31 October 2012

Reader Questions : Shoe Shines

Reader Jonathan writes:

I am a novice when it comes to proper shoe care. I recently attended an outdoor wedding which required a hike down a gravel road. Needless to say, my shoes are now a dusty mess. I would like to begin taking care of my shoes properly, which means learning how to polish them. I am not sure where to begin to find the right supplies. What are the essential elements for a starter shoe care kit? The Hanger Project would have me believe that $195 is what I need to get started. I am not about to spend that much on shoe care. What can you recommend?

Thank you, Jonathan. The best questions are often the simplest ones. The short answer here is that anything for sale on The Hanger Project is all well and good for men who are extravagant enough to spend as much on small items as many people spend on rent or feeding a family, but any sensible person, regardless of income, can and should be able to have the same things at a fraction of the cost. We've discussed this here before on the topic of wooden hangers. As always, my advice is that your money, however limited, is better spent on the clothing itself than on the periphery care items that come in tow.

Vitriol aside, I applaud your conviction that good shoes are something worthy of proper care. The very fact that you even want to know how to polish shoes puts you ahead of so many these days. But allow me to say that my vitriol is far from misplaced. Simply put, all the shoe care items any normal man, even a clotheshorse, is likely to need can be readily had at your nearby Rite-Aid, CVS, Duane Read, Walgreen's or supermarket. Should you be lucky enough to still live in a town where a cobbler plies his trade, so much the better. If you do, ask him what he thinks of paying $195 for shoe polish, rags, and brushes. He'll either laugh outright  or get in touch with Mr. Allison himself for a quick tutorial on how to spot a sucker.

The first step in basic shoe care is cleaning excess dirt off the leather. There are many expensive cloths and salves that accomplish this, but I prefer an old t-shirt cut in squares, wetted in the sink with warm water and wrung out. Cost: $0.00. For really grimy shoes, try an old toothbrush.

Next, apply polish with a dauber. Mine are Kiwi, one for black polish and one for brown, purchased ages ago for less than $5.00 each. Then, rub of excess polish while working it into the leather. Again, old t-shirts work just fine.

Now comes the buffing. You'll need a proper wide, soft bristled brush for this. Mine not only came from CVS for about $6.00, but has lasted 15 years. As for the polish itself, Meltonian, an SC Johnson company, makes a fine cream polish that sells for about $3.50, while Kiwi is my go to choice for wax, about $5.00.

Sure, there are fancier products, but as I said before, your money is better spent on the shoes than the polish. I've been polishing shoes my whole life with the products I mentioned, and I find the results to be great, so long as you know how to shine the shoes. For more on that, the internet has no end of instructional videos. I reiterate: this stuff is widely available in nearly every pharmacy, hotel, airport, corner store, supermarket and cobbler shop in the country. If rich men feel the need to further aggrandize themselves by spending more on shoe polish than most of us do on food, so be it. It's gratifying to know that they are just as gullible, and often more so, than us regular folk.

Hope that helps.


Old School said...

Re: "As for the polish itself, Meltonian, an SC Johnson company, makes a fine cream polish that sells for about $3.50, while Kiwi is my go to choice for wax, about $5.00."

My experience has been that using both produces the best results: first apply the cream polish and buff, then apply the wax and buff.

Anonymous said...

Here's what bugs me: must you use a different polishing rag every time? Obviously there's a finite supply of old t-shirts, and costs creep in there.

Relatedly, how often should one polish?

Unknown said...

Great question and thank you for answering! I was thinking the same thing as I was reading the exact same thing on Hangar Project last night. WOW.

Main Line Sportsman said...

The best shine is done professionally at a shoe shine stand...well worth the 6 or 7 bucks you pay(including tip) to get a superior shine.

Old School said...

@Main Line Sportsman:

Why would anyone want to deprive himself of the pleasure of shining his own shoes?
As bad as depriving oneself of the aesthetic pleasure of ironing one's own shirts.

Young Fogey said...

Well said, G.

My only comments are these:

1. Rather than Kiwi, I use Lincoln shoe polish. Lincoln is an American company that makes its products in America, and, more importantly, produce a better shine than Kiwi.

2. I received some Saphir polish (like they sell at the Hangar Project) as a gift. It really is better than anything else. I'm glad I didn't pay for it, though.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info Giuseppe! I easily find myself getting carried away looking at many fancy products online, when I should be spending money on the items rather than accessories. Thanks for bringing me back down to earth :)

Pigtown*Design said...

One of my enduring childhood memories is of my father polishing his shoes before he and my mum went out on a Saturday night. Through watching him, I learned to polish my own shoes. We had to wear brown oxfords to school with our uniforms for years, so learning to put a good shine on them helped.

I now have a pair of paddock boots I bought in London in 2005 and give them a nice polish every few weeks during the winter months when I wear them. It makes all of the difference in the world.

Anonymous said...

This answers my question perfectly. Thank you!


Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for this post. I'd like to ask one follow-up question. Once you've applied a coat of wax and polished, is it necessary to strip off the old coat or can you simply keep adding one coat on to the next.
Much appreciated.

Philly Trad said...

Liked the "still-life" photo!

Lazy Dude said...

So you need that buffing stage with the brush? Rubbing the polished shoe down with a t-shirt won't do?

Michael said...

Love the blog. Regarding polishing shoes, I started following this approach after watching the video. It works. http://the-shoe-snob.blogspot.com/2011/06/how-to-polish-your-shoes-properly.html

Anonymous said...

T-shirts ARE disposable, at least around here. I get mine from Salvation Army for 25 cents each on the last day before that tag color gets bundled up and shipped to Africa. When I ship shoes (I sell a few online) I wrap them in a t-shirt for protection--it's cheap insurance against scuffs that can result from being rubbed against cardboard when the package is tossed around en route.

I'm not sure that I agree with G. that everything you need to keep shoes looking sharp can be acquired from the corner drugstore The second-to-last cobbler in the town where I live closed recently, and I snagged several colors of cream polish from the five dozen or so that he had--red, green, blue, white and a bazillion shades of brown. Walgreens, at least where I live, carries only brown or black Kiwi, so I'm SOL when it comes to my spectators. I also feel better matching brown polishes as closely as possible to the tone of the shoe. My walnut Allen Edmonds shoes in walnut, after all, are a considerably different shade than my Park Avenues in merlot.

That said, G's gist is dead on. The best example, I think, is shoes made of shell cordovan leather (that means horse hide). Shell costs way, way more than calfskin, and the absolute best way to keep it looking spiffy and make it last is to use no polish whatsoever. Rather, you wipe with a damp t-shirt, then brush vigorously with tried-and-true horsehair, then buff out with a t-shirt. And that's it. If you do anything else, the shoes won't look nearly as nice, no matter how much you spend.

Anonymous said...

I still think cordovans need some polish every 10-15 wears. Surely the leather will crack if you never apply any wax?


Anonymous said...

"It's gratifying to know that they [the rich] are just as gullible, and often more so, than us regular folk."

This has got to be the truest thing ever said on this blog. I am often amazed at what the rich will pay for mundane things, just because it's been enriched with Inner Mongolian yak butter or some such thing.

Cobre said...

I'd wager that most people who buy a $195 kit probably use it once and then it never leaves the closet.

Happy to pay $20 for a pot of Saphir Renovateur myself. Between a couple of retired undershirts, a horse hair brush and the Reno, I get beautiful results. It comes down to cost per use. I polish and condition once a week (have about 50 shoes and boots in the dress rotation). It barely takes any Renovateur to condition the hides and that stretches my nicer polishes and waxes. Probably clean/condition/polish each shoe about five or six times during the year -- whether they're getting worn much or not. And I barely make it through a single jar of Reno in a year. This all adds up to about 60-70 hours a year of shoe care usually accomplished while watching a ball game... so for me to drop $50/yr on product for something I really enjoy doing is cheap.

Like anything else, 80% is just showing up. If you keep your gear clean, especially in the welt and the edges, you're ahead of pack with the old shirt and a toothbrush. My dad taught me to use a cloth to polish instead of a dauber. He liked the feel. His trick was to use some Saran Wrap or a plastic grocery bag corner to keep the polish pigment from coming through. Now that's cheap!

Tom said...

If any reader finds themselves in Switzerland, find an army surplus store. I bought a shoe shine kit there for $5. Brushes, repair items, polishes, waterproofing, all in a perfectly fitted green vinyl roll. I had most of the stuff anyway, but this kit is mil spec quality, and takes no space. My son loves to unwrap it and shine his school shoes!

BlueTrain said...

The best way to learn how to get a good shine on your boots--I mean shoes--is to spend a couple of years in the army. The British army gives the best instructions along those lines. But using copious shoe polish and a blowtorch is not necessary for your everyday shoes. Save that for your jackboots.

I'm one of those who is happy with products available at local stores. Kiwi is perfectly fine but whatever happened to Esquire, if I remember the name correctly? Anyway, one trick is to avoid getting your shoes muddy but you can't avoid dust. Polish as often as necessary but at least once a week. In between, a buffing with soft "cotton waste" should be sufficient.

Use shoe trees, too, and they don't have to be wooden. But let the shoes air out for a while before using anything that isn't wood. They help keep the shape of the shoes and give a better surface when you're shining your shoes.

It's hard to say how much polish to use. Older shoes will probably require a little more. Use a brush (old soft toothbrush) along the soles and the seams and a cloth for the rest of the shoe. Buff with a good brush. Follow that with a light spray of water and buff again with a soft cloth. If you feel the need to do more than that, by all means go ahead. Your standards are higher than mine (and no doubt your shoes are shinier).