Updated: Jan 30
One of our specialties here at Medford Shoe Repair is leather restoration and repair, but too often do we encounter wear and tear that could have been avoided with some simple at-home care. While leather is a stylish, reliable, and durable natural material, it still requires a certain level of maintenance to ensure its longevity and maintain a sophisticated look.
Luckily, extending the life of your favorite pair of leather boots or dress shoes by years is as simple as investing in some leather care tools, and giving them a once a month tune-up. It always breaks our hearts to have to tell a customer that their wallets would be better off by replacing their favorite pair of leather shoes; so get those Oxfords unlaced, and give them some love!
The first step in leather shoe care is to remove the laces and clean them separately if needed, as they can be damaged by the products used on the rest of the shoe and require special care. If your laces are worn past repair, it may be best to replace them. However, leather laces do not absorb dirt to the same extent that synthetic laces do, so most often they just require a little TLC to keep them looking new.
After unlacing, scrub off as much dirt as you can with a dry toothbrush. If this step doesn’t freshen up your laces, dilute a cap of a gentle detergent, such as Woolite, in a warm bowl of water but do not submerge the laces. Instead, dip a cloth or toothbrush into the solution, and gently brush it onto the areas where dirt remains. When finished, use a fresh cloth to wipe off the soapy water and lay the laces onto a dry towel or cloth to air dry.
Once completely dry, use a cloth and olive oil to recondition, rubbing the oil along the length of your laces. Wipe off any excess oil that was not absorbed, allow the laces to dry for several hours, and, voila! They are ready to be laced back up into your shoes!
Once your laces are removed, the first and most important step of leather maintenance is cleaning. Begin dry, and with a soft brush remove any dirt and dust you can from the surface. If you’re dealing with salt or water stains, mix one part white vinegar with two parts water and wipe the affected areas with a cloth until the stains disappear and let air dry. Following this step, cleaning processes differ for different types of leather, so we’ll break it down into 3 common types, finished, unfinished, and suede.
For finished leather, use a damp cloth and mild soap to gently clean the surface of the shoe. Be sure to avoid using sponges, as they can contain chemicals which damage leather if they seep out.
If you’re working with any unfinished leather, use a damp cloth and saddle soap, and gently create a lather. Softly rub the lather into the shoes, and rub off any excess. Saddle soap contains wax with sealing properties, so be sure to let your shoes air dry for several hours to ensure your unfinished leather is protected.
If you own a pair of suede leather shoes, you know how susceptible they are to dirt and dust. These stains require special suede cleaner, and a soft suede brush which allow for gentle cleaning without damaging the structure of the leather. For more persistent dirt markings, keep a pot of water at a rolling boil, and gently rub with a suede brush over the steam. Use an absorbent cloth to wipe down the shoe before allowing it to air dry.
Conditioning & Polishing Finished Leather
For finished leather, conditioning keeps your shoes looking fresh by moisturizing them and preventing cracks, as well as helping to protect them from the elements. Your shoes will tell you when they need a good conditioning when the leather starts to look ashy and dry.
Ensure your shoes have thoroughly and fully air-dried before applying a conditioner. You can always buy a commercial leather conditioner, but to avoid harsh chemicals you can also make your own by mixing 1 part vinegar to 2 parts linseed oil. With a fresh cloth, gently rub the conditioner all over the leather, and allow to sit for about 15-20 minutes; remember, a little goes a long way, so don’t overdo it on the conditioner! Lastly, gently buff the uppers with another clean cloth or a horsehair shine brush.
Now that they’ve been conditioned and dried, it’s time to polish! Make sure you use a different brush for every pair of shoes, as using the same one with different colored polishes can stain your shoes. If using a neutral shoe cream, simply work it into the leather with your fingers and let it sit for a few minutes before using a horsehair shine brush to polish and remove the excess.
For a higher shine, opt for a good quality wax polish or paste that matches the shoe color. Avoiding unsuitable liquid polish applicators, which can damage high quality leather or create a hard-to-remove lacquer coating, work the polish into every crevice with a horsehair shine brush. Let it dry for approximately 15 seconds, and buff off the excess with your brush.
Whichever type of leather you’re working with (especially suede), applying a spray or resin protectant every 3 to 6 months is the final step to seal in your hard work from water and other elements. Ensure that the protectant you choose is specific to the type of leather your shoes are made from, using suede protectant for suede, etc., as using unsuitable protectants can damage certain leathers. Remember your shoes only need a thin coat, so just give them a quick spray or brush over and allow them to dry once again. If your unprotected shoes already have water stains, however, a good way to even out the color is to mist the entire shoe with more water to blend in the stain/s before applying your protectant.
Last but not least, the way you store your leather shoes also plays a large role in how long they last and how quality they look. It’s best to invest in shoe trees for storage to maintain your shoes’ shape. High quality cedar shoe trees are preferable as they have a fresh fragrance and antibacterial properties that will also absorb moisture and prevent creasing in the toe or tip of your shoes. An alternative to shoe trees is simply stuffing your shoes with newspaper before storing them; especially if they’re wet, in which case you’ll want to stuff them and allow them to air dry overnight. Another cheap storage hack is to simply store your leather shoes in shoe bags, which help shade leather from damaging and drying sunlight, dust, and dirt — the only exception being suede shoes, which should still be stored away from sunlight, but in open air.
Cedar shoe trees. Source: https://www.acemarks.com/belts-and-accessories/shoe-care/lasted-cedar-wood-shoe-trees
Now that you’ve done your part, here’s where we come in! While we can give our leather shoes the utmost at-home care, there are some unavoidable damages and wear-and-tear that may bring you into the shop. Soles, for one, get worn from use regardless of how you care for your shoes, and can break down the structure of your shoe if not repaired or replaced (not to mention wearing shoes with worn soles can be physically injurious). When you can feel things as you walk through your sole, the edge of the heel has rounded over, or your leather has other damages such as tears, come to see us!