So, you can distinguish four brands of polish by taste; Huberd's Shoe Grease sponsored your committment ceremony; you harvest your own horsehair. You've got the whole polishing thing down. That counts for nothing if the boots you polish aren't clean to start with.
Boots get dirty. That's their job. Footwear gets dirty so that your feet don't have to. This is not a problem until it's get to be time to polish or condition the boots. Polishing boots traps dirt in the polish, making it very difficult indeed to get any sort of gloss. Oil-based conditioners, such as Huberd's Shoe Grease, combine with dirt to form a nasty sludge, which in turn makes it look like you've been engaging in some sort of boot bukkake (let's see how many hits I get from THAT phrase). So it's imperative that dirt be removed from boots before any polishing or conditioning is performed on them.
Look at your boots (unless you're currently naked, I expect you to be wearing boots, and even if you are naked, boots are encouraged). Assuming you haven't been mucking out stables or gardening or hiking or attending the Clumsy Drinker's MC Bar Night, your boots probably don't look dirty. <BETTE>But they are, Blanche. They are dirty.</BETTE> Road grime (as it's often called) generally manifests as a thin film of grease and dirt, and it's presence makes for bad polishing. Luckily, cleaning boots is a straightforward process, although there are some caveats, as well as a few variations on technique.
The first thing to consider is whether the boots in question can be exposed to water. Most leathers, being skin, are relatively water-tolerant, but there are a couple of notable exceptions.
When exposed to water leather will generally absorb some, particularly if the leather is dry, and light colored leathers tend to darken when they absorb water. This is a temporary phenomenon, but it can make the boots looks bad for a few hours until they dry. Additionally, impurities in the water can deposit in the leather, permanently staining it. Common light colored leathers, horsehide and calfskin, for example, can generally be wiped off with a damp sponge without much water being absorbed, so that is definitely an option.
Exotic leathers tend to be less forgiving. Lizard and alligator skins are usually water resistant and don't pose problems, but ostrich skin sucks water up like a sponge, and is often very light in color, such that any moisture will darken the leather. I generally avoid using water on ostrich skin at all. Snakeskin poses problems because the scales can dry unevenly and curl up, which looks terrible and greatly hastens the aging of the hide. Exotics generally respond more favorably to a "delicate" or "exotic" conditioner, and since they are more fragile, people tend to not wear them as much, meaning the leather is usually nowhere near as dirty. Brush the dust off the boots and apply a very light coat of the conditioner. Meltonian makes a very nice conditioner. It's usually shelved with the cream-type polishes. One note of warning, it tastes terrible (and this is coming from someone who likes the taste of Huberd's), so licking is right out.
A little chemistry is in order. Soap molecules consist of a hydrocarbon chain (made up of, what a shock, hydrogen and carbon atoms) with a "head" of oxygen atoms (as well as the stray sodium or potassium atom, which doesn't really matter for our purposes; detergents have more atoms in the head of the molecule to prevent ions in hard water from binding to the head and producing a precipitate (the famous "film" that Zest prevents)). Animal fats and oils are made up of a molecule which consists of three of these molecules joined at the oxygen end by a glycerol molecule. In soap-making, fat is heated along with an alkali (generally sodium or potassium hydroxide), which breaks the bond between the oxygen ends and the glycerol, producing soap plus glycerin (which possesses moisturizing properties). Some soap manufacturers then remove the glycerin (using a salt to separate the soap from the glycerin).
Soap molecules have two parts: the hydrocarbon chain, which is hydrophobic (not attracted to water) and lipophilic (attracted to oil), and the oxygen head, which is hydrophilic (attracted to water) and lipophobic (not attracted to oil). When oil and water are mixed, they do not combine (for unnecessarily complex reasons that we need not get into here). However, when soap is added to the mixture, the lipophilic end connects to the oil and the hydrophilic end connects to the water. Enough soap, and the oil is completely covered with soap molecules and mixes right into the water. This is called emulsification. At that point, anything that removes the water (or dilutes it) does the same to the oil (thus washing the dirt away). Additionally, soap acts as a surfactant, reducing the surface tension of the water, and allowing it to penetrate whatever is being washed (particularly important when washing fabric, thus the use of additional sufactants in laundry detergent).
Soap is made with a careful eye toward balancing the fat or oil (also referred to as fatty acids) and the alkali to produce the right amount of soap and free acid or free alkali. Free acids (that is, fatty acids that have not been converted) provide some level of moisturization, although too much and the soap can go rancid quickly. Free alkali will tend to dry skin (and leather) and may irritate skin as well, although alkali soaps are still used in industrial laundry operations and carpet cleaning, as they clean fabric somewhat better than balanced soap.
Saddle soap is a specialized formulation of soap. Saddle soap doesn't have any free alkali. Alkali tends to be very harsh on leather, drying it out (same for skin). Second, certain oils which are particularly effective at protecting leather are included. The oils penetrate the leather, moisturizing it. Saddle soap isn't particularly useful for hand-washing, largely because the additional oils tend to leave skin greasy.
So now we know what saddle soap is and how it works. What now? We discuss how to use it.
The secret to using saddle soap properly is the proper amount of water. Too little, and you're essentially smearing the soap onto the boots, and they won't come clean. Too much, and you're drying out the leather unnecessarily. Happy medium is what we're all about here. You want just enough water to lather the saddle soap, but that's it.
The soaping processing is simple enough. Wet the brush or the soap slightly; don't wet the leather (good advice for a variety of situations). I usually use my squirt bottle (named "Bad Kitty" by my fellow bootblack Kenny) to moisten the brush and soap. A few squirts is generally all that's needed. Load the brush with saddle soap, and begin scrubbing one boot. The soap and water should make a good fine lather that doesn't run down the boot very much. If there's no lather, you probably need some more water. Distribute the lather all over the boot. When the brush stops producing lather, reload the brush with soap. Don't worry about using too much soap, you can always add more water. Once you finish with one boot, start the other. I know, I know: "Duh!"; but I have a reason for saying that. If you get the balance of water and soap right and take your time soaping the boots, the lather on the first boot should be largely dry by the time you finish the second. Note that I didn't say the lather would be gone, just dry.
Removing the soap is where several bootblacks disagree. Many bootblacks will use water to wash the saddle soap away, as is standard soap-use protocol. I believe, and my literature search on the web largely backs me up, that more water defeats the secondary purpose of saddle soap, namely moisturizing the leather via the extra oils in the soap. Rather than washing the water and soap (and the extra oils) away, I prefer to use a soft absorbent cloth to soak up the water and soap. It will leave the admittedly small amount of oil remaining behind to soak into the leather. I've found that a low-lint fabric is usually better than something like flannel, which will leave all sort of fibers behind (particularly if the fabric is new; older flannel tends to become less linty, and more useful on leather).
That pretty much covers it. It's worth noting that a similar method can be used for most leather clothing. Fine garment leathers: shirts, blouses, skirts, etc. are more susceptible to swelling by absorbing water, which can permanently affect the fit, so proceed with caution. Professional dry cleaners are in a better position to clean those leathers, as well as light colored leathers, which are, again, prone to discoloration when exposed to water. However, motorcycle chaps, heavy leather pants, jackets, and vests, particularly those made of bullhide, are very suited to such treatments. Clothing often gets overlooked in the cleaning and conditioning realm, which is a pity, since it too gets dirty and in fact can be subject to much more drying than boots due to the constant flexing and bending that clothing undergoes. Saddle soaping chaps is fun, too. But I digress.
Links, We Get Links
In researching this article, I referred to the following sites:
Care of Leather and Riding Equipment, Published by the Cavalry
School Academic Division, Fort Riley, Kansas, 1941 http://www.militaryhorse.org/resources/ordreport/1940/ch1sec2.asp
Good to know people have been obsessing about this for longer than I've been alive.
What is Soap?
Junior High School level science lesson plan on soap. Anything that uses both sodium hydroxide and lollipops is cool in my book.
What is Soap Made of?
A little graphical representation of the soap molecule.
What is Soap (the longer page)
Heady stuff from a seller of herbal soap, but it's fascinating (assuming you really want to learn about polar and non-polar molecules, that is).
Miscellaneous links (used mostly for background)
Return to the Boots Page
Note: This article was written based on a suggestion by Andrew B. Thanks for the idea, Andrew!