There are two kinds of boot people in this world:
the love 'ems and the leave 'ems.
The love 'ems take special care to research the leather, research the oil, research how best to apply oil to leather, and then photograph every step of the process to make sure their boots clean up as well as they did last time. To them, cleaning is an hours-long, cathartic process that restores their boots - their investments - to proper upkeep.
The leave 'ems take their boots off, and, they leave 'em. A well-worn boot is a badge of honor. Cleaning? Leave it to the weekend casuals.
Shockingly, both parties are right: if you want the absolute best life and results out of your leather boots, there's a time to clean and a time to neglect. Shoes aren't inexpensive, and a good pair can easily cost as much as your best weatherproof jacket. If you'd techwash your jacket and specially treat the rest of your gear, your shoes should be no exception.
No matter the leather, no matter the welt, cleaning and conditioning your leather footwear will add years back to the life of your investment and protect it from cracking, instability issues, and sweat-related rot.
Today on the Bivouac Blog, we learn how to clean and condition any pair of leather boots, from your trail-tested Merrells to your downtown-ready Wolverines. Get some towels ready.
How to Take Care of Your Leather Boots
Step 1: Prep Work.
"First and foremost, you have to analyze the leather to see what type it is
and be better able to select a care product for it"
"First and foremost, you have to analyze the leather to see what type it is and be better able to select a care product for it." (Merrell's Moab shoe uses bonded Dura-leather with a generally rougher texture and so can be treated with nearly any leather care product, for example. At Bivouac, we use Nikwax's Leather Conditioner.)
"The Wolverine 1000 Mile Boot uses a smooth, full-grain Horween Chromexcel leather (similar to the paneling of a Vasque Sundowner, but with much higher quality skin) that requires a bit more care and a more gentle conditioner."
Your shoe's leather profile is usually found either on the inside of the shoe's upper, or can easily be researched with a quick Google search.
Once you've done your homework, it's time to do the prep work: "Once you've got a general idea of the level of care your shoe's leather demands, the next step is to prep the surface. With a damp, soft cloth, wipe the surface down and make sure any salt, dirt, dust, any sort of surface particulate that's visible.
"If you wore the boot that day and there's visible particulate build-up especially from salt, the best long term strategy is to actually wipe it down then and there because otherwise that line will set in and cause irreparable damage as the salt eats into the skin. A simple home remedy for the winter is a white vinegar and water solution - if you treat your boots with a light coating, it actually prevents salt from sticking."
Step 2: Love 'em.
"A little goes a long way with any cleaning product:
start with a little and add more throughout the process."
"Once you've prepped your boots, they're ready for the application of some kind of cleaning product. Usually, you want to start with a leather conditioner (Allen Edmonds brown leather conditioner shown here). Place a dab on a paper towel or a soft cloth, and really work it into the leather. A little goes a long way with any cleaning product: start with a little and add more throughout the process.
"Remember to condition the seams, and make sure every exposed surface of the boot is covered. Conditioner soaks into the leather like a moisturizer does on your own skin, so it may darken the appearance of the boot temporarily. In my experience, the boot will lighten back up just fine with wear. If you really want to add the color back in right away, you can use a complimentary colored polish, but with any sort of casual leather, the more character the better. The boot develops its own personality along the way and really becomes 'your boot'."
Step 3: After Care.
"With any full-grain leather, a good brush is a must."
"After you've cleaned the shoe, a nice leather cream is essential to rebuild the shoe's protective barrier. The cream will give the shoe an oiled coating to help guard against all that inclement weather and particulate damage we discussed earlier, and even just the smallest coat of product will yield dramatic results come winter.
"Once the cream is on, I recommend buffing the entire shoe with a horsehair brush to restore its luster and shine. With any full-grain leather, a good brush is a must. Cedar shoe trees are also a good idea because they help draw out sweat (which is especially damaging, since it essentially just puts all that salt on the vulnerable side of your boot's protective barrier) and also keep the general shape of the boot while they're off your feet."
Step 4: Leave 'em.
"For longevity's sake, plan to fully clean and condition them about once a season"
Once the cleaning is done, it's time to hurry up and do... well, nothing: "Let the boot sit for overnight to really let those products absorb in and set on their own, uninterrupted. If you have to run right out the door, that's fine too, but ideally you'd give the shoes their time and space to dry.
So what's the best cleaning schedule to make sure you don't stress the leather through over-cleaning? "For longevity's sake, plan to fully clean and condition them about once a season. Dealing with the immediate weather damage after an especially wet or dusty day out is a given, but find time every few months to do the full routine. Just how you'd moisturize your hands to prevent them from cracking, so should you condition your leather boots. Proper maintenance is essential to protecting against premature cracking, unnecessary weather damage, and whatever else you can throw at your boots."
There you have it: with some prep work, a little bit of love and conditioning, and just a bit of downtime before you wear them again, your leather boots will last decades longer and fight even the most brutal Michigan winter that make better.
Thank you to Mr. Richard Bellas and everyone at Van Boven Shoes for taking the time to sit down with us and discuss everything boots!
Want to pick up any of the cleaners discussed here today, try on a pair of those gorgeous Wolverines, or even just smell some really good leather? Head on over to Van Boven Shoes in Nickel's Arcade and see it all for yourself.
Bivouac: Where Outdoor Passion Meets Indoor Fashion.