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The Complete Guide to Cleaning and Caring for Your Boots

To readers of Heddels, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to know that we have a strong commitment to all things leather–especially boots. High-quality leather boots can be a serious investment, costing in the hundreds of dollars for renowned brands like Red Wing, Viberg, and Alden. With an investment like that, it makes sense to take care of them. Some denim heads treat their jeans like they’re a newborn baby, so why not give the same love and attention to a pair of boots that cost the same amount of money?

As a primer, consider this guide to cleaning and caring for your leather boots. It’s obvious that boots come in a variety of materials and levels of durability, but we’ll try to touch on the major types that you’re most likely to see on the shelves or online shop of your favorite brand. It’s recommended that you clean and treat your leather boots every month or so if you wear them regularly. In the case of oiling however, it’s possible to treat them TOO often and over-saturate the leather. For polishing boots, some people advocate doing it after every wear.

Step 1: Clean Your Boots

BRUSHING

Whether your boots are covered in mud, sawdust, or a hefty amount of dog crap, the first step in restoring them always starts with cleaning. For any non-suede leather, a simple horsehair or other stiff-bristle brush will work. Your horsehair brush doesn’t need to be from some fancy brand–there are plenty of cheaper options available online or in shoe repair shops

First, remove the laces from each pair. Then with the brush, start off as gentle as possible, moving over areas of dirt, grime, and dust until they’re removed. For most footwear grime, a brush is all that’s needed to get them ready to be treated.

LEATHER CLEANER

For a more set-in stain–say that piece of pizza missed your mouth and landed on your boot–you can use saddle soap or another leather cleaner. Many brands like Red Wing and Alden make their own leather cleaner; if you want to save some money, you can always buy a generic version.

Another option is mild liquid castile soap like Dr. Bronner’s, which can also be used for these sort of stains. It should be common logic by now, but it’s important to be reminded that it’s better to treat oil stains immediately instead of letting them set in. Soak a clean cloth in the chosen leather cleaner, and wipe over the affected areas of the boot. Then, wipe the same areas dry with a still-clean part of the cloth.

CLEANING SUEDE

Suede typically requires a special suede brush, another easy purchase at any shoe repair shop or online retailer. By and large, do NOT use standard leather cleaner on suede or roughout leather boots. A rubber suede cleaner, which looks like a rubber eraser from grade school, can be rubbed into the boot to remove stains with a bit of water if needed. Follow-up with the suede brush again to remove any leftover rubber bits.


Step 2: Treat/Condition Your Boots

After you’ve set your boots aside to dry a bit, now comes the treating and conditioning. If you’re wearing high-quality boots, it’s likely that the brand will instruct customers on which kinds of leathers need which kind of conditioners.

OIL-TANNED LEATHER

Pull-Up Plain Toe Boots by Alden

Pull-Up Plain Toe Boots by Alden

First up are oil-tanned leathers, which are water-resistant, oil-resistant and perspiration-resistant. The Red Wing 875 Moc Boot is a good example of a boot made from this kind of leather (full disclosure: this is what the author wears). Depending on what the brand dictates, you’ll be using one of several oils or conditioners. Applying the conditioner is a snap; grab a clean cloth, dab it with some oil/conditioner, and spread it across every inch to the leather. Leave no seam, stitch or fold untouched. The author strictly uses old white t-shirts that have gone through the wash, so don’t be super-selective with your cloth selection.

SMOOTH-FINISHED LEATHER

Calfskin Park Avenue by Allen Edmonds

Calfskin Park Avenue by Allen Edmonds

Smooth-finished leathers are recognizable their polished surface; most dress shoes are made from this kind of leather. Shoe polish or cream is needed, which can usually be picked up at any corner/convenience store. Take a clean cloth, wrap it around your finger, and dab some of the polish.

Rub it into your boots in small circles, trying to get every spot. By the time you finish the second boot, the first boot’s polish should be almost (but not totally) dry. Take your brush (or the same cloth) and buff the polish/cream out, creating a beautiful luster. Repeat if desired for the ultimate shine.

SUEDE & ROUGHOUT

Roughout Iron Ranger Boots by Red Wing Shoes

Roughout Iron Ranger Boots by Red Wing Shoes

Suede and roughout leather doesn’t need an oil, conditioner or polish. What it can use is a spray from a leather protector–a liquid that serves as a final barrier on the leather to protect from dirt and moisture. This protector is sold by footwear brands and at shoe repair shops, and can actually be used for any kind of leather. It’s recommended that after conditioning/polishing your boots, you give them a spray with the leather protector as a final touch.


Step 3: Let Your Boots Dry

Probably the easiest step is simply letting your boots dry. You’re probably wondering: Why the hell is this a step? Well, some people manage to mess up the simple act of drying out their boots. Set them aside in a cool, dry place for at least a day.

Do NOT put them next to a heater, fireplace or other source of extreme heat. This will dry out the leather to an extreme and cause the skin to potentially crack. The author slips in shoe trees after he oils his Red Wings to help them regain some shape, but that’s not totally necessary.

At the end of the 24 hours spent drying, you can re-lace your boots and resume wearing them to your heart’s content. They should look rejuvenated and youthful again, hopefully giving you yet another reason to wear them.