Water Resistant Shoe Polish

Like most people with nice dress/business shoes I worry about water damage to my nice shoes in the late Fall, Winter and early Spring.

There are a number of water resistant solutions on the market, but most are for heavy leather like boots, or inverted leather like suede. These solutions typically include either heavy wax, heavy oil, or synthetic chemicals like silicone, or other toxic smelling chemicals.

I could not find an all-natural, non-toxic water resistant solution that was light enough not to smother my thinner dress/business shoe leather. I received recommendations to use mink oil and neatsfoot oil, but the amount I would have to use to make the leather water resistant would smother the leather, and potentially stain the leather.

I could have also went with galoshes, but I didn’t want to damage or hide the shine of my shoes.

There has currently only been three ways to add water resistance to leather shoes:

  1. Seal the leather from the outside (heavy wax, silicone spray, goulashes and so on.)
  2. Fill the leather fiber with heavy oil (or other stuffing agents) so the water can’t penetrate the leather. This is done by stuffing the oils and other agents between the collagen fiber bundles (as you rub the oils in).
  3. A combination of one and two (usually silicone or other synthetic chemicals)

Water Proofing

Since I had already created the all-natural GlenKaren shoe polish line, I decided to see what I could do to make that polish more water resistant.

The beeswax and carnauba wax in the polish offer some minimal amount of water resistance (as most shoe polishes containing wax do), but I could not just increase the amount of wax because it would make the polish too thick and sticky and smother the leather from the outside.

I could increase the amount of coconut oil, but coconut oil is a highly saturated fat, and if not used in moderation could smother the leather from the inside.

I had to figure out a way to protect the individual collagen protein fibrils from water while still keeping them lubricated with oil, and not clogging the collagen fiber bundles.

Below is an illustration of a piece of leather, in orders of magnitude, down to the atomic makeup of a collagen protein fibril:
Leather Collagen Protein lines

To find a solution I had to extend my research further into how leather is made. I didn’t get into the animal husbandry aspect of how a baby calf is born, but I did do more extensive research on the steps of how leather is created in a tannery.

During a step called basification the pH levels of the leather are managed and the tannins are introduced which stabilize the leather and, along with the fatliquoring, keep it flexible and soft. In this process the tannins are bound to the collagen proteins through a process called protein binding.

A protective coating given to the collagen protein strands during the tanning process where the tannins and oils are hydrogen bonded to the collagen protein chains. Collagen’s high content of the amino acid hydroxyproline allows for significant cross-linking by hydrogen bonding within the helical structure. Tanning increases the spacing between protein chains in collagen from 10 to 17 angstroms, this additional space is filled with the hydrogen bonding the tannins (or chromium salts) and oils to the collagen. It is these bonded tannins and oils that increase the hydrothermal stability of the skin.


Using the idea of protein binding I decided to find a way to bind an all-natural, non-toxic solution to the individual protein fibrils. Borrowing from the tanning process where sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) is used to assist in protein binding, I just needed to find something with a similar chemical composition that would also be a water insulator for the collagen protein.

That is when I came across sodium bentonite (Bentonite is also known as Montmorillonite). A natural clay used in beauty face masks, wine purification, health food additive, pet food additive, kitty litter, and pond liners. It has a lot of uses, and come in a food grade powder form.
woman with facial mask

Sodium Bentonite has some very interesting characteristics:

Similar to sodium bicarbonate, sodium bentonite has a strong ionic charge that assists in the protein bonding.

Due to the platelet structure of sodium bicarbonate and its atomic pattern at the molecular level it actually attracts water molecules and binds them to the outer layer of the sodium bentonite molecules, while the inner layer is bonded to the protein molecule, thus creating a protective sheaf for the collagen protein fibril.

Clay Stucture Sleeve

The platelet structure of the sodium bentonite actually expands to a degree as it is exposed to more water to create a tighter seal. Once the water evaporates the sodium bentonite contract back to its normal size. This is done at the molecular level so you wouldn’t see it happening, unless you poured a cup of sodium bentonite into a beaker and then added some water.

It is important to note that the sodium bentonite in the shoe polish will penetrate the leather with the oils, as well as stay on the surface with the wax, this allows for a double water barrier of sorts.

The amazing thing about sodium bentonite is that it only acts like a water repellant when exposed to water (even just one molecule of water), unlike wax or oils that must thoroughly coat or saturate the leather all the time to be effective. And, unlike oil, sodium bentonite cannot be flushed out by water (it can be removed with a cleaner like orange oil [GlenKaren Cleaner/Conditioner] or Saphir RenoMat).

If you have been looking for a water resistant shoe polish for your dress/business shoes and don’t want to use heavy waxes, oils, or toxic smelling chemicals please give the GlenKaren water repellant shoe polish a try. It is still made of the same all natural, non-toxic, ingredients, but with the inclusion of sodium bentonite.

The images below show a black Allen Edmond wholecut being sprayed with water, let sit for a period of time, then wiped off with a dry cotton cloth:
WR Black

For more information on ordering please go to the http://oldleathershoe.com/wordpress/?id=284 web site.

As a side note: GlenKaren Care Products still produce the standard polish line without sodium bentonite as well.

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Suede Cleaning and Conditioning

Cleaning and conditioning suede is rarely done properly, and is usually done using rather harsh, smelly, chemicals.

The biggest concern with suede is staining, which is why spray-on suede protector is so popular. While this will protect the suede from getting stained to some degree, it is not that good for the longevity of the leather.

The trick is to get over the concern of your suede getting stained, knowing that it can be cleaned without too much trouble, and without harsh chemicals.

Of course you want to avoid getting stains on your suede if you can, and suede does stain rather easily.

The first thing to understand is that water is not the enemy of suede, if used properly. Water will stain suede, just like any other liquid. But, if water is used for cleaning, and covers the entire suede produce all at once, staining by water can be avoided. You will want to use water to help clean your suede.

Water by itself will probably not be sufficient to clean your suede, so you will want to use something designed for cleaning. The best thing I have found is shampoo. I actually use American Crew as my personal shampoo, mainly because it uses coconut oil for the conditioner, and it is specifically a men’s shampoo. The coconut oil in the shampoo also works great as a conditioner for the leather.

In my example I have used a casual leather sneaker with a suede cap toe. The toe has a stain that came from who knows where; I just looked down one day and there it was. I was hoping that it was honey or something similar with a sugar type base that would dissolve easily in water, but it could have been cooking oil which is more difficult to remove.


Before I begin my cleaning I gather what I need to do the job: I like to use a sea wool sponge to soak leather (suede, calf or whatever), I use a nylon bristle fingernail brush for brushing suede, I needed about a tablespoon of conditioning shampoo (with coconut oil), and of course water (bottled is better than tap, but either will work).

Sponge and Brush 400

Shampoo and Water 400

I was only cleaning the cap toe of a pair of shoes so a tablespoon was really too much, but I felt a teaspoon might have been too little. It doesn’t have to be exact; if you have too much you can just rinse it out, too little and you just add a little more shampoo.

Always add the shampoo to the water, never put the shampoo out of the bottle directly on the suede as the concentrated oils will stain the shoe.

Once you have mixed the shampoo thoroughly in the water (about 1 tablespoon to 2 cups of water [or 1 16oz bottle of water]). Soak the wool sponge in the water, but not to the point it is dripping. Blot the sponge on the suede to transfer the water/shampoo mixture. Make sure the suede is saturated, doing one shoe at a time so it does not dry out.


While the suede is still saturated take the fingernail brush and brush the suede briskly. Keep in mind that you are trying to scrub out the stain, but also brush the entire suede area (the whole shoe, if it is all suede). While the suede is wet the stain you are trying to remove may not be visible, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone. When the suede dries, if some semblance of the stain remains you can repeat the process.

Be sure to allow the suede to dry naturally. Forcing suede to dry (like using a blow dryer) will damage the leather.

If you want to make sure all of the shampoo has been remove from the suede, you can rinse out the sponge in clean water and repeat the cleaning process with just water.

Once the suede is dry and clean you can brush it again to smooth out the desired direction.


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Proper Brushing Technique


Shoe brushing is a combination of science and skill. In order to have the proper skills you need to understand the science.

Shoe (or boot) brushing serves a few purposes:

  1. Helps remove surface dust collected while not in use. For shoes that are actually dirty, you should use a different brush for removing the dirt first.
  2. The friction warms up the wax and oils slightly, which helps disburse them across the shoe.
  3. Crossing brush patterns help smooth the wax for a better shine.

A critical aspect of shoe brushing to be considered is the amount of wax that is on the shoe. The more wax on the shoe, the more difficult it will be to produce a shine due to drag (brush stroke impedance). Starting with a very thin coat of polish/wax is best. You want the brush to flow smoothly and quickly.

Initial brush stroke weighting (pressure) should be about 60% through (parallel to the surface) and 40% down (toward the surface). This will allow you to properly spread the wax. Brush strokes in a diagonal hash pattern. You should avoid brushing directly across the shoe or directly along the length of the shoe as it will diminish the shine.

Once you have gone over the shoe with the 60/40 weighting once or twice, reduce the pressure to 70/30 weighting and continue to brush completely another four to ten times. Finally reduce the weighting to about 80/20 and brush the shoe a final two or three times.

As the weighting ratio changes so should the velocity of your brush strokes. The lighter the downward pressure, the faster the stroke should become. The exception to this is the final brushing or two that should be at a moderate pace. Brush stroke pace would be defined as follows: two strokes per second is slow, six strokes per second is fast.

The full process should be done with shoe polish, and may be done more than once in a single sitting. But, you need to avoid adding too much polish. To test if you have too much polish/wax on the shoe simply slide your finger across the surface of the shoe lightly. If your finger seems to drag on the polish, it is too thick. Keep brushing with a shoe brush until you feel no drag with your finger.

You do not have to add polish each time you brush your shoes. If fact you should only add polish about every three or four wears. You should brush your shoes lightly to moderately each time before you wear them however.

The typical shoe brush is made of horse hair, but you can also get shoe brushes in boars hair and goats hair. Boars hair is stiffer than horse hair, and goats hair is softer than horse hair. Boars hair brushes are more typically used for cleaning dirt from shoes, while goats hair brushes are more typically used for final brushing or touch up between shines.

As a side note: do not brush a spit/bull shine with anything other than a cotton, or other smooth cloth.

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Shoeshine Box

I recently received a really cool shoe shine box from GOLD-N-RULE (www.gold-n-rule.com). They were kind enough to send the box (and optional kit) to me to review (with no obligation, or stated expectation).

The box is a decent size (big enough to hold a number of shoe polish tins/jars and shoe care equipment, but small enough to set out of the way), however you may want to show it off.

The box is designed structurally and graphically to replicate the old 5cent a shine shoe box of long ago. The shoe stand is made of a solid brushed gold tone metal, and the box graphics are bold, professional and retro.

The shoe shine kit included the following:
• 1x black 4oz Angelus polish
• 1x brown 4oz Angelus polish
• 1x Flannel Buffer
• 1x 100% Horse Hair Shine Brush
• 1x 100% Horse Hair Circular Dauber Brush.
kit contents

I think this shoe shine box and care kit will be a great addition to my shoe care collection, and be something I can show off to my friends.

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When Bad things happen to Good shoes

As you might expect, I take very good care of my shoes, and I enjoy applying a good spit shine when I can.

Unfortunately, a spit shine can be easily damaged when the toe of a shoe comes in contact with another surface. I have had people accidently step on the toe of my shoe, bumped my toe against a curb, and (the act that caused the damage shown below) stopping a car door as it began to close.
Damaged Toe

I stopped the car door from closing on me by blocking it with the side of the toe of my shoe. This caused the hard shell of wax I created during the spit shine to separate on the side and crack in the middle. Of course I was concerned that the shoe itself was damaged.

Although it might look like the leather, or the leather finish, might be cracked it was actually just the wax that has fractured.

Upon closer inspection you can see that the cracks run diagonal to the grain of the leather:
Damaged Toe Closeup

After removing the hard wax shell with some pure orange oil (RenoMat could also be used) I was able to eliminate the cracks and get down to the original leather finish.
Cleaned Toe

From here I can start all over with my shoe care process: Condition, Cream Polish, High Shine Paste. I could also use a different shade or color of polish to apply some antiquing effects.

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Polish type for shoe type

There are a great number of shoe/boot care products to choose from. Knowing what products to use on which type of shoe or boot can be useful. But, to do this, we have to have some understanding about the leather to which we are applying the products.

First there are different types of cow leather, but for the sake of care there are really only a few differences to consider, but these differences are based on a number of factors; these factors include methods of how the leather was stuffed in the tanning process (fat liquored, hot stuffed, wet stuffed).

There is also the direction of the leather (grain out versus flesh out), and the finish on the leather such as full aniline, semi-aniline, and corrected grain, as well as the amount and ratio of oils and waxes stuffed into the leather.

When I mention corrected grain I am referring to bookbinder type leather where there is a substantial acrylic finish (this includes patent leather).

There are also the differences in the material type to consider. Calf is typically going to be thinner and have a tighter grain than other leather. Shell cordovan is really not grained leather like cow, but rather a subdermal sheath from the butt of a horse, and is treated like hot stuffed flesh out leather.

Pull up leather is grain out hot stuffed with a higher concentration of oils and waxes than that used in the fat liquoring for calf and other leathers. The extra waxes and oils are what give the leather its pull up effect and casual look.

Exotic skins do not have a grain so to speak, but rather plates or scales and don’t really have much of a corium (where the majority of conditioning oils reside in leather), and as such does not benefit much from conditioning.

And finally, there is the general difference in leather thickness used for various applications, as in thicker leather for work boots and thinner leather for dress/business shoes.

In regard to shoe care products, there is an assortment of types with different purposes:

The most common and most widely known is paste polish, also known as wax polish. Then there is cream polish, which is softer and serves a slightly different purpose. The liquid polish found in the plastic bottles with a sponge applicator should never be used.

After basic shoe polish comes cleaners like saddle soap and pH balanced leather cleaner.

Then there are leather conditioners that are mostly oils. 3LexolConditionerandDubbin

There are also combination cleaner/conditioners.

Suede has its own type of cleaners, conditioners and protectors.

Leather strippers like acetone should not be confused with leather cleaners. Leather strippers are designed to not only remove wax from shoes, but the leather finish as well.

Next is the various types of weather proofing, from heavy wax to heavy oils. This can also include silicone sprays for both grained leather and suede. I believe silicone should be avoided whenever possible.

And, finally, there are the specialty sprays for reptile skins and patent leather.

With these considerations in mind, I believe the following is applicable for leather care:

In general I would suggest a quality cream shoe polish (like GlenKaren Cream Polish) for most leathers, even exotics.

In specific I would not recommend shoe care products high in wax (as in paste/wax polish) on oiled leathers like Chromexcel/Pull up. This type of shoe/boot does well with leather conditioners.

Products like SnoSeal which are mostly beeswax (and very thick) are good for helping weatherproof thicker boot leather (to include pull up boot Leather), but would tend to smother thinner shoe leather.

I would not recommend shoe care products high in oils (dubbin, Obenauf’s, etc…) on calf skin, thinner leather, exotic leathers, cordovan shell, or corrected grain. Pastes and creams work best on these types of shoes. The thicker leather of work boots can accommodate the higher levels of oil, which also helps in moisture protection.

I would not recommend shoe care products high is solvents (cleaner/conditioners) on corrected grain leather, shell cordovan, or exotic leathers.

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Cordovan Shell – Revisited

There seems to be some mystery around how to care for cordovan shell shoes, and how they differ from leather shoes.

There is actually quite a bit of difference between cow leather and shell cordovan, and therefore reasons to treat them differently.
leather shoescordovan shoes

My original research led me to believe that cordovan shell was produced from a part of the subcutaneous muscle layer in horses called the panniculus carnosus. This is a thin fibrous twitch muscle lining the abdomen and hind quarter of the horse.

In reality cordovan shell is made from a collagen protein based tissue structure that is a cross between flesh and cartilage called the hyaline layer that exists (specifically on the rump of a horse) between the epidermis and the corium. This layer does not exist in cow skin.

Because this layer is a dense smooth layer of tissue it is also referred to as the “glassy” layer. In a book titled “The Chemistry of Leather Manufacture,” published in 1923 by the Chemical Catalogue Company the following paragraph appears:

The dense mass of fibers, often called the glassy layer, can be seen running horizontally across the middle of the picture and appearing much darker than the remaining fibers. The portion of the hide containing the glassy layer is known as the shell and is used to make leather sold under the name of cordovan.

Once the horse leather is cut down to the ovals that contain the hyaline tissue layer the epidermis is shaved off of the hyaline layer leaving no grain side. This is one of the reasons that it is hot stuffed rather than fat liquored. Hot stuffing also allows the tannery to add a lot more fats and waxes than fat liquoring.

Beside the additional fats and waxes, another aspect plays an even bigger role: The difference between the structure of skin tissue and the hyaline layer tissue.

Both skin and the hyaline layer are made up of protein filament bundles (fibrils), but the shape and size of the filaments differ quite a bit. A collagen protein filament in skin/leather is about 80nm in diameter, while the filaments in the hyaline layer have a bulbous head that is about 12nm in diameter and a filament that tapers to much smaller. These tapered filaments fold over onto themselves causing the denser tissue.

The filament size in the hyaline layer is similar in relative size to an actin protein filament found in muscle, which is about 8nm in diameter. This perpetuates some of the confusion around cordovan shell being a muscle rather than a skin tissue.

Because the fibrils in the hyaline layer are so much more compressed (ten filaments for every one of cow hide, and folded over as well) it tends to retain oil and wax much better.

This compressed fibrous tissue has no real grain side, and so it acts like flesh out leather, similar to waxed leather, but with a much more compressed surface. This is also why a smooth deer bone can rub out a scuff.

Since cordovan shell retains waxes and oils so well it does not need to be conditioned very often (some would say the cordovan shell never needs conditioning). However, all oils oxidize over time and should be replenished as needed.

I have found the best way to do this is to apply a little cream polish every now and then (about every 15 to 20 times the shoes are worn). The rest of the time I just brush them very well, and smooth out any scuffs with the round side of a tablespoon.

Brushing cordovan shell with a horsehair brush (ironic I know) vigorously is about the best thing you can do for it. The heat from the friction helps soften the waxes and oils in the cordovan shell and basically allows you to polish your shoes with the ingredients already in your shoes.

The video below will go through a number of steps that horse hide goes through to produce cordovan shell at the Horween tannery:

Horween Genuine Shell Cordovan from Horween Leather on Vimeo.

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Beeswax and carnauba wax are the most commonly used waxes in shoe polish, with paraffin wax being used less often. However, I believe Venetian shoe cream is composed of a liquid paraffin mixed with turpentine. All hydrocarbons from paraffin wax to mineral oil fall into the paraffin class.
Venetian Shoe Cream-1

Kiwi lists carnauba wax as the wax ingredient in their standard paste polish.

Other wax options, not as frequently used in shoe polish, are Japan wax and Candelilla wax.

Each wax has a different degree of hardness, which is somewhat reflected in its melting point.

Waxes in order of hardness:

Carnauba Wax: Melting Point (183F), source (leaves of the palm plant Copernicia prunifera grown in Brazil).

Candelilla Wax: Melting Point (155F), source (candelilla shrub found in Southwest U.S. and Northern Mexico).

Beeswax: Melting Point (145F), source (honey bees).

Paraffin Wax: Melting Point (140F), source (petroleum distillate – paraffin class hydrocarbon).

Japan Wax: Melting Point (124F), source (fruit of the Rhus Succedanea tree grown in Japan).

Some polishes use a combination of waxes.

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Mineral Oil

There is some question as to whether or not mineral oil should be used on shoe/boot leather. I can tell you that you should avoid using mineral oil on your shoe and boot leather if you can.

The reason I say “if you can” is because a number of leather conditioners and leather protectors include mineral oil. Fortunately they will typically state something along the lines of “Contains petroleum by-products” or “Contains petroleum distillates” somewhere on the label. Some tanneries also use mineral oil in their fatliquoring process.
neatsfoot oil

Mineral oil is a basic straight chain hydrocarbon and comes is various grades defined by the carbon atom count, which ranges from 18 to 30 carbon atoms. Mineral oil used in shoe products has a molecular composition of about C25H52 (25 Carbon, 52 Hydrogen). Mineral oil is also a non-polar hydrocarbon and as such cannot have a pH value.
mineral oil 1

Mineral oil is also extremely hydrophobic because it is a non-polar substance, and the molecular structure has fewer reactive tertiary hydrogen and carbon atoms which minimizes direct reaction with oxygen. What this means is that mineral oil is much more of a water barrier than triglyceride based oils like animal and vegetable fats. In fact mineral oil is considered to be occlusive (a stop to moisture), whereas triglyceride based oils are considered semi-occlusive (allowing your shoes to pass perspiration for evaporation to some degree). Moisture, trapped in the leather by mineral oil, can lead to dry rot of the leather over time.

Another aspect of mineral oil is how it oxidizes: All oils oxidize over time, even mineral oil. Oxidation at the molecular level can happen in one of two ways: the gain of oxygen atoms, or the loss of hydrogen atoms. Because triglycerides already involve oxygen bonding in their molecular makeup they oxidize through increased oxygen. Since mineral oil can’t really bond with oxygen (for the same reasons it is hydrophobic) it must oxidize through the loss of hydrogen (as a side note: hydrocarbon molecules can be oxidized with oxygen atoms, but only at very high temperatures).

This loss of hydrogen atoms begins breaking down the molecular composition of the mineral oil (originally C25H52) and as it breaks down it becomes more volatile (the molecular composition of naphtha [the petroleum by-product used as a solvent in shoe polish –and other things] can be as big as C12H26). The smaller the size of a hydrocarbon molecule the more volatile (and toxic) it becomes. This is the reason mineral oil is never used to maintain old leather in museums and such.

So why is mineral oil used in shoe/boot care products and in fatliquoring? Mineral oil is used because it is very cheap compared to triglyceride based oils, and it provides a stronger moisture barrier.

Unfortunately, if you plan to keep your shoes/boots longer than a few years, the mineral oil will do more harm than good.

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Reviving Dead Polish

If you have had a tin of shoe polish for a while you may have noticed that is has dried out and cracked, this is because shoe polish is composed mostly of solvent, and solvent evaporates.

When the solvent evaporates it leaves the wax in the tin, and because there is less volume the wax begins to separate and crack. The wax also becomes harder because the solvent was keeping it in a softer paste consistency.
Old Polish

This process can be reversed by replenishing the solvent and melting the wax, all within the tin.

This can also be a somewhat dangerous process as the solvent can be flammable. The most common solvents used in shoe polish are Naphtha (a petro-chemical) and Turpentine. Both have a flash point below 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so they should be handled with caution around open flame.

I would also suggest turning on your stove hood fan, and avoid inhaling the fumes as much as possible. It is also a good idea to have a flat surface object (like a cutting board) available to smother any possible flame. That being said, I have never had shoe polish catch on fire without being exposed directly to flame (although it is possible).

For the most part this process may be more work than it is worth, but that is something you will have to decide for yourself.

To do this right you will need a two quart double broiler and an IR thermometer. The IR thermometer is not necessary, but it is really handy.
Double Broiler
IR Thermometer

First select a solvent to use in replenishing the polish. Turpentine is readily available where you would buy paint, but I prefer to use orange oil because it smells better and has a higher flash point. You can order orange oil from a number of places on line. Either solvent will work.

To revive your polish do the following steps in order:

  1. Observe the amount of dried up polish in the tin.
  2. Pour in solvent at about 25% to 30% of the volume of the existing polish.
  3. Fill the bottom pan of a double broiler about three quarters full of water.
  4. Put the top pan of the double broiler on top of the bottom pan.
  5. Place the polish tin in the bottom center of the top pan.
  6. Turn the heat up to about 50%, and let heat until the wax melts (this is where the IR thermometer comes in handy).
    Beeswax melts at about 145F (about 10 minutes)
    Carnauba wax melts at about 180F (about 15 minutes)
  7. Once melted to liquid, turn off the heat and let the wax cool (this may take up to an hour). You can lift off the top pan with the polish tin in it to speed up cooling, but be careful not to spill the polish out of the tin in liquid form (it makes a mess).
  8. Once the tin is not hot to the touch (below 90F), you have a good usable tin of shoe polish again.

Revived Polish

If you want to give the polish a bit of a cream texture add just a few drops of coconut oil (less than a quarter teaspoon) while the wax is melted.

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