A few thoughts on caring for leather shoes

An expression came to mind last week whilst preparing a new pair of rugged Red Wing boots for use, “tough as old boots”. It got me wondering where such an expression might have come from, and also whether there was any significance in the “old” part of it. Were boots stronger in previous times?

I have observed that there has been a recent trend of desiring boots to have a  very worn and vintage look. Not only are the makers making boots and shoes with a decidedly vintage and worn style, but many of those that buy them can’t wait to “break them in”. Or as my observations would indicate, just “break them”. As in taking them to the brink of destruction, in plain speaking.

Pre-shoe leather

Pre-shoe leather

Which in a roundabout way brings me to my third thought: Have you ever seen calfs let out for the first time in the spring? The joy, the leaping, the way they are comfortable in their own skin? The skin that will at some later point be turned into the footwear on your feet or the seats in your car. Yet somehow the soft, flexible and resilient leather on the calf, or even cow (I’m not ageist) has become hard and inflexible in it’s transformation from living meat-container to footwear. What went wrong?

Tanning process

Tanning process

The process of tanning leather is ancient and complicated. I’ll not go into the details here, but a hide that is tanned in the traditional way spends around 18 months on it’s way from fresh hide to usable leather. I’m sure the modern ways of tanning are much more efficient, given the extraordinary amount of leather we consume today, and the apparently low price of it. Not only shoes, jackets and bags, but even the seats in relatively reasonably priced cars are often leather today. Car seats are an example I will come back to.


Leather for shoes comes in a few different types, where the softish leather that bears the most resemblance to the original material (i.e. leather that is flexible like the cow wore it) is the most long lasting and easily maintained. Maintained, yes. The key to having leather last is taking care of it, and that means putting some effort into keeping the leather supple. Leather in the form of smooth and hard leather or suede is more difficult, as the surface of it actively works against maintenance. Leather with a surface similar to lacquer, either in the form of patent leather, or the almost patent variant such as used by Dr Martens, has a surface that is very resistant to penetration, so while you can certainly apply no end of fancy products there is really only a visual benefit as there are no open pores for oil to get into the leather. Rather like polishing a car, in fact, where the hard and shiny surface helps keep dirt off. When it comes to suede, apart from impregnating the leather using an aerosol, anything you apply will have a negative impact on the texture and look of the suede. Oily suede may dry out a bit over time, but you’re unlikely to regain that fluffy, dry surface again.

So for footwear to give lasting happiness to it’s wearer, you want good quality, maintainable leather. And you want to maintain it properly. Which is a fine thing to say, but how do you go about it? It’s all about the natural type of oil that was in the leather before it underwent the tanning process. Sure, wax is fine for protecting the leather, and a mix of wax and oil is a good universal treatment, but to get into the leather and do some good you need oil that flows easily.


I often despair when I see people mention they are about to “break in” a pair of typical boots made of quite thick leather. Fresh off the shelf, after the tanning and after being made, they may have been sitting for months on end. No wonder the leather is hard and unyielding, it’s totally dried out and rigid. You could wear them like this and go through a period of suffering and manly unpleasantness, and at the end the leather will have been sufficiently broken down to flex a bit, and probably have a few cracks as well. Or you could give them a really good soak in oil and rejuvenate the leather a bit. It’ll never be as soft as as fresh hide, but a good oil will make it more flexible and long-lasting. You will avoid it cracking, and much of the foot-related horrors. It makes a lot of sense.


The situation with leather in cars is quite similar, though in a car the leather starts out nice and soft. And is then subjected to a very harsh environment of extreme temperatures, salty sweat, spillage and general poor care. And if it does see some care it will often be wiped over with a product containing silicone, to make it shiny and nice. Silicone plugs the pores of the leather though, which compounds the problem of it drying out, so when at some point someone tries to add in some oil again it can’t penetrate. I’ve had to dismantle leather seats to apply oil from the rear of the leather, and wash the surface with silicone-dissolving fluids, before being able to put some life back into the leather. It can be done though, and it would have been much easier if it had been maintained properly before it go this far.

And the same applies to shoes. If you have some nice footwear, take care of them. If they are properly constructed you can resole them, and if you take care of the leather they can be repaired and will last forever. In these times of throwaway fashion, the idea of making things last is a fine idea.

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