Different paths can take one to the same goal, but here are some firm basics to help you keep your trusted companions in tip-top shape.
Make sure that your shoes are properly cleaned and dry before applying any shoe care product. All leather dries out over time, so we recommend conditioning and polishing your shoes regularly regardless how much use they see. Even entirely new shoes will often benefit from some tender loving care before first use. Frequent maintenance will not only ensure best possible looks, but also greatly lengthen the lifespan of your shoes.
Before you begin, remove the laces and insert shoe trees (or just stuff the shoes with crumpled up newspaper, old socks or rags) for a firm surface to work on. And while it might seem obvious, the importance of covering your work surface and keeping away from nice clothes and furniture when dealing with dark shoe polish cannot be emphasized enough.
Step 1: Conditioner
Like a moisturizing skin lotion for your leather shoes, a non-greasy, preferably mink oil-based conditioner or renovator not only brings back suppleness and shine to stiff and dull looking uppers – it also prevents cracks and helps obscure minor scuffs and scratches. It helps counteract the drying out effect of wax polish, and makes a good base layer for your pigmented cream, ensuring even absorption. The conditioner should be applied in very thin, even layers with only light pressure, and can be easily worked into the whole upper, not foregoing the welt, with a small application brush. Let dry for 10-20 minutes and buff with a soft lint-free cloth.
Step 2: Sole edge dressing
Although many times a major detraction from the overall visual impression, abused sole edges are all too often left neglected. Neutral or light coloured edges can be spruced up with a non-pigmented conditioner or leather sole oil, but dark ones need a little more work. While a quick going-over with pigmented cream or wax polish might prove a passable temporary fix, applying proper sole edge dressing or leather dye will provide a much longer lasting effect.
Dents and scratches can be carefully sanded down using fine (around 120 grit) sandpaper or a nail file. Protecting the lower part of the uppers from stains with masking tape is a wise safety measure, especially with lighter coloured leathers. Apply dressing or dye with a small brush or sponge and let dry. Buff with cloth.
Step 3: Cream polish
Cream based polish has a high pigment content, and penetrates the leather in a way that wax polish cannot. It is both nourishing and good for covering up nicks and scuffs, to the degree that it can make an old shoe appear as good as new again. Apply very sparingly with an applicator brush, and make sure to spread evenly all over the shoe, as well as along the welt. Put extra effort into doing this properly and do not leave any excess product in broguing or along seams, as it tends to cake up and be tough to remove once hardened. Brush in quick side to side movements with a horsehair brush while the cream polish is still workable to help even out the layer of cream.
Let the shoe sit for at least 20 minutes before brushing again and/or buffing with a lint-free cloth. Now the surface should be shiny and not sticky to the touch. If applied in excess or to very dry leather, cream polish can oversaturate and permanently darken the leather. Moderation is key!
Step 4: Wax polish
Apply in thin layers using a cotton rag twisted tightly around your fingers. Work the wax polish in using a little pressure and small, circular movements all over the shoe (as it will add some shine and a degree of protection against water and dirt), but focus on the toebox and quarters. If you apply too much wax polish to areas prone to creasing, the top layer will crack in an unsightly fashion. Let dry for 10-20 minutes, give your shoes a light buff and add another layer, this time to toebox and quarters only. Repeat the drying process.
The more you fill in the pores of the leather, the shinier it will appear. Finish off with your method of choice: some swear by using a super soft cashmere goathair brush, others by their wives’ nylon stockings, yet others by a piece of wool flannel or a chamois cloth. Buff with light strokes in quick side to side movements to build up heat and melt the wax until you have worked up a nice shine.
Step 5: Mirror shine (optional)
If you have some time and elbow grease to spare, now is the time to attempt the alluring and often elusive mirror shine (also called bull polish or spit shine). Fill a glass with some water, apply a tiny dab of wax polish to your cotton rag, quickly dip it in the water – careful not to let it absorb any but letting a only a droplet cling to the wax – and work away.
There is great debate as to the best method for creating that extremely high shine. Some allegedly use spit (hence the name) or even coffee or champagne in place of water, however we feel it is mainly an issue of having patience and finding the sweet spot of just the right amount of wax, water and pressure. Again, apply in very thin layers and let dry in between, buff and repeat. You want to create an entirely even, glassy surface, filling in all the pores. Finish off with that brush/nylon stocking/piece of flannel, and don’t rush it: spending in excess of an hour per shoe might be necessary to achieve a true mirror shine.