It is was once considered an essential skill for a man to know how to brush, polish and shine his leather dress shoes and boots. Tragically most men today will never learn the craft unless they join the military, one of the last institutions with a dress code that requires a man to brush his shoes and learn to do so. Yet even this long lasting tradition among soldiers has started to fall out of fashion, as desert style jungle boots have become standard issue by the US Military — these boots cannot be polished. Furthermore many soldiers now wear glossy faux-leather shoes that do not require polishing.
So perhaps I am among the last generation of men who learned how to shine his shoes and boots in the Army the old fashioned way. As such it may be my duty to pass on the techniques my drill instructors taught me to future generations of men. Which brings us to this guide on how to brush and shine your dress shoes and boots.
Organizing your shoe and boot polishing kit
Every man who owns leather shoes and boots must own a kit to take care of them. Leather rots easily when not protected from the elements and the only way to protect them is to polish them with paste. This is the functional purpose of polishing boots and shoes. Leather shoes and boots that are well polished and cleaned regularly will last for many years; shoes and boots that are not cared for properly will rot within days.
To properly polish your shoes requires the proper supplies and tools for the task. While there are many so-called polishing kits sold on the market today, my opinion is that most are poorly created. Kiwi is the market leader in shoe polish and it is brand most men purchase, as well as their starter kits. However I do not recommend them. I find their polish to be inferior to other manufacturers and the tools of their kits to be poor for the cost. Kiwi has become the market leader by producing inexpensive paste and tools with a large markup.
You should instead use Lincoln branded shoe polish, which is a softer and more creamy brand of polish that is also water-proof and does not crack after drying like Kiwi typically does.
Additionally the size of bags and boxes included with many pre-built shoe polish kits are too small for the accessories you need to properly polish your shoes, which with my directions includes a heat gun. Subsequently I use a large clear makeup bag and I suggest you do the same for your kit, too.
The essential items you will need for your shoe polish kit are the following:
- 1 Clear makeup bag, large size
- 1 heat gun
- Cans of black and neutral Lincoln shoe polish
- 2 small shoe polish applicator brushes (one for neutral and one for black)
- 1 good shoe medium sized polishing brush made from horsehair.
- 1 dual sided shoe cleaning brush.
- 1 hand towel
- A bag of cotton balls, or alternatively a piece of ripped white t-shirt.
- Several ziplocks bags to put your cans of shoe polish and brushes into separately.
You may also as an option wear disposable latex gloves if you are very concerned about getting your hands dirty, and for beginners this could be a good idea. Personally I don’t bother because I don’t get my hands very dirty while polishing my shoes.
As my original shoe polish kit is something I assembled over twenty years ago as a young man in the Army, I have assembled a new kit from supplies purchased from Amazon so that I can show you how easy and how affordable it is to put together a good shoe polish kit. You do not need half of the things that are advertised to men for shoe polishing — you don’t need gizmos like electric shoe buffers and all of this other nonsense.
All you need are the items featured here, plus some ziplock bags, one small hand towel and cotton balls from the grocery store.
If you purchase the clear makeup bag for your kit as I am recommending you to do, the heat gun I list here will fit inside the bag in addition to everything else. This makes it easy and straight forward to organize your kit.
The Youngjoy brush kit comes with two polish applicators, one medium size brush, a detail brush and for some reason a smaller applicator brush. The microfiber towel is nice but unnecessary for the style of shoe polishing I am teaching you and a microfiber towel won’t work for the type of final touch I instruct (they are designed to lift up dust, and should not be wetted). Regardless this affordable brush kit is sufficient for all your shoe brushing needs.
On the subject of whether to use brown polish for brown boots and shoes, it depends. If the leather is not true brown but another shade of brown, such as a burnished brown or oxblood or something you should use neutral polish. Otherwise it will change the color of the shoe or boot. To be safe when in doubt use neutral polish for brown shoes and boots.
Brushing the Shoes
First you should lay the small hand washing towel on a flat surface and set your shoes on them. This creates a surface area for any fallen specs of dirt, shoe polish and such to be caught and not damage your floor, table or wherever else you are polishing your shoes.
You want to use your brush to clean any dirt off your shoes. To do this simply remove the laces from your shoes and then brush them.
A proper shoe cleaning brush usually has two sides to its thistles; one black and one that is neutral color. These are for using on black or brown shoes, respectively. Do not use the black side on neutral colored shoes. As this brush will eventually pick up pieces of the polish from your shoes you do not want to mix the sides up, otherwise you can smear pieces of black shoe polish on your brown shoes.
I should mention here that after you have polished your shoes for the first time, a simple brushing of your shoes after usage will restore a clean crisp look to them without necessarily needing to re-apply any polish to them. Occasionally, when your shoes sit for a long time they can start to built up some white lines along the seams and a simple brushing will dispense with this. It is often enough to avoid your shoes from rotting away to simply brush them when you see white lines appear.
Applying shoe polish to your shoes
You want two polish applicator brushes; one for neutral color paste that can be used on brown shoes, and one for black. You cannot mix these up, as it will ruin your shoes. You will find it nearly impossible to clean a brush that is used for applying shoe polish so it is better for these to be separate brushes. Applicator brushes are small brushes, somewhat of a similar size as shaving cream applicator brushes yet with more firm bristles.
To begin applying you will scrub a good chunk of polish onto your brush and then smear it on your shoe, covering the whole of it. You should cover the entire exterior of the shoe, tongue and all. Obviously do not put polish on the inside of the shoe where you foot will go and do not apply paste to the bottom of the shoe, either.
After you have applied shoe polish to your shoes you will then place your applicator brush into a zip lock bag. This will prevent the brush from dirtying the rest of your kit. Likewise you should put your shoe polish into baggies to prevent their contents from spilling out of the cans, as is a common occurrence.
How to brush your shoe until it has a spit shine look
Next take your medium size brush and simply brush the polish in until it has a dull matte look that is evenly spread among the shoe. It is important to do this with the medium size brush and not the brush for cleaning your shoes.
You will then will use the heat gun on the low temperature setting to melt the shoe polish on the shoe in a specific area, which quickly manifests as a shiny spot on the shoe. This will happen in just a few seconds of directing heat to the polish.
You will then take some lightly damp cotton balls that have been wetted in some water and then make small circles on the heated area of the shoe. This is how you do a proper military style spit shine.
If you don’t want to use cotton balls, you can alternatively use a white napkin or even piece of torn up t-shirt to buff the melted polish. This will create the same effect.
In the olden days men would use lighters to heat up a spoon and then apply the spoon to the leather to melt the polish, but this is a far more time consuming process that can lead to uneven polishing. I recommend you use a heat gun instead.
Now let me explain why you use Lincoln shoe polish instead of Kiwi. Lincoln shoe polish will not easily crack while wearing your shoes. Doing a spit shine with Kiwi wax will often cause cracking, as the wax is of poor quality. I served five years in the military and this is how I always shined my boots for my entire service career; I never once experienced any cracking on my boots while using Lincoln shoe polish to perform a spit shine.
Lincoln shoe polish is often sold at military PXs however if you are a civilian you will need to order them off Amazon. Some specialty shoe stores may carry it but department stores like Walmart typically do not carry anything except Kiwi.
With Lincoln you will not need to apply anything else to protect your shoes or boots from water, as Lincoln polish is water proof.
There really isn’t more to this process than what I have described. There many other products, oils and gadgets people try to sell to men who are new to shoe polishing and you don’t need them.
Do you have any questions or comments you’d like to share? Let me know in the comment section to this article.