The Art of Shoe Maintenance

Whether you’re rockin’ white sneakers or leather boots, here’s what you need to do to make ’em last
January 8, 2019Words by Lyndsay Harper

“Invest in a good pair of shoes and a good mattress, ‘cause if you’re not in one, you’re in the other.”


After hours of online research, you’ve finally found the perfect pair—those handmade boots you’ve been lusting after, or that coveted pair of fresh sneaks. You pop ‘em out of the box, catch a satisfying whiff of that new rubber sole, lace them up for the the first time, and leave the house with a literal spring in your step. Ah, those first few days are glorious. Your new kicks are bright, scuff-free and the center of your universe. You avoid puddles like the plague. The accidental flat tire warrants a death-glare you didn’t know you were capable of. They’re the most precious wardrobe items you’ve ever owned—until they’re not. Eventually every shoe loses its outta-the-box luster. After enough wears, it’s impossible to avoid every scuff, scratch, and stain. But before you pull them out of rotation, we’ve got a few life-lengthening tricks up our sleeve. With the right care kit and cleaning regimen, you can save your favorite pair from early retirement. Here’s a quick how-to guide on giving your favorite kicks a second (or third, or fourth) shot at life.

The first thing you need to know: Different materials require different care. Before you layer on the conditioner, start scrubbing aggressively, or use any chemicals, verify which material you’re working with.

Leather boots


From your most reliable and rugged work boots to those date-night dress shoes, a slick pair of leather kicks can take most outfits from zero to a hundred real quick. And coming from a team that searches high and low for the best shoe brands out there, we get it—premium leather shoes don’t always come cheap. So why not show them some love and extend the life of your investment? With the right maintenance tools, your kicks will look handsome and rugged, not old and dirty. We suggest picking up these care kits from Red Wing Heritage—certified experts who know a thing or two about high-quality boot care.

Clean leather shoes



For smooth leather:
Wipe down

For smooth leather, wet a damp cloth and give them a good wipe down. No need for soap (or spit) here, just good ol’ tap water will do the trick. Whenever your shoes look a little dusty or dirty, this is a good idea. You’re never sure what harmful spills or chemicals have made their way onto your favorite pair, but this simple trick will help them last. Your everyday boots should be wiped down once or twice a week.

For suede:

Nubuck and suede shouldn’t be wiped down. In fact, avoid getting these guys wet if you can. Instead, there are suede-specific brushes that you should use to remove dirt and smudges. Brush gently in one direction for a uniform result. Use a rubber eraser (gently!) on suede and nubuck to help remove any stubborn smudges.

For white leather sneakers:
Nail polish remover

For white leather sneakers, you can use nail polish remover or anything alcohol-based to keep them clean. In a pinch, Purell.

“For white leather sneakers, I use nail polish remover or anything alcohol-based to keep them clean. In a pinch, Purell.” —Luis Cancel, Editorial

Protect leather shoes


For smooth leather:

Polish is purely for aesthetics. It won’t waterproof or condition, but it sure as hell keeps them looking sharp. A good polish will increase the shine of any smooth leather styles, giving them a nice, rich luster. This requires a little research, as you need to match the color to your shoes, so spot testing is something we always recommend. You can polish as much or as little as you want, it depends if you’re going for a well kept or worn in look.

For smooth leather:
Conditioners, creams, and oils

Leather conditioners, creams, and oils all work the same way lotion does for your skin. They moisturize and soften the material while keeping it from drying out and cracking. They have varying ingredients, but all will help protect your shoes from harsh environments and most definitely extend their life. Your everyday boots should be wiped down once or twice a week and conditioned every one to six months, again depending on the look you’re going for. Make sure to look at the ingredient list—some oils contain waterproofing ingredients like silicon, or creams will include natural water-repelling beeswax, but not always. If not, we recommend using an all-season leather protectant like the one below.

For smooth leather:
Beeswax leather protectant

For truly hydrophobic shoes, Sno-seal is our go-to beeswax waterproofer. To apply, use a hairdryer to warm up the leather and work in as much Sno-seal as your boot will absorb. Remove any excess wax with a paper towel or old rag and use a brush to buff. Then, you’re free to trek through snow, mud, puddles, and anything else you might come across. But note, beeswax will darken your leather, so test on a small swatch first to make sure you’re okay with the change. 

For suede:
Leather protector spray

Suede and nubuck require slightly different upkeep. Both have a more brushed, velvet-like handfeel, so polishes and conditioners don’t pair well. A leather protector spray will keep water and grime from penetrating and soaking into the fibers. 

Finishing touches for leather shoes


Let them breathe

Something that's not common knowledge (but should be) is that you should occasionally let your leather shoes rest a day between wears, preferably on a shoe tree. Otherwise, the shoe can eventually rot from the constant moisture.

Keep them out of intense light and heat

If you leave any leather out in direct sunlight it will fade much faster, begin to shrink, and crack much worse. Conditioner helps, but avoid this if you can.

“I've seen a couple customers destroy their boots by wearing them every single day with no off days.” —Michael Ichioka, Customer Experience

Cloth shoes


Sneakers, athletic shoes, and street shoes will often use a breathable fabric (like canvas or wool) for the upper. It’s ideal for ventilation and casual outfitting, but cloth (especially when white) can pick up dirt, dust, and grime easily. These maintenance tips can help alleviate your off-white woes.

Clean cloth shoes



You can freshen up non-leather shoes by doing what you do with most clothes—toss them in the wash. Just make sure you take out the laces (they can get stuck in the spin cycle) and put them in a protective case (a pillowcase or delicates bag will do just fine). Put the shoes in the wash on a delicate cycle with cold water. You can throw in some old towels to help keep your shoes from clunking around, just be sure to use old towels. New towels leave lint and dye behind. The laces can be washed on a warmer cycle. It’s tempting, but do not put them in the dryer. This will warp your beloved sneakers and mess with any rubberized material.

Wash by hand

If you’re scared the washing machine is a little too aggressive, a good hand wash goes a long way. Mix warm water with with liquid detergent, gently scrub all surfaces with a soft brush or cloth. You can replace the laces with fresh ones (recommended), or wash them separately on a warm cycle. Make sure to rinse off and soak up any remaining soap.

“Another option, clean the marks on your soles using baking soda as an abrasive—it doesn’t scratch. Any sneaker or shoe sole will be completely restored. White sneaker soles will look totally new.” —Lisa Eugene, Fraud Team

Protect cloth shoes


You should do this straight outta the box as well, but spray your newly cleaned sneaks with a stain and water repellent. We recommend Scotchgard for anything canvas. After every deep cleaning (using the steps above), reapply a protective coat.

Finishing touches cloth shoes


For extra dirty soles, Mr. Clean Magic Erasers can work wonders. Make sure to spot test first—the eraser can remove or lighten the color of the actual shoe, so try it out on a small area first before going crazy on non-white sneaks. Air dry. Never machine dry.

>>Next: 9 Best Men's Boots for 2019


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