Living Well: 8 Secrets to Perfectly Polished Shoes

July 2, 2012

By Lindsey of Café Johnsonia.

A good pair of shoes that is properly cared for will last a lifetime. That may seem like an exaggeration, but it’s not, I promise! Not only that, a pair of good, polished shoes is a key to feeling well-dressed when you walk out the door. It is one of those details that is easily overlooked, but makes all the difference.

Brushing away dirt and dust will help keep the leather looking good, and polishing them with good quality creams and waxes will help condition them and prolong their life by protecting against water damage, etc.

My husband is somewhat of an expert at polishing shoes — he spent years studying shoe shiners in Grand Central Station, as well as reading up about proper methods.  I’ve taken my cues from him to keep my shoes looking great.

Materials needed:
Cream polish
Wax polish
One thick cloth for applying cream polish
Big brush for buffing
Small brush for applying wax polish
One thick cloth for final buffing and shining
Mink oil or shoe grease (optional, for conditioning the sole)

Secret #1: Polishes fall into two main categories: cream and wax. They can be used interchangeably or together (cream first, followed by wax). To help you decide, know that cream polish cleans, conditions, and buffs to a moderate shine, whereas wax polish protects more and can be buffed to a high gloss if desired.

Let’s get started. First, brush any visible dirt and dust off of the surface of the shoes.

Secret #2: It is a good idea to have cloths and brushes dedicated to black and brown polishes, and not to interchange them.

Next, select a matching color of shoe polishing cream. Using a thick cloth, rub a small amount of the cream onto the shoe, paying close attention to areas where the color has been worn away.

Secret #3: Match the shade exactly. If in doubt, go with a shade lighter, NOT darker.

If the shoes have leather soles, use a little of the polish around the edge to darken them up.

Secret #4: For areas of the shoe where the color has completely worn off, dying may be necessary if shoe polish doesn’t work.

Using a large, soft brush, vigorously brush the surface of the shoe, back and forth until shiny.

For further protection against water, etc., another coat of polish can be used. This time apply a wax polish using a small brush.

Secret #5: Polishing shoes can be messy, and when you use wax polish, it may flake off a bit. Protect surfaces with sheets of newspaper so the mess doesn’t get on your clothes or the floor.

After the wax polish, once again use a brush to buff the surface of the shoe.

An optional step for shoes with leather soles is to protect them by rubbing mink oil or shoe grease (just a little bit) onto the surface.

Secret #6: Some leathers are only meant to be conditioned with mink oil or shoe grease NOT polished. (Like Doc Marten type shoes.)

Finally, for shoes with a shinier surface, the last step is to buff the shoes with a cloth.  (Think: spit shine.)

Secret #7: Only polish shoes if it’s needed. Don’t use too much polish — only a thin layer. Old polish can build up over the years and crack.

Secret #8: It’s not really a polishing secret, but it is about proper shoe care — use shoe trees to store leather dress shoes. Shoes trees will help them keep their shape.

That’s it! All my secrets to perfectly polished shoes. Now walk forth with confidence! And tell me, have you ever had your shoes polished in a big city? It’s one of my favorite things to do when I’m in New York.

P.S. — You can find all the Secrets to Living Well posts here. Also. Suede shoes require a different kind of polish. Ask at any shoe repair store or reputable department store for more instructions.

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{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dee Young July 2, 2012 at 9:05 am

Great post! I had some shoes that lasted for many years, but recently I can’t seem to find such high quality ladies shoes–especially all leather ones. Are there any brands you recommend?
Thanks, Dee


2 Lindsey (Cafe Johnsonia) July 2, 2012 at 10:48 am

What kinds are you looking for? Oxford types or pumps? I do have some that I admire, but haven’t bought yet.


3 Meaghan August 27, 2013 at 3:30 pm

Cuuuute mary janes, what brand are they?


4 Mags July 2, 2012 at 9:41 am

My first job out of college was as a summer intern in DC; our boss (a total clotheshorse) would sometimes do surprise checks of our shoes at our morning meetings — and even drag “offenders” out for a polish at lunch. It was all in good fun, but he was adamant that a pair of well-polished shoes made all the difference in looking professional and put-together. He seemed physically pained by men (or women!) in expensive suits and scuffed shoes… I took his advice to heart, and to this day I still check to make sure my shoes are cleaned and polished before any important meeting or interview. Thanks for the tips!


5 Sarah Heat July 2, 2012 at 10:16 am

Are we back in time? The newspaper and vintage polishes crack me up. Love it!


6 Lindsey (Cafe Johnsonia) July 2, 2012 at 10:44 am

Aren’t they fun? We found the newspaper in the bottom of a drawer from a dresser I inherited from my great-grandmother. We couldn’t resist using it. :)


7 Caitlin July 2, 2012 at 10:18 am

This is great! My husband loves having well polished shoes so this tips will come in handy!


8 teresa July 2, 2012 at 11:18 am

How fun…I think I will be buying me a shoe polishing kit…..and thinking it may be fun to have a mini class on this at our next family reunion.
Thanks for sharing this “lost art”
Happy Day


9 Craig July 2, 2012 at 1:34 pm

My regular shiner reminds me to always polish a new shoes. You never know how long they’ve been sitting while being shipped or warehoused. The leather could look new, but the shoes are often times dry and susceptible to cracking. Polishing early allows for a more natural, hydrated break-in period.


10 Lindsey (Cafe Johnsonia) July 2, 2012 at 6:32 pm

A great tip, Craig. You are absolutely right. Thanks for adding that in.


11 Jimmy July 2, 2012 at 6:20 pm

I find giving my shoes a good shine to be almost therapeutic. This is a great list. I’d add that, in hoping to make a pair of nice shoes last “forever” you might need to find a cobbler, because even if the shoe leather looks good as new the soles will eventually give out.

Also, my absolute favorite college graduation gift to give is a shoe shine kit – the brushes, waxes, etc, all in a nice wooden box for the grad-to-be.


12 Lindsey (Cafe Johnsonia) July 2, 2012 at 6:31 pm

That is so true! I forgot to mention that. My husband does have a pair of beloved shoes that had to be resoled.

What a great gift! I’ll have to remember that.


13 Ashley Porter July 2, 2012 at 8:44 pm

Great post. I was beginning to think my dad was one of the last men on Earth that shines his own shoes. It’s true, when cared for properly some shoes will last forever. My dad has some Allen Edmunds that are almost 30 years old.


14 Stephen Lanasa sr August 12, 2016 at 7:11 am

I always polish my shoes as suggested I use several color brushes and polishes. I also buff at times. I have a pair of alligator shoes that are 35 years old and recently had resoled. a complete sole and heels, leather and then covered with half rubber soles and heel. the new way. I have dress shoes that are Italian leather and over thirty years too. they still shine like new. I have two pairs of Allen Edmunds shoes that I bought recently, I keep all shoes with shoe trees and wear alternately. thank you.


15 Victoria July 3, 2012 at 12:20 am

A good shoe shine is so important! I learned how to do it when I was 14, when my mother (of the “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” school of New England/Mormon thrift) bought me all-leather shoes that were meant to last. I loved polishing my shoes! They lasted through my freshman year of college from good care, which is also therapeutic and deeply satisfying. When I worked in the costume shop of our university theatre, my boss was seriously impressed by the level of shine I could create in a shoe, and shoe maintenance became my exclusive job (if it meant I didn’t have to rip out tiny stitches, I was all for it!). But really: a well-shined pair of shoes can make all the difference. Just remember: if you get your shoes wet, stuff them with newspaper and let them air dry AWAY from any heat sources! They can crack and warp the leather. Happy Shining!


16 PatriciaF July 3, 2012 at 1:04 am

Ha. This takes me back to shining my shoes before church on a Sunday morning when I was small – our shoeshine box was inherited from my grandparents and full of old brushes and the like..including a small velvet ‘pillow’ for buffing up.
Which all makes me sound ancient (when in fact im only 29!)
Lovely, evocative post.


17 DeeAnna July 5, 2012 at 10:30 am

I have been looking for this FOREVER! I asked for a shoe shine kit this year for Hanukkah and my husband couldn’t find one anywhere. My dad shined his own shoes every Sunday morning before church, and I loved to watch the entire procedure.


18 Bri (like the cheese) July 10, 2012 at 9:04 am

I love this post. It reminds me of watching my father’s near-weekly routine of polishing and shining his shoes for work, then his teaching me how to do it, and finally when I had been deemed capable of unsupervised polishing by my incredibly meticulous father! I loved watching the transformation of these old, worn shoes into shiny new kicks. Instant gratification at its best!
I don’t know if it was the way he was raised, watching his father do the same, or if it was a hold over from his military service, but my dad’s shoes were always perfectly polished. And the pictures you posted here were like a flashback, from the newspaper to the tins of cream and the bristly brushes. I can almost smell it…


19 Mrs. Handyverger October 1, 2012 at 2:51 pm

I have to admit, I’ve never polished my shoes before – and I think I may start! As a nurse, I try to buy decent quality leather shoes, but it hadn’t occurred to me that upkeep can help keep my “investment” in good shape for much longer. Silly, but there you have it! Not something that was emphasized when I was growing up, obviously. ;) Thanks so much for sharing this. :)


20 Maxine Chambers December 28, 2012 at 10:54 am

Thanks for all the tips. Just wondering if Ben Blair’s research has been peer reviewed? ;)


21 Tim April 8, 2013 at 9:50 am

I would avoid using polish on the edging as described. I would strong suggest using a product referred to as “edge dressing, ink, dye or kote”. (avoiding name brands – and while their is overlap of use there remains a couple key differences between the products


22 Chuck March 10, 2016 at 9:25 pm

Another tip: use a match and light the wax/Polish in the tin before applying so that it liquifies..and when dine pushing, spritz the shoes with water and then rebuff…they will shine like mirrors


23 Lina @ Keeping Creativity Alive May 7, 2013 at 1:38 pm

My daughter does shoe polishing at her Montessori school. I keep thinking I need to set up a shoe polishing station at home! Kids seem to love it!


24 Felipe June 17, 2013 at 12:53 am

It’s nice to have here, I’m curious where can I find school to learn clean shoes so I can work at airports to clean shoes, does this require diploma ? Let me know please


25 Lindsay July 23, 2013 at 11:51 am

I know this post is over a year old, but I must know who makes those women’s Mary Janes. They are perfect.


26 Linda February 27, 2014 at 1:39 pm

Would love to know the best type of fabric for shining shoes. Diaper? Flannel? Chamois?

I want to make some and dont know what type of fabric is best.

Thank you to any suggestions


27 Cris July 21, 2014 at 4:46 pm

OMG, when I was young, in my school years really, I remember being the one to wax, polish, etc everybody’s shoes every saturday. I followed the same steps with the same materials. I liked it. I think I haven’t done it since then. I just dust them once in a blue moon, but my more than 200 pairs look good enough. After reading this article I felt like doing it again, it’s like the new wave of shaving with brush, blade and soap.


28 May August 11, 2014 at 3:36 pm

ah the art of shoe polishing. Both of my dads did this as a ritual when I was growing up. It seemed like such a pleasant task. As a result I now do it as an adult at least once a month and I’m a woman who loves high quality shoes. In fact, I think I’m the only woman I know who does her own shoes. Decided the key to great results is to slow down and just enjoy it. It’s therapeutic.


29 Nellster August 19, 2014 at 1:46 pm

Great post! To really make them shine, try using some old pantyhose to buff.


30 Nick Westwood June 18, 2015 at 1:05 am

The number one point, remove laces first. Reasons, polish gets on laces look like lazy cleaning, two with laces in place you are unable to feed the leather on the tongue ensuring supple and water ressistant leather . Thank you.


31 David Parker October 14, 2015 at 6:37 pm

Great article. Some great suggestions too and I’d like to add one. Instead of cleaning with just a brush, use a product like Allen Edmonds cleaner/conditioner or even better Sahir Renovator. A little bit prevents wax build up, feeds the leather and prepares the surface better for the wax and cream. Really necessary if you live in a cold climate where road salt may get on your shoes. Allen Edmonds has great products at a reasonable price. Saphir is the best and can be found at the Hanger Project. Either way, I get complements on my shoes all the time and some are almost 30 years old! One more thing- never wear a pair two days in a row if you can avoid it. Get the shoe trees suggested. Great article!


32 Charles Ohrtman January 26, 2016 at 8:15 pm

For a little character I will use a very light coat of navy every fourth or fifth time I polish my browns.


33 ed August 21, 2016 at 12:56 pm

i polish my shoes the way you shown, every saturday evening. use tree shoes. 15 years old, leather soles. however over these past 6 months i have gotten a moddled look, light to dark brown over both shoes. what am i doing wrong? thanks for your help


34 Suleiman August 22, 2016 at 8:17 pm

Thanks for the post. As a newbee to Pinterest I love reading about things that’s part of my Lifestyle & caring for my shoes is a big thing. As s self-confessed shoe fanatic, I spend most mornings cleaning & buffing the shoe of the day! I love your tips and suggestions. My biggest challenges are to find proper brushes ( always getting hard synthetic ones) and lately realizing that in South Africa -finding a cobbler seems impossible as it has faded away as a trade.
Thanks and keep on sharing great ideas all.


35 Chandra October 26, 2016 at 1:50 am

GREAT post. KEEPING my shoes in good shape for long time


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