The list below depicts the outline of what I do to a pair of boots/shoes, assuming they don’t need any supermassive love.
- Shiny or shineable
- Don’t need redyeing and massive repair
- Basic texture
- Normal leather, not something exotic like alligator or emu.
If you’re in a rush, you can just wipe the boots with a damp paper towel, dry them, and follow steps 3-5. If these boots are in horrible need of love and need stripping and dying, do that between steps 1 and 2. Conditioning is always the last step before polishing.
1. Clean them, with saddle-soap.
Take a horsehair brush you don’t use for polish, lather some saddle-soap with it (I use Fiebing’s or Kiwi’s, whichever I have handy), put said soapy lather on the boot and rub around some. Like you’re washing hands or a dish, not like you’re trying to rub it in. Rinse the boots with water. Don’t soak the boot, and try not to get any on the inside. Towel dry, let dry on their own. (The leather really shouldn’t absorb any water.) Don’t let the soap sit and stay on there–I know the saddle soap directions say “Leave on as a conditioner!” but they’re full of crap. When was the last time you used soap on your skin and left it on for the rest of the day? Exactly. If a little polish comes off while you do this, do not be alarmed.
Condition the boots. You can do this with your hands, a cloth, whatever. A well-loved standard is mink oil, although a lot of people don’t like it. I personally use Chelsea Leather Food for conditioning purposes because I like the texture and warmth it gives. (Note: conditioners generally darken the leather at LEAST temporarily. For black boots, this isn’t an issue, but if the leather is very light-colored, look for an exotic or light conditioner for, say, gloves. If the leather is from an alligator or something like that, look for a special conditioner.) WHATEVER you use, put on a thin layer, rub it in, and let it chill. Think about it like giving a hand massage. Don’t scrub, but do work it in. It should absorb visibly; it’ll be matte and leathery where it absorbs, and shiny and oily where it doesn’t. If it all absorbs, condition again, and do this until it stops absorbing (probably three THIN coats at max) then wipe all the extra off and let dry overnight, longer if you can. The leather should feel supple, have a very dull shine if you rub at it, and generally feel healthy, not dry. Think about your skin after a good moisturizer versus your skin in the winter. It should NOT feel greasy at all; once it’s dry, after overnight or a day, it should feel and look like normal but… well, healthier.
3. Apply the polish.
Pick a polish (or shoe creme if these aren’t meant to be shiny, like Meltonian for harness boots or something–the leather on these will likely be more textured and duller and, well… not shiny) that matches the color of your boots, or neutral (clear) polish. If you really want to get fancy or are into color theory and optics, you can use other colors and stack them and choose your black polishes based on tone, but that’s a different post. Apply the polish (use whatever kind you want–I like Kiwi and Lincoln, but everyone has their own preferences. Try stuff and use what YOU like, don’t take anyone’s word as gospel. Experiment.) in thinnish layers; the boot should become visibly matte as you do so. I like to use a man’s old socks or a really softened t-shirt. Things with a pretty smooth texture are better. You can also use your hands or fingers or a brush, but those are a bit messy for me.
4. Let the polish dry.
Let the polish dry and chill for a couple of minutes, either while you apply polish to the other boot, while you take a piss, while you chug a few more coffees, while you bribe hot passerby for cake… your choice! You’re ready to buff when you can touch the polish GENTLY on the boot and get none on your hands.
There are approximately 30 million ways to do this. You can use a horsehair brush, a chamois, a t-shirt, a sock, pantyhose, your hair, whatever. You can also buff dry or wet. The process is that polishing, just like you do with metal or glass to make a lens: the faster and colder the polish, the slicker the surface you create, the smoother the lens, the sharper the reflection. Polish is wax-based, so that means you want as much pressure as you can, as fast as you can (not super quick, folks, but don’t drag!), as cool as you can (this is where water comes in, if you like).
I do one of three things, as follows:
- I use a horsehair brush in the normal way, i.e., super-fast strokes all over. Nice glow and decent shine, can be streaky, will NOT be super reflective. This is the fastest method. It’s also nice for areas that are very large or harder to buff manually, as the shafts of very tall boots. This uses SPEED to create the lensing.
- I dry buff, using something nice and smooth like an old t-shirt, and LOTS of pressure. This will almost certainly result in a decent amount of polish coming up on the shirt. I use two fingers with a smooth and thin cloth pulled VERY taut over them and make small circles with firm pressure. You’ll be able to see the shine almost instantly. This takes a while, and tends to make my hand cramp; it also tends to leave swirlies, almost like paint strokes. This uses PRESSURE.
- I wet buff, aka spitshine. (Please do not use actual spit; it’s full of sugars and enzymes and is not awesome for the leather, and it’s warm and kinda gross. In my opinion.) Wet buffing is when you take some kind of cloth–I tend to use baby socks or old-t-shirts, again–and get it quite wet with cold/cool water. Then, using some pressure, I buff in small circles with my fingers, like I was dry buffing. This uses TEMPERATURE and a little pressure. Err on the side of too much water — you can always shake some out, and the polish prevents water from getting into the leather. You know you have enough water on the rag/sock when, as you polish, almost NO color or polish ends up on the fabric. It should feel very slick and fast. This produces the best shine–very glassy, very even, very streak-free. It’s also SLOW. (Protip: make sure that you use something not-a-water-glass for the water. Or you’ll drink it. ASK ME HOW I KNOW.)
After all of this, your boots should be pretty darn shiny. You can stop here if you want. Most shoes need a good couple of coats of polish this way for the best shine.
6 – optional. Bulling.
Do this AFTER you have done all the “polishing”–i.e., this is not a good way to create a whole layer. This is what creates that mirror shine and does amazing things; imagine old military boots that you can see yourself in and butlers hunched over for hours. This is what they’re doing. This is a wet-buff process–it involves, after shining, taking a VERY small amount of polish on a pretty wet cloth (literally tap your fingers in the polish with wet, more than damp, cloth), and making tiny, tiny circles on the surface. It’ll cloud at first, but keep going in small looping circles around that area, and it will start to get shinier and streaky like a dry buff, and if you keep going, it’ll get shinier and shinier until it practically snaps into focus. You’ll know when you get it right. Keep doing this over and over, the more you do it the better the depth of field and the shine. Don’t be afraid to add more water. There should be very little friction. I do this on toecaps and on dress shoes and on very good leather; it really gives an AMAZING shine.
7 – optional. Sharpening.
Get some pantyhose. Clean, cheap, cut into pieces (preferably.) Sprinkle the leather with water, and stretch a piece of the pantyhose long and taut, and VERY VERY VERY quickly, buff the leather. You should feel almost no friction when you do this–if it catches and drags, STOP, you probably just ruined your last layer of shine. Think of the “stereotypical” shoeshine motion when you do this. This makes the final reflection very crisp and very sharp.
Voila! Shiny! Enjoy and stare at the shiny, mesmerized. Have something tasty.
Looking for shiny leather lovers in area?
If you can’t get a good shine, there might be a lot of reasons: bad polish, too much conditioner, you didn’t let the conditioner dry, the boots aren’t actually leather, the boots aren’t meant to be polished (e.g., oil-tan, suede), they have a factory finish or weird shit that needs to get stripped off first, you didn’t let the polish dry enough, aliens are fucking with you….