The Art of Shining Shoes: An Illustrated Guide

by Brett & Kate McKay on November 8, 2011 · 51 Comments

in Dress & Grooming, Shoes, Visual Guides

All you need is a soft cloth, a can of shoe polish, and good shoe brush.  Remove any dirt/mud/salt with brush or damp rag. Wait until dry.  Rub a moist cloth in the polish to acquire a small amount on the cloth.  Apply the polish in small circles, in small amounts.  Grab your shoe brush and brush the entire shoe vigorously.  Breathe “hot air” onto the shoe as if trying to fog a mirror on parts you want a really nice shine.

Illustration by Ted Slampyak

This illustrated guide is brought to you by Johnston and Murphy

{ 51 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Daren Redekopp November 8, 2011 at 11:12 am

Here I come, Sunday morning, with one manly shoeshine!

2 Brandon November 8, 2011 at 11:12 am

But how do I shine them like a buffalo soldier?
I love these illustration pages you guys put up. I’m thinking about putting some up in my office. Keep em coming.

3 Jessy Diamond November 8, 2011 at 11:14 am

I bought my first pair of nice shoes (well, nice boots) recently and I don’t know exactly what to do to take care of them. Do I have to do anything else before/after polishing ? I ordered this shoe valet ( from Nordstrom, do I have everything I need ? How often should I use each product ? I would appreciate if somebody could help me with that. Thanks.

4 Preston November 8, 2011 at 11:17 am

Some days I actually miss having to shine my boots in the military. Long gone are those days.

We use to have several other methods of shining shoes which also included lighting the wax on fire, to a heatgun and cotton balls.

5 Hunter November 8, 2011 at 11:21 am

Completely different from how I’ve learned to do it. I’ve been shining shoes for a while and I’ve only found one way to get a great mirror, but I definitely could have been doing it wrong.

6 Antonio Centeno November 8, 2011 at 11:24 am

Great Visual Brett & Kate! Simple – Orderly – Clear – Perfect!

7 Mike November 8, 2011 at 11:33 am

I have to polish shoes for inspections and that’s pretty accurate but I never use a brush. You have to start with clean leather, a soft cloth and patience. The key is slow, deep breaths full of moisture and using the lightest amount of pressure possible in the circles. It can take quite some time to get a good base coat (several hours worth of solid polishing). The best way to finish is actually to take a set of pantyhose and lightly and quickly buff the polish. This should get rid of any haze or swirls from the motion of your finger.

8 Ben Cope November 8, 2011 at 11:33 am

No… The trick is to use a lighter to melt the wax, let it cool, and then take the excess wax off with a wet cloth. Don’t use a brush, except perhaps for the very first few coats you ever apply to a shoe.

9 jeff November 8, 2011 at 2:25 pm

A boot maker in Colorado told me to not polish my boots. He said the leather is damaged when you have the high shine on the boot, because moister will only be able to pass from the inside of the boot rather than from the two surfaces of the leather, so the outer side will dry out and become brittle and lose the elasticity; it also means it takes longer to dry. I treat my boots like the skin of my face, wash with a mild soap using a soft cloth, rinse, let dry and then rub a good Coconut oil over them. I also trade off my shoes ever day so they are always completely dried when I put them on. Also, never put anything but fresh socks on when putting on your boots. My boots last for years. Just an alternative to the spit shine, men. Also, how many people get complements on their Cartharts? I do about once a week.

10 Eddie November 8, 2011 at 3:40 pm

We do it differently at VMI. Try fire-shining if you get tired of daily shining, fire-shining pushes it to weekly. If you don’t have polish you can use a banana peel, the potassium will help it shine. Also, for touch ups before a date, inspection, or interview, go over them with a nylon stocking (used ones work best) and that will reactivate the polish. If you get frustrated or completely tired of shining them, buy a can of leatherluster. It’s a black lacquer that you paint on shoes that will hold an acceptable shine for up to two months. Hot wet air can be obtained through an iron that has a steam mode. Be generous with water, what you’re doing is opening the pores of the leather and shoving wax in. Hope it helps.

11 Will November 8, 2011 at 5:09 pm

1971… Marine Corp boot camp. All we had were cans of polish, rags and a lot of spit. Light the wax, then rag a little on when it’s melted. Then spit on your show and start rubbing in tiny circles. Takes about 6 weeks to spit shine a pair of manky leather boots to see yourself in. Funny, just about the length of time it takes to get through boot camp. Semper Fi !

12 Paul Klenk November 8, 2011 at 5:57 pm

Remember, you can’t shine a dirty shoe.

13 Greg Kramer November 8, 2011 at 9:57 pm

Johnston and Murphy shoes are the best! I just bought my sixteen year old son a pair and he couldn’t believe the comfort!

I am terrible to my shoes, so thanks for the shoe care tips! I’m still learning and learning from all of your posts.

14 Reg November 9, 2011 at 12:07 am

Seriously cool illustration.

15 Denis Shevchenko November 9, 2011 at 12:51 am

Pretty usefull.

16 Jacob Layton November 9, 2011 at 1:49 am

You know, Brandon mentioned posting these up in their office earlier. If you guys decide to make these posters and put them in the shop, I’m more than happy to put them up wherever possible! Great work again guys.

17 Timothy Palla November 9, 2011 at 8:27 am

I remember being a young man, working in a small town, where several barber shops employed full-time Shoe Shine boys (some were men). Not only did they do a great job, but they put on a real show when someone was sitting high up in their chair. My favorite Shoe Shine–a man about 40 years old–worked in a basement barber shop in town and made a living at shining shoes. When it came to buffing, he didn’t stop until he could see his reflection in your wingtips! His final process was to smack (literally) water all over your shoes and buff the wax out with sheepskin. I had him shine my shoes twice a week…whether they needed it or not. I wish that guy was still around.

18 Calvo November 9, 2011 at 11:13 am

Nice article McKays. I do love me some shiny shoes.

I would like to point out that it works without the brushing part as well. I found brushing to be somewhat aggressive on low-end boots.

I clean the boot with a dry cloth, apply the polish doing some pressure with cloth all over the shoe, wait a couple of minutes for it to dry then rub it with the clean face of said cloth until its shiny.

Here’s a pic of my babies with about one month since their last polishing.

Stay shiny you all.

19 Rachel November 9, 2011 at 12:28 pm

Brushing’s probably not the best thing for the leather, but I’ve found that nothing else creates that glossy shine. Vigorous brushing, followed by slight moistening – well, okay, I admit, I do spit, but you can also use a sponge dipped in water – then a vigorous buffing with soft cloth, generates a glossy shine.

20 Fritz November 9, 2011 at 1:07 pm

When I lived in the Dominican Republic, they would go to town on your shoes for about a dollar. For a $1.50 they would use a flame. My shoes never looked so good.

21 Ricardo November 9, 2011 at 2:12 pm

I have nostalgia of my father shining his boots early morning when he was in the military. Thanks for this.

22 Nick November 9, 2011 at 5:08 pm

I have found old socks work well

23 Jason November 9, 2011 at 9:53 pm

I do everything above except the second brushing. Here I will use a cotton ball with a bit of water in it and use small circles till I get my shine. I also make sure that the wax is applied in circles until I can see swirls on the leather and I always strip a new pair of boots using alcohol and cotton balls prior to the first shine.

I have lit the wax on fire and even put my boots in the oven before, but since I started using the cotton ball and a bit of water I have realized that evything I did before was just creating half the results for twice the effort.

24 Josh November 9, 2011 at 11:14 pm

Johnston &Murphy shoes are terrible. I bought a pair 5years ago, wore them one day, treated all of my foot blisters and skin tears, and took them back for a full refund. I will NEVER buy any again, and take every opportunity to let people know how much they suck.

25 James November 10, 2011 at 2:36 am

You DEFINITELY don’t want the second brushing. Brush bristles are rough. Any time you use a brush it’s going to leave small scratches in the shine. If you want a true mirror polish, you can’t use a brush except to clean.
“Fire Shines” have there benefactors and detractors. I’ve never seen a difference.
The key always lays in the foundation. If you put in the 30- 45 min to put on a good base when the shoes are new or after you strip them down, 5 min of shine work with a soft cotton cloth will pass any but a Marine inspection.
1. Clean
2. Moisten a soft cotton cloth with saliva, dab it in the polish, rub it on the shoe in small circles
3. Repeat with decreasing amounts of polish while “fogging” the shoe with your breath until mirror shine is achieved.
Any other “tricks” are just attempts to avoid spending the time necessary to achieve the desired effect.
Again, put in the required time for your base, and a great shine is easy to achieve in just a few minutes before you put them on.

26 James November 10, 2011 at 2:39 am

Addendum: Brush work is also fine for the body of the shoe i.e. everything but the toe and heel.

27 Sander November 10, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Replace the cloth in the final step with your girlfriends pantysocks for supershine!

28 AmandaonMaui November 11, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Different types of leather require different types of care. My boyfriend’s oil tan leather boots are not meant to come to a high, mirror like shine. I use a matte black polish, apply it with a small brush, then I buff the polish in with a brush and finish with a spit shine (I might use just a small bit of water in a bowl and sprinkle it on with my fingers). For a high gloss shine there are special polishes called Parade Gloss. These are used to get that mirror finish, but it’s not used on all leather types. I actually don’t own any shoes that use PG. I also have some Dr. Martens with a special type of leather on which I use their Dubbin polish. My other Dr. Martens really only get a bit of Balsam Oil that Dr. Martens sells. I spray some of the boots we own with an impregnation/dirt and water repelling spray.

If I lived somewhere with snow, or a lot of water on the ground I would use mink oil in my polishing process.

29 AmandaonMaui November 11, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Oh, and if the boots do end up experiencing extreme muddy conditions, or something to that affect, I will strip them down with saddle soap and start from the base.

30 Steve November 11, 2011 at 6:35 pm

I’m with anti-brush brigade here. When polishing my dress/formal shoes, I only ever use a soft horsehair brush to prep the shoe by removing dust/debris (9 times out of 10, a quick rub with a dry cloth and then a damp cloth will do).

I then use one cloth to apply polish and do the bulk of the work and a second clean soft cloth to finish off/buff to shine.

I don’t mind using a brush to polish casual shoes/boots, because they are not meant to sparkle and gleam IMO, they just need to look clean and well kept.

Still, there are a Hell of a lot ways to polish shoes and different people have different methods, and so long people are keeping thier shoes clean and in good condition (I use Dr Martens “wonder balsam” to nourish my footwear ocasionally), they are alright with me.

31 Brian Guthrie November 11, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Actually, a classic “spit shine” is achieved by applying polish, brushing (preferably horsehair brush), buffing with a soft cloth AND THEN the secret: take a piece of nylon stocking, moisten it and gently work a small amount of polish into it. Then take it and apply it in a gentle circular motion to the front of the shoe. At first it appears hazy, but then takes on a glass-like shine. This was taught to me over forty years ago by a friend who was in the Marine Corps.

Since then, I use a SHORT CUT which involves applying the polish with a dampened sponge. Go easy on the amount of polish. Then brush; then take the soft cloth and buff. Buff reasonably firm at first, but then decrease the pressure, until the buffing cloth is barely touching the shoe’s toe/tip. Also buff lightly on the sides and back of the shoe. Over a few shines the effect will be nearly as good as the classic spit shine (but takes much less time). Needless to say shoes should be well shined every time they are worn.

There is an old saying: “You can wear a thousand dollar custom tailored suit with shoes that need a shine and the first thing people notice is that ‘you need a shine’ “. Don’t forget well-shined, quality shoes that are well heeled & soled are a mark of authority.

Happy Shining!!

32 Mark November 13, 2011 at 1:49 am

The one tip I heard and haven’t yet seen on this site is to avoid the fire polish, but instead heat a spoon over a candle flame and run that over the boot/shoe. I’d guess it’s the same effect as using a flame, but less chance of scorching one particular spot or drying out the leather because it’s not direct heat. Anyway, I pass on that tip for whatever it’s worth.

33 Monica November 13, 2011 at 11:26 am

It’s funny how there are only small plastic bottles like, with a sponge at the end of them. Modern times.

34 Stuart Armstrong November 13, 2011 at 3:53 pm

I’m an officer in the Canadian Army, and I use a different approach for polishing my parade boots and oxford shoes (non-parade footwear – usually worn when I am part of an inspection party or when I’m working in an office setting and I can’t wear my combat uniform). This starts off from when you have to strip a shoe of it’s polish because of “cancer” – flaking polish that cuts down through the layers to the leather, making it impossible to polish evenly.

1. Clean off the boot or shoe in in the sink after blasting it with hot water under the tap.
2. After heating and soaking the shoe, take a horse hair brush and brush off the pliable polish until you work down to the leather.
3. After cleaning off the old polish, dry off and wipe away any remaining dirt, sand, etc.
4. Take an old toothbrush and coat the shoe with a covering of polish.
5. Blacken welts of the boot/shoe in polish.
6. After covering the first, then the second, take the first and use the horse hair brush to brush the polish into the leather for a base coat. Do twice for better results.
7. Take a Kiwi polishing cloth, wrap around two fingers, dip in water, wipe some polish on it from a tin of Kiwi polish. After using up the polish change to new section of the cloth.
8. Apply polish from wiping tiny circles of polish into the different sections of the show (toe, heel, outside, inside of the foot). Use one wipe of polish for each section. Work until polish and water are whipped into the leather.
9. Repeat steps 7 and 8 until desired shine is achieved.

35 Heavy D November 14, 2011 at 3:49 am

Hey Sir, what no NCM batboy to do your dress boots? Just a rub ;) Jokes aside,
I fully agree with Mr Armstrong, Ive been polishing that same way since I was a boy at my fathers side. And its still how I teach my new troops(Also Candian Army, but an NCO) and one day hopefully my son how to polish to a proper parade square shine.
If you use a lighter, rubbing alcohol or any other shenanigans of that ilk you’re just mucking your boots over and they’ll form cancer faster than if you’d taken the time to do it right.
Remember gents, its not about the dollar or trying to go fast, unless you take pride(time) in what you do, It wont last.

36 Che November 15, 2011 at 6:34 pm

Officer Cadet in the British army, and the best guide I’ve come across for a true mirror shine, and excellent maintenance is contained here:

Written by soldiers, about soldiers, for soldiers. Winning combo.

37 Jeffrey Guterman November 16, 2011 at 10:08 am


38 Brad November 19, 2011 at 8:04 pm

Definitely going to try this out. I just found a pair of johnston and murphy wingtips at a thrift store, for $5! They’ll be looking like a million bucks after a good shine.

39 Maciej November 20, 2011 at 10:57 am

Thanks for great tutorial.

40 MajorDad1984 November 20, 2011 at 3:20 pm

As you might imagine, as a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, I probably have a little experience at the shining of shoes.

I wouldn’t get too wrapped up in trying to create the same spit-shine appearance the military seems to value. (Truth be known, the real benefit of spit shining is simply imparting the value of attention to detail….)

If you want that kind of shine, concentrate on “toes and heels.” Sealing the leather in those locations probably won’t cause problems with your footwear. As those areas aren’t required to flex all that much, you won’t see problems with drying leather and cracking. Otherwise, the age old “brush shine” is fine for every day.

ALSO…do not overlook the sides of the soles of your shoes. Getting the “dust/grime” out of the area between the upper and the sole can improve appearance. A soft toothbrush and some polish can help here. For the “sides” of the soles….pick up a bottle of the appropriate colored “edge dressing.” Make sure you do this step very carefully or OUTSIDE. Spill that stuff and whatever is splashed is DONE!

Hope this helps…Go Army! Beat Navy!

41 Josh Knowles November 20, 2011 at 3:37 pm

I also have had good success with using the nylon stocking for the final touch-ups. I use regular black polish and the brush for the base coat and then Kiwi Parade Gloss and a soft cloth or old nylons for the top coat.

42 MajorDad1984 November 20, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Anyone have any thoughts about Kiwi vs. Lincoln polish? I’ve used both…but seem to recall Lincoln having an edge when it came to shoe/boot shining enthusiasts. (No…never really was one.)

43 bashir November 27, 2011 at 8:26 am

I have nostalgia of my father shining his boots early morning when he was in the military

44 Tim Muse December 1, 2011 at 5:33 pm

While in the military, I learned from a master… a roommate who could no kidding see himself in his boots. While several of us spent the same time polishing our boots, his came out 10 times shinier than ours. Here was the secret:
1. You do not shine the boots, it is the polish that shines!
2. Therefore, begin by putting thick coats of polish (to establish a foundation of polish over the leather)
3. Then use polish and water to fill in the “valleys” of the polish left from the previous step.
4. Then use more water and less polish to fill in the smaller “valleys” left from that step. (continue … as you have time)
5. Eventually you should begin to see an “orange peel” glaze come on the polish.
6. The final step can be done either with a small amount of polish and no water simply with a bare finger tip, or with a very minimal amount of water with the polish.
(In all the steps, it’s done in the circular pattern many are familiar with).
7. Each time you polish your footwear, repeat the same procedures above and eventually you’ll have a foundation built up that will produce a deep rich color beneath the shine on top that produces the ultimate shine!

45 Mathew December 3, 2011 at 5:50 pm

I use Kiwi parade shine polish and ive had black leather boots come up with a mirror finish.
Just rub polish onto boots in small circles with one finger, have a glass of hot water and when the polish on the boot looks ‘dry’, dip the bit of cloth around your finger into the hot water, continue rubbing circles of polish with the slightly damp cloth, onto the boot with your finger until the polish fills all the miniscule holes and crevices on the boots. Continued circular rubbing will then shine the polish on the boots (as opposed to shining the boot leather itself).
I then finish by very lightly brushing any excess polish off the boot with a boot brush (not vigorously rubbing like told above). Dont forget to apply leather coniditioner after shoes get wet or every now and then, if you shell out a few hundred for a set of shoes or boots, you wouldnt want the leather to crack after only a few years.

46 Jonathan December 22, 2012 at 8:52 pm

I’ve heard that a banana peel can be used to polish your shoes.

47 Robert E Gould January 7, 2013 at 11:23 am

After spending many years in the British Armed forces I am somewhat of an expert on “Bulling Boots” as the term is, The best polish to use is KIWI Polish, a clean soft duster is the ideal polishing cloth, the boots must be thouroughly cleaned and a smooth surface is required, if the surface is rough it can be pressed smooth with the back of a tea spoon. the first coat of polish must be applied sparingly the cloth should be wound tightly around the forefinger and the very tip of the finger shuold lightly touch the polish. This process takes time and you can gradually add more polish very small circles are used to apply the polish and plenty of water, we used to put the water in the lid of the polish tin and dip our fingers into that, somepeople would spit onto the boot and use this, I always got better results with fresh water. The complete process on a pair of boots can take many hours, once the desired shine is achieved a very thin final coat of polish can be laid and then with the use of a slowly running warm water tap/faucet and the use of cotton wool balls, finish the polishing process under the tap. A well polished pair of boots can easily be maintained with this method to keep them looking like glass, any small wear creases can be filled with polish and “bulled up”

48 Bruce July 26, 2013 at 5:42 am

I see so many people putting down the brushing. You’re not supposed to be using a stiff brush. Find yourself a nice horsehair brush. It’ll get amazing results and not do any damage to the shoe. I just bought a small polish kit from Wal-Mart that included the horsehair brush and gave my boots a nice shine. Gotta do another coat to get them a bit better shined up.

49 Bob September 18, 2013 at 7:57 am

Too many (helpful) comments to review but on a quick glance I didn’t see mention of using a toothbrush to really get into the stiches between the uppers and the soles/heels.

50 Kevin C. September 18, 2013 at 3:42 pm

There’s a little confusion between cars and shoes, with a car, polish is the “moisturizer” and the wax is the water proof sealant. with shoes, saddle soap is the life line for shoes [ leather] so I clean the shoes with the soap then the wax, and wax sparingly, too much wax and your shoes dry up and get “sticky”.

51 MC September 22, 2013 at 7:09 pm

Hammer Time!

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