Waterproofing Your Shoes – A Man’s Guide to Weather Resistant Footwear

by Antonio on March 3, 2010 · 42 comments

in Dress & Grooming, Shoes

A pair of well-made shoes are expensive; they become much more expensive, however, when you have to retire them early because you did not care for them properly.  I recently learned this hard way when the leather on my favorite pair of Chelsea boots cracked.  Although I had waterproofed them according to my “Texas” standards (weekly polish, twice a year waterproofing compound application), I learned rather painfully that this was woefully inadequate for a Wisconsin winter (think daily polish, weekly waterproofing or better yet wearing galoshes).  Accidentally leaving them near my bedroom’s radiator didn’t help the situation either.  In an effort to prevent my misfortune from becoming yours, I offer you this article on how to prevent rain, snow, and salt from damaging your shoes.

Leather_Shoe_Damaged

Water Damaged Leather Shoes

I’d like to thank Paul Herwaldt for his help on this article – he’s a 3rd generation cobbler who owns Shoe Repair Plus in Green Bay, WI.  FYI, he performs shoe repair via mail at a fair price – highly recommended for those of you who do not have access to a local cobbler.

Why Care About Weatherproofing Your Footwear?

Water & Salt Damage is Expensive – Water can and will destroy the suppleness of your shoe’s leather; leather that would have withstood tens of thousands of flexes can have its life cut to a fraction of this.  Leather is animal skin, most often cattle or horse, which is made up of fat and proteins that retain a set amount of moisture after being tanned.  The fibers that criss-cross each other in the corium give leather its unique strength, but are also susceptible to drying out and cracking if not treated with care.  You must minimize rapid influxes and releases of moisture and exposure to alkalines or acids, both of which can permanently damage the leather.

Salt Stained Shoe

Salt Stained Shoe

In addition, salt and other harsh chemicals can stain leather.  They are difficult to remove once they permeate the leather itself, and if left untreated will not only discolor but weaken the top layers and can damage the finish.  A simple layer of waxy polish between the leather and these harmful elements could be the difference between a one minute cleaning versus a costly trip to the cobbler.  Need to remove a salt stain?  Visit the New York Shoe expert Leffot and their article on salt stain removal.

Comfort –Wet feet are uncomfortable and most of us do not have the option of taking our shoes off and walking around in socks at work.  Nothing can ruin a Monday morning presentation like cold wet feet and squeaking shoes.  Why let something you can control become a distraction?

How to Make Your Shoes Water Resistant

Notice that I didn’t say waterproof.  No amount of polish or “waterproofing” spray is going to keep out water if you are continuously subjecting your footwear to the elements.  However, performing these steps are important as that they do provide short-term protection.  Even the man who owns galoshes does not always have the luxury of having them handy when the weather takes a turn for the worse.

1. Select a Waterproofing Compound

There is a lot of debate on the subject of which waterproofing compound is best – not only are the brands fighting it out (as expected) but many shoe aficionado’s have their take as to which method and technique works the best. So please add your tips and suggestions in the comments!

 

Meltonian Polish

Meltonian Boot and Shoe Polish

Wax-based polishes – Unlike shoe pastes and creams, which are designed more to nourish the leather, wax based polishes are made to create a shine and by doing so create a thin protective layer than can provide light resistance to water and salt.  Manufacturers such as Lincoln make a good product, along with Meltonian who also provides their polish in a wide range of colors.  The key to this type of protection is consistent application after every few wears, or every wear if the weather is particularly wet.

Specialty waterproof compounds – Obenauf’s Heavy Duty Leather Preservative and Sno-Seal Weather Protectant are just two examples of waterproofing compounds whose main purpose is protection – they do a solid job when applied properly and have a longer sticking period than polishes.  Unlike the above mentioned compounds, these protectants are not meant to create a shine but rather to seal out moisture; as such they may need to be used in conjunction with a polish once the seal has been set.

Spray on waterproofing compounds – Of all the waterproofing techniques, this one receives the most amount of flack.  Common arguments are that it doesn’t allow the leather to breath and that if the compound contains silicone it will dry out the leather.  My stance is if ease of use is your concern, then it’s much better to use a spray on waterproofing than nothing at all.  Companies such as Meltonian make a water & stain protector that in my experience is safe to use on leather and suede and will be dry and ready to use in 30 minutes.  These waterproofing sprays should be used liberally, as I learned they lose their effectiveness after only a few wears.  They are not meant to penetrate the leather, but rather form a protective coat on top of it.

2. Test & Prepare for Waterproofing

This next step is especially important for any shoe that is not black – you need to ensure the compound you have chosen does not change the appearance of the shoe.  Do not assume that because the waterproofing compound manufacturer claims that it will not affect color that it won’t – you do not want to be the exception to the rule.  Choose a discreet part of your shoe, such as the side of the shoe’s tongue under the laces, and apply a small amount to see how it reacts.  After you are more confident, move to an area like the inner back of the shoe and test again.  After a few hours you should be ready to move forward.  If you haven’t already, remove the laces and thoroughly clean the shoe with a brush and rag to remove dirt.

Applying the Protectant

Applying the Protectant

3. Apply the Water Resistant Compound Evenly and Ensure a Barrier Is Formed

The only difference in a waterproof compound application vs. a shining compound application is the attention you should pay to forming an unbroken seal.  When shining your shoes you can spot shine on occasion – when waterproofing you need to ensure a water tight barrier is formed or the whole process is for naught.

For a refresher on how to apply polish to your shoes visit this older AOM article on how to Shine Your Shoes like a Soldier or for a video check out Tim Broderick’s How to Shine and Condition Your Shoes.

Choose the Right Footwear

Beater Shoes – One option I hear often suggested in dealing with adverse weather is to wear shoes that you do not care about.  The problem here is that this doesn’t deal with the situation of when you need to look professional and the weather outside is cold and wet.  I personally would rather have the right equipment than have a pair of shoes whose sole purpose is to be ruined in bad weather.   

Ecco Berlin GTX

ECCO Berlin GTX

Specialty Footwear – There are many companies that make solid footwear using water resistent materials such as gortex, synthetic leathers, and non-slip rubber soles.  Although they are not on the same level as higher end men’s shoes and do not offer as much protection as galoshes, their stylish design and inclement weather durability make them a favorite among practical men.  An example is the ECCO Berlin GTX - as you can see above, it’s large sole and open laced design make it a less dressy shoe than a classic oxford.  But when it comes to not having to worry about the rain or snow and for the man who does not want to be hassled with multiple pairs of shoes, these are hard to beat.

Boots – From hiking to work, boots are made to be tougher and are a great choice for inclement weather thanks to their height and ability to protect the ankles.  Unfortunately they are limited in the range of clothing they can be worn with; anything dressier than odd trousers is stretching their boundaries.  Although the dress boot has a wider range and can be worn with a mens suit, it provides less protection than its rougher brethren.  Due to its more delicate sole and smaller heel you’ll have less clearance when traversing puddles and thus dress boots should be worn with as much care as dress shoes.  With all that being said, all boots should be treated regularly with a waterproofing compound depending on the wearers environment and frequency of wear.

Galosh Shoe

A Sleek Overshoe by SWIM

Galoshes – Galoshes are rubber footwear that slip over shoes and protect them from the elements.  The term includes both over-shoes and over-boots, the difference being the amount of protection afforded the wearer.  With a history of serving men (and women) for over 100 years, they have perfected the art of keeping the wearer dry by completely encapsulating the feet and as an added bonus often provide excellent traction.  Their downside is that proper fit is a must and their additional weight can take some time getting used to – there are also the problems of where to store them and that they are often at home when that unexpected afternoon shower hits.

A good pair of new galoshes can range in price from $20 to well over $150, the difference being durability and style although a very solid pair for occasional wear can be found for less than $30.  Companies like Swim offer a wide range of durable and stylish galoshes online; for the man walking more than a quarter mile to work daily in wet weather these are one of the smarter purchases he can make.

Galoshes & Traction

Galoshes & Traction

What to Do When Your Shoes Are Already Wet?

I’d like to end this article with the steps you should take in the case you do soak a pair of quality leather shoes.  Because despite all of your planning, you’re bound to get caught in the rain once!

  1. Remove excess water from the outside of the shoe using a dry rag or towel.
  2. Pull the moisture from the inside of the shoe.  This can be done with newspaper or a small dry towel. The key here is to draw the moisture out, so every hour or so replace the moist paper with dry paper.  Depending on the extent of the soaking, this could take from 2 hours to 2 days.
  3. Do not place the shoes near a heat source; let them dry slowly at room temperature.  If you heat them you will cause the moisture to leave too quickly and greatly increase the chance of the leather cracking.  Cracked leather cannot be fixed on a man’s shoe or boot.
  4. Once the shoes appear dry and no more moisture is being drawn out of the shoe, clean and condition with a leather balm or cream and finally polish normally.  Over the next week ensure you clean and polish after every wearing.

Written by
Antonio Centeno
President, www.ATailoredSuit.com
Quality Custom Clothing & Sound Style Advice

Join our Facebook Page for a chance to Win Custom Clothing

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nate @ Practical Manliness March 3, 2010 at 11:18 pm

Thank you for the great post, Antonio!

The instructions about what to do with wet shoes is especially useful. Here in Oregon, simply taking a walk at certain times of the year can leave your shoes looking like they were submerged.

I had never known whether to put my shoes in front of the fire or leave them in my shoe rack, so your instructions are very useful!

2 Balu March 4, 2010 at 12:42 am

The best way (in my honest opinion) is to buy a Leather oil (sunflower oil with the bee wax) in the shop for horseriders.

3 Marian Mircea March 4, 2010 at 2:44 am

I just use hand cream.

Any hand cream that’s good enough for you will do just fine for your shoes.
Cleaning the leather beforehand is a good idea.
Apply the cream in small amounts and keep rubbing it in using your hands.
A quick brush at the end will bring out the polish.

Try it!

4 Sir Lancelot March 4, 2010 at 2:59 am

I own a pair of rather expensive -for my budget- lightish brown dressy shoes and they’re a nightmare to mantain. I’ve considered two options – colorless wax and brown shoe polish. The wax has the advantage of offering water protection and being colorless, but it doesn’t cover imperfections, and, judging by my past experiences with it on less dressy footwear, it tends to leave the shoes sticky. As for the shoe polish, finding the same tone is virtually imposssible.

5 prufock March 4, 2010 at 8:01 am

“Do not place the shoes near a heat source; let them dry slowly at room temperature. If you heat them you will cause the moisture to leave too quickly and greatly increase the chance of the leather cracking.”

Something so simple, yet I never really thought about it before. I love it when I come to AoM and learn something.

Is the wax-based polish option the same compound used for simply shining shoes (for example, is Kiwi polish a useful weather resistant, or do I need a special “waterproofing” wax polish)?

6 G.A. Menard March 4, 2010 at 9:11 am

I use Kiwi “Mink Oil.” It goes on clear and can be applied over a coat of polish that’s already dried. Plus, it conditions the leather and keeps it from cracking. I oil my boots once a month in the winter and once every few months in the summer. It probably costs <$7 per year to do, and it makes the boots last a hell of a lot longer. My soles always wear out before the leather does.

7 Rick March 4, 2010 at 9:13 am

Thanks for the great post. I think you meant “suppleness” (able to bend without breaking or cracking) and not “subtleness” (delicacy or tenuousness) of the leather.

8 Paulo March 4, 2010 at 9:22 am

It would be extremely helpful if you could ask the cobbler about the assorted wax/oils that many of us learned to use in the old days — mink oil? Bees wax? Are they all the same as the article implies and used as a pretreatment before a hand wax, like kiwi? And what about the hand lotion notion?!

9 Greg March 4, 2010 at 9:51 am

Use an appropriate outdoor boot (eg “duck boots”) for walking in the bad stuff. Carry your good shoes with you and change when you get inside. I always kept a pair of shoes at my work so I could easily change.

Find a good ‘shine shop. Take you good shoes in a couple times a year for top-notch shine and maintenance.

10 Evan March 4, 2010 at 10:37 am

I’ve used Obenaufs on a few pairs of shoes I have and I really recommend it. It will darken your brown shoes a tad. I actually put it on a pair of topsiders and it gave them this really rich, cigar-colour aged looked. The leather eats it up right away, and you can just apply it with your fingers. It brought new life to my shoes, moisturizing them and they look incredible now.

11 jcard21 March 4, 2010 at 10:49 am

I can’t believe no one has mentioned Peet Shoe Dryers ($29.99).

They are for anyone who spends time outdoors in inclement/wet weather … I’ve been using one for at least 30 years. Excellent!

http://www.PeetShoeDryer.com

12 Jamie Fellrath March 4, 2010 at 11:00 am

I’ve simplified the process of keeping shoes clean and dry with a pair of Overboots. I was looking for a simple pair of galoshes like men used to wear, but came up with this product from Neos. They fit over your dress shoes (or whatever shoes) and they keep you warm and your shoes clean. Easy as pie.

13 Antonio March 4, 2010 at 11:05 am

@Nate You are welcome sir!

@Balue That does provide some protection, but be careful of how it might change the shoe’s color.

@Marian I’ve never tried this – do you have a brand/type you recommend and how long have you been

@Sir Lancelot – Have you looked at Meltonian? I think they have over 40 shades.

@prufock – I avoided talking about Kiwi, as that I haven’t heard the best

@G.A.Menard – Sounds like you are on top of it!

@Paulo – Feel free to reach out to Paul! He’s a great guy!

@Greg – A perfect solution.

@Evan – Thanks for sharing the experience!

@jcard – an interesting link – thanks for sharing!

@Jamie – perfect!

A last minute bit of advice from Steven Taffel, owner of Leffot Fine Shoes in NYC – http://blog.leffot.com/

‘There are some very good shoe care products you might want to mention. Saphir is a French manufacturer of high quality shoe polishes and care products. They make a fantastic leather cleaner and conditioner called Renovateur that is all natural and beeswax based. It is applied in small amounts before polishing to clean of dirt and old polish and moisturize and condition the leather.

The Saphir polishes are composed of turpentine, vegetable waxes, animal and mineral fossils. For treating rugged leather such as boots I highly recommend Montana Pitch Blend leather dressing. It is made of 3 ingredients, pine pitch, mink oil and beeswax. It conditions and waterproofs rugged leather.”

14 Piper March 4, 2010 at 11:39 am

Great article, I would add 1 item to your list, Cowboy boots, taken care of as above, they can last for ever. I just retired to the beater boot rack a pair I have had since 1979, due to scuffs I could not get out. I have 3 pair (Black, Brown and Grey) that I had bought or had resoled with an all weather tread, ie Vibram. I keep them well taken care of and up here in Nevada Winters(Reno) they handle any kind of weather safely and comfortably and look good with every suit I own

15 DJ Wetzel March 4, 2010 at 11:44 am

If you have never check out Vibram Five Fingers shoes, I highly encourage you to. they just might change the way you think about wearing shoes. I wish I could wear them to work everyday but my boss would probably not like it.

16 Brett McKay March 4, 2010 at 12:11 pm

DJ, I love my Vibram Five Fingers but they’re definitely not good for rain and snow, unless you enjoy wet, cold feet. And they don’t pair well with a suit!

17 Robert March 4, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Perhaps more important than all of these suggestions in the post is using properly and tight-fitting cedar shoe trees. No shoe will last more than 1/4 of it’s life expectancy without something to keep them fresh and to draw out the normal foot moisture even when your shoes don’t “get wet”…furthermore, if you’re not helping them maintain their proper shape, then you’re sunk.

18 Matt March 4, 2010 at 1:18 pm

Are wellies manly?

19 Caveman March 4, 2010 at 2:52 pm

I really can’t see polishing my shoes on a daily basis. Who has that kind of time? A simple damp cloth to get off the grime and an occasional spritz of Armour All is all a shiny pair of shoes needs on a regular basis, just don’t get it on the sole. When I can afford $1000 shoes, I’ll have someone else polish them after every wear.

20 Bald Male March 4, 2010 at 3:53 pm

Thanks for the tips. I never thought about what salt does to leather. I’m curious as to what to do about suede. I’ve always been told to not water-proof them, but the article mentioned spray-on waterproofing. Does anyone have any experience with this?

21 ska Smith March 4, 2010 at 4:56 pm

I agree with the advice in your post, but- “Texas Standards”? I had to buy my own boots, starting in middle school, and then worked as an electrician for years after I (sort of) grew up. When working in my boots I learned to
1) have three pairs for daily use [M & Th; T & F; W & Sa]
2) wipe them down every day, before putting them away
3) polish weekly
4) clean & waterproof after every exposure to water (esp. if immersed)

Are you from Dallas, by any chance?

22 Sir Lancelot March 5, 2010 at 2:46 am

Thanks for your advice, Antonio. I’ll definitely check Meltonian.

“If you have never check out Vibram Five Fingers shoes”

I confess I had to google that aberration. I haven’t recovered yet.

23 Sir Lancelot March 5, 2010 at 2:49 am

aka Smith, if I’m not mistaken Antonio is from Austin.

24 Jim Pierce March 7, 2010 at 3:08 pm

Antonio,

I’m surprised you hear bad things about kiwi. In the forces that was the only brand. This isn’t to say that you’ve heard wrongly, just a surprise for me.

I’ve been using kiwi products for years with great results. Kiwi polish used as mentioned in the article and their mink oil applied the same way. I’ve also been known to apply neatsfoot oil to my boots when I was without mink oil however, I find it softens the leather. Normally I only apply the oil to my leatherwork, belts, pouches etc….
Recently my cobbler has directed me towards the Fiebing line of products including their boot creme polish (and neatsfoot oil). It has been holding up to a good deal of riding in the rain on my trusty old Redwings.
Not for waterproofing, but for boot care I also use saddle soap for cleaning prior to applying polish, oil (while it’s still damp) or creme. Murphys Oil can also be used mixed with water for cleaning.

Cheers,

Jim

25 Antonio March 7, 2010 at 4:14 pm

@Piper – Great addition – thank you for bringing Cowboy boots up!

@DJWetzel – Much of the world may not be ready for the 5 fingers! But you keep wearing them with pride:)

@Robert – We’ll cover general shoe care here soon – but you’re right, cedar shoe trees are not an option – they are required for quality footwear.

@Matt – Yes!

@Caveman – We find time to brush our teeth because it prevent unwanted future pain and makes us more acceptable to others – the same applies, to a lesser degree:) , to footwear you make an investment in. Even a $50 pair of glued shoes will look better and last longer if treated with care.

@BaldMale – Many spray on water-proofers claim to protect suede. I would consult with Steven over at Leffot.

@skaSmith – I meant no disrespect to TX, just as a boy growing up in Midland, TX I never had to deal with wet cold conditions as I have here in Wisconsin. It sounds like you could have taught me quite a few valuable lessons!

@SirLancelot They are unique! And Austin was my last home in TX, but I have lived in Midland and Corpus Christi as well.

@Jim – I too used Kiwi in the Marines, but have read too much negative on their lower end products to recommend them over the others I mentioned. Is there anyone else out there that has an opinion on this?

26 Bryan March 7, 2010 at 10:40 pm

when working around the ocean the salt the thing we used to get the salt out of the leather was a raw potato. just cut it and rub it in and rinse it off

27 Tyler Logan March 9, 2010 at 3:08 am

Excellent post. Surprising how much I actually needed to read that. I constantly have wet shoes – putting on a radiator was my way out of it, maybe not anymore.

28 The Wingnut March 15, 2010 at 8:28 am

Great article!

I have to admit I’m a bit surprised that no-one mentioned Dr. Marten’s Wonder Shoe Balsam. I’ve used it frequently on my 12 year old Doc’s, and they still look near-new. They’re not every day wear, but they’ve seen their fair share of poor weather, and are still holding up well.

jj

29 DinTX March 17, 2010 at 8:30 pm

Thanks for this article. I’ve used may products over the years but have really come to like the SNO-SEAL. I’ve put this on my BlucherMocs and workboots. They do darken the leather at first but lighten up somewhat. But they keep the waterout. I will still sometimes use MinkOil but only for spot shines. Also – I don’t like a BrightShine so I usually skip the last buffing stage of the polish. Just wipe off the excess and let it be… As for suede – i’ve been wearling a pair of Clarks Desert Boots for over a year now – just getting good! I normally use a big brush on them to clean them up but have also tried chalk. I just cover the spot with the chalk then brush off. Seems to work well and does not change the color of the suede – just the spot! I think this tip can work with White Bucks too… Thanks, DinTX

30 Chris Roelke March 21, 2010 at 12:46 am

Saddle Soap + Kiwi polish = USMC combat boots last 9 years of DAILY use (re-soled 3 times)

31 Nathan Beal March 30, 2010 at 11:55 am

I have recently read about the way that people kept their shoes waterproof during the middle ages. Tallow, either beef or mutton tallow rubbed into the leather creates a very water-resistant finish that is still breathable and is very shiny. not only that, but it helps to soften the leather, making the shoes more comfortable, and since the fats come from the same animal that provided the leather, if you have cow hide shoes and use beef tallow, there is the fact of basic compatibility. I have found that there is much wisdom to be found in the old ways of doing things. Not only can tallow be used on your shoes, but if the power goes out you can use it for candles, and if you run out of butter you can use it to coat the bottom of your pan for cooking. It’s a great multi-tasker.

32 Jason Bussey March 31, 2010 at 11:48 am

Mink Oil seems to dark my tobacco leather Allen Edmonds when I did a test spot any ideas that will leave the color alone and provide a seal t the elements?

33 J November 14, 2012 at 11:57 am

Just a not you should never use snow seal or any non-aqueous wax based treatment on full grain leather (especially gore-tex) if it is a boot or shoe that can be resoled. I used to sell asolo and vasque boots and the cobbler that both companies recommend informed me that these waxes (such as snow-seal) make the boots impossible to resole!

34 Kora Zinger February 9, 2013 at 10:35 pm

Sooo? If I want to use both, Kiwi shoe polish and waterproof spray – which one do I do first?

35 robert March 21, 2013 at 12:55 am

I’ve seen more than one shoe manufacturer recommend against waterproofing your shoes, although I suspect it depends on which method you use. The gist of their reasoning is that they’ve already applied whatever waterproofing sprays, creams, etc that are necessary for the shoe and that you could mess it up by using your own. It just all confuses me, so I do nothing. Having said that, I never have problems with my leather shoes cracking, although I don’t subject them to much salt. Still, I have to believe that waterproofing sprays are analogous to the rust-proofing some new car salesmen push on their customers.

36 Stuart Stent August 12, 2013 at 6:06 am

@DJ Weasel – Take a look at Primal Professionals — minimalist/zero drop shoes you can wear to work!

37 Jose August 18, 2013 at 5:06 pm

It never rains where I live (northern Mexico), but for drying them I would think of filling them with raw rice, you have no idea how that things sucks moisture (when my smartphone gets wet, either because I got thrown to the pool in a party, or it slipped into the glass, I just put it into loads of rice and it works the next day)

38 Bob November 10, 2013 at 6:23 am

I have used Vasoline Petroleum jelly for years to protect my leather shoes and boots from water. Its cheap and it really does the job of creating a barrier between the moisture and the leather. I mean its designed to keep urine from irritating babies bottoms by creating the same kind of barrier.to moisture. I apply it with a rag making sure I have covered the entire surface including all stitching and around the sole. Try it it works really well.

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