What To Look For In A Leather Shoe & How To Protect Them
This article concerns leather footwear and how to repair it when necessary.
Introduction to Leather Shoe Repair
A well-made pair of shoes is the foundation of a man’s ensemble. They are what a smart look stands on, so to speak.
Shoes are likely to be the most expensive article on your person beside your wedding band. That said, these shoes meet your investment and return you years of looking sharp.
Finding a great pair of shoes can be a task or opportunity to splurge. As a teenager with what I thought was impeccable taste, I would ratchet up a huge bill on online auctions for British footwear. I bid on patent leather Paolo Vandini winklepickers, suede Chelsea boots, and red snakeskin boots a la Vincent Gallo. These shoes were a bit out of my budget, but I figured they were worth every shilling in the long run. There was no “long run” after all.
Many of these shoes were ruined because of my lack of maintenance. I have learned a lot since then now that shoes in my closet have lasted years not seasons. The wear-and-tear of daily use and the occasional step on your blue suede is inevitable, but using a few easy methods should keep shoes looking great through rain or shine.
Leather Shoe Repair
It really pays to know your local cobbler or shoe repairer.
Here in Madison, I have told everyone with an ear to lend and shoes to fix about Franco the cobbler.
He has cornered the local market on shoe repair with his know-how and ability to fix the saddest looking leather shoes you can throw at him. The aptly titled Franco Shoe Repair is on 1213 Regent Street in Madison, WI.
We’d also like to thank Paul Herwaldt for his help on this article – he is a third generation cobbler who owns Shoe Repair Plus in Green Bay, WI. Paul performs shoe repair via mail at a fair price – highly recommended for those of you who do not have access to a local cobbler.
Weatherproofing New Shoes
You might ask, ‘Aren’t my shoes already weatherproofed?’
Yes, your shoes are already weatherproofed when you first put them on. If a new pair of shoes came with a disclaimer, it would tell you that the first round in weatherproofing is provided and the next round is up to you.
I compare the first weatherproofing to the top coat of wax on a new car. It is only going to look that sexy for so long after you roll it off lot until you put on your own coat when necessary.
You might also ask ‘How are my leather shoes effected by water?’
Water can and will destroy the suppleness of your shoe’s leather. Breaking in your shoe is desirable to mold to the form of your particular foot, but water warps the shape of the shoe in an undesirable way.
Leather footwear can manage tens of thousands of flexes. A persistently wet and dried shoe will only last a fraction of these uses.
Leather is nothing but animal skin (most often cattle or horse) which is made up of fat and proteins can only retain a set amount of moisture after being cured and tanned.
The fibers that criss-cross each other in the corium, or the hide, give leather its unique strength, but are also very susceptible to drying out and cracking if not treated with care.
I do recommend that you condition your leather footwear – this ensures the leather maintains the right level of moisture to prevent cracking. Two brands I have used and endorse are Leather Honey & Chamberlain’s leather conditioner.
Protecting New Shoes Against Salt
Walking around a Midwestern city in the slushy winter months will certainly expose any leather owner’s shoes to road salt.
For others in warmer climates, shoes are threatened by lesser hazards like sand and lime. Like salt, these can be harsh in prematurely wearing out your leather, but are less difficult to remove once they permeate or scuff the leather itself. If left untreated, the salt will discolor and weaken the finish of the shoe.
This is also something to keep in mind if purchasing a secondhand pair because of the nature of the set-in salt stain.
A thin layer of waxy polish between the leather and these harmful elements could be the difference between a one minute cleaning versus a costly trip to the cobbler.
I most recommend beeswax because of its ability to cover all tones or colors and it is not as noxious as Kiwi polish and other leading brands. However anything is better than nothing when dealing with slush and snow.
Note: simply using a damp cloth does not thoroughly remove that salt ring from the toe of your shoe after it has dried.
Owning an expensive leather shoe is slightly demanding. Be mindful of how often your shoes get wet then dry out, or become exposed to alkalines, acids, and salts all of which can erode your shoe and your hard-earned shoe budget.
Repairing Leather Shoes On Your Own
You might have the impulse to go out and buy a quick fix. The whole idea of maintaining shoes is not adding to the pile of shoe expenses.
No amount of polish or “waterproofing” spray is going to keep out water if you are continuously walking in rain. However, you will need some store-bought implements in keeping your shoes looking great for years.
The single-use products that are on the market today (one-use shoe polishes with applicators, shine wipes, etc.) are ultimately more expensive and less effective in the long haul. My father still uses an old clapboard shoe-shining kit containing polishes and bristle brushes. A bristle brush, a rag, and one or two tins of a neutral colored, trusted brand of polish is the best place to start.
1. Select a Waterproofing Compound
There is a lot of debate on the subject of which waterproofing compound is most effective. Just like other consumer products, there is quite a vast market of shoe compounds out there to consider. But not all of these products in the shoe care section are just polishes; many products have enhanced formulas for specific kinds of footwear.
Wax-based Polishes – Unlike shoe pastes and creams, which are designed more to nourish the leather, wax-based polishes are made to create a shine and by doing so create a superficial protective layer than can provide light resistance to water and salt. Manufacturers such as Lincoln make a good product, along with Meltonian who also provides their polish in a wide range of colors. The key to this type of protection is consistent application after every few wears, or every wear if the weather is particularly wet. This is the most high-maintenance approach.
Specialty Waterproof Compounds – Chamberlain’s Water Protectant, Obenauf’s Heavy Duty Leather Preservative and Sno-Seal Weather Protectant are just three examples of waterproofing compounds whose main purpose is protection. They do a solid job when applied properly and have a longer sticking period than polishes because it is an industrial-grade product. Unlike the above mentioned compounds, these protectants do not create a shine but rather to seal out moisture; as such they may need to be used in conjunction with a polish once the seal has been set. If you have to combine a protectant with a polish, make sure you follow Step 2 closely.
Spray-on Waterproofing Compounds – Of all the waterproofing techniques, this one receives the most amount of flack. Common arguments are that it doesn’t allow the leather to breath and that if the compound contains silicone it will dry out the leather.
My stance is if ease of use is your concern, then it’s much better to use a spray on waterproofing than nothing at all.
Companies such as Meltonian make a water-and-stain protector that is safe to use on leather and suede and is dry and ready 30 minutes. These waterproofing sprays should be used liberally, as they lose their effectiveness after only a few wears. They are not meant to penetrate the leather, but rather provide a protective glaze.
2. Test & Prepare for Waterproofing
This next step is crucial for any shoe that is not black. This process is meant to retain the original appearance of the shoe, and you don’t want to mistakenly discolor the shoe.
If you haven’t already, remove the laces and thoroughly clean the shoe with a brush and rag to remove dirt. Be advised not to assume the color match guarantee made by the manufacturer will hold up. You don’t want to be an exception to the rule.
Choose a discreet part of your shoe, such as the side of the shoe’s tongue under the laces, and apply a small amount to see how it reacts.
After you are more confident, move to an area like the inner back of the shoe and test again. Remember, the tech-ed rule applies here: test twice so you can do the right job once.
3. Applying the Protectant
The only difference in applying a waterproof compound versus a shining compound is the distribution of the product on your shoe. When shining your shoes you can spot shine on occasion – when waterproofing you need to ensure a water tight barrier is formed or the whole process is for naught.
Durable Men’s Shoe Suggestions
Specialty Footwear – There are many companies that make solid footwear using water resistant materials such as gortex, synthetic leathers, and non-slip rubber soles. Although they are not on the same level as higher end men’s shoes and do not offer as much protection as galoshes, their stylish design and inclement weather durability make them a favorite among practical men. An example is the ECCO Berlin GTX. Its large sole and open laced design make it a less dressy shoe than a classic oxford. But when it comes to not having to worry about the rain or snow and for the man who does not want to be hassled with multiple pairs of shoes, these a staple.
Boots – From hiking to work, boots are made to be tougher and are a great choice for inclement weather thanks to their height and ability to protect the ankles. Unfortunately they are limited in the range of clothing they can be worn with; anything dressier than odd trousers is stretching their boundaries.
Although the dress boot has a wider range and can be worn with a mens suit, it provides less protection than its brawnier brethren. Due to its thinner sole and smaller heel you’ll have less clearance when traversing puddles and thus dress boots should be worn with as much care as dress shoes. With all that being said, all boots should be treated regularly with a waterproofing compound depending on the wearers environment and frequency of wear.
Galoshes – Galoshes are rubber footwear that slip over shoes and protect them from the elements. Galoshes are a good choice because because they are now sleek and easily incorporated with dressier wardrobes. The term includes both over-shoes and over-boots, the difference being the amount of coverage around the footwear.
With a history of serving men (and women) for over 100 years, they have perfected the art of keeping the wearer dry by completely encapsulating the feet and as an added bonus often provide excellent traction. Their downside is that proper fit is absolutely necessary.
A good pair of new galoshes can range in price from $20 to well over $150, the difference being durability and style although a very solid pair for occasional wear can be found for less than $30. Companies like Swim offer a wide range of durable and stylish galoshes online. For the gentleman who walks through all weather, a sturdy pair of galoshes can prove to be invaluable.
How To Dry Wet Shoes
In closing this article, I want to address the inevitable question of what to do when your shoes get wet. Despite all of your planning, you’re bound to get caught in the rain once!
Wick off the water right away or use a dry rag or towel if available to wipe off the water. Pull the moisture from the inside of the shoe. This can be done with newspaper or a small dry towel. The key is to draw the moisture out, so every hour or so replace the moist paper with dry paper. Depending on the extent of the soaking, this could take from two hours to two days.
Despite what you might think, leaving your shoes next to a heat source only makes the problem worse. Let them dry slowly at room temperature. If you heat them you will cause the moisture to leave too quickly and greatly increase the chance of the leather cracking. Cracked leather can not be repaired.
Once the shoes appear dry and no more moisture is being drawn out of the shoe, clean and condition with a leather balm or cream and finally polish as usual.