Shoe Shine

Looking down at Ryan Plett's shined shoes

A well cared-for pair of freshly shined shoes. (Photo by Ryan Plett of You Have Broken the Internet)

Rather than give you another fanatical instruction guide on how to polish your shoes, we interviewed three experts about why you should do it. For me, part of it is ritual and nostalgia. I associate it with my father and grandfather getting their shoes and boots out on Sunday and polishing them all. But there’s more to it than the smell of polish and mink oil. I asked a leather guy, a style guy and a shoe shine guy about their takes on polishing and maintenance. Nick Horween breaks down shoe leather and how and why to treat it right, Ryan Plett displays some very tasty brogues and discusses his thoughts on style and investing in quality, and Nicolo Timore distills hundreds of shoe shines into one word: preservation.

Nicolo Timore shined for a few years in the financial district of Boston before I met him. He keeps his hand-in guesting at special events with an easy patter and a tall loose-limbed frame. Have you heard the phrase “Boston cracked shoe?” I bet Nicolo can’t stand them.

Nicolo: “To me, shining shoes is a necessary step one must take in preserving the shoe. The polish itself gives a slight protective coat of wax so repeated and consistent shining can add years to the life of a shoe. This should be done one or two times a month, depending on how roughly you treat them. For older or more beat up shoes, shining should be more frequent. A good shine will help protect shoes from getting damaged by weather, and will remove stains left by rain, snow, salt, etc. The day after a storm is usually very busy.

A man shining shoes in an airplane.

A man gives his shoes a good spiffing up.

Reasons for a shoe shine would vary; weather damage, wanting to look good for the meeting or girl/boyfriend. Some customers just wanted to keep their shoes in good condition for as long as possible. And some people simply enjoy the luxury of having someone shine their shoes (usually assholes).

I would say the customers were about 60% men, 40% women. But all these reasons for a shine would apply to both men and women.”

Ryan Plett lives and works in Chicago. Between brand consulting and shooting/editing You Have Broken the Internet and Travel Well, he’s a busy man. Ryan is a proponent of looking good from the ground up and buying things to last. I can safely say he’s a shoe guy.

Ryan: “My footwear tastes are reserved and classic, with small hints of color. Overall I want my shoes to display a level of quality and tell a story; a guy who has been places. For me the upkeep of my shoes is much more than attaining a shine… I think the upkeep and maintenance appeals to me because I’ve always been a person who takes care of things. I don’t “baby” things, I expect them to last, and I don’t buy garbage so when I invest in quality I take care of it. Growing up in my family money was not endless, the higher priced quality goods were not just handed over, they were worked for. So just like everyone always says, when I worked for it, it meant more.

Now I wouldn’t be completely telling the truth if I said I loved great shoes simply because they last, and can be easily maintained. I really do believe that style starts from the ground up, and that most men should really invest in great footwear. Great footwear can make an otherwise bland look a success, and bad footwear can destroy an otherwise perfect one.”

Brogues on a pedestal.

Put your brogues on a pedestal. (Photo by Ryan Plett)

Nick Horween is the director of Horween Leathers. Horween has been producing leather for over a hundred years in Chicago and is one of the oldest continuously running tanneries in America.

Nick: “For me, shoe care falls into three groups: conditioning, protecting and aesthetics. Conditioning is achieved by using a product that will nourish the leather if/when it dries. Protecting usually involves some sort of wax or oil blend to give water resistance or other characteristics. Aesthetic care usually means shining with a harder wax that will become glossy, though some products are designed to give a matte finish (or something in the middle). Of course, just about every shoe care product on the market will do all three of these in some capacity. Just like anything else, all products will do one or two of these three things better than the other. It’s all about compromises.

I suppose that cleaning is the forgotten-about 4th item — but that almost always just involves a damp cloth and a good brushing.

Getting a shoe shine

A shoe shine brush in action.

The most important of the three, after cleaning, is the conditioning bit. Leather is, after all, just skin. A tanners job is to preserve the hide, remove all the perishable components (fats, oils), strengthen the hide, and then introduce new, non-perishable components (fats, oils, extracts) that then leave the material supple. Once this is all done, we can then finish the surface to give it visual appeal. To me, that means: if you don’t have a material in a shoe with integrity and pliability, it doesn’t really matter what it looks like.

My personal shoe care routine is very straightforward. Clean with a damp cloth, brush, allow to dry, apply cream/conditioner/wax, allow to rest, brush, buff with a soft cloth.

Depending on the leather, frequency and materials used will vary. Caring for shoes is kind of like getting an oil change. After a certain number of miles, you’re really obliged to do it. But, if it’s just been a couple of months, it really depends on the owner and the make and model. That said, there’s no reason not to take care of a pair of shoes, or get them re-soled if the construction will allow. Getting a pair of shoes re-bottomed is a great way to update a shoe.

A few things to look out for when caring for a shoe: solvents, dyes and over-application. Applying too much wax/material will just cause that material to sit up on the surface, cake, and collect dirt. Almost all products have some solvent in them. These are to help carry the actual wax/oil evenly across the leather, at which point they air off leaving only the good stuff. A product with too much solvent can cause the leather to dry out faster than usual. Also, the solvents will sometimes pull dye off of the leather, which can change the appearance of the leather. Products with dyes can also lead to a change in appearance.”

Vintage ad of women playing tennis with shoes, circa 1980s.

A vintage 1980s ad of women playing tennis with shoes.

Images not taken by Ryan Plett were found by Gijs van der Most.

FURTHER READING

Sending a complex mixed message with the blue bloods-only Boston cracked shoe: “The junior members of a firm that were striving to climb the corporate ladder would keep their shoes well repaired and shined every day. But the guys with the Boston Cracked Shoe look didn’t worry about something like this, because they not only had climbed the ladder, they owned it.” Ivy Style.

Salt-free shoes, Valet Magazine

Leather Tanning, Kaufmann Mercantile

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