We're fortunate at Brillaré to have many clients from the armed forces. This mean that we do a lot of mirror shines for military boots of all kinds, especially cadet boots. We have regulars from our local cadet program who need a parade shine.
Unfortunately, many of our clients come in and tell us horror stories of the misinformation found online. Our research leads us down the same road.
People recommend almost everything, except the things you should actually be doing.
Putting a mirror shine on shoes or boots is a practice that has been around forever. It's an impressive way to finish and shine of your shoes. It shows you have attention to detail. We have experience with military boots, combat boots, parade boots, dress shoes, and more.
This article will discuss the do's and don't of shining army boots of any kind (As long as they have smooth leather). You'll have all the info you need to shine your own boots and pass your inspections with ease.
A quick note that this article: shoe polish and boot polish are the same thing. If you're shining smooth leather, all this info will work. Regardless if you need to shine a boot or shoe. This advice talks about parade boots and it will work for parade shoes too. Clearly though, this advice will not work for suede and suede boots.
What you need to achieve your shine
The list of products that you need to achieve a brilliant mirror shine is fairly short. Even shorter if you already have clean boots.
This is a short list. Additionally, you'll notice that it doesn't contain any Kiwi polish. This is because Saphir is much higher quality. It is made in France with natural ingredients. It's the premium version. We strongly feel that one of the reasons for Kiwi polish being so successful is that it's available everywhere.
Saphir's Mirror gloss has a higher concentration of waxes in it than their normal Pate De Luxe. Both would work well. We prefer the Mirror Gloss for a parade gloss. It can be built up to a wonderful shine. Pate De Luxe would be great to use as well.
Before we dive into the how-to, we want to talk about a few things you shouldn't do to your boots. Maybe some of this information worked for a senior cadet at some point, and they passed it along. While I'm sure most of it is well meaning, it isn't good for your boots.
What NOT to do to your boots:
Do NOT use flame. Yes, we've seen videos and suggestions of this. Using a lighter or blow torch to heat up the wax when it's on the boot. This is terrible advice.
The flame can damage the leather of your boot. Once damaged, there is no going back. Flame and leather don't mix. Additionally, using flame to warm the wax can be unpredictable. Making shining harder. Yes, you want some warmth to make the wax more manageable. You don't want it melted though.
Do NOT use a “quick shine” or “shine in a bottle” or any of those types of products. They have solvents and chemicals in them that are hard on the leather of your boots. They often contain silicone. They look passable the first time you use them. The product builds up on your shoes, one thin layer at a time. The leather can't breath and starts to deteriorate faster. These are a nightmare for all leather shoes. (like how fabric softener breaks down your clothing prematurely)
Kiwi makes a quick shine that you've seen at drugstores and certain shoe stores. This is the stuff we're pleading you to avoid. Your boots will thank you. Most of the time they don't work as well as a simple wipe down with a damp cloth and one coat of cream polish. There is no substitute for good shoe polish.
Do NOT use acetone. Old polish can build up on your boots. Cleaning it off helps you build up a new base coat. Removing that, as well as dirt, goes a long way. That said, acetone is overkill. Yes, it will dissolve most of the polish on your boots. It will also dry them out immediately and harm the leather. If you use too much it can be in irrevocable.
How to Shine Cadet Boots
0. As always, before you begin, insert your shoe trees (or boot trees if that's what you use). We always recommend cedar, and plastic also work well.
1. Start with a clean boot
If your boots aren't dirty, you can skip this step. Maybe you wore them for one parade and they only need a light brushing.
Start by wiping off your entire boot with a damp cloth. Microfibre is best. Be careful to go gentle around the mirror toe and heel if you already have them. You don't want to wipe off your shine. If you already have a good shine, try gentle wiping with a dry cloth first. Less is more.
After this, give them a good brushing with a horsehair brush. Like above, avoid going over the toe or heel. The bristles can harm your mirror shine.
If your boots are still dirty after this, you'll want to use a cleaner. We recommend Saphir Cleanser, a gentle cleaning solution from our friends in France.
This will take off surface dirt. It will also dull your shine if you already have one built up, so go gentle if that is the case. Sometimes starting from scratch is easiest though, so getting all the wax off isn't always a bad idea. This will help remove any stains you have. Or if there is a scuff that needs attention.
2. Prepare your work station
You're going to need wax, a polish cloth, and some water. We like a cotton polish cloth, or an old worn in t-shirt also works well. Make sure that it's soft. People recommend cotton wool tool. We find cotton wool balls to be too small to work well.
For water, you have a few choices. The best of which is our glass water dispenser. This puts the perfect amount of water out for you with only a little press. This means you don't have to worry about getting up, or adjusting the polishing cloth once its on your hand. It's the easiest and best.
Second place would be putting a little bit of water in the turned over cap of the wax polish tin. Use distilled water if you have, as its not as mineral rich as tap water. That said, don't go out of your way for it, tap water works just fine.
You're going to need small amounts of water available next to you at all times while you polish.
This is where the idea or term “spit shine” came to be. People shoe shining would use spit to lubricate the wax, since spit could be used without giving up a hand.
We don't recommend this method. It's inconsistent, a bit unhygienic, and it's also substandard. Your spit has more than water in it. The enzymes in your mouth aren't as predictable to work with as plain old water. You can achieve a more uniform finish easier with water.
3. Shine. Repeat…
Here is where the magic happens. You've got your black shoe polish, your cloth, and a small amount of water.
Up until this point has been 20% of the battle. The rest all happens here.
For that glossy shine, the mirror shine, you'll need to start with a base coat. (If you don't already have one).
This is where we recommend a thick layer of Saphir Mirror Gloss. Creating a base coat is the only time you'll use a “thick” layer of wax. It is still relatively thin, no doubt. But thicker than subsequent layers.
Wet your polishing cloth with some water. Rub your cloth into the tin of wax with medium pressure. Swirl around a few times so you get a generous amount on your cloth.
From there, apply the wax to your boot using the cloth. Work the wax in using a small circle motion. This circular motion requires light pressure.
Even though you want a shiny boot, you should be focusing this on the toe cap and the heel counter of your boot. Building up wax on the vamp (where your boot creases when you walk) will cause the wax to crack when you walk / march. This will immediately look terrible.
(Above you can see two things. First is the cracked wax from shining too far up and then walking. This is why you want to focus on the toe and the heel. The parts that don't flex.
Additionally you are also seeing some "loose grain creasing." This is when the leather used for the boot is substandard. While technically not defective since it isn't going to break, it doesn't look good. A poor selection of leather from the manufacturer is the reason for this. Sometimes you can get leather that is "softer" and more prone to creasing. This might have been cut poorly, or have some from a troublesome hide. Either way, it can happen from time to time. Very little can be done about it after the fact. We recommend inspecting your boots before purchasing if possible.)
The vamp and sides of the boot can be buffed to a high shine with cream polishing. Buffing this way won't get you as high a shine there, but will ensure that shine lasts. When you're done buffing with a horsehair brush you can give them a quick buff with a soft cloth.
Shiny heel up close. Notice how all of the shine is contained to the heel counter. You don't need, or want, to go past the stitching here since it could cause the wax to crack.
Back to the top cap and heel.
You're starting your base coat of polish for the toe cap and heel. Continue to work the wax in circles with light pressure over and over again. And again. And again.
This process can be meditative and relaxing once you get a feel for it. You can have a movie on, some YouTube, or Netflix. Whatever.
Continue to work the wax in. If you find it is becoming a little tacky or sticky, add a very small amount of water and continue. It should be gliding smoothly.
As you work the polish, it should start to go from hazy, murky, and tacky, to smooth and uniform. This is the base layer being built up. Once you get to this stage, you want to add extremely small amounts of water and polish at a time moving forward. Adding too much can gunk things up. Less is more here.
To get to this point might be 5-10+ minutes of consistent circular polishing. If you're new to doing this, it might be longer still.
Don't be dissuaded. Yes, there is skill involved. Yes, it will take time.
If you find you are having a difficult time to get a smooth and consistent finish, take a break.
Waiting 5-10 minutes can allow the wax to harden up a bit and for some of the excess water to evaporate. This will make it easier to get going again.
The wax and/or the leather can become over-saturated if you use too much water, too much wax, or too much pressure. (Or some combination thereof). Let the leather rest.
I find if I'm having trouble with one of the toes, move onto the other shoe. Theoretically you have 4 spots to wax on your leather boots, the toe cap and heel of each boot. When one spot is giving you trouble, move onto another and put that one into the back of the line.
Again, use your cloth to work small circles of polish around and around the shoe. Avoid the vamp and the sides to avoiding the cracking we mentioned earlier.
As time goes on you should start to see your finish build and build. As your finish is building, you want to be adding less and less. Less pressure from your hand, less water, and less wax.
Up close photo to show the texture. See how nice and smooth the heel is on the left? This is after it has been mostly polished. To the right of the stitching you can see the texture of the leather. If you look closely just to the left of the stitches you can see the depth of the layer(s) of wax that have been built up. The smooth, glazed, mirror you see on the left is what you're after. This comes with some patience and lots of wax.
After your base coat is solid, you're essentially adding layers of wax on top of wax. Proceed gently.
Less is more. It is better to have thinner and thinner layers of wax building up. Thicker coats are harder to apply, easier to screw up, and don't shine as much. There is no benefit to adding heavy layers after your base coat.
This is the part of the process that takes the most finesse. There part where practice will continue to improve your speed and outcomes. Understanding what “a small amount” of water means at every stage. Ditto for wax.
Advice to beginners: it's less than you think. At the end of the process I am often simply tapping my cloth into the wax tin to get the right amount. Water additions can be measured in drops.
That is the process. Repeat this process, over and over, until you get the shine you're looking for. It might take 2-3 coats, it might take 10+.
One last trick when you are nearing the end of shining is using your breath.
Adding a drop of water can even be too much at the final stages. If you're at the very end, try using your breath. It has a bit of moisture and it is also warm.
Exhale slowly, going "haaaaa." Like you're trying to fog a mirror. Sometimes that can be enough moisture to bring the shine together.
4. Finish and maintain
The last bit is to maintain your polish as well as you can. Don't baby your boots, you've got to wear them. That said, don't go out of your way to mess them up either.
Adding a few extra layers onto a mostly finished pair of boots is much easier than starting from scratch. Having that base layer works wonders. It might cut your total time in half. Or more.
When wiping down and cleaning up a pair of boots that already has a mirror shine / parade finish, be gentle. Use a very soft cloth. Our polishing mitt is a nice choice. Or a clean and dry microfibre cloth.
Up close visual of the super soft polishing mitt.
You should only be giving your boots a full clean when you need to. Avoid doing so unnecessarily. Avoid using any cleaner (even the Cleanser mentioned above) on the mirror shine if you don't have to. Always try using a cloth first to see if that will do the job.
You now have all the information you need to give your own boots the mirror shine / parade shine that they need.