How to polish and care for your shoes

Leather is a good material for shoes. It is breathable and lasts for years. But you need to care for your shoes properly.

There is nothing smarter or more comfortable than a pair of well-polished leather shoes.

Yet the art of polishing and caring for shoes is gradually disappearing. And the tools needed for cleaning and caring for shoes – brushes, polishes, etc – are getting harder to find.

General advice on how to care for your shoes

1. Have two pairs of each kind of shoe (eg two black and two brown). Wear them on alternate days, so that each pair has a day to breathe before being worn again.

2. Use wooden shoe trees of good quality. I like the ones by Charles Trywhitt*. Jones also make good ones. Put the shoe trees in as soon as you take your shoes off, so as the shoe cools, dries and stiffens, it forms the correct shape.

3. Use a shoe horn when you put your shoes on. It’s much easier, and it avoids damaging the back of the shoe. You can buy long ones and short ones. The long ones save bending down, the short ones are good for travelling.

4. Get in the habit of cleaning your shoes before you put them away. If you can do it as soon as you take them off, so much the better, as the leather is warm and will absorb the polish better.

5. You need a pair of good-quality brushes: one to brush on, one to brush off. Buy two pairs, one pair for brown and one for black. The small brushes available in hardware shops are no good at all. They are difficult to use and the bristles fall out constantly. I have found that Jones brushes are the best. I have a pair of the Selvyt horsehair ones* and they are pretty good too. A large brush is much better and more comfortable to use.

How to brush-polish your shoes

This should not take any more than five or ten minutes.

1. First, remove any mud with a rag (a beer towel is ideal). Use an old toothbrush to clean mud from the welts. Clean the soles too, removing any grit. If necessary, leave the shoes to dry (with a shoe tree).

2. Next, use the “off” brush to clean the shoe. Brush it vigorously and well all over.

3. Now, put a small amount of Kiwi Parade Gloss* polish onto the “on” brush and, using mainly circular motions, work it well into the leather. Less is more – it is better to use a small amount of polish regularly, because then you gradually build up the layers and get a better shine. If you use too much, you will end up with lumps and smears.

Every so often, when you have a little more time to spare, remove the laces before polishing, so that you can clean the tongue and throat (the area round the eyelets) of the shoe.

4. Next, put the first shoe to one side and repeat on the other shoe. (This allows the polish to soak-in and dry just the right amount before polishing-off.)

5. Using the “off” brush, gently polish-off each shoe in turn. Use gentler motions as the shine comes up.

Do all of the above even if you want to bull (spit-polish) your shoes.

How to “bull” your shoes (military method)

1. First, clean and brush-polish your shoes as described above.

2. You need a Selvyt polishing cloth*. They are not expensive and last for ages if you put them through the washing-machine occasionally.

3. Thoroughly wet the Selvyt cloth under the cold tap, then wring it out, then flick it to remove as much water as possible. (Yes, it seems contradictory.)

4. Now wrap the edge of the cloth tightly around one or more fingers, as shown in the picture at the top. Start off using one finger and graduate to more when you get the knack. Avoid having bits of the cloth dangling – it will drag across the shoe and spoil the shine.

Working the polish in

5. Dab the cloth into the polish (Kiwi Parade Gloss*) – use only a small amount. Apply the polish to the toecap with a gentle circular motion. When the polish begins to dry slightly, spit on it and then carry on shining. Do not use too much spit. (Some people prefer to use a little water instead but it doesn’t work as well.)


6. Repeat a few times, and you will start to see the shine appearing. Use less pressure as the shine comes up. Now, instead of spitting on the shoe, breathe on it. Reduce the pressure until you feel as though you are hardly touching the shoe.

7. If you start to feel friction under your finger, change to a new bit of cloth, but before you start polishing, dab a tiny bit of polish onto the cloth.

8. Continue until the desired shine is achieved. There is a bit of a knack to spit-polishing, so be patient. Polish your shoes little and often and you will gradually build up a good shine.

9. If you want, after bulling your shoes, you can water-bull them. Put a cotton wool ball under running cold water so it is saturated, then briefly polish the shoe using very gentle circular motion. This removes any smears and streaks.

10. Now you need to wear the shoes. You will be disappointed to see the polish crack on the natural crease-points, but this is normal. Then repeat the whole process (including brush-polishing).

Repeat the cycle of wearing – brush polishing – bulling – wearing. Over time, you will build up a mirror shine to be proud of. Once you have the knack, it will not take too long, but the early stages can be quite emotional.

Some final words of advice

Bulling tips

You might have heard people talk about “burning-down” boots. This is not needed with modern shoes and boots. You are very likely to ruin them.

Never be tempted to use floor polish or permanent polishes.

The old practice of using huge amounts of polish with a hot spoon or a lighter flame is not at all helpful. You will just end up with great streaks of polish and it will take you ages to bring up a good shine. Be patient and gradually build the polish up in thin layers.

Brush-polishing and general care tips

It is a traditional practice, and a good one, to polish the sole of leather-soled shoes. It helps to keep the sole in good waterproof condition for longer. You will need to use quite a lot of polish. If you want to do this, do it first, before you polish the uppers. Be careful not to slip over when you first wear them.

A tip is to use different coloured polishes in different layers. This gives a beautiful deep lustre to the shine. It works with brown shoes as well as black.

Do not use black polish or your black brushes on light brown shoes.

Finally, when packing shoes into a suitcase for travelling, put a sock over each shoe. This will protect the shine quite well, although a quick final polish will be needed before you wear them.