweater.
Unfortunately, there is no real cheat when it comes to shining shoes – you will have to grind to get that gleam. Achieving a parade ground military gloss requires persistence, and there are tales of floor cleaner being applied as a cheat. In shoe shine lore there are also rumours of clear nail varnish being applied to maintain the perfect toecap. Do not try that at home. Instead, get stretching because your forearms are in for a workout.
Key Shoe Shine Products
A good quality wax polish is a crucial piece of kit. Kiwi is a good go-to brand, but it is also worth paying extra for premium names like Saphir because polish can last years and even when it is dried out can still be used.
Applying different shades to non-black shoes, such as a pair of tan wingtips, can create an interesting patina, and the occasional application of black polish to light shoes will add depth and character.
Be careful when using certain ‘high gloss’ polishes and applications as they can contain silicon, which will ultimately dry the shoe out and cause premature cracking.
If your shoes are looking tired, a quality shoe cream can be used to nourish the leather, adding colour and restoring them to former glory in the process.
Similar to conditioner (no, not the men’s hair product), creams add moisture to shoes, but unlike conditioner, they also leave behind a protective top layer. Have the right shade for all your shoes.
A good quality shoe brush is the ideal buffing tool to use after applying polish. Traditional versions made from horsehair are expensive and do not provide a significantly better result than more affordable options, so there is no need to spend big here.
A dedicated brush is vital for keeping shoes made from suede or nubuck, such as chukka boots, in good order. To give the fine fibres a new lease of life, try holding them over a steaming kettle and brushing to restore the ‘nap’.
Some of the best shoe polishing cloths are also used in the jewellery trade. Those by the likes of Selvyts, which are standard issue in the British Army, can be used for ‘bulling’ shoes to a military shine and, when folded into a pad, are excellent at reviving a shine between polishes.
Yellow household dusters are of no use when polishing shoes, you are better off using an old white cotton T-shirt or a simple universal microfibre polishing cloth in a pinch.
Shoe trees are an essential investment for any man who wants his footwear to last. Ideally made from moisture-absorbing cedar, these help retain the shape of the leather, prevent creasing and keep your shoes fresh. But they are also handy when polishing as they open up any cracks in the shoe when inserted.
At the luxury end, they are sold in shoe sizes, width and toe-shape, but the generic versions are also good. Put them in your footwear as soon as you remove them and always allow at least a day before wearing them again.