Having a really professional shoe shine, such as those spent having your tootsies massaged during a layover at the airport, is an experience not to be missed in life.   Even better is having a professional shine on your riding boots done on your riding boots.  But times have changed and many of us who show or hunt are forced to be our own grooms these days.  Those professional shines seem to last for weeks, while mine at home seemed to last only a day.  The last time I was in the chair, I had Jill Wright, owner of Executive Shine in Denver, explain to me the process.  While I am still only fractionally as good as she is at getting a shine that lasts weeks, I am nearly there with her tutelage and the addition of some professional products.

Asking how to get a pair of boots to shine like glass will instantly collect every former military member within earshot for a spirited debate. There are a number of ways to do everything from a spit shine and flaming the polish to cotton balls and a wax.  The bottom line is that they all work.  But some methods take hours longer than others, the shines don’t all last the same, and not all products are good for the leather.

The method described herein will produce a shine that lasts for weeks, with an occasional touch up, and will shine like a mirror.  If your method succeeds with a better shine that lasts longer, stick with it.  Please don’t tell me about Shoe Shine Spray, Urad, and Rapid Shine sponges.  While these great short cuts work when you are short on time, they are no substitute for a real shine that lasts and doesn’t hurt the leather.

The real trick is to get that perfectly smooth shell—the pores of the leather must be filled and the normal irregularities on the surface filled in and smoothed over.  The second tip is to take breaks between the steps to allow everything to dry—otherwise you are just smearing around the products without giving them the time to be absorbed.

  • Step 1:  Clean the boots. For a relatively clean pair, all you will need is a damp cloth. If they’re really dirty, put a small amount of water on a brush and get to work.  Rub them down with a clean cloth. If they’re oily or have lots of buildup, you may need to wipe with a cloth dabbed in
    mineral spirits.  For a normal amount of dirt and easy disposal, I prefer a wad of paper towels and warm water.
  • Step 2:  If any areas show anything but deep black leather, dye the entire boot with black shoe dye.  The black shoe dye in lanolin works best, such as the one from Angeles Shoe Polish Co Inc., but many would argue for skipping this step and just going to Step 4 for the edge trimming, and the following with Step 5 using Kiwi Parade Gloss Finish as the finest, which also works well.  We often alternate between these approaches.
  • Step 3: Condition the leather with an added coat of clear lanolin.  Just use the clear lanolin on the tops, if you are working with brown leather topped boots, unless you need to replenish the brown color in which case there is lanolin dyes in the necessary colors as well (note:  you should never apply anything to patent tops, just spray with Windex and wipe with a paper towel as the final step).  Allow a few minutes to dry while you work on the other boot.
  • Step 4:  Apply edge dressing or edge ink to the heels and sides of the soles.  Allow a few minutes to dry.
  • Step 5:  Using a cotton cloth (or your fingers if you don’t mind the stains, or you can also use rubber gloves which is what I prefer for the lanolin and polish steps), rub in a relatively thick layer of shoe polish onto one boot.  Again, we prefer the Angeles polish, but many would advocate for a Kiwi Parade Gloss Finish polish. Use a toothbrush to apply polish to the “seams” where the sole meets the upper shoe leather, and under the laces.  Obviously, you’ll want to use cordovan or brown to match, on brown topped boots, and black polish on black boots.  After you have applied the polish to the boot, take a small kitchen torch (Williams Sonoma carries them) and quickly flame the entire boot. You will see the polish melt briefly. This melts the polish into the leather and seals the pores.
  • Step 6: Let dry and brush (a horsehair shoe brush works best).  Repeat steps 4 thru 6 one or more times as necessary, so that you have melted one to four layers of polish into the leather and built up a good, smooth base. You should have a pretty decent shine at this point, but not the “black glass” shine we’re looking for as the final product.  For well seasoned and not very dirty boots, one application is probably enough.
  • Step 7: Here comes the spit shine that will allow you to see your own reflection.  Remember, you will need to have a good base to do this. Spray a bit of water onto a shoe shine cloth. A cheap spray bottle of water works really well. The pros put a small amount of polish on the cloth, wrapping it around your fingertips, and begin lightly coating in little circles, working a section at a time. Do not press hard, you only need to have a slight pressure on the pad of your finger. The first thing you will notice is that while polishing, it feels “rough” and is almost putting pressure back onto the cloth. This is because you need to lubricate the polish being applied. This is where your small amount of water comes in. Put just enough on the cloth to allow the rubbing to feel smooth. Start applying the polish again in a circular motion. When you are applying the polish, in a circular motion, you will see polish “swirls.”  Swirls show that you are doing it right. As you keep polishing, the swirls will start to go away. At first you will think a shine will never appear, but keep doing those little circles on the section you are working on. Eventually you will see a mirror shine begin to appear through the haze of polish. Just keep rubbing.

The good news is that once you’ve achieved a real black glass shine, it only takes a coat or two to refresh it after riding.   This process takes a bit of practice. In time you will develop the technique that works best for you. You will also find by experimenting that variations on the little circles, such as back and forth buffing with the damp cloth, work better on certain areas of the boot. Occasionally turn the cloth to get a clean surface.

Use the polish sparingly—the layers must be thin. Keep the cloth damp, using your spray bottle. The purpose of the water is to make the polish stick to the leather not to the cloth. It is the thin layers of polish that gradually fill the tiny holes and bumps in the leather, producing a smoother and smoother shell that will shine like a mirror.

  • Step 8: Use a nylon stocking in a quick buffing motion so to create friction, but not so hard as to remove the polish.  Be careful to use a good smooth nylon or scratches will show on the smooth finish.  Nylons are a cure-all.  They can also be used in between polishes for touch-ups or just before you mount to remove the dust and restore all your hard work.  This is the most important step and, if the boots are just lightly scuffed or windblown with dust, it may be the only step necessary to refresh them.  We do this again, just before mounting, to touch them up from anything that may have happened from the walk to the arena, polo field, or meet.

For cowboy boots:  Rub on a little Blackrock onestep cleaner and conditioner, which we get from PFI Western Wear in Springfield for $6 a jar.  Rub with clean cloth.