Knowing how to polish shoes is more important than you might think. Each pair of shoes that you own might need different shoe polish types or have hard-to-reach areas that can only be polished with certain techniques. On top of that, not all materials can even be polished directly with a cloth.
Here is a quick breakdown on polishing for a shoe lover who’s never tried it before.
Getting Your Polishing Tools
Even the most basic shoe-polishing techniques need a little bit of preparation, so you will want to gather the items that you will need later on. This can vary based on the kind of shoe that you are dealing with, but you will often be fine if you have:
- Some shoe polish that matches the shade of your shoes.
- A cloth to polish shoes with. An old shirt can work if you prefer.
- A clean shoe cloth, separate from the other one.
- A horsehair shoe brush (or a similar brush).
- A shoe welt brush (mostly for clearing small areas, and not always necessary).
- Water, to finish the polished shoes.
The Shoe Polishing Process
If you are ready to make your shoe shine, then here is where you will start. Be sure that you read any instructions on the shoe polish you are using since there might be certain ways it has to be used or stored.
Step 1 – Remove the Laces
If you take the laces out of a pair of shoes before you polish them, the polish won’t get on the laces. This keeps them fresh and prevents any unexpected damage or fraying.
Step 2 – Pad Your Shoes
Next, fill up your shoes with padding. You want to make your shoes look full by giving them enough of a filling to retain their shape while you polish them. Shoe trees are a good option, but you could also use a large rag, balled-up newspaper, or even part of an old t-shirt. Try to get a solid shoe form.
Step 3 – Clear Away Dirt
Step 3 is simple: use your brushes to get rid of any dirt across the boots. They should be completely clean before you start to polish since applying any amount of polish while there is still dirt can ruin the finish on the surface.
Your horsehair brush should be able to clear out most solid dirt quickly, but you can use a smaller welt bush in awkward spaces. Just remember that the welt brush might not be as effective in terms of the brush hairs, which means that you will want to swap back from the welt brush to the normal one if you are dealing with certain types of leather.
Step 4 – Start Polishing Your Shoes
The way that you polish depends on the type of shoe polish you use, but the general idea is the same. Make sure that the surface you will be polishing is clear, and then start adding the shoe polish, bit by bit. Don’t use your horsehair brush for this since it could cause mild damage to the materials or break up the polish coverage.
Apply polish in small circular motions with your preferred cloth, making sure to follow any tips on the packaging. Spread it evenly across the surface and try to cover as much polish-friendly material as possible: if you leave obvious gaps, the finish will be uneven and look off.
Step 5 – Begin Buffing Your Shoes
Once the polish is evenly spread across your shoe, you need to buff it. Get your horsehair brush and use quick back-and-forth motions to buff the material until it starts to shine. Buffing can take a while to get results, so don’t hesitate to swap back to a small circular pattern if you don’t see any change.
Step 6 – Try Shining Your Shoes
If you want a proper shoe shine, then shining your shoe is usually the best way to do it. However, there are a couple of different shining methods that can work.
You don’t actually have to spit if you want to spit-shine. Spray some water onto the shoes after the initial layer of polish, then work it into the leather shoes. After that, dip your cloth in warm water and apply a second layer of polish.
This results in a hard shine, like the type expected on military boots. However, it obviously takes more time since you have to do two layers.
Fire-shining can be dangerous, but if you get it right, it can create some interesting results. You have to meet your polish with fire (don’t actually burn it – instead, heat up the tin or container) until it melts, then apply it to the shoes like spit-shining in multiple layers.
Also, make sure the lighter or heat source is constantly moving relative to the tin of polish, just to get the melting process as even as you can.
After doing multiple layers, you can risk using a lighter to melt the polish that’s already on your leather shoes, giving it a wet look. Once you’re satisfied, carrying on as you normally would.
Step 7 – Wipe The Shoes
Once you’ve tried to buff out the polish, use your clean cloth or rag (not the rag that you used to polish with) to wipe off any excess polish. Make sure that you do this across every area that you tried to apply polish to, especially in small corners or indents where excess polish could go unnoticed for days.
Step 8 – Air Out Your Shoes
After polishing and buffing your shoes, you should leave them to dry. Most standard leather shoes will only take about 20 minutes, but you should check your polish for tips or instructions just in case. Don’t put your laces back in until it all dries.
Which Shoe Polish Should I Use?
Wax polish and cream polish are inherently different, even if they do similar things. The one you choose won’t just give your shoes an altered shine but actively change the process and make certain things easier than others. They also have different finishes, which can impact the durability of your polish coats.
Cream polish is good for keeping a pair of leather shoes looking “nourished” and stopping them from wearing out, restoring the color vibrancy. The finish shine is closer to satin than high gloss, but this can be completely ignored if you don’t want a strong shine anyway.
Working with Cream Polish
Cream polish is similar to regular polish, except the drying time can be reduced to about 5 minutes in some cases. After you buff it, you should get a clean satin shine at best. The focus is less on the shine that you give your shoes and more on the ability to undo wear and tear by restoring some color.
Remember to coat the entire shoe in each layer and search for areas that you have missed. If you miss some parts of your leather, you could end up with a completely mismatched finish.
Wax polish is the more durable option between the two, using hard wax that can provide a great shine and protects your leather from harm. This has the added benefit of covering up any damaged points on your shoe, like scuff marks and small scratches.
This extra protective layer also means that you can apply the wax regularly to keep your actual shoes clean: since the wax polish is thick and durable, it can keep the leather dry and will make sure that dust and dirt don’t reach areas that could wear down the materials.
Working with Wax Polish
Wax polish doesn’t need any special techniques, but it usually looks best after being buffed. Other than that, you will want to keep in mind that you can add some water to get a mirror shine (spit-shining, as mentioned earlier), but you don’t have to.
Leather shoes are the most common ones that you will see polished since leather generally needs polished anyway. You obviously don’t want to shine the soles since soles are usually rubber and aren’t ever seen anyway, but your first step should be to figure out what type of leather you are working with.
This doesn’t make a huge difference, but if you check at the original store or search up your shoes, you should be able to find the exact leather. This can help when choosing polishes to use.
What About Suede?
Suede shoes need their own special shoe polishes, not a standard wax or cream option. Putting normal cream polishes onto a suede shoe can damage them permanently and change how they look for the worse, so if you are dealing with suede instead of leather, step one should be finding a suitable alternative.
Not only can you sometimes need a different brush for a pair of suede shoes, but some people will shop for a special applicator just to avoid damaging them. While suede and leather can be related in some ways, they still need their own polishing tools or materials.
Working with any kind of polish or shine can sometimes be tricky, and there are entire posts online about how to work with a specific brand or ways that you can try polishing certain shoe parts. You won’t always know about the challenges of polishing the shoes you own until you try it.
Cover Your Shoes
Always cover your shoes as completely as you can when you apply polish. It’s better to have excess polish than not enough polish since you can just wipe away the extra before you let it dry. Leather can show off this kind of mistake very well, and once you let the polish dry, the missed areas will be immediately obvious.
This is especially important for soft shoes that don’t hold their shape properly, even with something stuffed inside. This is rare, but a shoe that can’t stay solid may need a smaller brush just to hit all of the areas that bigger tools won’t.
Let Your Shoes Dry
The life of your shoes is directly tied to how you treat them. If you want to maximize the amount of life they have left before they wear out, let them dry before you put them on or re-lace them. If you absolutely have to wear them on short notice, then try to at least keep the soles on neutral ground away from dust and dirt.
Don’t Polish the Wrong Materials
Getting polish on leather is fine, but polishing soft cloth or fabric can cause issues. Even if the soft cloth-like materials seem fine, the wax can still dry and make it harder to work with or trap dust and dirt in places that it shouldn’t be.
Make sure you know what kind of materials a pair of shoes use before you try to wipe any polishes into them.
Don’t Obsess Over the Shine
Polishing a pair of shoes is often about getting a good shine, but don’t stress about it too much. With any material (from leather to suede), there will always be times where the process doesn’t give you a perfect shoe shine.
Switching to a soft cloth or even using an old t-shirt might give you better results than brushes, depending on what you’re doing, but there’s no need to go to all that extra effort for a slightly better shine. Most of the time, this shine will start to fade after a day or two anyway – that’s how a shoeshine works.