Why Condition Leather Shoes & Boots? – Interview with Leather Honey’s Shawn McGowen

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Why condition your leather footwear?

Mens-shoe-conditioningIs it really necessary - or a marketing gimmick so we’ll spend more money on an overpriced lotion?

Unlike polish – where you at least get a shine – conditioning only seems to darken the leather, a result something many of us don’t even want!

To find the answer – I interviewed leather conditioner expert Shawn McGowen.  (click to listen or download the interview above)  He helps run the family business Leather Honey, a West Virginia  based small business that’s been operating since 1968 and was founded by his grandfather to treat saddles and other leather working gear.

Interested in purchasing?  Buy directly from the Leather Honey Store or buy Leather Honey on Amazon.com.

Is Conditioning Your Leather Shoes or Boots Required?

If you want your footwear to survive longer than a few years, YES.

My personal experience/tragedy:
I purchased a beautiful pair of Chelsea Dress Boots in London.  I love them – so easy to wear and they fit perfectly.  They looked great – and although I polished them weekly I did not condition them often.  That worked fine in Austin, Texas.

After one Wisconsin winter though – I had cracking along the outer sides of the boot.  This was water damage I could have prevented with better protection.

Mens-Dress-Shoe-Damage

Do not make my $300 mistake!  

Update: I have since been conditioning my footwear regularly with Leather Honey and have not had a repeat incident in 3 years.

Why Condition your Leather Footwear?

Shoes are the foundation of your outfit, and as such you subject them to more abuse than any other item in your wardrobe.

You literally slap them against the ground into water, salt, dirt, grease, and grime thousands upon thousands of times.

To ensure your shoes last you need to take care of them by ensuring the leather stays supple and resists water penetration.  Spending 15 dollars every few months for a quality conditioner is a small price to ensure your dress shoes still look great 15 years from now.

What does Leather Conditioner do?

Leather is skin.  And like your skin – it’s tough but still fragile relative to rough surfaces and needs protection and care.

Leather-Texture-Closeup

Unlike your skin – which is alive and receives nourishment from the body – the leather on your shoes only receives the nourishment you give it.  It can easily dry out, over-absorb water, or be damaged in numerous other ways.

A good leather conditioner  is designed to be readily absorbed and will nourish/restore flexibility in the fibers.

This is important as leather is prized as a clothing material because it can be both flexible and durability.  If leather loses its natural oils and moisture, it loses it’s flexibility and its fiberous interweave will start to crack and eventually break down.  Once this happens it is lost and needs to be replaced.

Leather conditioners prevent this breakdown – in some cases leather products well over 100 years old are as usable today as they were a century ago because the leather has been properly preserved.

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Should you condition your shoes before wearing for the first time?

Yes – you need to condition your shoes & boots before wearing them. Most footwear does not come conditioned and polished out the box.  This is your responsibility.  As far as you know the leather may have sat in dry conditions for months and may be screaming for oil and moisture.

Clean, condition thoroughly, and then polish.  Then you’re ready to go.

How to Condition Your Leather Dress Shoes and Boots – Where does it fit in with polishing and cleaning.

A thorough shoe conditioning and cleaning entails the following six steps

  1. Shoe Cleaning – Get off that dirt and sand before you start anything.  Cleaning with saddle soap is great when the shoe requires a deep cleaning – but don’t over do it.
  2. Let the Shoe Completely Dry – Do not use heat – let them dry at room temperature for 30 minutes or more.
  3. Condition the Shoe – If this is your first time doing this – expect it to take more than one coat.  You may want to lather the shoe up and let it sit overnight.
  4. Remove All Excess Conditioner – do this twice if you lathered the shoe up and let it soak up a lot.  After the first cleaning a bit may be released over the next couple hours.  Failure to do this will deaden the shine – not damage the shoe.
  5. Polish the Shoe – A wide range of options here – basic, advanced, and spit shined.
  6. Finish the Shoe – For those that like to go the extra mile, edge dressing and details like new laces and eyelet detailing are once a month tasks.  But for the non-shoe detail  fanatics – skip!

Sorry for the brevity – I’ll link to posts that cover this in much more detail!

How Often to Condition Your Leather Footwear?

When your shoes need it – which depends on these factors.

The Product – Think of it like motor oil – synthetics are more expensive but can go longer between changes.  A pricier product like Leather Honey need only be applied a fraction of the times a lighter water based Meltonian conditioner need be.  But the Meltonian can be found for 1/3 the cost.

Environmental Conditions – If you spend a lot of time out and about in arid Tucson, you want to condition once every two weeks.  Walking through tough sleet and snow conditions in Washington DC?  Once a week.  Occasionally wearing your boots in College Station to the Dixie Chicken?  Once every few months.

The Condition of the Leather – Older shoes, and those made from more delicate/thinner leathers, will need to be conditioned more often as they lose the leather conditioning properties faster.

explorer-boots-50-years

These boots were used in the 1950s to explore Antarctica – they lasted because the owner took care of them.

How to Select A Leather Shoe Conditioner

Understand Your Needs – There are a lot of options out there (See why Leather Honey is my favorite leather conditioner), and you need to find a product that is right for you.  If you rarely wear your dress shoes and live in Atlanta – you’ll be fine buying a basic conditioner at your local shoe store.  However if you wear leather shoes daily and commute to work in Chicago – you’ll want something that lasts longer between applications and does a better job protecting your dress boots from salt and mud.

Test the Leather Shoe Conditioner – This is especially important if you are going to be conditioning light colored leathers.  Find a small area – such as the back side of the shoe tongue or under the lacing – to apply a small amount to test if it darkens.

Conditioning Your Leather Footwear – In Summary 

In the interview we are a bit biased towards Leather Honey (can you imagine!).  If you want to give them a shot (their 100% money back guarantee makes this a no-brainer in my opinion) you can buy from the Leather Honey Store or buy Leather Honey on Amazon.com.  If you’re looking for something else – I have a personally used Meltonian All Purpose Shoe Cleaner & Conditioner and find it is adequate although it doesn’t last nearly as long as Leather Honey.

What shoe leather conditioner do you recommend?  Please feel free to add your suggestion in the comments!

  • Britalian.com

    Many thanks for this post. still trying to get hold of Leather Honey in Europe but for the moment am using a similar product, which so far has improved the leather of my favourite formal shoes no end.

    This kind of advice backs up the theory of spending extra for quality but also investing in the time to take care of your stuff.

  • geoffrey.cubbage

    @Britalian.com Sounds like we were preaching to the choir already, then — but glad you liked it!

  • davemcg3

    I’ve seen a few posts on this topic now but am still unclear on how this affects polishing the shoes (which is the only piece of the shoe care puzzle of which I have even a modicum of knowledge). How does the conditioner affect the polish that is already built up on the shoe, the shine of that polish, and the shine of the polish that goes on afterward? I assume I don’t have to strip the old polish off every time I cndition

  • davemcg3

    *condition the shoe, which could be as often as weekly in your examples. You *almost* have me convinced, but I haven’t seen this part discussed in any of the articles on Leather Honey I have seen.

  • AntonioCenteno

    @davemcg3 Here is a hidden video I did a while back to help understand this… youtu.be/kWyO47YUaL8

  • davemcg3

    @AntonioCenteno Thanks! That video answered quite a bit. One more question. It seem like you’re dealing with expensive shoes. Do the same care practices apply for less expensive shoes? I wear $60-80 dress shoes because I haven’t spent the money on a truly nice pair of shoes yet.

  • AntonioCenteno

    @davemcg3 Yes – as long as they are Real leather :)

  • tigerpac

    How do you feel about Bick 4 Leather Conditioner – at least for lighter colored leathers.