All About Shoe Polish

Let me cover some basics about shoe polish and shoe polishing in general:

There are 3 basic types of shoe polish:

Liquid – Not recommended for long term shoe care. If you have a bottle of this please throw it away.

Typically comes in a plastic bottle with a sponge tip applicator.

Cream – Base coat and brush shine.

Typically comes in a small, short, glass jar.

Paste – Final coats and spit shine.

Typically comes in a short, round, metal tin.

There are only 3 types of wax, all of which are used in shoe polish, either individually or in some combination:

Petroleum based wax – Paraffin
Plant based wax – Carnauba wax
Insect based wax – Beeswax

Shoe polish also contains oils for keeping the leather fiber of the shoe supple and to slow down the leather oxidation process. The most common are:

Lanolin – Produced by sheep skin oil glands.
Mink Oil – Extracted from fat cells of mink pelts.
Neatsfoot Oil – Extracted from the shin or foot (not hoof) of cattle.

Other oils such as tallow (animal fat in general) and Collagen (a group of proteins) are also used to some degree, however plant oils like Olive oil, Peanut oil, etc… are not used.

The oils listed above (not plant oils) are also what makes up most leather conditioners, to one degree or another.

Shoe leather usually comes from the tannery with around 17% oil content. It is important to try to keep the oil content around this ratio if possible. This is done by using leather conditioner periodically and keeping the shoes polished.

Shoe polish also contains solvents. The solvents are used to soften the wax and make it easier to apply. Shortly after the wax is applied the solvents evaporate. When a tin of shoe paste dries up and cracks it is because the solvents have evaporated, not because the oil has dried up. The most common solvents are:

Naphtha – Petroleum distillate
Turpentine – Pine Tree resin distillate
Stoddard Solution – Mineral Spirits

Shoe polish can also contain Gum Arabic as a viscosity stabilizer, and of course dyes for coloring.

The quality of a shoe polish is determined by which of each of these elements are used and in what ratios. Unfortunately, makers of shoe polish rarely publish the composition of their polish.

As for the difference in shoe cream and shoe paste (both are shoe polish): Shoe cream has a higher oil content and a lower wax content, and shoe paste is just the opposite with a lower oil content and a higher wax content. Because of this a spit shine is not possible with shoe cream. But, shoe cream does a better job of conditioning the shoe leather than shoe paste that is why some people use both to polish a shoe.

If you are not trying to put a spit shine on a shoe then shoe cream is best to use, as it will condition the shoe better and still produce a good brush shine.

If you are trying to spit shine a shoe, shoe cream is not needed as long as the shoe is well conditioned, the wax ratio in the shoe paste will allow for a hard wax shell to be created.

When thinking about actually producing a shine on a shoe it helps to think microscopically. The surface of the wax is what creates the shine. If you were to apply wax to a shoe (with whatever method –shoe dauber, cotton cloth, etc…) and then look at it with a microscope it would be very rough and inconsistent.

Running the bristles of a shoe brush over the wax repeatedly would smooth out the wax a great deal, leaving just microscopic valleys where the bristles had been drawn back and forth. To the naked eye the wax would be smooth enough to reflect enough light to make the shoes look shiny. This would be a brush shine.

To produce a spit shine the wax has to be much smoother. This is done by rubbing the wax with a smooth object with extremely little drag (this is where just a little water comes in handy) that contours to the surface of the shoe (cotton ball, or cotton wrapped finger). Multiple coats may also be necessary to fill in any imperfections in the surface.

Note that very little polish should be used to produce each coat, and that you are not actually adding coats, but rather blending coats because the wax being applied each time still contains some solvent.

Once the wax is smooth enough you will begin to feel a slighty oily tactile feedback as you polish, this is due to the oil that is inherent in the wax itself becoming the molecular barrier (along with a few molecules of water) between two very smooth wax covered surfaces (the shoe and the applicator). This is when the best spit shine will occur.

 

International Sizing Chart

EU = European Union
DE = Germany
UK = United Kingdom (and Australia)
US = United States (and Canada)
MX = Mexico
JP = Japan(*shoes mesured by foot size)
KR = Korea
MP, PP and BC = See notes below.
Foot Length Shoe Length (inside) EU DE UK
US
MX JP KR
  mm   cm    inch   mm   cm    inch    PP    –       BC   Men  Wo
 men
  cm   *cm mm
204 20.4 8.03 217 21.7 8.54 32.5 1 2 3.5
205 20.5 8.07 218 21.8 8.58 20.5
206 20.6 8.11 219 21.9 8.62 34.5
207 20.7 8.15 220 22.0 8.66 33 22.0 220
208 20.8 8.19 221 22.1 8.70 1.5 2.5 4
209 20.9 8.23 222 22.2 8.74 35
210 21.0 8.27 223 22.3 8.78 33.5 21
211 21.1 8.31 224 22.4 8.82
212 21.2 8.35 225 22.5 8.86 35.5 22.5 225
213 21.3 8.39 226 22.6 8.90 2 3 4.5
214 21.4 8.43 227 22.7 8.94 34
215 21.5 8.46 228 22.8 8.98 36 21.5
216 21.6 8.50 229 22.9 9.02
217 21.7 8.54 230 23.0 9.06 34.5 2.5 3.5 5 23 230
218 21.8 8.58 231 23.1 9.09
219 21.9 8.62 232 23.2 9.13 36.5
220 22.0 8.66 233 23.3 9.17 35 22.0
221 22.1 8.70 234 23.4 9.21 3 4 5.5
222 22.2 8.74 235 23.5 9.25 37 23.5 235
223 22.3 8.78 236 23.6 9.29
224 22.4 8.82 237 23.7 9.33 35.5
225 22.5 8.86 238 23.8 9.37 37.5 3.5 4.5 6 22.5
226 22.6 8.90 239 23.9 9.41
227 22.7 8.94 240 24.0 9.45 36 24.0 240
228 22.8 8.98 241 24.1 9.49 38
229 22.9 9.02 242 24.2 9.53
230 23.0 9.06 243 24.3 9.57 36.5 4 5 6.5 23.0
231 23.1 9.09 244 24.4 9.61 38.5
232 23.2 9.13 245 24.5 9.65 24.5 245
233 23.3 9.17 246 24.6 9.69
234 23.4 9.21 247 24.7 9.72 37 39 4.5 5.5 7
235 23.5 9.25 248 24.8 9.76 23.5
236 23.6 9.29 249 24.9 9.80
237 23.7 9.33 250 25.0 9.84 37.5 25.0 250
238 23.8 9.37 251 25.1 9.88 39.5 5 6 7.5
239 23.9 9.41 252 25.2 9.92
240 24.0 9.45 253 25.3 9.96 38 24.0
241 24.1 9.49 254 25.4 10.00 40.0
242 24.2 9.53 255 25.5 10.04 5.5 6.5 8 25.5 255
243 24.3 9.57 256 25.6 10.08
244 24.4 9.61 257 25.7 10.12 38.5 40.5
245 24.5 9.65 258 25.8 10.16 24.5
246 24.6 9.69 259 25.9 10.20 6 7 8.5
247 24.7 9.72 260 26.0 10.24 39 41 26 260
248 24.8 9.76 261 26.1 10.28
249 24.9 9.80 262 26.2 10.31
250 25.0 9.84 263 26.3 10.35 39.5 41.5 6.5 7.5 9 25.0
251 25.1 9.88 264 26.4 10.39
252 25.2 9.92 265 26.5 10.43 26.5 265
253 25.3 9.96 266 26.6 10.47
254 25.4 10.00 267 26.7 10.51 40 42
255 25.5 10.04 268 26.8 10.55 7 8 9.5 25.5
256 25.6 10.08 269 26.9 10.59
257 25.7 10.12 270 27.0 10.63 40.5 42.5 27 270
258 25.8 10.16 271 27.1 10.67
259 25.9 10.20 272 27.2 10.71 7.5 8.5 10
260 26.0 10.24 273 27.3 10.75 41 43 26.0
261 26.1 10.28 274 27.4 10.79
262 26.2 10.31 275 27.5 10.83 27.5 275
263 26.3 10.35 276 27.6 10.87 43.5 8 9 10.5
264 26.4 10.39 277 27.7 10.91 41.5
265 26.5 10.43 278 27.8 10.94 26.5
266 26.6 10.47 279 27.9 10.98 44
267 26.7 10.51 280 28.0 11.02 42 8.5 9.5 11 28 280
268 26.8 10.55 281 28.1 11.06
269 26.9 10.59 282 28.2 11.10 44.5
270 27.0 10.63 283 28.3 11.14 42.5 27
271 27.1 10.67 284 28.4 11.18 9 10 11.5
272 27.2 10.71 285 28.5 11.22 28.5 285
273 27.3 10.75 286 28.6 11.26 45
274 27.4 10.79 287 28.7 11.30 43
275 27.5 10.83 288 28.8 11.34 27.5
276 27.6 10.87 289 28.9 11.38 45.5 9.5 10.5 12
277 27.7 10.91 290 29.0 11.42 43.5 29 290
278 27.8 10.94 291 29.1 11.46
279 27.9 10.98 292 29.2 11.50 46
280 28.0 11.02 293 29.3 11.54 44 10 11 12.5 28
281 28.1 11.06 294 29.4 11.57
282 28.2 11.10 295 29.5 11.61 46.5 29.5 295
283 28.3 11.14 296 29.6 11.65
284 28.4 11.18 297 29.7 11.69 44.5 10.5 11.5 13
285 28.5 11.22 298 29.8 11.73 47 28.5
286 28.6 11.26 299 29.9 11.77
287 28.7 11.30 300 30.0 11.81 45 30 300
288 28.8 11.34 301 30.1 11.85 47.5
289 28.9 11.38 302 30.2 11.89 11 12 13.5
290 29.0 11.42 303 30.3 11.93 45.5 29
291 29.1 11.46 304 30.4 11.97
292 29.2 11.50 305 30.5 12.01 48 30.5 305
293 29.3 11.54 306 30.6 12.05 11.5 12.5 14
294 29.4 11.57 307 30.7 12.09 46
295 29.5 11.61 308 30.8 12.13 48.5 29.5
296 29.6 11.65 309 30.9 12.17
297 29.7 11.69 310 31.0 12.20 46.5 12 13 14.5 31 310
298 29.8 11.73 311 31.1 12.24 49.0
299 29.9 11.77 312 31.2 12.28
300 30.0 11.81 313 31.3 12.32 47 30.0
301 30.1 11.85 314 31.4 12.36 49.5 12.5 13.5 15
302 30.2 11.89 315 31.5 12.40 31.5 315
303 30.3 11.93 316 31.6 12.44
304 30.4 11.97 317 31.7 12.48 47.5 50
305 30.5 12.01 318 31.8 12.52 30.5
306 30.6 12.05 319 31.9 12.56 13 14 15.5
307 30.7 12.09 320 32.0 12.60 48 50.5 32.0 320
308 30.8 12.13 321 32.1 12.64
309 30.9 12.17 322 32.2 12.68
310 31.0 12.20 323 32.3 12.72 48.5 13.5 14.5 16 31
311 31.1 12.24 324 32.4 12.76 51
312 31.2 12.28 325 32.5 12.80 32.5 325
313 31.3 12.32 326 32.6 12.83
314 31.4 12.36 327 32.7 12.87 49 51.5
315 31.5 12.40 328 32.8 12.91 + + 14 15 16.5 + 31.5 +
    Shoe Length Info:

  • MP = Mondopoint [ISO 9407 – International Standard for the system of sizing and marking shoe sizes – in millimeters]
  • PP = Paris Point [6.67 millimeters, .26 inches (just over 1/4 inch)]
    • EU shoe size = (Length of foot in Mondopoint [millimeters] + 20 millimeters) divided by (1 Paris Point[6.67 millimeters ])
  • BC (Barleycorn) = 8.47 millimeters, 1/3 inch, 12 Barleycorn = 1 Hand
    • Hand = 101.6 millimeters, 4 inches
    • UK shoe size = (2 hands + [1 Barleycorn per shoe size]) + (1 Barleycorn) [up to size 10.5, then (3 hands + [1 Barleycorn per shoe size] above size 11)][Adult Male or Female]
  • Foot and shoe length differ because a gap between the end of the longest toe on the foot and the inside of the cap of the shoe differ. This gap difference varies between 20mm and 8.5mm depending on how the shoe was made and the method of measurement.
  • 20mm = .79 inches (just over 3/4 inch), 8.5mm = .33 inches (1/3 inch)
  • The average difference between foot length and shoe length should be aproximatly 13 millimeters (1/2 inch). 13 millimeters is equal to about one and a half shoe sizes. This scale uses 13 mm as the standard gap.
  • You will typically need an athlitic shoe 1/2 to a full size larger than a dress/business shoe.
  • Toe Length: The length of a foot, from heel to toe, should be about 1.4 times the length of the same foot from heel to the ball of the foot (center of the large joint behind the big toe). If this ratio is less than 1.35 then the next half shoe size size up may fit better.
    Shoe Width Info:

  • Shoe width is set at 3/8 (.375) of the length of the shoe to determine a “D” size width, so the width of a shoe will always change in relationship to the length of the shoe.
  • Shoe width designations change by 5mm, .19 inches (3/16 inch) for each change in designation, therefore a size B would be 10mm smaller in width
    than a size D, and a EE would be 10mm larger than a size D.
  • Most shoe makers in the UK use a different width designator than the US, with F being the medium size designator in the UK, rather than D which is the medium designator in the US.
    Scale Accuracy:

  • This scale is offered as a reference only, because each shoe maker uses their own set of custom lasts (a “Last” is a shoe form on which a shoe is built) which vary from maker to maker, and style to style.
  • There is also a deviation between US and UK sizes that varies from a half to a full size difference.

Shoe Anatomy

Arch:
The padded area of the insole of a shoe, which is designed to support the arch of the foot.
Back Seam:
The vertical seam used to attach the quarters together at the center of the rear of a shoe.
Back Stay:
A short strip of leather that connects the quarters down the back of the shoe.
Collar:
A, sometimes padded, strip of material attached to the topline/opening of a shoe.
Counter:
A stiff piece of material usually made of leather, plastic, cardboard, or other stiff but plyable material that is inserted between the shoe lining and the upper located at the rear of the shoe, just above the heel.
The counter is used to strengthen the rear of the shoe and support the rear heel of the foot. It also helps retain the shape of the shoe. A Heel Counter can also refer to the exterior decoration on the back of a shoe (similar to a toe cap)
Eyelets:
Holes in the upper, above the tongue, where shoe laces are laces. Eyelets may be reinforced with a grommet for less wear on the shoe material. As a side note: The plastic tips on shoe strings are called Aglets.
Facing:
The part of the shoe where the shoelace eyelets are located.
Foxing:
A piece of leather trimming fitted into or on top of the rear quarters.
Gore:
An elastic panel attached to each side of the vamp to make a shoe more comfortable and easier to put on and take off. A Hidden Gore is covered by the tongue of a shoe and provides added comfort.
Heel:
The heel of a shoe, which raises the rear of the shoe, is considered part of the sole of a shoe although is is normally an independent piece of material. There are also names for the various areas of a heel:
      Heel Breast:The area of the heel that faces the front of a shoe, typically located below the rear arch area of the foot.
      Heel Seat:The area of the heel that is attached to the sole of a shoe.
      Heel Tip:Used to refer to the Top Piece of a narrow, high heeled shoe (such as a Stiletto). Heel Tips are usually made of plastic or rubber.
    Top Piece:The area of the heel that contacts the ground. When a shoe is manufactured the heel is attached to the shoe while the shoe is upsidedown, therefore the “bottom” of the heel, when a shoe is placed on a foot, is the “top” when it is being manufactured.
Inseam:
A hidden seam on a shoe attaching the welt, upper, lining and insole.
Insole:
The layer of material that lays on top of the sole inside a shoe, where the bottom of your foot contacts a shoe.
Linings:
A material, usually leather, sheepskin or cloth, that covers the inside of the upper to make a shoe more comfortable.
Mid-sole:
A layer of cushioned material between the innersole and outsole, adding additonal comfort and support to a shoe.
Outsole:
The part of the sole that touches the ground, usually made of leather or rubber.
Plug:
The sewn in vamp on a loafer. Usually defined as a plug if the material or texture is different than the rest of the shoe.
Puff:
Reinforcement inside the upper at the toe of a shoe to give it shape and support.
Quarter:
The back half of the upper. Attached at the front to the vamp, making up both sides of a shoe, and wrapping around the rear of the shoe. On some shoes the vamp and the quarter are a single piece of leather.
Shank:
A rigid material (usually metal or plastic) located between the insole and the sole of the shoe to supply support.
Sole:
The part of the shoe that sits below the wearers foot. The upper and sole make up the entire shoe.
Throat:
The area of the shoe where the top cap ends, or the area where the base of the tongue is attached to the vamp.
Toe cap:
A piece of material that covers the front upper of the shoe. Toe caps can have decorative patterns and shapes, to include wingtip.
Tongue:
A piece of material, usually leather or cloth, sewn into the vamp of a laced shoe, extending between the throat and the waist of a shoe.
Topline:
Also refered to as the Rim or the Collar, it is the top edge of the upper or opening of a shoe.
Upper:
The part of a shoe that covers the entire top, sides and back of the foot.
Vamp:
The part of upper that covers the front of the foot and attaches to the quarter.
Waist:
The area of a shoe between the in-step and arch.
Welt:
The piece of material, or process, used to join the upper to the sole. When the upper and the sole are stiched together, resulting in a visible stiched seam it is referred to as a Goodyear Welt or Norwegian Welt [two different processes] (as opposed to a Blake stitch which is not visible from the top of the shoe).

How I Polish My Shoes

I have spent many years perfecting my shoe polishing skills, so I thought I would take a few pictures and share my process to start this blog off right.

Here is an example of some of the shoes I have worn recently (for examples of polishing results):
 
 

Because I currently have over 60 pair of dress shoes I try to have a consistent process I can rely on to keep them in good shape. This system is basically cleaning, conditioning and polishing a different pair of shoes on average about once a week. Of course there are times where a month goes by without my doing this, and there are weeks where I might do the process to half a dozen pair that week.

Each day before I put on a pair of dress shoes I inspect the shoe for any scuffs, and then do a quick brush of the shoes before I put them on. If the toe cap or heel counter have a spit shine I might run a moist folded cotton round across the surface gently to remove any dust. I typically do not put shoes with obvious scuffs back into rotation until they have gone through the cleaning, conditioning, polishing process.

Now to the process:

First of all I try to have all of the tools and polishes I need to do the job before I start:

I store all of my polishes in boxes. I use a shoe care box (with the shoe rest mounted on top) for my paste polishes, and I use an old humidifier for my cream polishes.

I use a cotton round, folded in quarters, to apply polish (both cream and paste):

I use a spray bottle with a fine mist for getting the folded cotton round moist, rather than dipping it in water.

I use a soft cotton cloth to apply the leather cleaner, and a separate cotton cloth to apply the leather conditioner.

I use a standard size horse hair brush for brushing the shoe. And, even though I have horse hair daubers I rarely use them for applying polish.

I start the process by selecting a pair of shoes that have not been cleaned, conditioned and polished for a while. For this post I decided to select an older pair of Johnston and Murphy ankle boots, mostly to show that you don’t have to have an expensive pair of shoes to get a good spit shine.
The first step is to clean the shoes. I use Lexol leather cleaner and a soft cotton cloth to do this. If I feel there is too much of a wax build up I might start with a linen cloth because of its courser texture (you can damage the leather surface if you are too aggressive/hard with this process).

The cloth should be damp and raise just a slight foam when scrubbing the shoe. Go over the shoe once more with a moist cloth when you are done to remove any residual cleaner or foam.
For the sake of this process I define “damp” as the cloth being wet through the fabric, but not so much that you could wring out any water. I define “moist” as just the surface of the cloth having a slight amount of water on it.
Cleaning each shoe takes about 2 to 4 minutes, depending on the amount of dirt and/or wax build up.

Once I have cleaned the shoes I let them sit for about an hour to dry.
After the hour of waiting for the shoes to dry I then move on to the next step which is conditioning the shoes. Some people may want to wait longer for the shoes to dry (like overnight) which is fine, but I usually don’t get the shoes that wet, and I don’t mind starting the conditioning process while the shoes are still slightly moist.

To apply the leather conditioner I use a soft cotton cloth and apply slightly less than a half teaspoon (about 2mL) to the upper of each shoe (including the tongue). I do this by putting a little conditioner on the cloth and rubbing it into an area of the shoe gently until it is mostly gone and then adding some more to the cloth and doing another area of the shoe, until the shoe is fully covered, and then I do the other shoe. Conditioning each shoe takes about 4 minutes. I usually do this in the evening while watching something on TV and an apron in my lap.
Once this is done I let the shoes sit overnight:

The next evening I start the polishing process. I take a folded cotton round and spray it to get it moist. I then dab the folded cotton round into the cream polish color of choice gently (I chose Mahogany to add a little red tint to the color). When I load the folded cotton round “applicator” I am careful to dab it in the cream just enough to cover the front of the applicator. This is where most beginners get it wrong, by adding too much polish to their applicator to begin with.
You want to put a thin coat of cream polish on the shoe to begin with.

I usually moisten the applicator and dab it about 4 times per shoe (heel and inside quarter, heel and outside quarter, vamp/tongue, and toe).
Once I have the cream polish applied to both shoes I go back to the first shoe and begin to brush shine the shoe.

Start with slow long strokes to draw the wax in the polish across the shoe, using diagonal, horizontal, vertical strokes. You should be pushing through the stroke with only about 50% of the pressure going down toward the shoe and the other 50% in the brushing direction. You don’t need to push too hard down on the shoe.
Once the brush strokes seem to have less drag (from the wax) begin using shorter and faster strokes to allow the bristle friction to warm up the wax.

Use about 40% down pressure and 60% through pressure. Keep doing this around the shoe, then change the ratio to 30% down and 70% through. This brushing process should take no less than 4 minutes per shoe (more time is better).
This may seem pretty specific, but most people that have been shining their shoes for some time just do this by instinct, and don’t realize that it is not always obvious to the inexperienced.

I would have to say that after too much polish and too much water that not enough brushing is third mistake made by the inexperienced.
After the first coat of cream has been applied and brushed, repeat the process a second time:
First cream coat brushed:

Second cream coat brushed:

If all you need is a good brushed polish glow then you are done. I will usually also add a coat of paste polish over the entire upper and give it a good brush shine as well (just because of the higher wax content in the paste):
2 coats of cream, 1 coat of paste, brushed to a glow:

If I am going to add a spit shine (bulling / mirror shine), I then add a second coat of paste polish of a chosen color (I used Brown in this case, for a slight distinction from the vamp).
Because there is more wax in paste than there is in cream you have to use even less paste than cream.

For the initial layer where I cover the entire shoe I run the moistened, folded, cotton round “applicator” around the inside perimeter of the paste tin once lightly for enough paste to cover half a shoe, then again for the other half.
To spit shine the toe I take a clean moistened, folded, cotton round and just brush it lightly across just the center of the paste in the tin.

You want very little polish at the point, and will almost always get too much until you have a fair amount of practice.
This paste should be applied to the toe of the shoe in large circles at first to cover the entire toe, then make smaller and smaller circles until you begin to see a mirror finish appear. As you are doing this apply less and less pressure to the shoe to the point that you are just gliding to applicator over the surface.
To get a real mirror shine repeat this process with neutral paste twice.
The result:

In use:

Please feel free to post any feedback or questions you may have.