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.
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Then there are leather conditioners that are mostly oils. man looking for woman

There are also combination cleaner/conditioners.
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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.

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.
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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.