Caring for Leather Shoes and Leather Boots

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Leather and leather shoes both need proper care if you want them to last a long time.

It’s easy to understand why humans have been wearing leather apparel for thousands of years. Flexible, strong, functional, and decorative, it’s one of the most versatile materials around. But it’s not indestructible. If you have leader goods, particularly leather footwear, you need to know a few essentials about caring for leather. We’ve compiled the following tips.

Breaking In

Leather boots and leather shoes need to be broken in to be comfortable. Depending on the kind of leather and the type of construction, this can take a little or a long time. In the course of researching this subject, we encountered suggestions ranging from the barely plausible to the patently ridiculous, all of them aimed at breaking in new boots in the shortest amount of time with the least discomfort to the wearer.

One suggestion that apparently gets a lot of play is filling the boots with water and letting them stand overnight, then wearing them with two pairs of socks for several hours the next day. Unless broken in means “broken down” to you, don’t do this. Water will soak into the unprotected threads in the insole seams and cause them to rot. Mildew will form inside the shoe, where it’s nearly impossible to get out.

An equally unworkable way to break in and stretch tight boots was related by a shoemaker who’s been repairing shoes for 50 years. Farmers would, he claimed, fill their boots with cracked, dried corn and add water. The corn would swell to many times its original size, pushing against the leather evenly in all directions to stretch arid soften it. “Of course,” he winked, “you had to watch it so they didn’t explode on ya!” Uh-huh.

Well, with all that in mind, the bad news is that there’s no quick way to make new boots fit and feel like old ones. Breaking in boots takes time, travel, and, unfortunately, some pain as your skin and the leather work out an adequate compromise. You can, however, ease the process somewhat.

First, make sure your boots fit, and when you find a brand that fits well, breaks in without undue hardship, and gives good service, stick with it no matter what the “in” boot happens to be at the moment. Try on several styles in various length and width combinations. Listen to the outfitter: He or she can advise you on what boot to buy for your intended activity. Try different sizes on each foot. Few people realize that their feet are probably of slightly different shape and size, and that sizes vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.

Once you’ve got a pair of boots you like, find out what they’re made of. Chrome-tanned leather and oil-tanned leather are very different in their strength, water-resistance, and response to dressing and chemicals. Take the trouble to ask or write the maker before you start slopping goop all over them.

Now you’re ready to take them home and break them in. One tactic that minimizes discomfort while breaking in a boot is to use an already broken-in leather or foam-rubber insole. These are available from shoe repairers, and the foam kind can be found at drugstores and the like. Keep a couple of pairs of these in use in various shoes and sneakers, and you’ll always be ready to slip a pair into your new boots. Take them along when you go shopping to make sure they’ll fit well. Actually, using insoles in all your shoes at all times is a good way to gain miles of comfortable travel.

Waterproofing New Boots

Before setting out on your first jaunt, apply a waterproofing solution or wax to your boots. Here’s where it’s important to know what your boots are made of. Oil-tanned leather should be treated with oil — neat’s-foot is cheapest, mink oil more expensive — or an oil-based commercial coating. Chrome-tanned leather, on the other hand, doesn’t like oil, which clogs the pores.

For new boots, an oil-based paste is probably best for oil-tanned leather, as it won’t soak in readily and won’t saturate threads. Chrome-tanned leather should be sprayed with silicone spray, or waxed with a good shoe wax.

Many people mistakenly assume they don’t need to waterproof new boots; they think the “factory” does it. Well, in many cases they’re wrong, and even if they’re right, the months those boots spend in transit and storage take their toll on any waterproofing with the exception of silicone. Be safe. Apply waterproofing.

With your boots thus protected, get your feet ready. If you wear your boots with no socks for a few hours indoors — no heavy walking, of course — you’ll soon feel where they’re likely to pinch, rub, or bind. Reinforce those places before setting out on your first serious walk by applying moleskin or plastic adhesive bandages. Next, wear two pairs of socks, both cotton. Avoid wool and synthetic socks in new boots, as they tend to slip and slide inside the boot, and you’ll be doing enough of that anyway. Loosen the bottom laces, but keep the top few tight enough to avoid chafing at your ankles.

Now, walk, avoiding tough terrain, steep slopes, rocky hillsides, etc. Gradual, rolling terrain is best. Check your laces once in a while. Your feet will probably swell and the laces will become tight, so loosen them. Stop and rest your feet from time to time, and take a look at them, too. Patch up any spots that may be becoming blistered, with moleskin or adhesive bandages, and promptly treat any broken skin you find.

Try to spend as much time in your new boots as your feet will allow. The wearing process is slow, but it is easier to work on it continually for a week than once a week for a month; the leather will “remember” which way it’s supposed to stretch.

If, through vanity or ignorance, you’ve bought a pair of too-small boots, you can stretch them with shoe trees. It’s better to find a shoemaker who’ll do this for you, though, as he or she is less likely to split a seam by using too-large stretchers.

Most “shoe-ease” products are alcohol-based, which will certainly allow leather to stretch, but will just as certainly hasten breakdown. These products are usually sold in small amounts in aerosol cans, which makes them expensive and hard to apply to the right spot inside the shoe, which is where you need them.

A better way is to use a cotton ball soaked in 70 percent isopropyl rubbing alcohol (which has very little water in it). Wring the cotton almost dry, then rub the alcohol on the spot you want to stretch; don’t soak the entire inside of the boot. Wearing two pairs of cotton socks, don the boot immediately and wear it for at least an hour. This “shock treatment” isn’t good for your boots, but it can help solve problem cases for people with oddly shaped feet.

Giving Water the Boot

Boots must be thoroughly dried before waterproofing. You do much more harm than good by coating leather that still has a lot of moisture in it. (And that means the insides, too, as perspiration contains salts and acids which will work on leather and thread. It should be standard procedure to wipe out your sweaty boots with an absorbent cloth every time you take them off.)

Drying boots that have become soaked or covered with mud takes time. Unfortunately, you don’t have much time in the field, and so will seldom be able to properly dry your boots overnight in camp. One thing not to do is try to speed up the process by applying heat or hanging the boots near the fire or stove. This will dry the boots, all right, but it will also crack the leather and cause it to blister and stiffen. Remember, leather is skin.

The best thing you can do with wet leather boots in camp is wash them off and hang them upside down in an airy place, away from direct sun (which will also dry and crack leather). For such short-term drying, don’t fill the boots with newspaper, cloth, or other absorbent matter. Overnight, this will hold moisture inside the boot and inhibit the free circulation of air.

If you can, blot the insides of the boots with an absorbent cloth once an hour or so, particularly if your boots have been soaked clear through. Hanging boots upside down allows water to pool inside the uppers, where it gets little if any air.

If you’re at home and have the luxury of ample drying time, you should modify the above procedures somewhat. Again, wash off all the mud and crud you can with clear water. Use a soft brush this time, however, and an old toothbrush to scrub out the welt. Yes, you’ll force some mud into the seams and leather, but since you won’t be wearing the boots for a while and will have time to saddle soap them before waterproofing, this is less of a problem. If, of course, your boots are just slightly muddy, or if you don’t need a saddle soap and waterproofing treatment yet, just wash them off in clear water.

Once washed, the boots should be blotted dry, inside and out, and placed in an airy place out of sunlight and away from direct heat sources. This time, don’t hang them up. This will lengthen the drying time somewhat, but will allow water inside the boot to evaporate through the uppers instead of pooling there. Naturally, you’ll have to blot out the insides every so often, as water will pool in the heel and ball areas.

The experts disagree on using absorbent material inside boots during slow drying. On one hand, it will definitely act as a wick to draw water out of the leather. On the other, it wicks toward the inside, which is where your boots will stay wettest longest anyway. In humid climates, or during warm weather, this can pose a significant mildew problem as well, so we advise against stuffing boots.

There’s an argument for stuffing that says really wet boots need the internal support of stuffing to keep their form while drying. If you dry your boots slowly, away from heat, they shouldn’t stiffen and curl anyway, and even if they do, it’s doubtful that newspaper would help much. Don’t stuff.

Never leave the laces in wet boots. Moisture will collect underneath them, making perfect little mildew incubators. Remove the cotton or nylon laces, wash them in soapy water, rinse thoroughly, and hang them up to dry. When dry, fabric laces can be sprayed with silicone, which will help keep them from rotting from absorbed moisture. Leather laces should also be removed and rinsed in clear water until all surface dirt is gone. Hang them up, away from heat, and soak them in neat’s-foot oil before replacing them.

Once your boots are thoroughly dry, inspect them for damage or evidence of drying out. If you’ve recently waterproofed them and not subjected them to repeated soakings, you probably don’t need another treatment, and too much waterproofing isn’t a good idea. On the other hand, if you notice white deposits, cracks, or stiffened spots, it’s time to re-treat.

Boots should be warmed thoroughly to help open the pores in the leather before waterproofing. This is especially necessary for older boots, which may have clogged pores. Leave already dry boots near, not on, a heat vent, radiator, or woodstove for an hour, turning occasionally, until the leather is warm. Apply the waterproofing paste or oil evenly with your hand or a brush. Don’t neglect the welt area. Use special welt sealer (not airplane glue) if you’ve experienced leaking in this vulnerable area. Let the waterproofing soak in. That’s it.

Another point of contention among experts is whether or not to apply waterproofing to the inside of the tongue. We vote against that for the same reason we advise against putting oil inside the boots during breaking in: It inhibits the movement of moisture and tends to saturate and rot cotton thread (especially oil-based waterproofing).

Leather Lather

For basket cases — boots that have been abused, repeatedly soaked, allowed to dry with mud caked on them, used in or near salt water, or dried with heat — you should saddle soap them before applying any coating. Even if you are able to remove all visible dirt and stains with just water, you won’t get the deep dirt out. Saddle soap will not only get that dirt out, it will soften and massage the leather, making it more pliable and less likely to crack.

Saddle soap is often misunderstood. It is real soap, capable of emulsifying grease and dirt and allowing water to float them away. It is also oil-based, so, unlike detergent, it needn’t be rinsed out of leather. Saddle soap is, in fact, a one-step conditioner if used correctly.

For those basket-case boots, first brush them with a stiff brush to remove as much caked-on crud as possible. Then wash them in clear water, which should get rid of the rest of the surface dirt. Now, use the saddle soap. The proper way to use this product is sparingly. It isn’t “new and improved,” so it requires a bit of elbow grease to work up a lather. And that’s exactly what you want: a good, rich lather. The best way to get this is to take a wet sponge that has been wrung out, and collect a small amount of saddle soap on it. Then rub the sponge inside a bowl until it is lathered. Use water sparingly. Go back to the can and pick up more soap as needed, but do not just scoop it out … you want lather, not paste.

When you’ve got a good bowlful of lather, add a little water, and begin to work the soap into the boots with a circular motion. You can use the sponge for this, or a soft-bristled brush. If the boots were particularly dirty, you’ll notice the lather turning brown. Wipe it off and keep wiping off any excess that shows dirt. You may have to go over the entire boot two or three times until the soap stops picking up dirt. Once you’ve gotten a clear lather, wipe it off and put the boots aside to dry. The boots can then be treated with waterproofing as described above.

Repair and Refurbishment

A good pair of leather boots should last for years. Such minor damage as broken or missing eyelets, pulled stitches, and cracked soles aren’t reason enough to buy new boots. You can fix some damage yourself. Resewing loose or rotted seams with an awl or two needles is particularly easy.

If you sew your shoes, sew all the seams (or at least as many as you feel comfortable doing). Seams on the uppers, particularly the heels, collars, and moccasin toes, can be easily restitched. Use waxed linen or cotton/poly thread — the heavy stuff — which you can get at leather stores. Don’t mess with broken or torn welts, though; they’re a job for a good shoemaker. Ditto for cracked soles.

Broken eyelets can be punched out and replaced with a leatherworker’s eyelet tool, though a shoemaker can do this a lot easier than you can. Check eyelets carefully. They can pull and develop sharp edges, which will increase your shoelace failure rate beyond endurance.

Sad to say, rotted or torn linings are nearly impossible to repair or replace at reasonable cost. If the lining is coming out in pieces, the boots are about done for and not worth wasting time and money on. That’s why you should take care to dry the insides of your boots as thoroughly as you can.

Deteriorating linings are usually accompanied by unpleasant odors, as fungi and bacteria feed on the dirt- and body-oil-soaked leather.

You can prevent this social evil by sprinkling a little baking soda, borax, or cornstarch into the boots and letting them sit overnight. This will also help draw moisture out of the leather. Mildew spots can be treated with a 50 percent solution of denatured alcohol. Wipe the solution on with a clean cloth and let it dry thoroughly before using the boots.

Hard, lugged, synthetic Vibrant soles are extremely popular these days because of their gripping ability on rough terrain. But they’re hard to repair. You can’t have a new sole or heel slapped on as you can with many other kinds.

Bad-Habit Breakdowns

Most people tend to “walk down” one part of the heel more than the rest. Take a look at your shoes. You’re probably walking toward the outside. In time, your gait will be affected, and that will affect the performance and longevity of your boots. The stress you put on the outside of the shoe can in time break down the welt on that side, as well as pulling the insole away from the welt on the other. The solution is simple: Put plastic or nylon cleats on your new boots, before you begin wearing them down. You can figure out where to put them by looking at a worn pair. Cleats are cheap and easy to install. Use ribbed or threaded nails and epoxy cement.

“Walkover” is one cause of premature boot failure. Another is walking around with unlaced boots. If your boots are so hot you have to unlace them to feel comfortable, you have more boot than you need.

Another bad habit is carelessness in putting on and taking off boots. A lot of people jam their foot into the boot, then struggle and wiggle their heel down inside, all the while trying to tug the tongue into place. The counters — the backs of the uppers — take a lot of beating from this. The right way is to unlace the first four or five eyelets (many boots have “speed laces” here; if yours don’t, you can have them put on at a shoemaker’s shop) and loosen the rest. Pull the tongue forward and put your toes inside. Grasp the top of the collar at the rear (perhaps there’s a loop there; if not, you can have one put on or do it yourself), and pull the boot onto your foot.

Remove your boots just as carefully. Loosen all the laces, pull the tongue forward, and pull the boot off by grasping the heel.

“Creeping tongue” is a problem nearly as pernicious as “creeping laces.” Both can be fixed with a minimum of effort. Cut two parallel slices lengthwise through the tongue, even with the third eyelet down. When lacing your boots, pass the laces through these slits, and the tongue will be locked in place. Tie a knot in the exact center of each shoelace before inserting them into the shoes. The knots will ride in the centers of the tongues, between the bottom eyelets, keeping the laces in their places.

Those are the fundamental Golden Rules of leather footwear care. Unfortunately, “Take care of your shoes and they’ll take care of you” is a lesson learned by most of us, too often, the hard way. Leather walking shoes and hiking boots are essential outdoor gear, but frequently outdoorsfolk take them for granted, denying them the little maintenance and care they require, expecting them to last forever. At today’s prices, you can’t afford to do that.

EDITOR’S NOTE:FromTaking Care of Outdoor Gear,copyright © 1983 by Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, PA. Adapted with permission of the publisher. Taking Care of Outdoor Gear is available from the publisher.