How to Care for Your Shoes – The Basics

Last week I was speaking with a friend and we got onto the topic of shoes. He mentioned that he had recently purchased two new pairs and asked if I had any advice on how to look after them. When I asked what he does to look after his current shoes, I was surprised at how little he did (or knew to do) and that I hadn’t realised how much I’ve learned over the years and now take for granted as normal shoe care.

Thinking about it over the last few days, I realised that no more than a few years ago I knew very little about looking after shoes (admittedly, my shoes were poorly made generic high street brands, back then), wearing the same pair every day and simply putting them back in the wardrobe after arriving home from work.

Below is a list of the key things I do for my shoes to ensure they remain in very good condition for a long period of time. Now having bespoke shoes made, longevity has become very much a priority when spending upwards of 3,000GBP on each pair. Whilst this isn’t a guide on how to identify and purchase quality shoes, nor a step by step process on detailed conditioning (I’ll write separate articles on both topics, later) it will make sure your shoes remain looking good for years to come.

My bespoke GJ Cleverley double monks

My bespoke GJ Cleverley double monks

Habits: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle.

To preface everything below, making the simple acts outlined here, into habits, is the most important thing to be aware of. Like brushing your teeth, once it becomes a habit you do it automatically and it becomes an unconscious part of your routine. It takes a small amount of discipline up front, but eventually becomes automatic.

Use a shoe horn:

Without doubt one of the fastest way to destroy shoes is to not use a shoe horn. Cramming a foot into your shoe will crush the stiff leather of the heel cup. Once that leather has been damaged, it’s damaged for good. It will also damage the thread which holds the heel cup together. The simple use of a shoe horn will ensure your feet slide easily in to your shoes  and the heel cup remains strong and intact throughout the shoes life.

Shoe horns from Abbeyhorn (made from horn) are high quality, beautiful and will last a lifetime.

Shoe horns from Abbeyhorn (made from horn) are high quality, beautiful and will last a lifetime.

Invest in quality wooden shoe trees:

The most important single thing you can do to ensure your shoes last and remain looking their best is to invest in quality wooden shoe trees. Over the course of a day, your shoes are subject to a lot of stress in addition to accumulating moisture from your feet. Shoes left to their own devices at the end of the day will be prone to creasing and cracking very quickly if wooden shoe trees aren’t used. The trees will immediately put the shoes back to their original shape and remove creases that have crept in during the day. In addition to re-setting the shoes shape, they will draw all of the excess moisture out of the leather, significantly aiding in the shoes recovery. Cedar trees are best due to their moisture wicking properties and fresh scent which they will leave behind when removed.

Final 3

The ideal shoe trees are those which are specifically lasted (moulded) for the shoe in which they sit. This is much more likely to occur with higher quality makers who won’t want to let their shoes be sold without matching trees. If your budget doesn’t extend to shoes with lasted trees, that’s no need to worry. Simply searching eBay for “cedar shoe trees” will bring up thousands of options for around $24USD and this is what I did until my budget increased to high end and bespoke makers with lasted trees. Lighter, hollowed out trees are better, as they weigh a fraction of more solid trees and won’t add much weight to your suitcase when travelling, allowing you to avoid resorting to temporary plastic substitutes, which won’t do anything for removing moisture.

Aim for unvarnished trees which have only been sanded smooth, with no final coating to seal them. The varnish will reduce the ability of the trees to absorb moisture. Finally, allow half an hour after a days wear for the shoes to rest, so that any excess moisture can evaporate, before inserting your trees.

Never wear shoes two days in a row:

As a minimum, you need at least two pairs of quality shoes which you can wear on rotation, throughout the week. Shoes need at least a day to rest, in between wears, to settle and for moisture to evaporate and be absorbed by shoe trees. Wearing them on back to back days gives them no chance to rest and will significantly reduce their lifespan.

Brush After Wear:

As soon as you take off your shoes, get a shoe brush and give them a quick once over, getting the brush into the welt (where the upper meets the sole) to remove any dirt and contaminants which have accumulated during the day. Brushing the whole shoe will also remove any superficial scuffs and renew the shine. You can then buff with a fine cloth to remove any fingerprints or brush marks. At a daily level, it only takes a few seconds, but it means the shoes will less frequently need to be given a complete strip down and re-build of the surface. How often you’ll have to strip down your shoes and re-build the surface is dependent on the quality of the leather and the frequency with which they’re worn. If you’re rotating between two pairs, you’ll want to do this every couple of months. As you build your collection, an annual renewal may be all that’s required.

Renewing the leather:

As my friend, shoemaker and fount of shoe knowledge, Justin Fitzpatrick (theshoesnob.com) stated succinctly, “Leather is a skin which no longer has a body taking care of it, so it needs treatment in order to remain healthy”.

A mistake which many men make is in assuming that waxing and polishing your shoes is protecting them. It isn’t. At best, wax provides a final barrier between the leather and the outside world which does help to avoid contaminants penetrating the leather and also helps (to a small degree) in keeping very light rain from being absorbed. However it is the equivalent of thinking that waxing your car is the same as servicing the engine. Leather, like an engine, needs care and occasional renewal with quality oils and lubricants to ensure it continues performing for the years to come.

Final 2

There are several key steps involved in bringing leather back to (and in many cases, improving) its original condition. I’ll keep a detailed “how-to” for a future article, but the essential steps are below.

  • Removal of all surface products to return the leather to its purest form (recommended: Saphir – Renomat). Using Renomat with a soft cloth will strip all waxes and contaminants from the shoes surface, allowing you to begin again.
  • Nourishing the leather:  Dubbin is used (sparingly) to hydrate and nourish the leather. It’s highly penetrating and will work right into the leather, also helping to improve the shoes resistance to water. Mink Oil is, well, exactly that. Incredibly nourishing and no man made product is yet to better it. If you have to choose between Dubbin or Mink Oil, choose Mink Oil. (Recommended: Saphir Dubbin and Saphir Mink Oil Renovateur)
  • Restoring the leather: Both Dubbin and Mink Oil will restore the leather, but a shoe creme will help to restore a vibrant colour as its pigments will both penetrate and protect the surface, renewing the colour and vibrancy of the surface whilst adding a soft shine (recommended: Saphir Creme Polish).
  • Protection and Shine: The final step is where a true wax is involved (again, I’d recommend Saphir – Pate De Luxe wax). This will form your barrier and add true shine. By this point your shoes will often look better than new.

Saphir is widely regarded as the gold standard in shoe care and it’s all I use anymore. If you’re on a more restricted budget then more generic brands will offer similar products and it’s better to use those than letting your shoes disintegrate. Borrowing, again, from the car analogy, it’s much better to use basic oils and lubricants, than none at all.

Final 4

Suede:

Not as delicate as many think, good quality suede can take a beating, including a bit of rain. Just make sure to brush suede shoes down at the end of each wear with a suede brush (containing fine brass fibres in the centre) to reset the pile. Saphir suede renovatuer every once in a while will also help to recolour the surface and provide protection from any moisture which happens to find the shoe, such as light rain.

“Sometimes when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things, I am tempted to think there are no little things.” Bruce Barton.

Andrew is an Australian born writer, covering the world's leading bespoke tailors and craftspeople in menswear, with a focus on authentic quality, over branding. He spends most of his days running his successful (god knows how) consulting company and travels frequently to Europe for work and writing. He's a passionate cyclist, former trainee professional golfer and lover of all things Cocker Spaniel. He's married to his best friend and significantly better half, Mehri.

6 Comments

  • Reply June 11, 2015

    Allen

    Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for the informative and enjoyable article. Just wondering how often do you clean your shoes with Saphir Renomat ?

    Cheers,

    Allen

    • Reply June 12, 2015

      Andrew Doyle

      Hi Allen,

      These days, around once per pair each year, give or take. And occasional touch ups to a shine if the mirror is becoming less clear.
      I have quite a decent collection now, so it’s rare that I’d wear the same pair twice in one week and some pairs only come out every couple of weeks.
      I also wear Swims or boots in the rain, so my shoes tend not to see too much hardship.

  • Reply June 12, 2015

    JohnC

    Hi Andrew,

    Since our favourite Melbourne shoe store opened I have slowly built up a collection with the aim to be able to wear my shoes once per week at most.

    “Perhaps the greatest value…….”

    I just wanted to comment on what you alluded to in regards to the “mindful” nature of making shoe care a habit. I remember when I used to buy much cheaper, I used to feel like it was such a chore to get the Kiwi polish out and give them a buff. Now I’ve collected a range of Saphir products and a shine box and I don’t mind at all relaxing in front of the TV or listening to music whilst moisturising and polishing shoes.

    It is such a difficult thing to explain to people – most think I sound nuts! But then, many haven’t invested as much in their shoes. There is a real sense of satisfaction when you’re all done.

    Thanks as always for the articles.

    John

    • Reply June 15, 2015

      Andrew Doyle

      Hi John,

      Part of my experience in high quality menswear (and life, in general) is best summed up by the Thomas Paine quote “That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly”. More costly, better made items make us really reflect on the things we buy, take the time to make a good decision, before finally making a choice. It gives a real sense of ownership and respect for the end product, which we’re happy to then care for.
      It’s also quality fire gazing time while we sort out the worlds problems in the back of our minds.

  • Reply November 25, 2015

    Kevin

    Hi is there any more shoe care articles in the near future pipeline? 🙂

    • Reply November 25, 2015

      Andrew Doyle

      Hi Kevin,

      I’m planning a video on achieving a mirror polish.
      Is there anything specifically you’d like to see covered or explained?

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