The Art of Shoe Restoration
By Guest Writer, David Brewster
One of the challenges in today’s world, as we learn more about how we interact with the natural environment, is creating sustainable practices in fashion. Among the ways that this challenge can be addressed is through buying gently used second-hand goods and refurbishing them. Nowhere is this easier or more accessible (or cheaper!) than in the world of leather dress shoes. Rather than spending several hundred dollars on a single pair of new shoes, why not buy several pairs at a time for a fraction of the price? In this article, I will discuss how to maximize your purchase by providing tips on identifying good candidates for restoration, techniques used to breathe life back into these items, and care and maintenance guidelines to give these products as long as life as possible.
STEP 1: Identifying a Good Shoe
Before we can restore a pair of leather shoes, we first need to buy one! When searching for good restoration projects, look for the following characteristics:
- No rips or tears in the leather
- The leather is not peeling or flaking off (this is a sure sign of fake leather)
- The soles and heels are not completely worn down
The shoes generally seem to be in good shape
When looking at leather shoes, its important to remember that wrinkles and creases are just fine! Similarly, if you find a pair that is in good shape, but the soles are worn out, they can always be taken to a cobbler to be re-soled, although that can get pricy. Generally, I recommend sticking with brand names that you recognize, as that is usually a good indication of the quality of the leather and construction (and it is fun to see how much money you have saved).
STEP 2: Restoring Your Purchase
Once you have selected your pair of gently used shoes, it is time to begin the process of restoring them. For this step, you will need the following products:
- Shoe trees
- Saddle soap
- Leather conditioner
- Shoe polish
- Shoe wax*
- Heel and sole edge dressing
All of these items are available at major shoe retailers, leather stores, and online. I recommend products from Saphir and Kiwi, as they are easy to locate, but any brand will work for these steps.
First, place the shoe trees into the shoes. The trees will help to fill out the inside of the shoe and support the top portion where your foot bends, which reduces the appearance of wrinkles and creases. If the leather is badly creased or deformed, soak the shoes in a warm bath and then let them dry with shoe trees inserted for two to three days to soften and reshape the leather. The creases will never fully go away, but this bath method can help smooth them out a bit. Use a shoe brush or soft wash cloth to wipe down the shoes, which will get rid of surface dust and dirt.
Next, wet a shoe brush or soft cloth and lather up the saddle soap. Apply the soap to all of the surfaces of the shoe. This is the time when you can work to remove obvious scuff marks and discolorations, especially on patent leather. Wipe the soap off with a clean washcloth. Do not rinse the soap off!
Once the shoes have been cleaned, let them sit for at least ten to fifteen minutes to allow the leather to dry. Next, apply leather conditioner to the shoes according to the directions. Some shoes will require more conditioner than others simply depending on how dry the leather has become (this will depend on age, weather, and care by the previous owner) and what type of leather the shoe is made from. There are guides available online to explain and help identify the different types of leather used for shoemaking, but they will largely fall into two categories: full grain and corrected grain. Full grain will require more maintenance than corrected grain, but it has a longer lifespan overall.
Let the conditioner sit for a good while on the shoes. After some time has passed, use a shoe brush or washcloth to gently remove the excess conditioner and buff the shoe to what is called a “soft” shine. At this point it is time to apply polish. This leaves you, the reader, with a choice as to what type of polish you want to use. Generally, there are two types of polishes: cream polishes, which are made using conditioners, solvents, and waxes to both nourish and add shine to the shoes; or non-cream polishes, which are typically petroleum based. Either one will work, and it is completely up to you how you want to proceed. Here are how the steps will differ:
CREAM POLISH: Apply a small amount of cream polish to the shoes. After waiting for a short period of time, buff the shoes to a shine. At this point, you can stop or add a finishing wax to produce a true gloss or mirror shine, depending on how many coats of wax you add. I always recommend at least one layer of wax to provide water proofing.
NON-CREAM POLISH: Apply a small amount of the polish to the shoes. Wait a short amount of time, and then buff it to a shine. These polishes do not require a finishing wax for water proofing.
Regardless of how you polish the shoes, the real finishing touch is to recolor the edges of the soles and heels. If necessary, lightly sand the edges smooth, and then apply edge dressing to the soles and heels. Edge dressing is a powerful dye that will add new color and make the surfaces look brand new!
Once you have completed these steps, your new purchase should be well on its way to looking spectacular again! Bear in mind that your results will vary depending on the condition of the shoes when you started this process, and that some steps may need to be repeated to maximize the results. If you run into serious trouble, there are additional guides online on how to repair more serious damage such as deep scuffs and scratches.
STEP 3: Long-term Care
Once you have purchased and restored your new shoes, you need to take good care of them! Keeping the shoe trees inside when you’re not wearing them will help to minimize wrinkles and creasing across the top of the shoe, and it’s a good idea to clean and polish them a few times a year depending on how often they are worn. If you have followed this guide then chances are you have invested some time in locating and restoring these shoes, so protect that investment!
David Brewster is a resident of San Antonio, Texas, and a frequent thrift store shopper who loves breathing life back into forgotten treasures.
Follow David on Instagram here: @GentryModern and on Twitter here: @GentryModern