How to Shine Shoes: Your Guide to the Perfect Shoe Shine

There are few things that will make you impeccably dressed more than polished shoes. Keep your shoes looking brand new with the perfect shoe shine.

This guide will cover everything you need to know about how to shine shoes like a pro.

Did you know that one of the first things both men and women notice about you are your shoes?

When Will Rogers said, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” he very well may have been describing what people think as they evaluate the condition of your footwear.

Why do you think “well-heeled” means “wealthy”?

So if you want to start winning friends and influencing people, start by shining those shoes like a pro. This guide will show you all the steps to a great shoe shine.

Remember, your shoes are an investment, so make sure you protect them and treat them well, and they will return the favor.

Basic Shoe Care Tips

Learning how to shine your shoes is one of the most important steps in taking care of your footwear. If you treat your shoes as an investment and care for them properly, they will look neat and new for years, if not decades!

Altogether, there are three essential things you should always do for your shoes so they last longer.

#1 Always Shine Your Shoes

Always shine your shoes when you first buy them, before you wear them. You also will shine them on a regular schedule after that. This is part of the preventative maintenance that will help protect your shoe investment.

#2 Use Shoe Trees

Keep shoe trees in your shoes when you’re not wearing them. Make it part of your routine when you remove your shoes to put the shoe trees in immediately when you take your feet out.

The trees will help your shoes retain shape and prevent moisture and odors from damaging the leather.

#3 Protect Shoes from Moisture

Moisture protection is a must. There are two main options I like, mink oil and silicone spray.

Mink oil will waterproof and preserve the shoe, but it can darken lighter shades of leathers.

Silicone spray provides water protection and doesn’t alter the color.

These shoe care products are readily available at your local shoe repair, drug or grocery store, or online.

Different Kinds of Shoe Polish

It’s also important to make sure you buy the correct type of shoe polish for your shoes. There are two kinds of shoe polish: cream or paste polish and wax polish.

man demonstrating how to shine shoes by vigorously polishing a pair of black dress shoes.

Cream or Paste Polish

Cream or Paste polish moisturizes fine leather and keeps it flexible. It soaks into the leather and allows leather to breathe.

Most cream or paste polishes contain mineral oil. They can help restore shoe color but are not as good as wax polishes for covering scuffs.

Wax Polish

Wax polish shines leather better than cream, but it seals the leather and can cause it to dry out over time.

Most wax polishes contain Stoddard solvent (naphtha) or turpentine plus carnauba and/or beeswax. Wax is the most effective for covering scuffs.

Avoid Liquid Polish

Avoid liquid polish, although it puts a fast shine on your shoes, it can dry out and crack the leather.

Shoe Polish Products You Need

In addition to the aforementioned shoe polish products, you will need to have other shoe care items on hand to give your shoes the proper care.

Supplies you need to learn how to shine shoes - shoe cream, brush, cloth and boots.
Supplies you need to learn how to shine shoes – shoe cream, shoe wax, brush, cloth and boots.

Protective Spray for Leather

A water and stain protective spray for leather provides water protection and doesn’t alter the color. It’s not a substitute for polish but is a good companion to shoe care when you need the water protection. This is where the mink oil or silicone spray product we discussed earlier comes in handy.

One important thing to note is that there is some controversy about silicone or any petroleum-based product causing damage to shoe leather.

Leather Cleaner

Clean your shoes periodically with a leather cleaner. Then put in cedar shoetrees and let the shoe air dry. Shoes should never be put close to heat sources, which can dry out the leather.

When shoes are dry, you can apply a conditioner if needed and polish.

Shoe Cleaner

Shoe Cleaner is good for removing dirt, stains and the old built-up polish from leather. When extra layers of polish build-up, the leather is not able to breathe as well and perspiration can eventually break down the leather.

Cleaning can also restore the natural oils that keep leather pliable.

Avoid Acid or Detergent

Don’t use any cleaner on leather that contains an acid or a detergent. You can use saddle soap, Murphy’s Oil Soap, Ivory soap or a special cleaner made for shoe leather.


Clean your leather shoes with saddle soap, Murphy's Oil Soap, or something similar.
Clean your leather shoes with saddle soap, Murphy’s Oil Soap, or something similar.

You can find a great variety of these types of cleaners here on Amazon.

Apply with a damp cloth, wipe off and let dry.

Shoe Conditioner

Many shoemakers recommend a conditioner to keep leather shoes soft and supple and to moisturize them. This keeps the leather from cracking. Paste or cream polishes also keep the leather moisturized.

There are many good leather conditions on the market, mostly sold for leather jackets, furniture and purses. Some of the conditioners are known as balms.

Additionally, some conditioners come in combination with cleaners.

Shoe Repair

You should only shine your shoes if they are already in fantastic condition. As you wear your shoes quite a bit, you might experience some of these common shoe problems.

Here’s how to fix them properly before giving your shoes a shine.

Deep Scuffs or Watermarks

If you have a deep scuff or a watermark on your shoes you may want to strip off the polish. You can try using vodka or rubbing alcohol, however the process is a bit tricky. Therefore, this job is best left to a shoe repair shop, thus saving the vodka for yourself!

Refurbishing

If your shoes are in really bad shape look into a complete refurbishing by the original manufacturer. Most provide this service. You may have to send in your shoes to the factory, but you’ll get back a pair of shoes that look almost new.

If you can’t get them refurbished by the manufacturer, consider a using local cobbler instead.

Shoe Color Damage

Polishing will not restore damaged color. A polish has the ability to enhance the existing color. The lighter the color, the less dye is in the polish.

If your shoes have been scuffed deeply enough to have removed some color, it’s best to take your shoes to a professional shoe repair person.

There are color sprays available as well, but most have had very mixed results. If it’s a pair of shoes that you want to ensure are colored properly, use a professional.

Best Shoe Polish Color

What is the best color of shoe polish to use? Always try hard to match the polish to your shoes, as closely as you can.

Neutral is the “color” for light-colored shoes. Other colors may have to be matched by taking one of your shoes with you when you buy polish because some of the fancy names will throw you. Or you can ask your local shoe repair person what color is right.

How Shine Shoes

Here you go. Just follow these steps and you’ll have the perfect shoe shine every single time.

  1. Change into some old clothes.
  2. Clear an area and put down newspaper.
  3. Remove all dust and dirt by wiping the shoe, especially the heel and sole, with a cloth. If your shoes are really dirty, or if the shoes have stains use a leather cleaner such as saddle soap, Ivory soap or Murphy’s Oil soap.
  4. Apply the cleaner with a damp cloth (use very little water), wipe off and let them dry for five minutes before you start to shine them.
  5. Rub the shoe conditioner on, following the directions provided by the manufacturer.
  6. Now it’s time to polish. Shoes will be easier to shine if you leave your shoetrees inside the shoe. Additionally, if the shoe has laces you may want to remove them in order to best get to the shoe tongue and avoid staining the laces.
  7. Apply the correct colored polish to the first shoe and let it soak in while you apply polish to the other. Start from the heel, working toward the toe on one side, and back to the heel on the other, applying the polish evenly in a circular motion. Don’t put too much on—excess polish doesn’t help and takes longer to dry.
  8. Allow the shoes to dry (about 10 minutes).
  9. Buff the shoe with a polishing brush — preferably horsehair — and use a soft clean cloth (ladies hose work well) to bring out a high luster.
  10. Lastly, examine the soles of your shoe. Finish your shine with liquid sole and edge dressing applied to the edge of the soles.

How to Spit Shine Shoes

A common technique you might have heard is “spit shining” shoes. It’s a confusing term though because you should never actually use spit. You might contaminate the leather with sugar or other things that you just ate or drank. Plus, it’s just good manners to keep your saliva in your mouth.

Spit shining actually refers to the act of adding water to your shoes. As you apply polish the surface will dry and the cloth will slightly drag. At this point, give a “spit shine” by simply adding a drop or two of water. Continue this process over the entire shoe.

Over on shoegazing.com, they have a good article that gives a thorough overview of the technique and how to do it properly.

Oh, and if you want to see a master at work, mirror shining shoes, check out the Elegant Oxford YouTube channel.

How to Apply Shoe Polish

There are two popular ways to apply a shoe polish to shoes. One isn’t any better than the other, it all depends on what is most comfortable for you.

Use a Cleaning Rag

You can apply the polish with a soft, clean polishing ragold socks will work fine. Wrap the corner of the cloth around your first and second fingers of your dominant hand.

Twist the remainder of the cloth to tighten the portion around your fingers and hold that part in the palm of your hand. You may dampen the cloth.

Use a Horsehair Brush

You can also use a horsehair brush dauber instead of a cloth. They’re available at shoe repair or drug stores. If you use a dauber, you’ll need a different one for each color of polish you use. Even coffee filters can be used to apply shoe polish evenly!

Readers’ Tips and Tricks for Applying Shoe Polish

Here are some inventive ways others have used to apply shoe polish.

Use a Wet Sponge

Here’s a tip from “Dan from Boston” — Use a wet sponge to apply your polish, the polish will go on evenly and it helps add the right amount of moisture necessary for a good shine.

Use Hot Water

And for a “military shine”, another tip from Allison M. from Ventura, CA — When she was in the Marine Corps she used HOT WATER to keep the polish soft so that it worked into the leather better, and applied it with an old T-shirt. “I had such a great shine on my shoes and boots that many people asked me if I wore Corfam (fake patent leather) boots!”

Use a Real Chamois

Russell Keith, UK says, “did you know that after polishing (with wax polish), a buff up using a real (oil-dressed) chamois (NOT a synthetic chamois) folded into a pad will bring out a deeper shine and remove any excess polish which might otherwise come off on trousers or socks?”

Care Instructions for Special Shoes

How do you care for special shoes like ones made with luxury leathers or cloth? These shoes require extra steps and a few specialty products.

How to Care for Cordovan Shoes

How to shine cordovan shoes
How to shine cordovan shoes

Cordovan shoes (real shell cordovan, made from horsehide, not just shoes that are burgundy color) need some special care. Neutral cream or paste polish tends to leave a white film on Cordovan leather.

Most cordovan shoemakers recommend using cordovan color paste wax polish, and not shoe cream. Also beware that the shell cordovan creases are usually lighter, not darker, in color.

Cordovan leather is vegetable tanned instead of the modern method of “chrome” tanning. Since cordovan leather already contains a large amount of oil/wax, the polishing requirements are different from calfskin.

First, make sure to use a damp soft cloth for cleaning shell cordovan shoes.

Secondly, when you polish, be conservative with the amount. The most common mistake in shining cordovan shoes is using too much polish. The excess polish creates a layer of build-up, which has three negative effects:

  • It covers the natural beauty of the leather
  • It creates a grainy texture in the creases of the shoes
  • The build-up of polish scuffs easily and attracts dust

To avoid these effects, make sure to use only the thinnest film of polish when polishing your cordovan shoes. Just a very small amount, spread very thin over the shoe, is all that is needed to restore the color and luster.

After the polish is applied, let it dry, then brush it off with a horsehair brush. Next, wipe the final film of polish away with a soft buffing cloth.

Avoid These Things With Shell Cordovan Care

  1. Do not use “neutral” polish
  2. Don’t clean cordovan shoes using saddle soap
  3. Do not attempt to clean cordovan shoes using petroleum distillates or cleaning fluids
  4. Don’t use any spray shines or aerosol type waterproofs
  5. Do not attempt to dry wet shell cordovan shoes with heat or a heater Instead, wipe them dry, and allow them to dry naturally
  6. Don’t attempt to polish shell cordovan shoes while wet

Contact with water can sometimes cause cordovan leather to form small raised areas called “welts” (tiny bumps).

This is normal, and the welts will recede once the shoes are allowed to dry. Wipe the shoes dry as soon as convenient, and allow them to dry naturally.

Spewing, a natural milky residue of wax will often form on new shell cordovan shoes. This is a normal residue from the tanning of the leather. Wipe it off with a soft cloth or brushing. To remove the wax in difficult areas, such as between stitches, use a toothbrush.

Shoes Made with Exotic Skins

Exotic skins can be treated like calfskin, or with special conditioners that keep the leather from cracking. Take extra care when brushing to prevent scratching the surface.

Fabric Shoe Care

Fabric shoes can be cleaned with a mild spray fabric cleaner. Let the cleaner dry to a powder and brush off the residue with a stiff brush. You can also use Woolite.

How to Care for Suede Shoes

Suede can be cleaned with a clean soft brush (like a toothbrush), or you can buy special erasers (suede bars) to remove stains and dirt.

Raise the nap on suede by applying steam from a steam iron from about 10 inches away. Also, special brass-bristle brushes are available to raise the nap after cleaning.

A protective non-silicone finish (like Scotchgard) sprayed on new suede shoes will help repel water and stains.

Nubuck Shoe Care

Nubuck shoes are a brushed leather similar to suede, but with a finer nap.

Treat the shoes with water repellent, use a rubber-bristle brush (not nylon) or a suede bar.

Use the bar damp to clean and condition, and use the brush to lift the nap.

Patent Leather Shoe Care

Patent leather can be cleaned with a damp cloth using lukewarm water and plain soap or Windex. Shine with a smooth soft cloth. Don’t get any of the fabric wet (like the ribbon bow).

Common Shoe Problems and How to Fix Them

Occasionally you might run into issues as your shoes get more worn. Don’t worry, whether you get your shoes wet or your leather is cracking, just follow these tips to make your shoes last longer.

How to Care for Wet Shoes

If your shoes get wet, stuff them with terry cloth or paper towels, and let them dry away from direct heat at room temperature. Don’t polish your shoes while they are still wet.

How to Fix Salt on Shoes

Damaging white salt marks should be rinsed off immediately with a 50/50 mixture of white distilled vinegar and water. Wipe dry, and follow the directions for wet shoes.

How to Fix Squeaky Shoes

If you hear a jarring squeak with every step, the shoe’s soles may be breaking down due to the rubber or synthetic material. Try replacing the soles, preferably with leather.

It also may be that the shank, which is made of steel, is loose or defective. Some companies even make their shanks out of leather. This is an easy replacement for your shoe repair person.

Lastly, the tongue may be rubbing where the shoes are laced – just apply saddle soap to reduce the friction.

How to Get Scuffmarks off Shoes

Scuff marks on shoes can be treated in an emergency with a small amount of toothpaste on a damp rag, and then wiped.

How to Keep Shoelaces Tied

To keep shoelaces tied, try a light spritz of water on the laces after you’ve tied them, or pull the laces out and rub them lightly with a candle or paraffin wax to help them stick better to each other. Flat or waxed shoelaces stay tied better than round and unwaxed laces.

Moisture Protection

Mink oil will waterproof and preserve leather, but it can darken lighter shades of leathers. A water and stain protective spray for leather provides water protection and doesn’t alter the color. You can use the protective spray inside the shoes also.

If your shoes are in really bad shape look into a complete refurbishing by the original manufacturer. Most provide this service. You may have to send in your shoes to the factory, but you’ll get back a pair of shoes that look almost new.

Final Thoughts

Now that you have achieved the perfect shoe shine, you’re ready to go out on the town and really make a great first impression!

If you’re looking for other shoe-related information, be sure to check out these articles:

  • Learn the best ways to soften shoe polish that has been dried or become hardened here
  • Our Ready-to-Wear Shoe Pyramid article outlines the 5 ascending tiers of RTW shoes, examples of brands in each tier, and much more!

If you have any specific shoe shining questions, come join us in our Forums and have one of our resident experts answer your shoe shining question!