How to clean, polish, condition, and care for shoes made of calfskin & pebble grain leather, suede, and various exotic skins.
Once you've made the decision to invest in a great pair of leather shoes, it's important to take care of them. Of course, there are aesthetic benefits. We all want our shoes to look brand new as long as possible, and proper care can cause a shoe to "age well" and actually look better over time. But proper shoe care is about more than appearance. High-quality shoe care can double the lifespan of your shoes through moisturizing and conditioning of the leather. Additionally, you'll save yourself some costly trips to the repair shop to salvage your favorite pair. Shoe care isn't just a hobby and additional step. It's a lost art that should be a mandatory part of every guy's shoe experience.
The highest quality shoes are built from high-quality leathers that include calfskin, pebble grain, suede, and a wide range of exotic skins. Each type of leather requires a different method for ensuring proper care. Below we’ll cover several methods for caring for those specific leathers. Feel free to skip to the section you need using our quick links.
How to Shine:
Smooth Leather & Pebble Grain Shoes
Before you start caring for your shoes, it’s important to know a little about calfskin. You might hear a shoe salesperson refer to it as calf leather. As its name indicates, it’s produced from the hide of a calf. It’s a sought-after shoe material because of its softness, fine grain, and durability. Properly caring for calfskin shoes will help them look better with age and prevent drying or cracking. Pebble grain is a type of calfskin that has been pressed or embossed to create a grain pattern. It’s important to keep them clean to prevent wax or dirt buildup between the grooves of the grain. Despite the differences in texture, both calfskin and pebble grain leather shoes can be cleaned using the same series of steps.
You’ll need a few items to ensure you execute the process correctly. Among those items, you’ll need shoe trees (optional), a damp cloth, a horsehair brush, leather conditioner, shoe polish, and a dauber brush. You may need a bottle of nail polish remover if you’ve polished your shoes several times before.
The Shoe Care Process
The first part of the process is cleaning your shoes. You’ll eventually shine and condition them, but before you can do that, you need to remove dirt, dust, and any other filth that might be caked on your shoes.
If you’re working on lace up shoes, remove the laces to protect them from being stained by the products that will be used.
Insert a shoe tree in the shoe, or stuff the toe area with paper. Either is fine, this is to help the shoe retain it’s shape and give you a firm surface to work on. Take your damp cloth and wipe the entire surface of your shoes. If you notice that the color of the leather has changed while you’re wiping, this means your cloth is too wet. It’s important to ensure your cloth is simply damp and not soaking wet. The goal here is to remove any surface dirt. The deep conditioning comes later.
Then use your horsehair brush to buff away any remaining dirt or dust. A quick once over will do.
This is an optional step. For some avid shoe cleaners, you might have some buildup on your shoes from previous shoe care sessions. If this is the case, a nail polish remover can help remove the excess gunk from the grooves in the leather. However, it’s important to use nail polish remover with extreme caution. Products that contain alcohol or acetone as main ingredients can damage or discolor leather if rubbed in too aggressively. If you’re confident enough to tackle this step, use a cotton swab to delicately go after the problem areas.
How to Clean:
With fall just around the corner, suede shoes and boots are in high demand. Celebrities and everyday guys alike are slipping on suede Chelsea boots to stay on trend. Though leather is great, suede provides a fresh level of sophistication that’s unrivaled by other materials. However, it can be a challenge to clean and maintain. Water and common stains like dirt can leave lasting effects on your suede footwear if you don’t handle it correctly.
Suede is a type of leather but it has a napped finish. It’s made from the underside of animal skin. Most often it’s made from lamb, but deer, calf, and goat have also been used to create it. Unlike standard leather, suede does not have a tough exterior. It’s less durable and repellent. It’s thin, soft, porous and delicate. Its look is exotic, but that exotic appeal comes with a bigger risk of damage.
The term nap isn’t about a short slumber. Here, it refers to the fuzzy surface on materials like suede. Back in the 14th century, it was used to describe the rough surface of cloth before it was sheared to create a smooth and even texture. A lot of items on today’s market are created with a napped or brushed surface to mimic the feel of suede. Those items are typically infused with waterproof capability.
Some tools you’ll need to care for your suede are a suede brush, a suede block, suede conditioner
The Shoe Care Process
Anytime you’re cleaning leather shoes, you must first remove any surface dirt, grime, and anything else lurking on your shoes. But with suede, you need to use a brush to do this as opposed to a damp cloth. You’ll brush the shoes, moving the brush vigorously back and forth. For the record, any suede that is visibly fuzzy is called a “full suede” shoe. You’ll always need a brush for “full suede” pre-cleaning. The longer your suede fuzz is, the softer your brush should be. If you’ve ended up with a pair of short suede shoes, grab a wire brush instead. But remember to brush carefully with this one. The harder the brush, the easier it is to snag and tear the surface of your shoe.
Typically, this is the part of the cleaning process where you’d be applying a conditioner or gearing up to polish. But because of the delicate nature of suede, you have to use a little bit of elbow grease to get the deep stains out.
You’ll need a suede block. Consider it a life-size eraser for your shoes. You can use the suede block to go to town on deep, nasty stains. You can also use it on portions of your shoes that have developed a sheen from wear and tear. If you encounter a particularly nasty stain, you can try low-grit sandpaper. The suede block can be used all over as often and as hard as you want. But the sandpaper requires a lot more discretion. Only use this as a last resort when a pesky stain just won’t come out.
This is a very optional step that’s reserved for only the most sophisticated footwear owners. If you need to remove water stains, apply a light coat of water using your brush. While it’s true that water can actually discolor your suede, you can avoid this sartorial trauma if you do it with care. Dab around the shoe gently with a dry cloth or sponge to soak up excess water. Stuff your shoes with paper (not newspaper) to soak up water inside the shoes, and use a shoe trees to help keep the original shape. Let them dry overnight and go over them again with a suede brush the next day.
Once your shoes or boots are clean, it’s time to protect them from any future stain problems. Spray them with a suede protector. Make sure the spray doesn’t contain any silicone. Silicone tends to dry out suede. Be sure to spray evenly all over your footwear. You can start spraying at the top and work your way down to the bottom. And always be sure to read the directions on the label of your spray.
As a rule, you should spray your suede shoes and boots with a protector when you first purchase them. But alas, you’ll have to refresh at some point. Plus, after every cleaning session, you’ll need to apply again.
If you’ve encountered stains that you just can’t get out (think red wine, ink, or even blood), you need the help of an expert. Some resources direct shoe owners to try extreme methods. For example, one method discussed online is placing your shoes in the freezer to help get rid of wax and gum stains. It’s thought to make the stains easy to brush away once they’re hardened. But if you feel like you have to resort to this, don’t do it. Get your shoes to a local cobbler or shoe repair shop ASAP.
If you plan on getting a ton of mileage out of your suede footwear this fall, you might consider picking up a small range of new products that can make your life easier. One option is a double-sided brush. One side is a soft-bristled brush. The other is a suede block. Instead of clogging up your precious closet space with an excessive amount of supplies, simplify with a two-in-one tool.
Another thing to consider is a suede kit. These kits come complete with everything you need to preserve your shoes: the suede block, the brush, the protectant spray. And quite often, they come in a throwback leather carry case. It’ll make your closet look like a modern shoe shop and you’ll draw the ire of shoe aficionados within eyeshot every time you pull it out.
Suede shoes are great because they’re unique. They’re a style move that’s a little off the beaten path, and they communicate a superior sense of fashion. But with that advanced statement comes a need to handle them with a delicate touch.
How to Clean:
Exotic Skin Shoes
Exotic leather shoes are often a prized possession for their owners. They demand a larger investment than a standard leather shoe but with that investment comes a level of beauty and sophistication unrivaled by any other leathers. The exotic appearance of crocodile, alligator, ostrich, lizard, peccary, snake skin and other exotic skins are immediately recognizable and distinct. Exotic shoes will grab everyone’s attention, but they also have some great practical benefits as they are typically durable and long-lasting leathers if properly cared for. Exotic leather shoes are footwear that you’ll have in your arsenal for years to come if you take the time to treat them the way they need to be treated. With such an investment, you’ll want to use the proper techniques to get the most mileage out of your exotics.
Some items you will need are a damp white cloth, dry microfiber cloth, high quality shoe conditioner, shoe polish (optional).
Alligator leather is at the top of the food chain when it comes to luxury in exotic shoes. It is known for being stunning in its beauty and exclusive in its appearance. Shoes from this leather are typically a little harder to find, as the leather is more expensive in part due to its supply, and it’s superb level of beauty and sophistication.
Crocodile leather is for many considered just a notch below alligator leather and is more widely utilized by various shoemakers. The defining characteristics of this leather are the umbilical scar, back horns, and tile patterns. Many people will confuse croc leather with alligator leather, but they’re umbilical scar is very different. The alligator scar resembles an intricate web pattern whereas croc leather’s scar is more understated. The back horns are actually bumps specific to each gator or croc. On crocodile leather, the back horns are arranged in two separate rows of two and four horns each. Crocodile leather tile patterns are very uniform.
Ostrich leather is similarly highly revered but distinctively different. It’s known for its pattern of bumps which are actually quill follicles. This leather is the result of a process in which tanning skins are taken from African ostriches. Ostrich leg leather is also used in the production of many shoes, and has a scaled appearance, somewhat similar to crocodile and alligator. Ostrich leg possesses its own beautiful characteristics but is not quite as distinct in appearance as ostrich quill.
Some other popular exotic leathers include snakeskin, peccary (boar skin) and lizard (teju), sharkskin, eel, among many others. All of these leathers are known for different defining characteristics, but one thing they have in common is that they require some serious tender, love, and care.
First, you need to grab a damp cloth (preferably white) to gently clean any surface dirt and grime from your shoes. This cloth should not be soaking wet. The last thing you want to do is leave water stains on your exotic leather. That can be easy to do when you’re using anything dripping with water. The cloth should also be clean and warm. Look for dirt buildup that might be caked around follicles or buried in scales. At this stage, you shouldn’t have wet shoes. But you’ll most likely need to leave them in some direct sunlight for a few moments so they dry completely.
Next, you’ll need to condition your shoes. Conditioning is an important step to help you avoid ending up with dry or brittle shoes.
It’s important that you head to a trusted shoe retailer, or even a cobbler, to buy conditioner intended specifically for the type of leather you’re trying to clean. What works for snakeskin may not work for ostrich or croc. You don’t want to chance it and end up with ruined shoes. The price of fixing them can be even more than what you paid to purchase them.
Once you’ve landed on the right conditioner, you need to patch test it before using it on your entire shoe. Squeeze out a little onto a microfiber cloth first. It’s important not to squeeze it directly onto the shoe. Evenly coat one small portion of your shoe. It should be a discreet location where any mistakes won’t be easily noticed. If you don’t notice any ruining effects (like fading of color or change in the texture of leather), then you’re good to go with the entire shoe.
Again, you’ll squeeze some conditioner onto a microfiber cloth. You can even use a lint-free cloth in your home like an old t-shirt sleeve. Apply a light, even coat to the entire shoe. With snakeskin in particular, be sure to wipe in the same direction as the grain. You don’t want conditioner caked between the scales after you’re done.
Unlike cleaning other materials like calfskin leather, you aren’t going to buff these shoes with a brush. You have to treat them gently to preserve the quality of leather. If you feel one coat isn’t enough, you can apply as many additional coats of conditioner as you feel necessary. Then, you need to let the shoes dry.
If you’re interested in creating a sheen on your leather, be sure to use a polish that’s neutral or the same color as the shoe you’re cleaning. This will ensure continuity as you’re gently massaging the polish in. But it’s not required.
This step is also optional, but it might be perfect considering the climate in which you live. To protect against water damage, you can use a non-silicone water protector. This will also work in preventing general stains as well. Exotic skins are easily stained. The best way to take care of this is preparation on the front end instead of delicate cleaning afterward.
Once you’ve applied conditioner, it’s important to store your exotic leather shoes in a damp, cool place that’s free of direct sunlight. Storing them in sunlight over time will fade the natural color of the leather and lead to prolonged damage. You want to avoid this. However, if your shoes came in a special dust bag, you’re not required to keep them in one. As long as you avoid sunlight, you’re making the right move.
It’s also advised that you keep shoe shapers or shoe Trees in your shoes while storing them. On boots, they’ll keep the shaft from collapsing. On your loafers and oxfords, they’ll help maintain the shape after extensive wear.
Like all shoes in our closets, exotic leather shoes can go through some considerable wear and tear. But even more so than other leathers, these leathers require special attention and delicate handling. They can absolutely last you a lifetime, but you have to treat them with the utmost care for the best results. Don’t treat them like your other shoes. They’re a species all their own.