Photos by Cameron Ansari

This is a touchy subject.

It was as a six-year old boy living in a rather grand household that I was first asked to clean my shoes. Entitled little prince that I was, I refused, stating that I had a servant for doing that, and a cook to make my meals, another servant to serve me food, a nanny to bathe me and put me to bed, and a chauffeur to drive me to school and back every day. It was a matter of fact.

But my father would have none of it, and so I was packed off to English boarding school. Nothing has ever been the same since.

Don’t get me wrong, it was hardly a Dickensian experience. However, nor was English boarding school in the 1960s the enabling sanctuary of progress that it is today. Back then, within the confines of a crumbling large country house set in magnificent grounds, unwanted little boys were prescribed to learn the ways of the world.

Hordle House, drawing by Caroline Lanyon

It was a place to learn a skill set that today could only be acquired while serving at Her Majesty’s pleasure or, as we might say over here, doing time at the state pen. They are skills that have served me well in life and especially in the dodgy realm of residential real estate, though I have long since had to accept the reality that I will always be in recovery.

It was at boarding school that I was first introduced to a horsehair brush and the marvelous aroma of Kiwi black boot polish. There was no instruction. One had to look at what the other boys were doing and assume they knew the right way to do it. And so it often is later in life, which is the point of writing this.

While the school rules dictated that shoes were to be clean and polished at all times, we went to great lengths to keep them as scruffy as possible. It was both the way privileged schoolboys played their part in the culture wars of the time, but also a form of snobbery. Aside from where required by military service, shiny shoes were presumed to be only worn by spivs and oiks.

Today’s ready-made shoe industry has an abundance of spiv-like and oik-ish products. You could buy shoes that have factory-fresh faux-mirror-finished toe caps and artificial patination. And if your shoes don’t have leather soles, save yourself some time and stop reading now. We are strictly discussing all-leather uppers and lowers with welted construction.

From Dickens’ time through the Second World War, a wealthy man would have his shoes cared for by his valet, a working man’s by his wife (if he had one). Since then, notwithstanding the nostalgic embrace of British television Edwardian dramas, things have moved on ‒ for the better. Real men polish their own shoes.

I don’t mean to cock a snook at men who send their shoes out to be cleaned, but I do think that they are missing some of the fun.

Method

Let’s start at the end. On removing your shoes before retiring to bed in the evening, give them a good brush. My wife merrily mocks her husband for polishing his shoes before and after he wears them. It’s not an OCD thing. It makes sense to remove the dust and dirt from a day’s wear and buff out the scuffs. Less work for when you next wear them.

Then put shoe trees in them. This is important. Don’t wait until the morning.

Own enough shoes that you don’t need to wear any pair more than once a week. Two days’ wearing in a row is a no-no. Shoes need at least 24 hours of rest to restore themselves.

You shouldn’t need to use wax on your shoes more than once every two times you wear them with normal use.

Products

There are suppliers who may persuade you that you need to buy a dozen or so products to take proper care of your shoes. I make do with three. Plus a few items you can find around the house.

Assuming you only wear black shoes, all you need is:

  • A high-quality horsehair brush
  • Non-petroleum-based shoe polish
  • A large tin of the mind-altering petroleum-based Kiwi polish

plus

  • a couple of used soft toothbrushes
  • some cotton cloth from old shirting

The non-petroleum-based shoe polish is made from beeswax and vegetable waxes in a turpentine binder. It smells rather good, but without the buzz of the Kiwi product. It penetrates well and, in my opinion, makes the use of shoe creams unnecessary. (The creams are fussy to apply, whilst the beeswax polishes do a good job of replenishing the leather without building up a pasty coat.) Good brands include Saphir and Robson’s.

Get the biggest tin of the Kiwi polish that you can buy.

Technique

Since you have already diligently brushed off the dirt after removing the shoes when you last wore them, there is no need to clean them. Using a toothbrush gently rub a modest amount of the non-petroleum-based wax into the uppers. Creases and stitching need extra attention, as does the inside top rim of the heel cup. Let it penetrate. The more you let wax sit, the easier it is to polish. The opposite is the case with cream.

Use the other toothbrush to apply the Kiwi wax to the welting, edges and bottoms. Yes, you should polish the soles and the inside curve of the heel. (I can hear my wife laughing again.)

Polish the shoes all over with the horsehair brush. The act of polishing achieves two things: It forces the wax into the leather, and removes excess wax. You can use some cloth to remove any excess wax that the brush cannot reach (the heel cup rim, for instance.)

For a mirror finish on the toe cap and heel (optional), wet some cloth before dipping it in the Kiwi wax. Rub the desired area in small circular movements until it gets cloudy. (There is an online instructional video that at this point says: “Repeat the process for at least 75 minutes.” Well, I don’t have that kind of time.) Buff the cloudy area with a clean cotton cloth with rapid horizontal movements. It’s good enough and will improve with time.

Remember to always use a shoe horn to put your shoes on.

The Ritual of Polishing

There are clubs and seminars at gentlemen’s outfitters where busy, stressed-out men gather to relax by learning polishing techniques and to buff their shoes in the company of their peers while sipping alcoholic beverages. Frankly, I think that’s a bit weird.

But I completely empathize when I see Frank Underwood, the dastardly protagonist in the television series House of Cards, when faced with daunting obstacles in his darkest moments, reach for his shoes and the polishing kit. By the time he is done the plot is hatched.

I find it equally satisfying to spend a late Sunday afternoon preparing for next week’s battles at work performing this ritual, which is not a chore. It is an act filled with dignity, rhythm, focus and care.