There are few things more satisfying than walking around feeling like you look your very best. Attention to detail matters, and in order to look put together your entire ensemble needs to tell a cohesive story. That includes your shoes, especially walking into work. If you’re wearing a power suit with faded, scuffed up leather shoes, your get-up will lose its impact. Here, I’ll teach you how to get a mirror-shine on your shoes, so that you can walk around looking and feeling like a boss, and not the rookie using the $5 express shine from Aldo (good lord please don’t do it, no shoe deserves that).
But first, a quick explanation on why this post falls into “The Arts” category of my site. Shining your shoes properly takes time and effort, focus and attention to detail. The process is more art than science, which I love. It’s relaxing and meditative when you do it right!
Things You’ll Need
Before we get started, I want to list out the products I use to shine my shoes. I own every item and brand I mention on this list, and I can vouch for them. If you want to follow along, you’ll need to own at least a few of these:
- Saddle soap – Fiebing’s, or some other brand
- Shoe cream containing mink oil (I prefer Saphir Renovateur, though it’s pricey)
- Coloured shoe cream, such as Moneysworth & Best
- Wax-based shoe polish – Kiwi brand works for me
- Polishing cloths – I use Moneysworth & Best, but brand doesn’t really matter.
- Horsehair shoe brushes – one for polishing and at least one for applying the creams. This one is cheap and works well.
- A small container of water you can dip your ring finger into
- A work surface you don’t mind getting a little dirty – don’t do this directly on your antique coffee table!!
Step one: clean your shoes with saddle soap
Depending on how dirty and beat-up your shoes are, you’ll need to use saddle soap to get them to a baseline level of clean. If the shoes are already clean and are just in need of a shine, skip this step.
Saddle soap got its name from its original use; it was literally used to clean the leather saddles that sat on horses and the like. Still is! To use it, you’ll need your polishing cloth. Now there are lots of different techniques for using the cloths, but I’ll just share mine here. First, grab your polishing cloth, and use it to cover the index and middle fingers of your dominant hand. Then, twist the remaining cloth so that your fingers become snug. Finally, wrap the remainder of the cloth clockwise tightly around your hand and keep it in place by gripping it with your palm. It should look like this:
You’ll use this same grip any time you apply something to your shoes using the cloth, so get comfy with it. To apply the saddle soap, dip your fingers and the cloth in the water, then move the cloth gently over the surface of the soap to work it into a lather. Gently spread this lather all over your shoes, working it in with circular motions. You don’t need to press hard, just enough to keep the cloth against the shoe.
When you’re finished, clean any residue buildup that may have gotten into cracks or detailing, then let the shoes dry for a minimum of 20 minutes. One pass with the saddle soap is enough! When your shoes are dry, brush them with your horsehair brush using a long, rocking motion with your forearm. This gives your shoes a baseline level of shine, and you’ll do it a few more times throughout the polishing process.
Step two: keep your shoes supple with mink oil
Once you’re finished brushing your shoes, you’re ready to apply your mink oil cream. The reason this is important is that, since your leather isn’t connected to the animal it came from anymore, it no longer gets the nutrients it needs to stay soft and supple. Those need to come from you, if you want to keep your shoes from cracking and drying out. That’s where mink oil comes into play!
You’ll need your applicator brush for this one. Dab the bristles into the cream, and get a small amount – a dime-size or less – onto the brush. Work the cream in using circular motions all over the shoe, taking care to apply it thoroughly and evenly.
When you’re finished, let the shoe dry again for about 30 minutes, then polish with your horsehair brush.
Step three: restore colour to your shoes with coloured cream polish
Your shoes will get scuffed up over time; they just will. Luckily, there’s ways to reduce the visual impact of this, and coloured shoe cream is your go-to product. The colour you’ll need depends on the colour of your shoes, but the rule of thumb is to choose a colour that’s just slightly lighter than that of your shoes.
You can apply the coloured polish using either an applicator brush or your polish cloth, but I prefer to use my cloth for this step. Start with just a little polish, and work it in smoothly and evenly all over your shoe. You may want to apply a couple layers of this, depending on how scuffed up your shoes are.
After each application, let your shoes dry for 30 min. It feels like a lot of waiting, but you don’t want to be soaking your shoes through with creams… trust me, it’s worth the wait. When the shoes are dry, brush them again with the horsehair brush.
Step four: apply the wax-based polish
This is the most time-consuming step of them all, but it’s the one that separates the men from the boys. The wax polish is what gives your shoes that mirror shine, and to get there you’ll need to apply multiple layers of it.
Start with just a little polish on your polish cloth, and work it onto the shoe in circular motions. A couple things to note here: first, some of the colour from the cream polish will come off on your cloth, so don’t be freaked out by that. Second, you don’t need to apply the wax polish to the entire shoe like in the other steps; it’s just for the toe and surrounding area. Put some pressure on the shoe when applying the polish (but not so much that your hand locks into a claw).
When you’re done, let it dry for at least 20 minutes. You’ll need to do this each time you apply the polish. After the first couple coats have dried, you can use your horsehair brush to help distribute the polish and give a bit of a shine. Starting with your third coat though, leave the horsehair brush behind, and use a clean polishing cloth instead. The reason is that, as you build up layers of wax to form a smooth surface, the bristles of the brush will actually work against you in giving you the best shine; they’re just too rough at this point.
Step four-and-a-half: apply the wax with a bit of water
For coats 3-5+, you’ll use the same wax polish as above, but now you’re ready to add water to the mix. Remember that small container of water? Here’s why you need it. Grab your polishing cloth and use the same grip I outlined earlier. Held properly, it should leave your ring finger free to dip into the water.
Get a small amount of polish on your cloth with your index and middle fingers, then dip your ring finger in the water and use it to dab just a couple drops on your shoe. Apply the polish directly onto the water so that they mix together, and spread it around with the same circular motions you used before. It’s a tricky technique, and one that will take some time to master, but you’ll get there.
Let the shoes dry for around 20 min between each coat; again, you’re trying to avoid soaking the shoe, which will kill your chances of getting a glassy shine. Remember, don’t use your horsehair brush between these steps; use your polishing cloth instead! Repeat this process at least a couple more times, and you should start to see the shine really come through.
Step five: maintain the shine
Nice work! Your shoes look sharper than most guys out there. The good news is that you don’t need to repeat this entire process every single time you want to touch up your shoes. To maintain the look, just use your polishing cloth to smooth over the shoe every time you wear them, and you’ll keep them looking sharp for quite a while. A bonus of going through this process is that it makes your shoes more effective at repelling water and dirt, which is also great! You’ll know it’s time to start fresh again when your shoes start to look really dull, or when you see cracks in the polish.
Wrapping it Up
Your shoes say something about your character; in my opinion, it’s worth investing the time into caring for them the way they deserve. I hope you found this guide helpful. If you want even more detail, Justin over at The Shoe Snob also has an excellent post on this topic, complete with a fantastic video that shows you exactly what to do. Worth checking out. Enjoy, and good luck!
How are you making out? Did you get that mirror shine? Are you stuck somewhere in the process? Leave me a comment or get in touch and let me know!
FYI: I use affiliate links in this post. I wasn’t given any free product, nor asked to recommend anything by anyone, and I’d never suggest anything I don’t stand by personally. Kraft Dinner is great, but getting your supplies through my links helps me change it up every once-in-a-while (to eat stuff like GOURMET Kraft Dinner instead) 🙂