Restoring Old Shoes
As I’ve mentioned before, I recently inherited a few pairs of wonderful vintage shoes from my uncle and late grandfather. They are all high quality and have been taken care of well, but they’re 20-30 years old and are a bit rough around the edges. This pair is a nice burgundy plaintoe by Ferragamo that my uncle describes as his “dancing shoes.” Needless to say, they’ve seen some serious action. They still have some life in them but needed a bit of maintenance before they were going to look their best again.
Things you’ll need:
- an old, tired pair of high-quality shoes (no product can make cheap shoes look good)
- a clean cotton cloth (old shirts work well)
- Horsehair brush (or two)
- Leather cleaner
- Leather conditioner
- creme polish with a pigment that will resemble (or complement) your shoe’s color
- Sole edge dressing
Ready? Let’s get started.
1. Remove the laces and brush the shoes down with a horsehair brush. Dust often collects in the creases and seams and will make polishing much more difficult if not removed.
2. While the laces are out and the shoe trees are in, use a leather cleaner to remove the old wax. Wax often builds up on shoes over time and leather cleaner provides a way to create a clean, fresh surface on your shoes. This is especially true for old shoes. As you can see above, the old dried wax made the creases look much worse than they actually were.
Unlike putting polish or conditioner on shoes, leather cleaner needs to be worked on in small areas rather than across the whole shoe. Concentrate on cleaning one area (the toe and vamp are usually the worst) before you move on to the next part of the shoe. Use the cotton cloth with a bit of water on it to rub the cleaner in. This step will take some serious elbow grease, and be warned that the cleaner might make your fingers tingle a bit. I use Lexol leather cleaner. You’ll probably see some color come off of the shoes (this is ok) and when you’re finished they will look a bit dull. Let the shoes rest for a while before you move to step 3.
3. Apply a conditioner to the shoe. I use Saphir Renovateur and apply it with the cotton cloth. Make sure you get the tongue and all the welts (some even recommend conditioning the sole, but I haven’t experimented with this much). Let the shoes sit for a while - some say to leave them overnight but I usually wait about a half hour. They should get a bit foggy and shouldn’t be greasy. Buff off the remaining conditioner with the cotton rag.
I highly recommend Renovateur for this step. It’s a very unique product that is an exceptional conditioner but also helps clean the leather and raises a surprisingly nice shine. The mink oil also smells wonderful. I noticed a distinct change when I switched from Allen Edmonds products to Saphir.
4, Coat the shoes with a small amount of creme polish. Creme polish will not give the water resistance of wax polish, but it keeps the leather healthier and the pigment in it will help bring color back to the leather (wax polish will put color on top of the leather, but creme polish is better for getting pigment back into the leather). Many people use wax polish to achieve a high shine, but I’ve found that the uneven surface of old shoes makes bulling very difficult. I used a black creme polish from Saphir to deepen the patina in the seams and to add some depth of color to the shoe. Rub the polish in so there is no streaking and wait for it to cloud (10-20 minutes). Remember - less is more.
5. Buff off the polish with a horsehair brush, and then again with a cotton rag.
6. Apply a sole edge dressing to the…sole edges. The soles can get pretty chewed up on old shoes and this simple fix can make a big difference. Be careful to not get any color on the uppers. I use the Allen Edmonds travel size because the applicator is easier to use.
7. Let them dry and then lace them up. Hopefully the difference is noticeable.
Above: one shoe completed. Below: both shoes finished. Do they look brand new? Not at all. This process certainly won’t hide all the signs of wear, but I don’t really think that’s the point. These shoes look well loved. They’ve seen decades of action, but if I’m lucky I think they might see a few more.
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