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The Real Guide to the Perfect Shoe Shine

Updated on January 17, 2012
Shoes: Born in 1967  Dress Blues: Born in 2005
Shoes: Born in 1967 Dress Blues: Born in 2005

How to Achieve That Perfect Shine.

We all wear them, but do we all know how to take care of them? What I am going to talk about today is the dying "art," of the shoe shine. I learned as a very young boy to take care of my shoes, and it has stuck all of my 25 years.

No matter what the shoe, the two necessities remain the same- a soft shirt, and a can or three of polish. Of course most shoes only require one can of polish, but situation will dictate. Most shoes that will take a shine these days are made of a very soft leather (think kipskin) and only require a buff of a rag, and a quick application of a fast drying liquid polish. But for those like me who prefer a stiffer leather in their dress or casual shoes, it's a whole different story. Of course you can use the quick applicator pads, but I PROMISE the grease that sits on your shoes all day will soak into your khakis or dress pants and leave a dark ring at the bottom for the life of the pants. You wont find a quick shine pad in a true Gentleman's shine-box!

To start off with, we will begin with the standard black or brown full grain leather dress shoe, as this is the common type worn daily by both men and women in several working climates. Most will say put a light coat of leather cleaner on the shoe, wipe it clean, and let it dry. It has been said that it will keep the leather soft and moist, but it just isn't true! When that 1st heavy coat of polish goes on, those leather shoes essentially become walking wax figurines. Using a leather cleaner will get the dirt off, but it will also kill those layers of polish you have spent sometimes years building to perfection. I prefer to take a plain white t-shirt (set aside for this purpose only) and rub the heck out of it until its smooth and free from dust or dirt. If you're shoes are VERY dirty, than use a DROP of dish soap in a dixie cup full of water and put a thin film on the whole shoe. Afterward carefully rinse them off under the sink. You don't need to dry them off 100%, because you'll be adding water into the equation soon anyway.

Next, wash your hands real well. You don't want any dirt or any natural oils from your skin get in your shine. After you are squeaky clean, grab your can of Polish and open it up, and pour yourself a glass of room temperature spring water. If you can find it, use Lincoln Stain Wax. It is a bit pricey, but it has the perfect amount of stain-to-paraffin mix. Kiwi is OK, but contains too much paraffin and will deaden the shine over a period of time. Use the dirt cleaning t-shirt to swipe the 1st layer of polish in the can down until it becomes as shiny as it looked the 1st time you opened it. DO NOT apply this to the shoe. It may seem wasteful, but the flat finish left on the top of the polish is "dead." It will shine, but it wont be the same shine you'll get from the layer underneath.

After you have your polish and water set up to your liking, grab that soft t-shirt. I like to reference the WRONG methods so you don't slip up- so here is anti-tip No.2... DO NOT use nylon stockings! They are grainy and will yield an inconsistent shine. Wrap it tightly around your index and middle fingers down to about the 2nd knuckle on your dominant hand. Don't leave any slack because any drag in the fabric will show on your leather. Dip your fingers into the glass of water waiting until its COMPLETELY saturated with water. The water will stretch out the fabric, so re-tighten the t-shirt as your squeezing the excess water off. It should be completely wet, but just a shade past damp. I have seen other people just dab their fingers in the water, but that leaves too much dry fabric, which you don't EVER want to touch your leather. It will scratch and destroy your work. After your fingers are tight inside that t-shit again- swirl the fabric inside the can in a circular motion from outside in. You don't want too much or it will take forever to shine, and too little just won't do anything. You can feel the layers underneath your fingers build up, so you will feel if you have too much on the fabric. Ideally, you want to go around the can three times at a steady pace with medium pressure. The same pressure you would use when applying wax to the car.

When you have the polish ratio down pat, it is time to attack the shoes. Starting from the back of the shoe working forward on the INSIDE, in small quarter sized swirls start applying the polish. I start on the rear inside because that is the part of the shoe that gets the most abuse, and typically the most scratches. You will be using the same pressure you used to get the polish ON the t-shirt, as you will to get it on the shoe. If you press too hard you will kill the polish as you will be "digging up," those old layers underneath. Get as much as possible on the shoe before you re-apply the polish. When you stop seeing the haze of the polish, dip into your water and re-apply. At the maximum, do this twice using the same spot on the t-shirt. Any more than that and you'll be dragging old polish around and it will be inconsistent in places. Repeat as necessary until the whole shoe is covered, leaving the polish on for no longer than 5-6 minutes. Some people will say use a hair dryer or a lighter to melt the polish into the shoe quicker, and I'll to try to be G-Rated with this next comment... That is just stupid. Think of it in these terms- Don't do anything to your shoes that you wouldn't do to your new car. Letting the polish naturally dry is the best way to go about this!

After you have let that polish sit for 5 minutes or so, find a new clean spot on that t-shirt and re-apply ONLY your water in the same fashion mentioned above. This time leaving it just a BIT more wet. You are going to swirl the water on in the same fashion you applied the polish to the shoes. I can't say how hard you should apply pressure, but in 5 or 6 swirls you should see the haze come up and a beautiful shine start to form. Each type of leather has it's "sweet spot," You'll find it if you do this often enough. When that shine starts to show, and there aren't water spots in its path-MOVE ON! You don't want to stay in one spot too long or you'll haze the finish. You don't want perfection yet, that will come soon.

When you have done this to both shoes, and they look good, you're going to start making them look great. This next step is primarily for BLACK shoes, but it can also be done with darker shades of brown or cordovan. Have a can of BLUE Lincoln Stain Wax, and (the only time I will use it...) a can of Kiwi NEUTRAL. The only time that extra paraffin comes in handy is for this step. Get a new spot on the t-shirt again, and get the correct water ratio. This will sound odd, but starting with the blue, get a nice thin coat of both the blue and the neutral on the t-shirt together. Before I move on, because I know some people will think this is a sham, it IS PROVEN. Take a pair of shiny black shoes out on a nice sunshiny day. What color bounces off them? The blue from the sky of course. Think of this step in this context: The blue and the neutral will take your shoes from the cold gray North Atlantic, to the clear vibrant waters of the Bahamas. I don't like to compare shoes to bodies of water, but that is how I know to best explain it. The blue will give your shoes just enough POP without changing the color to make your shoes look like MIRRORS. So back to the shining. You are going to apply this in the same way that you applied the black. Just enough to haze the finish again. Once the whole shoe is done, begin immediately with your little swirls with a new spot on the t-shirt and just water. This is where you will see the amazing results of your hard work. When you have the shoes looking PERFECT, you are almost done.

When the shoes gleam like mirrors, and you have figured out I am not crazy, you will be happy with the hard work you've put in thus far. The next step is the equivalent of the the clear coat on a Rolls Royce. One last time find a new spot on your t-shirt, and with it just barely damp, start swirling. This time, a little bigger in diameter, and much softer on the pressure. This is where you are going to get out all the little water spots, and any missed little areas in the cracks and crevices of the shoe. Once you are done this step, you'll be ready to show off those gleaming shoes!

Now, I have been doing this since I was about 8 years old, and it takes me about 15 minutes to achieve a great shine on even the most worn looking and battered of my shoes. Most people can do this same procedure in about 20-30 minutes, and others up to an hour. The more you do it, the easier it will get, and the less time it will take you to get to the finished product. You're fingers will eventually train themselves to have just the right amount of pressure, and you'll see the shine show up sooner.

The next lesson, which I promise will be MUCH shorter, will be in keeping up on the soles and edges of your shoes. For now, I bid you adieu, and I hope that you have much success in your shoe shine ventures! remember to go slow, relax, and have a little fun with it. Turn on the radio, or rock out to some Netflix. Whichever your vice, it makes the time go by quicker! Enjoy! And feel free to send pictures of your "artwork."


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