How to Clean Leather Shoes or Boots | Shoe Care Guide 2024

February 08, 2023 7 min read

how to clean leather shoes and boots

No matter what you do, your shoes and boots are going to get scuffed and dirty. A puddle here, a kicked curb there, there’s simply no avoiding it. Fortunately, cleaning leather shoes and boots on your own is easy and rewarding to learn.

A little bit of care goes a long way. You’ll be blown away with where just a half-hour of love to your pair will take them. Let’s dive in and learn how to clean that pair up.

What do you need to clean your dress shoes? | Preparation

First, set yourself up for success with the proper tools. Here’s what we recommend:

  1. Newspaper or a towel you don’t mind getting dirty
  2. Wooden shoe trees
  3. Horsehair brush
  4. Cotton chamois
  5. Saddle soap
  6. Leather conditioner
  7. Cream polish
  8. Wax polish

Check our official Saphir shoe care product collection.

Recommended Leather Shoe Care Products

To best care for shoes and boots, there’s no brand more trusted thanSaphir. Founded in 1925, the French shoe care giant has set the bar for the rest of the industry with quality ingredients and reliably impressive results. Here are a few options from Saphir we can’t recommend enough.

  • Saphir Cream Polish - Saphir’s cream polish has double the pigment as competing polish for leather shoes, bringing out color and covering scuffs with a single application.
  • Saphir Pate de Luxe Wax - Combining beeswax and carnauba wax, finishing a pair with a layer of wax adds extra water protection and shine.
  • Cedarwood shoe trees - Plastic shoe trees are to be avoided. Cedarwood pulls odor and moisture from your pair while minimizing creasing and keeping the shape of your shoes.
  • Saphir horsehair brush - This brush is a shoe’s best friend. It’s gentle enough to not damage the leather but stiff enough to remove dirt and excess polish.
  • Saphir saddle soap - Made to remove layers of dirt and wax, it’s the closest thing to a bath your pair can get.
  • Saphir Renovateur Conditioner - Known as “liquid gold” by its huge following, this mink oil based conditioner restores, conditions, and nourishes your pair for a long life.

Step by Step Instructions for leather shoe cleaning

The tools are ready, so let’s get started. 

CAPTION: The wonderful Trenton and Heath of Potter & Sons made an excellent video showing how to use these products on a pair of our Gilbert oxfords.

Step 1: Prepare surface and shoes

Lay out some newspaper or a rag as a workspace. Remove the shoelaces and insert a pair of shoe trees to hold the leather in place - crumpled paper can be used as an alternative.

Step 2: Remove dirt with a horsehair brush

Using quick, short strokes, brush off dirt and dust with a horsehair brush. This preps your pair for adding polish in the next steps.

Step 3: Deep clean with saddle soap

For regular maintenance, saddle soap won’t be necessary. It’s ideal however for an especially soiled pair or for removing build-ups of wax and polish.

Saphir’s saddle soap includes a foam applicator to apply the soap. Wet the sponge with a couple drops of water, and begin to scrub it into the leather with light pressure. The soap will begin to lather and saturate the leather.

After you’ve lathered the entire pair, use a microfiber cloth to wipe away the excess suds and soap. The pair will still be damp at this point, so allow your pair to dry 8 - 24 hours before moving on to the next step.

Step 4: Condition the leather

Conditioning keeps your leather supple and prevents cracking caused by drying out. Using your fingers or a cotton chamois, apply a pea-sized amount of conditioner at a time. Work in sections, using your cloth to spread the conditioner in small circles.

You want the conditioner to soak into the pores of the leather, not form thick layers on top. Leather is a skin, and you should apply conditioner similar to how you would lotion your hands.

After adding a layer to both of the shoes, let the conditioner rest 5 - 10 minutes. After the wait, use your horsehair brush to give brisk, short strokes to remove excess polish and activate the waxes in the conditioner.

Step 5: Add a pigmented cream polish

Pigmented cream polish restores color and covers inevitable scuffs. It can be applied in the same way as the conditioner.

Using a cotton chamois or your fingers, take small, pea-sized amounts of polish and work it into the pores of the leather in sections. Spread and work in the polish using small circles until absorbed into the leather.

Let the pair rest 5 - 10 minutes before using your horsehair brush to spread and remove excess polish.

Step 6: Finish with a layer of wax

Completing your shoe shine routine with a layer of wax polish gives a pair an unforgettable shine and an extra layer of water protection.

Using your fingers or a cotton chamois, gently apply a thin layer of wax in small circles across the leather. Since wax will harden and crack with multiple layers, we recommend just a single layer across the entire shoe, but multiple layers can be applied to areas with stiffeners - like the toe and heel. 

For the toe and heel, you can build several layers of wax to achieve a glossy shine. Apply it gently in small amounts, letting the wax harden each time before applying another layer. Applying a few drops of ice water onto the wax layer will help speed the process of hardening the wax before working on more layers.

Watch a master shoe shiner at work

Shoeshining is an art, and Preston Soto of the Elegant Oxford is a master at the craft. His video on polishing and shining a pair is as impressive as it is instructive.

How to shine your shoes from Cobbler Union on Vimeo.

Shoe care tips to further protect your pair

With your shoes clean and shining, here are a couple extra steps you can take to protect your pair even further.

How to waterproof your leather shoes

Waterproofing your shoes and boots is a quick one-step process with the right product. A quick coating from a waterproofing spray, 30 minutes to dry, and you’re covered for weeks at a time.

We recommend  Saphir’s Super Invulner Spray. It’s a neutral spray that won’t affect the color of your shoes or leave any greasy residue behind.

How to protect leather soles of your shoes

Saphir’s Sole Guard is a vegetable oil based liquid that protects and waterproofs your soles. To apply, add just a touch of liquid to a cotton chamois and rub it in small circles into your soles. You want the sole guard to absorb into the pores of the leather. Give the shoes at least 30 minutes to rest, and you’re good to go.

The essential shoe horn

It’s always best practice to use ashoe horn when putting a pair on. A shoe horn allows your foot to slip into the back of the shoe without damaging the leather heel counter. It’s a simple step that you’ll be thankful for in the long run.


Leather shoes are an investment. They’re built to last, and if you do your part by keeping the leather healthy it’ll pay off exponentially.

A little care with a brush and polish makes a huge impact. Take it one step at a time and enjoy the process. You’ll find restoring your shoes is never a pesty obligation but a joy to contribute to the craft of shoemaking. 

Frequently Ask Questions | FAQs 

How often should you clean your shoes

The easiest answer is to clean when your shoes look like they need it, but here are some general guidelines.

  • Quickly remove dirt and dust with a horsehair brush after each wear.
  • Apply cream polish once a month, or after every 5 wears.
  • Condition your pair as a first step before adding polish, about once a month.
  • Use saddle soap once a year, or if your pair becomes especially soiled.

What can I use to clean shoes at home?

We always recommend using products specifically designed for treating leather shoes. However, if you’re in a crunch before an event there you have a few temporary options for homemade shoe cleaning available.

In lieu of saddle soap, a damp rag with just a drop of dish detergent can be used. Use the damp rag and soap to wipe away dirt on the shoes, and then follow up by wiping away the remaining soap with a clean damp rag.

How to remove salt stains from leather shoes

If the roads are regularly salted and you find salt stains on your leather, they can be easily removed at home.

Mix equal parts water and distilled white vinegar in a small bowl, then using a clean rag with a touch of the solution, rub the stains in small circular motions with light pressure until the salt lifts from the leather. Once they’re gone, use a clean damp cloth to remove the excess vinegar.

How to remove grease and oil stains from leather shoes

An absorbent light powder, such as talcum or baby powder, can be a quick fix to take out heavier grease and oil stains if saddle soap isn’t available.

Sprinkle the powder over the grease stain, wait 2 - 3 hours, then brush the powder away with a clean brush or rag.

How to dry off a pair of wet leather shoes

It’s important that you always let your leather shoes air dry without added excess heat. Leaving a pair of leather shoes by a furnace or under the heat of a blow dryer or heat gun can dry out the leather, causing cracking and damage.

If your pair has been soaked in the rain, first remove your laces and set them aside to dry. Wipe away excess moisture from the leather with a clean rag, then stuff the inside with newspaper. Simply give the pair time to air dry and don’t rush it with excess heat.

Once they’re dry, remove the paper, put your shoe trees back in, and give your pair a quick conditioning.