So you've bought some new leather shoes and you're wondering how to protect that investment. Or maybe you've got a beloved pair you're hoping to keep in rotation for as long as possible. (Shoe stores usually sell shoes, not information.)
Regardless, caring for your leather footwear can seem like a daunting task, but it isn't. By the end of this guide, you'll understand the essentials.
We've oriented this guide from least to most intervention: maintenance, light to medium cleaning, and deep-cleaning. We also touch on storage.
We want to give an overview from start to finish so you know exactly what you'll need, when you'll need it, and how to use it. We have worked with footwear from countless different makers over the years; This is what we know to work.
The advice in here will work for mens dress shoes or ladies dress shoes. It is for leather shoes of any type.
Why take care of my shoes in the first place? I've never looked after them before, why should I start now?
It is easy to neglect how important shoes are for our overall appearance.
Choosing the right shoe is a great start; ensuring your shoes look great is equally as important. Research suggests people use your shoe's appearance as a cue for what you are like:
"Surprisingly minimal appearance cues lead perceivers to accurately judge others' personality, status, or politics...participants accurately judged the age, gender, income, and, attachment anxiety of shoe owners based solely on the pictures."
Source: Research Gate, link here.
We also believe that well made shoes deserve proper care. If properly cared for they can increase in beauty with age. It also ensures you get the most out of your investment. Lastly, one of the most environmentally sustainable things you can do is to use what you already own!
Let's talk a little bit about the shoes themselves before we begin.
What makes a shoe high quality?
High quality doesn't always mean high price (nor is the opposite true). Taking care of your shoes takes time and makes the most sense when you have shoes worth taking care of. Note, we've simplified some of the below for readability, and we gear most of the construction info towards dress shoes.
High quality shoes are made well
Crockett & Jones Cavendish Snuff Suede Loafer. Goodyear Welted.
What does it mean to be well made? Brands such as Allen Edmonds, Alden, Crockett & Jones, Edward Green, Vass, and Yohei Fukuda are a few examples of well-made shoes. Usually these will be English, Japanese, or Italian dress shoes. That said, they can come from anywhere.
It means being made of real leather, using techniques that allow them to be resoled. Goodyear Welting and Blake stitching are probably the most popular. Blake/Rapid, handwelted, and Norwegian are other wonderful but less popular methods. All of these techniques differ in execution. What's important is that the sole of the shoe is designed be removed from the upper portion of the shoe for eventual replacement.
This real leather can come in many forms. Smooth leather, pebble grained leather, cordovan, suede, nubuck, oiled, etc. Any type of leather uppers can be made well. You can find out a bit more about leather types in our post here. All of these will require good care to be at their best. But more on this later.
These shoes can be made up in any combination as well. Suede boots or suede shoes, cordovan loafers or crocodile, nubuck oxfords or pebble grain, etc. Waxed laces, leather laces, round laces, etc. This all comes down to the preference of the maker. Anything can be made well if done right.
Poor quality shoes are often referred to as "fabricated" which is a fancy way of saying glued together. All of the components fused together with cement glue for ease of construction and cost reduction. They come together poorly and come apart even worse. Avoid this construction method.
While some cobblers can resole shoes that have been glued together, it's often not worth the hassle; just because you can doesn't mean you should. It makes less sense to take care of the uppers of your shoes if you can't ever have new soles.
High quality shoes use great leather
Crockett & Jones Islay boot in dark brown pebble grain calf close up.
When it comes to quality leathers for shoes, Full Grain and Top Grain are the most popular.
A full grain leather generally means that the entire thickness of the leather is used and the top has been kept intact. Sometimes it can be buffed or polished for a more uniform finish since sometimes hides can have marks from well...living outside. Sometimes it's thinned to be better suited for footwear.
Top grain leather is a split leather. This means the hide is split top from bottom making it half as thick and producing twice as much, thinner, usable leather. (It can be split more than once sometimes.) This is often done to reduce costs, but not always. Great makers like those listed above (and many others) will do this to make a more comfortable shoe and the quality can still be high.
"Bottom grain" or "bonded leather" which are often misleadingly called "genuine leather," should be avoided. These what's left that isn't top grain and is the lowest quality.
These real leathers can last decades if maintained properly. They can also develop unique colours and hues from years of use and product. This is generally referred to as "patina" and is considered a valuable thing.
They begin to tell a story and reflect the owner; something that can't be bought at the store. This is especially true for brown coloured shoes as they tend to show more variation than black.
So your shoes are great, now what?
Routine Maintenance Essentials
As above, a well-maintained, high-quality, pair of shoes can last years or even decades. The shoe is more comfortable as you wear it in, it looks better over time, and one of the most sustainable things you can do is use what you already own. You need to do the basics for them to last, and the basics are easy.
Use a shoe horn
If you have a dress shoe with a structured heel on it, using a shoe horn will help you keep it structured. The heel and toe are often made of interior stiffeners to give them their unique shape and help with longevity.
If you crush yours by cramming your foot into the shoe or by using your finger, there isn't much you can do to repair it. At least not easily. A shoe horn also makes putting on your shoes much easier. We suggest you get a few extra wherever you think you'll need them; closets and entryways come to mind.
Thankfully one the easiest things you can do also provides a lot of value. Brushing your shoes regularly helps keep them clean by removing surface level dust and dirt. It removes lots of the grit that can be harmful to the leather over time. The warmth and friction generated can also help bring a bit of a shine out of your shoes as a bonus.
You'll want to use a stiff horse hair brush. It is the right stiffness to get the job done without harming the leather. A quality brush can last you many, many years. Saphir makes them in two sizes and we recommend the larger size for day-to-day use as it does more in less time.
If you can find the time, brush your shoes for 5-10 seconds each after you take them off for the day. This will dramatically slow dirt build up; the same way that brushing your teeth daily keeps cavities away and your dentist happy.
Brushing is also essential for working in and distributing polishes and creams. While we'll touch on more this later, it is literally indispensable. The friction helps work in your shoe care products, makes sure they aren't built up in any one area, and brings out the shine.
If you're overzealous, don't worry, you can't brush your shoes too often or too much.
Note that polishes and creams can build up on brushes over time. If you're worried about colours transfers from your brush to your shoe, we recommend having different brushes for different colours. You don't need a new brush for every colour you own, but one for blacks, one for browns, one for neutral is a good idea.
Also, if your brushes get gunked up you can wash them using shampoo. We let ours soak overnight in a bucket. They are hair, after all.
Use Shoe Trees
An example of a shoe tree the proper size for the shoe. Notice the snug fit.
Another essential, a quality wooden shoe tree is a must. A shoe tree does many things for you and your shoes. We wrote about them in depth in our shoe tree blog post which you can find here.
The porous wood helps absorb moisture. On average, a person's feet can sweat about 225ml a day,or about the size of a small can of Coke. Your shoes are often dealing with all of this excess moisture, and shoe trees help to absorb that.
Less moisture in your shoes does two things: Increases lifespan and prevents odors.
Leather is most susceptible to damage when it is wet. So the more excess moisture in your shoes, the less you'll get to wear them before they break down.
Also, the odor in footwear is caused by bacteria. These bacteria love that moisture as they find it a perfect environment. Don't let them move in.
Less moisture = less odor.
Think about a wet towel that doesn't dry thoroughly - even if it just came out of the wash, it will still smell if improperly dried.
Lastly, shoe trees help keep the shape of the leather.
This helps shoes look newer longer and helps minimize creasing. Notice that we said minimize creasing, NOT prevent. All real leather shoes will crease (except for Shell Cordovan, which we'll touch on elsewhere).
It is a by-product of use and a way of life, regardless of how much you spent on them. By using shoe trees you can help prevent deep creasing, and by using the proper polishes you can minimize the colour loss in the creases too, dramatically improving the look.
Shoe trees come in many forms. Avoid plastic as they will not give you the benefits mentioned about in regards to moisture. You will often see them made out of cedar. This is because cedar has a great smell to it, often associated with a well-kept closet.
The cedar itself doesn't provide any magical benefits above and beyond other porous woods. Some companies will use more exotic or luxurious woods to fit in their brand image or luxury status more.
If you can afford it, every pair of your shoes should have wooden shoe trees in them. They should be in your shoes whenever your feet aren't. Think of them as an investment in the lifespan of your shoes.
Polishing with Neutral Cream Shoe Polish
You always use a shoe horn and shoe trees, and you brush your shoes regularly. You're already half way done. You not only wear your shoes to look good, they also protect your feet. This means that your shoes are going to get scuffed and nicked and begin to look a little bit tired in a way that brushing alone won't fix.
If you could only add one product to your shoes for their lifespan it would be a hydrating neutral cream polish. Specifically it would be Saphir Renovateur or "Reno" as it's often called. This is considered one of the best (if not the best) all-around shoe care products on the planet. It's 80% of shoe care in one beautiful little jar.
You can also use Saphir's Creme Pommadier in neutral. It isn't formulated to provide the same mild cleaning effect or high level shine. It still hydrates and performs wonderfully.
Why a cream polish?
A cream polish will do a few things for you and unlike a paste wax it can be applied to your entire shoe. Cream polishes usually come in a jar and have the consistency of softened butter.
A cream polish will hydrate your shoes. Saphir's Pommadier is shea butter based and made without some of the harmful silicones and resins that you'll find in cheaper product. It penetrates the leather to moisturize and doesn't leave behind any harmful by-products. Supple leather is happy leather.
It can be used on your entire shoe. The cream polish doesn't dry or stiffen after application. It's absorbed by your shoes like hand lotion is absorbed by your skin. This means won't crack after drying like a paste wax will (more on this later).
A cream polish will shine your shoes. Again, Saphir's Reno is the best for this. Saphir's standard Creme Pommadier is also fantastic and comes in neutral. The fats and oils inside the creme will help give your shoes a healthy glow when combined with brushing; Helping take your shoes from tired to tremendous.
When you're starting out trying to exactly match your polish colour to your shoe colour can be a bit daunting. Are my shoes light brown or medium brown? Or Havana? What you miss out on in pigment to fill in scratches, you gain in ease of use. You can also have one polish for all of your shoes which is great for beginners.
If you have brown dress shoes or black dress shoes and want to add colour back into them, you can pick a colour that is closely matched with your shoes. You can learn more about
Why not paste wax polish?
Even if your dad always recommend an old can of Kiwi polish as the end all be all, paste wax has limitations.
Paste wax is often made with waxes and oils that are solid at room temperature such as Carnuba. This is wonderful for achieving a very high shine, but they don't do anything to hydrate your shoes. Since the wax will harden, placing it anywhere on your shoes that is going to move/flex will cause cracking. This means the vamp (the top of your foot) or often the sides.
Paste wax can play an important role in shoe care and Saphir makes several amazing paste waxes. It is a bit more advanced and we will touch on more of it later. For a one stop shop, keep to creams.
If you want a better understanding of the difference between wax and cream shoe polishes you can read more about it in our dedicated article.
How to use a crème polish?
You can view our more detailed guide here.
Ensure shoes have shoe trees in them before starting. Clean shoes by giving them a thorough brushing and/or a wipe with a damp cloth. Remove any dirt or grime before starting for best results.
Take a small amount of cream polish and place it on a polishing cloth, a dauber brush, or an old cotton t-shirt. Less is usually more and it's always easy to add another layer.
Eventually spread the polish over the entire upper of the shoe or boot. Work it in a little bit. This should take 30-60 seconds per shoe. Give the shoe 30-60 seconds to dry after application. You can use this time to start working on the other shoe.
After drying brush vigorously with your horse hair brush. The longer and more thoroughly you brush the deeper and more even the shine will be. You should start to notice a big difference after 15-30 seconds. Again, around 30-60 seconds should work well for you. Repeat for other shoe.
You can repeat this process once more if you'd like a deeper shine.
As we mentioned above, supple leather is happy leather, but wet leather is sad leather. You don't want to overdo it or else you will over-saturate the leather and cause more harm than good. This is a process that shouldn't be done more than every 7-10 wears or so. Doing it after every wear is overkill and will damage your shoes. Once a month is plenty if you're wearing your shoes more than 2-3 times weekly.
WHAT IF I ONLY HAVE FIVE MINUTES!? Or, what is the minimum routine?
If you're pressed for time then what we have mentioned up until now will serve you well. Using a shoe horn and shoe trees takes little to no time. Brushing takes under a minute every wear.
This coupled with the occasional application of some Saphir Renovateur, which should take about 5 minutes every few weeks, and you're done. This is what we consider the minimum and we think you'll be happy with the results.
If you want to take your shoe care to the next level, read on.
Light to Medium shoe cleaning
These next steps will be a touch more in depth than above. This is for taking your shoes from looking great to the envy of the office.
Coloured Cream polishes
When your shoes get little scrapes and scuffs on them, using a pigmented cream polish will help. Saphir's Cream Pommadier polish is perfect for this. It's concentrated formula means a little goes a long way.
The colour from the polish helps "fill in" some of the scuffs on your shoes. You can use the coloured polish in the same way you would use a neutral polish as outlined above. Here is the guide again.
What colour should I use?
If your shoes are black, 99% of the time you want to use black. (more on this in our upcoming advanced guide)
If your shoes are brown, you have a few options.
If you go with something that is an EXACT match to your shoe colour it will work best in maintaining the current colour of your shoes. It will fill in scuffs well and give your shoes a healthy shine with minimal to no colour change. We recommend this approach if you want the least amount of change in your shoes.
This is also what we suggest if your shoes are a more unique colour such as red, purple, or green. Saphir makes tons of different colour options for the many different shoes available.
What if I can't find an exact match? Will my shoes change colour?
Finding an exact match can be a bit difficult. Over time, light brown shoes tend to get a bit darker. Oils and products build up over the years and deepen the colour, in the same way an old leather jacket or wallet darkens with use.
Dark brown shoes tend to get a bit lighter as sun exposure and abrasion slowly wears away some of the dye in the leather. Ultimately, regression to the mean.
These are both subtle and take time.
Since we are applying such thin layers of polish and pigment on your shoes, it takes time for any meaningful colour changes to occur. If you use a dark brown crème on your light brown shoes, they won't immediately turn dark brown after one use; Multiple applications over a period of time will deepen the colour.
If you can't find an exact match, we suggest going with whatever is closest erring on darker. Having a slightly darker polish will work to fill in your scuffs and scratches a bit better. The darker pigment over top will also help you develop a patina over time adding extra depth to the colour of your shoes.
If you're worried about your shoes or want to preserve the exact colour as best as possible stick with a neutral. This won't add any pigment to your shoe.
As before, this is a process that shouldn't be done more than every 7-10 wears or so. Using a coloured polish should be a substitute for a neutral, not an addition to.
Also note that you can alternate between them. One cleaning session use neutral if you want some shine and hydration without extra colour. Next time use a coloured polish if you have a few extra scuffs.
Hydrating leather conditioner
You already know that hydrating leather is important. While the cream polishes mentioned above help to hydrate it isn't their primary function.
Products like Saphir's Leather Lotion is specially formulated for deep hydration. It's sole job (no pun intended) is to add oils and nutrients back into the leather. It's the difference between a hand soap with aloe and a full-on hydrating cream; both hydrate but one much more than the other.
For more delicate jobs you can use Saphir's Nappa Cream which is specially forumated for delicate leathers. Great for...Nappa, goat skin, deerskin, etc.
How do I use it?
You can apply this cream the exact same way that you apply the cream polished mentioned above. A detailed guide is here. (We're sure you're noticing that almost all creams are applied the same way).
For the full conditioning effect it is best if your shoes are clean first. That means conditioners are best applied BEFORE other cream polishes.
When do I use it?
Leather conditioners should be applied to your shoes whenever the leather is dry. When is that? It depends on how often you wear them and your climate. A good rule of thumb is every 20-25 wears, or a few times a year. If you wear your shoes twice a week, then 3-4 times a year would be recommended. This can be used in addition to other cream polishes.
Deep conditioners can over-saturate the leather so you don't want to use them after every wear or two. You can learn more about conditioning your leather goods here.
Paste waxes generally come in a tin and are made up of hard waxes such as Carnuba wax. These waxes are solid at room temperature and used for shine and water resistance. Heavily coloured pigments are added to the wax to give paste waxes their colour.
These are more difficult to apply than cream polishes. If done correctly they can help you achieve the mirror like shine that you see on certain shoes.
Saphir's Pate De Luxe is made with more wax than most other makers which allows you to use less and still achieve amazing results.
A detailed guide on how to use can be found here.
By applying this paste in very thin layers on top of each other, you're creating a wax barrier between the elements and your shoes. This barrier is wonderful at repelling water and reflecting light; Think of a perfectly even glaze on a shimmering doughnut.
This leaves the areas you polish more water resistance and with an extremely high shine. This extra high shine can only be achieved by using paste wax. Cream polishes won't cut it.
Wax based hard pastes will not hydrate your shoes so they are best applied last in your shoe care routine.
Since these waxes will harden after drying you should only use them on areas of your shoe that do not flex. We recommend only using them on the toe and the heel. Many thin layers done one after another is much better than thick layers. Here more than anywhere else, less is more.
Experienced users can apply very minute amounts to the entire shoe for extra shine. Be careful though. If a layer builds up anywhere that flexes, when you take a step it will crack and leave behind an unsightly cracked wax residue.
Extremely skilled users can achieve shines that look like highly polished glass. Here is an example of a master working. This can be called "bulling" or "mirror shining" or "spit shining" depending on who you ask. Warning before you watch: You're not as good as this guy; no one is.
Saphir makes a "Mirror Gloss" version of their paste wax. This extra concentrated formula has even more hard wax in it to help achieve a higher shine.
We recommend this for more advanced users or people who want to achieve very high levels of shine. When it comes to achieving a world class shine on your shoes this is a breakthrough product.
Lastly, we recommend following the same colour matching guide as noted above from cream polishes: Exact match or darker. Adding darker tones to the heel and toe of the shoe is sometimes called burnishing and can give a very desirable depth of colour and character to a shoe. Using black paste wax on a dark brown shoe, for example.
If you've done everything up until here you've got some great looking shoes. You might want to add a protecting layer on top.
What are they?
Saphir's Invulver or Waterproofing spray does just that. While it is geared towards suede and nubuck, it's silicone-free formula can be used on all types of shoes. It creates a hydrophobic or waterproof layer on top of the shoes. This helps keep our stains, liquids, dirt, etc from ever making it onto your shoes.
How do I use spray protectors?
After your cleaning routine you can apply a layer or two of Invulver. (See step 6 of the Suede guide here).
If you're concerned about colour change (very rare) we recommend spot checking first. While this has never been a problem for us on hundreds of pairs, we can't vouch for 100% of shoes. A great place to spot check is the heel or the tongue.
Spray a thorough and even layer of Invulver over your entire shoe. Don't forget to get all around and do the heels. Use the spray cannister from around 30-45 cm (about a foot or so) away from your shoe to ensure even distribution. Let them dry. That's is. They will be dry in about an hour however we recommend letting them rest overnight to really let it set in. You can repeat the process if you'd like a heavier layer of protection.
This is an easy one and especially great for suede or nubuck shoes. Use a suede brush to clean before use. If you need a suede shoe brush or nubuck shoe brush, the crepe brush from Saphir is wonderful.
Protecting the soles of your shoes
Most people who wear leather soled shoes forget that the soles need some love too.
What do you mean?
Sometimes people (incorrectly) assume the hard soles of their shoes are made out of wood. They are actually made of multiple pieces of hardened and compressed leather. Like all things leather, they can benefit from hydration too.
Saphir's Sole Guard is specially formulated with vegetable oils to help protect and nourish your soles. The fats inside help hydrate the leather while creating a hydrophobic/waterproof barrier at the same time.
This reduces the wear on your soles and increases their life span. It is a best seller among people with leather soled shoes. If your shoes are rubber soled, or you use a topy, you don't need this product.
How do I use it?
Apply generously with a cotton chamois to the soles of your shoes every 3-6 months. Let them dry for at least an hour but preferably overnight. That's it. An easy add on to extend the life of your shoes.
Deep cleaning and Restoration
If you follow the steps in this guide you'll be adding a lot of care product to your shoes. This is a good thing.
Over time though, you might get some build-up of dirt and polish. You might want to strip away the high shine and go for a matte finish. Maybe you've got a bit of a salt stain that needs tackling.
There will come a time when you want to hit reset and do a deep clean on your shoes. This is where a very deep cleanser is recommend.
Saphir's Reno'Mat fits the bill. This is a highly concentrated cleaner that strips away excess polish, wax, and dirt. This formula is very strong and it's recommended to be used sparingly and infrequently.
We recommend using this twice a year OR LESS. There is no benefit to using this deep cleaner if you love the look of your shoes currently or if they aren't dirty. This should be used when you need a full refresh. We also don't recommend this for first time shoe polishers, this is a more advanced product.
If you want something that is a bit more of a mild soap or gentle cleaner, then we recommend Saphir's Cleanser. Dampen a cloth with warm water to wipe your shoes clean. Then use the Cleanser as instructed. This product is better suited for regular maintenance and can be used more often without worry.
Regardless of which ones you are using, it is a good idea to remove your shoe laces before cleaning. This will allow you to better clean your leather uppers. It will also allow you to clean your shoe loaces too if they need it.
We will write a bit more about fully restoring shoes in another post. For now, know that you have an option to clean the slate. Whether you stepped in a deep mud puddle or from months/years of product build up.
Storage and rotation
You should now have a robust understanding of what it takes to care for your shoes. Whether you want to follow the minimum recommend routine or shoot for the stars, you're armed.
Let's close on a few notes on storage and rotation.
How often should I wear my shoes?
This is one of the most common questions we get. You went out and bought your first expensive pair of shoes and now you want to wear them every day. Don't. We've all been there.
Well-made shoes will last longer than inferior shoes but they must be treated well. Wearing your shoes every day wears down the leathers.
Excess moisture from your feet takes time to evaporate from your shoes. Wearing them back to back doesn't give them that chance to dry and recover. Wearing your shoes daily is one of the worst things you can do for them.
We recommend giving your shoes a minimum of 24 hours rest (one day) between wears. If your rotation allows, wearing them no more than 1-2 times a week is ideal. If you have 5 pairs of business shoes and wear them each once a week that is perfect.
Rotate your shoes in the way that gives them the most rest between wears. So if you have 3 pairs of shoes: Monday pair A, Tuesday pair B, Wednesday pair C, Thursday pair A, etc.
Having this rotation will dramatically increase the lifespan of your shoes. Not only in terms of time (because you're wearing them less) but also in terms of total wears.
If your shoes very wet from, say, getting caught in the rain, give them time to dry. Let them dry at room temperature for a day or two, no heaters. Then hydrate them with some cream and put them back into the rotation.
How should I store my shoes?
You should store your shoes in a room temperature, dry, and dark environment. Very cold temperatures or wet conditions will harm the leather. So don't keep them outside. Avoid direct sunlight as well as it will fade and deteriorate the leather.
You should keep them in your closet. You should also use shoe trees to help keep their shape. We also recommend storing them in shoe bags if you're not using them more than a couple times a week. This will help keep dust off of them and minimize your brushing. Use a dry cloth or a shoe brush to remove dust and dirt before storage where possible.
Putting some thought and attention in your shoe care routine will go a long way. You will not only have longer lasting shoes, but your shoes will look great the entire time. This guide doesn't cover everything but it covers the majority. You have all the knowledge you need to get started.
If you're excited to start off on the right foot (again, no pun), we have some great shoe care kits on our website. Our minimalist kit will give you everything you need for the Essential Routine.
If you're looking for some information about sneakers, then a good place to start is our guide on How To Clean Sneakers.
Our shoes say a lot about us. We want ours to show that we care. What about you?