There’s nothing quite like a nice pair of leather shoes and boots. They look good, hopefully feel good, and can last you a long time with proper care.
But what defines proper care? The following guide will show you how to shine shoes the right way while helping you and your shoes to look their best, and helping you to get years of use from them.
Table of Contents
How to polish your shoes
1. Gather the right materials
No shoe polish guide would be complete without a listing of the tools you’ll need to do the job correctly. We’ll delve more in-depth about each tool later on, but here’s a basic list.
The tools you’ll need
- Shoe polish – Shoe polish is available in wax, cream, and liquid form. Waxes and creams are heavier and better protect your shoes from water damage. Liquid polishes provide a quick, easy shine while shoe polishes are available in a variety of colors. Or, you can buy a neutral polish that works on a variety of shoe colors.
- Cloth – Most people choose to use a soft, lint-free cloth to polish their shoes and an old, clean T-shirt will suffice. Or, for a shinier finish, you may want to use a chamois – a soft, porous leather that, at least today, comes mostly from sheepskin.
- Brush – A brush is another tool you can use to apply your shoe polish. Note: When we say “polish” your shoes, we’re using it in a broad sense to includes all aspects of cleaning and shining your shoes, but in a more exact sense it refers to the task of applying shoe polish. Many shoe polishing kits include brushes with stiff, short bristles that are ideal for applying polish over all surfaces of your shoes or boots.
- Newspaper – It’s always wise to cover your shoe polish workspace with newspaper to protect your floor and furniture. Or, another type of covering (since newspaper isn’t as ubiquitous to households as it was long ago).
- Conditioner – A good leather conditioner helps to extend the lifespan of your shoes while keeping the leather supple and protected from grime, dust, dirt, water, etc.
While we’re at it, let’s define what shining and buffing your shoes mean. Shining your shoes refers not only to the process of producing a gloss-like finish after you’ve applied polish, but also to conditioning and protecting them. And buffing your shoes is what you do at the end – almost always with a brush – to produce an even deeper shine.
2. Clean your shoes
Never shine your shoes or apply polish without first removing the dirt, grime, and other debris that’s collected on them.
Why you should clean, then polish
- Dirt can become trapped beneath your shoe polish or scratch the surface and make it harder to get the kind of shine that makes your shoes the envy of others.
Use a brush
- A horsehair brush makes it easier to clean away the dirt from your shoes before you polish them.
Use a damp cloth
- You can also use a damp cloth to wipe the surface of the shoe while removing dirt and grime. Just make sure to let your shoes completely dry before you move on to subsequent steps such as applying polish.
3. Apply shoe polish
Now that your shoes are clean and dry, it’s time to get down to the business of polishing and shining them.
Use a cloth or polishing brush
- The best way to apply shoe polish is with a soft cloth, as mentioned above, or with a polishing brush. Apply the polish with small circular motions while using medium pressure. Coat all surfaces of your shoes evenly. Wrap your cloth around your index and middle fingers and use those to apply the most pressure when working the polish into your shoes with a cloth.
Don’t neglect the heel and toe areas
- The heels and toes of your shoes get a lot of wear and tear – more than any other parts of your shoe, to be exact. Pay special attention to those areas when applying polish. No matter where you apply it, however, it’s wise to use the minimum amount of polish necessary. You can always add more layers if needed.
Remove your laces first
- You don’t have to remove your laces before polishing shoes – and most people choose not to – but it’s helpful for A) preventing polish from getting on your laces, and B) providing easy access to the tongue of your shoe, which you can and should also polish.
Reaching those hard-to-access areas
- Some sections of a shoe are easier to reach than others when applying polish, such as cracks in the tongue, but you can use a toothbrush to work the polish into those places.
Always use the right color of polish
- While some people may think they can get away with applying a dark blue polish to a black shoe, it’s not a good practice because you, and others, will notice the difference. Also, there are several shades of brown, and it’s important not to go too light or too dark. It’s often helpful to test the polish first by applying a small amount of it to an area of the shoe that’s not as visible (such as the instep).
- There are several ways to deepen the polish’s shine, including the old tried-and-true spit shining method military personnel often use to make sure their shoes not only pass inspection, but earn the praise of a surly drill sergeant. You don’t actually have to spit on your shoes, however, but you can instead spay a bit of water on the shoe’s surface after you’ve applied the first layer of polish.
- After you’ve worked the small amount of moisture into the surface, dip your cloth in warm water to apply a second layer of polish. You can repeat this method until you get your desired shine – but make sure each layer is dry before applying another one.
4. Allow the polish to dry
Never apply polish and then proceed immediately to shining and buffing your shoes.
Let each shoe dry for 15 to 20 minutes
- Once you’ve applied the first layer of polish, allow time for the polish to dry and then apply additional layers if necessary. The best way to manage your time is to set aside the shoe you just polished and begin the work of polishing the other.
5. Brush away the excess polish
Once one, or both, of your shoes are dry, it’s time to use your brush to remove the excess polish.
Go ahead, use a bit of force
- Use short, vigorous strokes to remove the excess polish. Don’t be afraid to put a bit force behind it because doing so generates heat that helps the polish sink deeper into the shoe leather. Evenly brush the surface of both shoes to leave an even finish and a bit of shine. There’s no need to brush anymore if a slighter shine is more to your looking rather than a glossier one.
6. Buff Your Shoes For a Deep Shine
The final touches in your shoe-shining practice should include buffing your shoes for a deeper shine.
How to buff shoes
Buffing your shoes helps you to achieve a high shine that many people prefer. There’s nothing overly complicated about it: use your soft cloth or chamois to buff your shoes with side-to-side motions.
Doing so removes any remaining polish and deepens the shine. You can also breathe on your shoe before buffing it to get an extra shine.
Cleaning suede shoes & boots
So far, we’ve discussed tips and techniques for polishing and shining leather shoes. But what about suede? Suede is a type of leather made from the underside of the skin.
Because it doesn’t consist of the exterior skin layer, it’s softer and less durable than conventional shoe material.
Nonetheless, many people rock the suede shoe look with good reason. Suede pairs well with many types of clothing and has a distinctive look. It also requires different care than other types of leather. And who can forget Elvis Presley and his blue suede shoes?
Here’s a basic suede shoe-cleaning tutorial:
1. Remove Dirt and Debris
Make sure your suede shoes are dry before you clean them. Use a suede brush – such as the Shacke Suede and Nubuck 4-Way Leather Brush – to gently remove dirt and dust. Brush repeatedly in the same direction, not back and forth.
2. Remove Scuff Marks
You should brush scuff marks more vigorously to remove them. Using a suede brush, brush back in both over the scuffed area to lift the grain.
For stubborn scuffs and marks, you can use a suede eraser – check out Kiwi’s Suede & Nubuck Eraser – while applying moderate pressure to the affected area.
3. Remove Water Stains
Water stains often stick out like a sore thumb on suede shoes. Quick action is necessary for treating those stains while making sure they don’t become permanent.
Use a sponge, dry cloth, or paper towel to remove excess water. Keep in mind that you want to blot the water without attempting to scrub it away. Next, brush back and forth with your suede brush for a minute or two. You can even use a hairdryer as you’re brushing to dry any remaining water.
4. Removing Stubborn Stains
Some stains are more stubborn than others – such as oil and grease stains – and can permanently affect the look of your suede shoes if you don’t remove them.
Use your suede brush to scrub the area as you would for typical scuff marks, but then follow up with a nail brush and a bit of warm water to get rid of the stain.
To remove mud from your suede shoes, first wipe away the excess mud and then leave your shoes to dry. You can use your fingers to remove any remaining pieces of mud and then use your suede brush to remove the last remaining bits.
5. Use a Suede Protector
Apply a suede protector after every time you clean your shoes. A good protector, such as the Moneysworth Suede & Nubuck Protector, will provide a shield against the elements and help keep stains at bay.
A brief word about storing your shoes
The focus for this article is shining and polishing (and buffing) your shoes, but shoe care also includes proper storage. How you store your shoes can determine how much life you get from them.
Use a shoe tree
- A shoe tree is an invaluable piece of equipment to have for taking care of your favorite footwear. The best shoe trees consist of wood and have moisture-wicking properties that draw away sweat and other moisture from your shoe. A bit of moisture isn’t bad for your shoes, mind you, but it can damage shoe leather and cause creasing and curling. Check out the Florsheim Woodard Cedar Shoe Tree for men, or the women’s Woodlore Cedar Shoe Tree.
Use a shoe bag (along with shoe trees)
- Once you’ve secured your shoes on shoe trees, it’s not a bad idea to place them in a bag for further protection. Many high-end shoes come with flannel shoe bags, but most bag types will suffice.
Use a shoebox
- Most shoes come in a shoebox, and the latter provides another storage option when your shoes aren’t in use. A shoebox provides plenty of protection and stacks easily on top of other shoe boxes.
Using the right tools: What you need in your shoe shine kit
Just like you can’t build a house, or fix a car, without the right tools, you can’t properly shine your shoes without the right equipment. The question is, what should your shoe shine kit include? Let’s break it down:
No rule says you must keep your shoe shine supplies in a single container, but it is a helluva lot more convenient than scattering them willy-nilly about your closet (and makes it easier to find them).
We recommend a wooden shoe shine box, such as the Kiwi Select Shoe Shine Care Kit Valet, that offers all of the storage you need while helping you to keep your supplies organized and easy to access.
2. Shoe brush
A shoe brush serves several functions, including that it allows you to brush away dirt and debris before you begin polishing. Your brush also serves as a tool to apply shoe products, such as cleaners and polishes.
Generally, the wider the brush the better, but we like the Takavu Horsehair Brush because, among many attributes, it’s a brush favored by professionals.
Brushes with horsehair bristles are ideal because they’re sturdy, but also soft enough that they won’t scratch your shoe leather.
A soft – emphasis is on “soft” – cloth is another essential item for your shoe shine kit. Soft means something with the texture of an old cotton T-shirt. You can tear a well-worn T-shirt into several strips and use the strips to apply your favorite shoe polish.
Or, you can splurge and purchase professional, two-sided shoe shining cloths, such as Simple Shine’s microfiber cloths, in which the smooth side serves to shine, polish, and buff your shoes, while the coarse side is made to remove excess polish and conditioner.
No matter what type of cloth you choose, however, the emphasis is (again) on “soft.” Harsh materials can easily scratch your shoes.
While you can polish and shine your shoes without shoe polish – which we discuss in our FAQ section below – most people have quality shoe polish, cream, or wax in their shoe shine kit.
In general, shoe polish comes in cream and wax form:
- Shoe cream helps to give a matte shine to your shoe while restoring moisture to a shoe’s leather. They’re oil-based, which helps make them ideal for polishing overly dry shoes that are a bit rough on their surface. It’s the most common type of polish.
- Shoe wax comes in a solid polish and contains beeswax or something similar. It provides a classic mirror-like shine – more than cream polishes – and helps provide resistance to scuffs and other marks. Be careful not to apply too much shoe wax because it can dry out and flake off if slathered on in multiple layers.
5. Leather Conditioner
Consistent application of a leather conditioner will help you to get the most life from your shoes. A good conditioner protects against the dirt, grime, salt, grease, and water that confront our shoes regularly. It helps ensure that the leather stays supple and resists water penetration.
Leather that loses its natural oils and moisture – both of which a good conditioner replenishes – loses its flexibility and its fibers begin to crack (and eventually break down).
Leather conditioner usually has a wax or liquid base. Wax is commonly used because it holds in oils and spreads easily on shoes and boots. Many waxes are plant or animal-derived.
Any conditioner that isn’t wax-based is considered a liquid. Liquid conditioner is easier to apply but often don’t contain natural ingredients, as does wax.
Check out Frye’s Unisex Leather Cream if you’re in the market for a quality conditioner.
Why toothpicks? Because wingtips and other types of Oxford brogues have small holes in the leather as part of their design. The holes can trap wax during the shining and buffing process, and a toothpick is the best tool for removing that wax.
FAQ (Frequently asked questions)
How long does it take for shoe polish to dry?
Typically it takes 15 to 20 minutes for shoe polish to dry, even if you apply more than one layer. It could also take no more than 10 minutes but, no matter how long it takes, make sure it’s completely dry before you move on to the next step.
How do you polish shoes for a mirror shine?
There’s nothing quite like the look of a mirror shine, and it’s the goal of many men or women when polishing their shoes and boots.
One of the most important factors, if not the most important factor, for creating a mirror shine is the layers of polish you apply to your footwear.
Hard waxes fill in the natural pits and pores of a shoe leather’s grain to create a smoother layer; the more wax you apply, the smoother the surface becomes. In turn, light reflections on the surface become clearer and give the impression of shininess.
Allow each layer of polish you apply to dry and harden before you apply the next layer. Patience is the key to mirror shining. And, not to forget, a good “spit” shine at the end will help give your shoe a nice sheen.
How do you shine shoes without polish?
So, say you’ve run out of shoe polish and don’t have the time or inclination to buy more immediately. But you still want to polish your shoes. What to do?
Don’t fret, because there are other things you can use to polish your shoes, including many items you may already have around the house:
- Olive Oil – Olive oil is an excellent alternative to shoe polish, and you only need to use a little bit to get a nice shine. Spray it on, let it sit for a few minutes, and then buff it with a soft cloth.
- Rubbing Alcohol – You’ll like the shine you get after dabbing a bit of rubbing alcohol on your shoes and then wiping it over the surface with a cotton ball. Use a soft rag to buff it out and then enjoy your superb shine.
- Vegetable & Walnut Oil – Both vegetable and walnut oil offer good alternatives to shoe polish when you’re in a pinch. You can apply them directly to your shoe and then rub them in with a soft rag.
- Vinegar & Linseed Oil – A 2-to-1 mixture of linseed oil and vinegar will keep your shoe or boot leather supple and nicely-shined.
How many layers of polish should I apply?
The answer is up to you and how your shoes look. Add extra layers only if you think you can create a better shine. In general, the more layers, the deeper the shine.
How long will the polish last?
While your polish will protect your shoe for a long time, the lifespan of its overall shine depends on how often you scuff them, for one. Needless to say, scuffs detract from a shoe’s overall shine.
How often should you polish your shoes?
Like determining how long a shoe polish will last, the best answer to how often you should polish your shoes depends on many factors – factors such as how often you wear your shoes, what you use them for, and how often you brush them and keep them debris-free.
In general, polishing your shoes once a week should suffice if you wear them multiple times per week.
Should I use the same brush for shoes of a different color?
It’s best to have one brush for each color shoe – like black and tan, for instance. Keep in mind that you don’t want to use a brush that’s going to darken your lighter shoes because it can be hard to recuperate their original look.
How often should you polish brown shoes?
Brown shoes require a bit more care than a few swipes of shoe polish. You have to make sure that they resist stains, for one, and a disciplined regimen will help you to keep them looking better than ever.
Begin by wiping your shoes with a bristled brush or soft rag to remove surface dirt and debris. Next, use a mixture of warm water and soap to clean your shoes. Let them dry for five minutes and then use a mixture of baking soda and water to remove scuffs.
Keep your brown shoes moisturized with a creamy leather moisturizer that’s a shade lighter than the original leather of your shoes. Use a clean cloth to rub the polish into the entire surface until the shoe is covered.
Also, apply a cream shoe polish and let it sit for 15 minutes before buffing shoes to shin with a brush that has soft bristles.
Repeat the above routine once a week.
How often should you condition your shoes or boots?
A quality shoe conditioner is essential for ensuring that you get the longest life possible from your footwear.
How often you use a conditioner depends on your environment; if you live in a climate where snow and sleet are common, you should apply conditioner once a week. If you live in a drier climate, twice a week should suffice.
Your leather shoes are an important investment, and looking good in them is also important. A dirty, scuffed pair of shoes doesn’t pair well with any clothing and can create a less than favorable impression of yourself to anyone in your life, including would-be employers.
Knowing how to shine shoes is an important skill that helps your shoes last and helps ensure that you’re always representing yourself in your best light. It’s like anything else in that it’s a skill that becomes better with repetition and with through following the right techniques.
Hopefully, this guide will help you to get the most from your shoes.
We welcome your feedback and suggestions. What are the important elements of your shoe shine routine? We’d love to hear from you.