How to Clean and Care for Leather Boots
A little TLC can add years of life to your favorite hikers
Leather boots are like a marriage: beautiful, expensive, but built to last—unless you ignore them, in which case they’ll fall apart well before their time. But if nurtured, they’ll last until death do you part.
It’s all about proper care. Some brands offer comprehensive kits, with most of the equipment you need for the long haul, like these from Otter Wax ($38) and Red Wing ($40), but you can piece together a solid one of your own. The good news is that taking care of your boots is relatively inexpensive. Here’s how to do it in just four steps.
You’ll need several cotton cloths for the entire process. I like to use an old cotton T-shirt cut up into several pieces. Use a different cloth for every step.
First, remove the laces and take a dusting brush, like this one ($12), which has stiff pig-hair bristles, and remove excess dirt on the leather. Then take a damp cloth and wipe down the uppers. Wipe the outer rims of the soles and the rubber toe guards, too.
While the shoe is still a little damp, use a leather cleaner to remove any lingering dirt. I like Leather Honey leather cleaner ($18), which is a concentrate that you dilute with water.
With a damp cloth, work the cleaner into the leather, rubbing it briskly until you start to see a lather, and then work your way around the boot. Pay special attention to the tongue and crevices circling the lace grommets, where dirt tends to gather. After you’ve cleaned the entire boot, take a new wet cloth and wipe away the cleaner. If you’ve never cleaned your boots, you’ll be amazed at how good they look after this process.
Wait until your boots are dry from the cleaning process (I just let them sit for a day). Most conditioners will add a sheen to the shoe, and if you do this regularly, you’ll extend the life of your boots and won’t need to re-waterproof them as often. You also don’t need to wait until your boots are old to condition them. Brand-new boots have been sitting in a box drying out for months, if not longer, and adding a layer of conditioner straight out of the gate will help rejuvenate them.
Each company’s conditioner is slightly different, but the process is the same. Danner’s Boot Dressing ($8) is a paste that’s easy to apply and helps revive the look and feel of the leather. Apply a small amount to a clean cloth, and rub it over the entire shoe. A little bit goes a long way. Don’t worry about working it hard into the leather, which will absorb the conditioner over time; just make sure you’re coating it evenly and not missing any spots. After you’ve covered the boot, let it sit for a few hours or overnight. Then take a new cloth and wipe away any excess. Because the leather is absorbing the conditioner, your shoes might look a little darker than when you started. Don’t freak out—this is natural and will fade over time.
A conditioner helps extend the leather’s waterproofing, but if you’re tough on your hikers, or notice that water is no longer beading up on the surface, it’s time to reapply some waterproofing agent. You have a few options: a silicone spray, an old-school beeswax, or a liquid-based wax.
Silicone spray is the easiest to apply, but in my experience, it won’t last as long. Beeswax not only waterproofs, it conditions and protects the leather as well. I opt for a beeswax treatment on full-grain leather for this reason, but if your boots have a Gore-Tex liner, you should avoid beeswax because it can impair the material’s breathability—that’s why owners of full-grain leather boots with Gore-Tex should opt for a liquid-based wax. It’s not as durable as beeswax, but it’s easier to apply and absorbs faster.
Sno-Seal ($7) is a trusted beeswax waterproofing agent that will last an entire season. Put a small amount on a cloth, and work the wax into the leather in small circles. It works best if the leather is warm. I like to put my boots under a heat lamp (just for a little while—you don’t want them hot) or let them sit next to a sunny window. After applying a thin layer of the wax to the boot, let it absorb. Repeat this process two or three times, until the leather stops absorbing wax. Then take a clean rag and remove any excess.
For a water-based wax, check out Nikwax Waterproofing Wax for Leather liquid ($9). Start with clean, damp leather, and apply the wax through the built-in sponge applicator. You should only have to do this once. It will absorb within a few minutes, and you can wipe away any lingering residue with a cloth.
Don’t overlook this step, as it can give your newly conditioned and waxed boots the sheen they deserve. Take a horsehair brush, like this one from Danner ($10), and strike the leather softly in quick glancing movements, working your way around the leather until they start to shine.