Project Quarantine: Now Is the Time to Learn to Shine Your Shoes

Caleb Malinowski, a finalist in the 2019 World Championship in Shoe Shining, reveals his secrets

April 23, 2020 10:14 am
Now is the time to learn to shine your own shoes at home.
Now is the time to learn to shine your own shoes at home.
Caleb Malinowski

With the end point of social distancing slipping further into the future, now is as good a time as ever to learn how to shine your shoes.

There’s just one problem: search for instructions online, and you’ll be met with contradictory guides and endless Styleforum threads where the same products are worshiped as miracle cures or decried as shoe-destroying snake oil.

In dire need of an expert, I connected with Caleb Malinowski, a 20-year-old Texan who competed as a finalist in the 2019 World Championship in Shoe Shining (yes, that’s a thing). Over email, Malinowski — who regularly dispenses shoe-shining advice via Instagram — walked me through the difference between cream polish and wax polish, how not to screw up shell cordovan, and whether you really need one of those weird little horsehair daubers (you don’t).

(And in case you’re feeling lazy, you can send Malinowski a DM to engage his shoe-shining services directly; prices for a mirror shine start at $45, and a full patina begins at $100.)

InsideHook: Is there a difference between shoe shining and shoe polishing?

Caleb Malinowski: They are more or less the same. In my mind, shoe shining implies a high shine and shoe polishing would be more of a basic shine with cream polish.

Why should I be shining my shoes in the first place?

The beauty of a high-quality leather shoe is that it will look a hundred times better after a year of wear than it did on day one. But that is only if you take care of it. When you properly care for your shoes the leather will age gracefully, the scratches will become part of the character, and the color will develop a unique patina and change depending on the creams you use. When you do not care for your shoes, the color will fade, the leather will crack, and they will wind up in the bin much faster.

So, what are the basic tools I need to get started?

A cotton chamois (this can be an old t-shirt) and a good horsehair brush in black or neutral. I use the Medium Wellington Horsehair brush from Kirby Allison. These are excellent quality, certainly more of an investment than a department store shoeshine brush, but worth it in my opinion. Shoe trees are also very important for the longevity of your shoes; they push out the creases that form, help retain the shape of the shoe, and keep them from getting smelly.

What’s your process for a basic shoe shine?

Let your shoes rest overnight with the shoe trees inside and brush off any dust or debris that may have collected over a day’s wear. Next, apply the conditioner of your choice, let it dry for 5-10 minutes, and then buff it with your brush. Repeat the same steps, this time with cream polish. It only takes about 20 minutes in total, and you are set.

This is what I would call “shoe care”, not “shoe shining.” If you do this every two to four weeks, your shoes will be happy, healthy, and start to develop a nice natural patina that will only get better with time.

Fingers, brushes, rags: Which do I use to apply product?

This is mostly personal preference, but I prefer to use my bare fingers when applying the product. The heat from the friction between my fingers and the leather helps the product better absorb into the leather. Also, I have more control over the amount of product I apply.

A lot of folks like to use a horsehair dauber to apply products. But my issue with daubers is that it is difficult to control the amount of product on the dauber and you can end up applying too much. Less is more when it comes to conditioner and cream polishes. If you apply too much it will leave a residue that is hard to remove. 

What’s the difference between cream polish and wax polish?

They are meant to be used together. Cream polish is used to nourish the leather, provide pigment to keep the color vibrant (or change the color if you want) and provide an overall glow to the shoe. Wax polish is more aesthetic. You can put a small layer of wax over the whole shoe to provide a more elevated shine than just the cream polish. This is also what you use to get a mirror shine.

A mirror shine?

A mirror shine is when you use wax polish (and a lot of it) to build up a shine that you can see your reflection on. This is achieved by filling the pores of the leather with wax, then using smaller amounts of wax and water with a cotton chamois to build the shine. You can only create a mirror shine on the toe and heel of the shoe as that is where the hard countering or structure of the shoe will be.

What’s the deal with wax paste?

Paste polish is just another word for wax polish.    

Ah. Who should I be buying polish from?

I recommend Saphir. They have been making shoe care products in Paris since 1920. It is not cheap compared to something you’ll find at your drug store. The ingredients in the conditioners and polishes are all-natural and good for the leather, whereas a lot of more readily available products are made with chemicals that are not good for the leather long-term.

Can I just use a neutral polish, or do I have to buy colors to match my shoes?

You certainly can, but I recommend buying the pigmented cream polishes. One of the many things I love about shoe shining is that you can customize your shoe with the polish you choose.

If you have a medium brown cap toe and want to spice it up, use some tobacco brown cream polish to darken and enrich the color a little bit. Or use some bordeaux cream polish, which looks fantastic. Using a different color polish will not permanently alter the color of your shoes, but it can add depth to the color and finish.

In what ways could I royally screw up my shoes, and how can that be avoided?

The most damaging mistake I see is being too aggressive with a cleaning product. While these products can be very helpful, they can also do plenty of damage to the color and finish when used improperly. Test the cleaner on a hidden area of the shoe before applying to the whole shoe to make sure it does not adversely affect the leather.

These shoes shine like the top of the Chrysler Building (Caleb Malinowski)

How should shell cordovan be polished differently, and why?

The reason shell cordovan needs to be cared for differently is that it is not leather, but a membrane. It has a very tight pore structure that is totally unique, and through a finishing process, gives it that signature glow.

If you use a standard cream polish, even a good one, you risk damaging your [cordovan] shoes. Standard shoe polish is designed to penetrate the leather using solvents such as turpentine. These solvents can cause the pores of the membrane to expand, which will damage it. The Saphir Cordovan cream uses neatsfoot oil to penetrate into the membrane without expanding the pores. The color of the cream is not as important; changing the color of cordovan is very difficult due to its tight pore structure. 

Are there any other specific leathers that require specialized care? 

A lot of guys like oiled leathers such as chromexcel for more rugged boots. The waxes in the standard cream polish will harm the oiled nature of the leather. Use something like an oiled or greasy leather cream to keep the leather oiled, conditioned, and waterproof.

Let’s imagine I’ve mastered the basic polish. What’s next?

Master the mirror shine! I talk and email with guys all the time who are still working on mastering the mirror shine. It takes a lot of time and practice, but I think it is worth learning.

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