I recently bought a pair of vintage L.L. Bean boots in a thrift store.
They are totally beat up and have dirt and what looks like oil spatters on the sides, but the leather is still good, and the vibram soles seem barely worn down. They are without a doubt my luckiest thrift shop find ever (I never seem to have much luck in thrift stores), and I knew that with a little love they could be gorgeous shoes. So I commenced putting them through my father's shoe care regimen.
My dad used to work in a shoe shop. Ever since I can remember, new shoe shopping meant my dad down on one knee, expertly checking the fit of the sneakers on my feet. My first pair of leather shoes was expensive even on sale, and I wanted them to last forever. So when my father saw them on Christmas break, he offered to oil them for me. I was absolutely blown away.
My dad's shoe care is pretty standard: cleaning, conditioning, and weatherproofing. He swears by it, and now so do I. I use it on all my leather footwear twice a year — once in the fall to prepare them for the winter, and once in the spring to clean them after the snow and salt has stripped the previous layer.
You will need:
- Saddle soap, or other leather cleaner (I use Kiwi saddle soap)
- Leather milk, or other leather conditioner/moisturizer (I use Chamberlain's Leather Milk No. 1)
- Mink oil, or other weatherproofer/polish (I use Kiwi mink oil)
- Several rags
- Shoe brush (optional here but recommended; necessary if polishing. I use Kiwi Shoe Brush)
There are lots of other options available — Chamberlain's has a full line of leather products for cleaning and weatherproofing. I've also heard good things about Leather Honey, and many shoe places, such as Frye or Red Wing, will have their own products that they recommend for their footwear. Bear in mind that the following process is for smooth leather, and shouldn't be used on suede or nubuck. This also doesn't cover polishing shoes, which is similar up until the weatherproofing step.
Step 1: Clean
Start off by removing the shoelaces, and then taking off any excess dirt or dust from your shoes with a damp cloth/shoebrush and a toothbrush if it's caked on there. Then take a different section of the same damp cloth and rub it on the surface of the saddle soap to develop a lather. Apply this lather onto your shoes in a circular motion, making sure to get into all the wrinkles, edges, and stitching, and all along the tongue. Grab more saddle soap as needed. When finished, wipe off the excess with a clean cloth. Let your shoes dry for an hour or two before proceeding.
Step 2: Condition
Next you're going to condition the leather. This is basically like a moisturizer — it keeps the leather supple and smooth. Keep in mind that this conditioner usually darkens the leather, so if you're super attached to your light colored shoes these may not be the products for you. If you get chamberlains leather milk, it comes with a pad for application. Otherwise another rag will work just fine. Rub the moisturizer into the leather (I usually use a circular motion again) and wipe off the excess right away. Make sure you really get it down into the stitching and edges!
If you want, you can stop after this step. The conditioner contains some weatherproofing elements, so if you're in love with the color and couldn't stand to see it darkened any more, your shoes will still be somewhat protected from the elements. If not, I really recommend weatherproofing. It gives me peace of mind, which is something we all want, right?
Step 3: Weatherproof
If you decide to forge ahead, wait several hours or overnight to let the conditioner soak into the leather. When you're ready, take a new rag (I like to keep my mink oil and saddle soap rags separate) and pick up some mink oil on the surface. I use a circular motion to work the mink oil into my shoes. Make sure to really get into the edges and the stitches — those are the places water can most easily penetrate the shoes. My dad showed me how to use a hairdryer, held a reasonable distance away, to melt the mink oil into the stitches on the bottom edge of my boots. This does work very well, but I would be wary of applying too much heat, as heat is bad for leather and dries it out. I probably went a little overzealous on these — you can see because the leather is extra dark post mink oil around the bottom. Heating the mink oil is something best done sparingly and carefully, I think.
After you're finished applying the mink oil, wipe off any excess (especially if you heated it) and wait a few hours to overnight before wearing just to let it set. I usually try to let them sit overnight. Then buff them with a cloth if you want a slight shine!
Step 4: New Laces
The very final touch that I use to renew a pair of shoes is new laces. I get mine from Benjo's, a small company in Minneapolis, and have never been disappointed!
Now you know how to clean and protect leather from the elements! I've been very pleased with this regimen over the years. Shoe care products and fun shoelaces also make great small holiday gifts if you're still looking!