Since ancient times humans have constructed footwear out of leather, and it is still doing a great job. Cowhide, Horsehide, kangaroo, crocodile/alligator, and ostrich: all have been used in footwear. Leather is tough, enduring, readily available, and just looks manly. If you don’t have a pair of leather shoes or boots for either work or casual wear, then here is a hint; you aren’t dressing appropriate. Okay, that’s an overstatement, but what everyone should be able to agree on is that for leather to last a long time you have to treat it well. This article is the first in a two-part series on shoe care focused on cleaning/polishing your leather footwear. Next will be an article on waterproofing and conditioning, but as my boots didn’t really need either of those (which is one step) I’ll hold off until they do.
Step one, get some quality leather. My Wolverine 1000 Mile boots are made of Horween Chromexcel leather. Horween is one of the few tanneries left in the United States. If you haven’t heard of them don’t feel bad as most people haven’t. That being said…they are a big deal. You know those really cool Wilson footballs the NFL uses? The leather in those footballs is a version of Horween’s Chromexcel leather, and no, it isn’t made from pig skin. You don’t have to spend the kind of cash a pair of Wolverines will set you back, but be aware that any quality leather will probably cost over $100. Spending your hard earned money on a pair of good boots isn’t a terrible idea though, because I’m going to show you how to make them last a long time.
Step two, get the leather dirty. This will happen with day to day wear. In my case I went fishing today, and my boot got a bit dusty. When you are ready to clean up your boots gather up your supplies; for me this includes: a rag, tooth brush, saddle soap, cotton balls, and polish.
To begin, I run the boots under the sink to get off the free dirt and wet the leather. I then rub in saddle soap by hand over all parts of the boots. Not only will saddle soap clean the leather, but it also helps to nourish and condition it as well. My boots are made with a Goodyear Welt which means there is a crevice around the mid/outsole of the boot. The normally white cord that connects the midsole to the outsole gets dirty and dingy. To brighten the cord back up I wet the toothbrush (soft bristle variety) and apply some saddle soap to the bristles. I gently scrub the welt around the entirely of the boot. I will also scrub any seams and cordage on the shoes. Don’t forget your soles. My boots have a Vibram half-sold and heel, with only a small leather patch between the heel and toe section. Scrub any leather portions of your sole. To speed up the removal of soap I run the boots under the tap while scrubbing with the brush to remove larger chunks of soap. A wet rag will remove any remaining saddle soap. Allow the boots to dry.
Now we have a clean, dry, and slightly scuffed pair of boots. Some people prefer the scuffed/weathered look, but I like a bit of polish. Some say it can be difficult to polish Horween Chromexcel because it is an oil stuffed leather, but I find it takes a polish fairly well.
My method involves application of the polish with a wet substrate; I use cotton balls. Wet the cotton ball and squeeze out the excess water. Rub the wet cotton ball in a polish of your choosing and then apply to the leather with small circles. Once I have the color in the places I want it I polish the leather with a wet cotton ball devoid of polish. This should really bring out the shine. Dry/buff with a cloth and you are done with the top of the boot. Because the leather patch on the underside of the boot takes such a beating I apply a bit of Obenauf’s LP to condition it. We’ll discuss Obenauf’s further when I discuss conditioning and waterproofing.
If you are wearing your boots on a daily basis don’t expect the polish to last more than a week, but you shouldn’t have to go through entire process. When I need to freshen up my boots I will clean with a horsehair brush and wipe with a damp cloth. When clean apply the polish as described above and enjoy another week of polish.