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.
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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.

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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.

Shoe Leather 101

When it comes to leather shoes it is helpful to have an understanding of leather in general, and shoe leather in specific.

Most people think of leather as cow hide, but it really relates to any animal skin that has been through the tanning process to convert the dead animal skin into a lasting useful material (Leather).

Although the tanned skin of a young calf is called calfskin it is still leather. Because calfskin comes from a calf it has a tighter grain and fiber, and is thinner and lighter than cow hide; this makes for better shoe leather.

Other types of animal leather are Kidskin (from goat), Pigskin/Peccary (from pig), Cordovan Shell (from horse), and of course other exotic animal skins like buffalo, elephant, kangaroo and so on. There are also bird skins, like ostrich, and reptile skins like alligator, crocodile, lizard and snake.

Reptile skins tend to last longer and need less care than animal leathers, but they are also more expensive. Bovine leather (cow hide / calfskin) is by far the most commonly used leather in shoes.

A high quality all leather shoe uses leather in the following places:
The outsole of the shoe (the part that touches the ground)
The insole of the shoe (the part your foot rests on)
The lining of the shoe (between your foot and the upper)
The heel of the shoe (as in stacked layers of leather to create the heel)
The shoe upper (the rest of the shoe, excluding the items above)

Shoe that are not all leather may have rubber soles, insoles made of various materials, and heels made of wood, rubber or plastic. I would suggest going with all leather if you can, with the exception of perhaps rubber soles if you need to stand in cold wet environments.

Leather can be available from tanneries in the following thicknesses:

A leather outsole on a man’s shoe is around 12oz thickness on average. A leather insole is typically around 14oz in thickness to accommodate the welt. A shoe upper is around 5oz on a typical dress/business shoe, and the lining is about 1oz.

All of these thicknesses can vary due to leather type, welt method, and shoe style. For example Italian shoes tend to be sleeker and therefore use thinner leather in the soles and uppers to achieve the look. Soles that are Blake stitched or bonded don’t require as thick an insole as Goodyear welted shoes.

As a side note: try to avoid bonded or bondwelted shoes as this means the outsole is simply glued to the shoe without an actual welt.

The quality of the leather used in a given line of shoes is determined by the grade of leather the shoe manufacturer purchased to make the shoes. Leather is graded in two basic ways: 1) The quality of the hide in general (amount of scars, blemishes, etc…), and 2) The area of the hide a specific piece of leather is cut from (back, belly, front shoulders, etc…).

Leather quality is typically graded in four grades, with grade 1 being the best, and grade 4 being the worst. This means that even grade 1 hides (little to no blemishes) have grade 4 leather (belly skin).
Cow Hide Portions

The grade of leather used is the most critical in the shoe upper, as this is where the quality of the leather is most visible. Shoe uppers made from the back area leather of a grade 1 hide would be the best shoe leather you could get (and also makes for a very expensive pair of shoes).

The leather on a shoe upper is typically grain side out leather, but leathers like shell cordovan and waxed leather are used inside out (flesh side out), and suede leather has had the grain removed entirely.

Inside out leathers are typically pressed under very high pressure to compress the fibers to a smooth surface.

Leather that has blemishes in the grain are often buffed (sanded) of the grain side to remove the blemishes, which then requires the grain to be corrected. Corrected grain leather is sometimes referred to as top grain leather or bookbinder leather. If the grain has not been corrected (no existing blemishes in the grain to begin with) it is referred to as full grain. The term top grain has also been used to define the grain side of the leather, making full grain and top grain synonymous, so it can be confusing.
Leather Grain levels

One of the final stages of tanning leather is applying the color and finish (although chromium tanned leather can be bought in a “wet blue” state).

The high quality leather is typically aniline dyed, which saturates the color completely through the leather. The leather is also pressed under high pressure to give it some shine, and a very thin coat of clear or colored acrylic is applied as a final finish, in most cases.

In the case of corrected grain, the pressing and acrylic finish is also where the corrected grain is applied. Because of this corrected grain leather will have a thicker finish than non-corrected grain, and also tend to be a little shinier. Patent leather is corrected grain leather with a thick acrylic finish, pressed to a high shine.
Leather Finish

The shoe manufacturer may also add their own finish to the leather, to add more shine, or to add color highlights.

Two Finger Technique

I have tried a number of different polishing techniques to put a mirror shine on the toe of a shoe and as has been stated before, shoe polishing is more of an art than a science. It is actually more about feel and technique than anything else.

There are a few basics however: 1) Only use a little water at a time, 2) Only use a little polish at a time, and 3) Get a feel for the smoothness of the wax as you polish.

To that end, when using a cotton cloth, I use what I refer to as the Two Finger Technique (I’m probably not the first, or the only person, to use this technique however):

1) I wrap a cotton cloth (old t-shirt) around my first two fingers.

2) I get the tips of both fingers wet through the cloth (I use a spray bottle on mist, but tapping in a tin of water would also work).

3) I lightly rub the middle finger in the polish I am going to use, just enough to cover the tip of the finger.

4) I begin to rub the polish onto the toe of the shoe with just the middle finger (index finger slightly raised and pressed against the middle finger for support).

5) If I need to add a little more water to really smooth out the coat before the next one, I simply lower the index finger and rub the polish with that finger for a few seconds. If polish is transferred from the shoe back to the cloth covering the index finger then you used it too soon.

6) As I need more polish, I simply rub the middle finger lightly in the tin of polish again.

7) As the cloth dries out I spray (or tap) a little water onto the cloth covering the fingers.

This technique allows me more control over the amount of water and polish I use, as well as giving me a good feel for the smoothness of the wax.

I normally only use neutral paste polish (over a good color cream coat) when creating a mirror shine. I used color in the picture so that the amount of polish could be seen.

Two Finger Technique