At IML 2001, I happened to speak to gentleman who expressed dismay about the competitors for the International Mr. Bootblack Competition. He said (paraphrasing here), "How can they call themselves bootblacks? None of them even use Huberd's Shoe Grease."
Leaving the vaguely parochial attitude aside, there's apparently a strong undercurrent of this particular sentiment among a small yet significant percentage of leatherfolk; that Huberd's is the . . . uh . . . goop . . . of the Gods. Now, I realize that the number of leatherfolk I've met who have expressed this sentiment is still in the single digits, but really, how many leatherfolk really even notice what they're using on their boots? Such strong sentiment, in my opinion, bears investigating.
Huberd's comes in one of those nifty retro packages that some boot products still use. You know, the ones that eschew modern package design (not to mention modern packaging techniques, like plastic bottles) and instead use the same fonts and imagery they've had for the past half-century. The can, constructed like a miniature paint can, is printed in blue and white, including a picture of an old-fashioned man's workboot (think the Monopoly game-piece if it weren't so broken in) done in the style of an engraving, with a small image of (I imagine) Mr. Huberd himself. According to the copy on the can, Huberd's is a leather waterproofer and conditioner made of beeswax and pine tar (a few additional unnamed oils and waxes are implied, as well). The can further claims that Huberd's contains no animal fats or tallow (which would probably go rancid after a while, so good move on Huberd's part), preservatives, or synthetic materials. Finally, there is an "absolute money-back guarantee".
First off, you'd better have a can opener with you. It's looks like a can of paint, and is as difficult to open. (I did manage it with my belt buckle once, though). Once you get it open . . . it's a little disconcerting. It's kind of amber-colored, translucent, and has a slight gloss to it. The first thing I thought when I first saw it: "They want me to spread apple butter on my boots?"
It definitely doesn't smell like apple butter. I've been sitting here sniffing this can for about five minutes, and I still can't come up with what, precisely, it smells like. The swirling colors that surround me have some suggestions, but they seem to be speaking Hindi. (Seriously though, there seem to be no noticeable fumes and no effect from inhaling the scent; which makes sense, if this is beeswax and pine tar). Best I can do to describe the smell is it's vaguely like a camp fire, with a vague sage-grass hint. It's a rustic, homey smell. It puts me in mind of a log cabin, warm and cozy. Six burly lumberjacks enter; weary from a long day. One sit heavily in a chair and beckons me over, his muscular arms bulging as he . . . uh, sorry. Let's just say it's a good smell.
I must admit that I'm unsure of how many people this really matters to, but it's quite important to me: how does this stuff taste. I didn't spread it on my toast one morning, mind you, but I did take a small lick of one on my fingers and I've done some extensive licking on boots that I used the grease on. To tell the truth, it doesn't taste half-bad. Essentially, there's no flavor. It's slightly oily tasting. That's about it. Sprinkle some sugar on it, and it'd taste like a funnelcake. A funnelcake that smells like a lumber camp.
Irrelevant observation following a Friday afternoon with a couple of Carlsberg half-liters: beer cans fit perfectly on the can when it's closed. Heeheehee. I have toes! Hahahaha!
Irrelevant observation the next morning: I am such a lightweight.
The directions on the label read:
For heavy shoes: [which would indicate that instructions for lighter shoes follow; they don't] Before treating thoroughly clean and warm to room temperature [we assume they refer to the shoes, since cleaning the grease itself seems counterproductive]. Rub grease into the leather with hands or soft cloth. Carefully grease where soles join uppers and all stitching. Allow to penetrate [snort] the leather [oh] then apply another coat. After shoes have once been treated apply as needed to maintain waterproofing and conditioning of the leather.
Short, sweet, and to the point. Commendable that they eschew commas, but there are a few dependent clauses that could use a little offsetting. Oh well.
The directions are pretty clear and accurate. Starting with cleaning off the leather is always a good idea. Dirt and dust clog the leather, and mixing it with grease will produce a sludge that no one finds pretty (with the exception of certain members of Sludgemaster). A damp sponge and a spray bottle can get most of the bad dirt off, although saddle soap and a toothbrush may be necessary for certain situations (such as traipsing around Burning Man for a week; Den, I'm looking in your direction). Note that I don't advise using the tongue to clean boots (unless you've been ordered to). Generally, dirt will cling to a sponge much better than to your tongue, and once a tongue gets dirty, it's no fun to wring out (unless you've been ordered to).
I do have a comment regarding the notion of applying the grease with a cloth. I can barely fit my fingers into the can, and I have little bitty hands. I don't see getting a cloth into the can, particularly when the can is more than half-empty, without a) getting too much grease on the cloth, b) getting no grease on the cloth, or c) getting your fingers and cloth stuck in the can. Stick with your fingers. The grease comes off with just a little soap and water.
The actual application of the grease onto boots lets us see the true advantage of Huberd's to other conditioners, particularly Lexol. Huberd's is quite viscous at room temperature, about the same viscosity as cold butter. If you happen to leave the can in the sun, it gets a little thinner, but never liquid. The major plus here is that Huberd's doesn't get everywhere, even if you knock the can over, like other conditioners do. You get it on your hands and then you can largely forget about the can, unless you happen to kneel on the lid. This is such a good thing, I can't properly express how much I like it (the viscosity, not kneeling on the lid). Come to my apartment, and I can show you the spots of old Lexol and Leather Therapy on the carpet (note to self: I need to rent a carpet cleaner; preferably about 6'2", furry, built like a brick sh . . . uh, sorry).
Application is pretty straightforward. If the boots you're working on are particularly dry, you'll be able to see which parts you've already gone over. Multiple thin coats are more effective than one thick coat, because you'll wind up wasting less. Spread the grease evenly over the entire boots, paying specific attention to any spots where the leather tends to crease, particularly at the ball of the foot, around the ankles and at the knees (on thigh-high boots). Flexing at these spots tends to wear the leather more and dry it faster, so care must be taken to keep the leather as supple and moisturized as possible.
The second coat advised by the instructions seems like the standard "lather, rinse, repeat" method of making you waste product, but in this case, it really is beneficial to do so. Several pairs that I worked on sucked up the grease immediately and still needed more. This included a brand new pair of thigh-high engineer boots made by a manufacturer who ought to take better care of their unsold product (hint: starts with a "W", and ends with an "esco").
The directions do not include what I consider to be an important final step, however. This is necessary particularly when dealing with oiled leather. After the second coat, buff the boot. Due to variations in how much grease the leather absorbs, there are often areas with grease still sitting on the surface. This extra grease should not pose a problem if the boots are being polished immediately afterward, but oiled leather shouldn't be polished (TRUST ME), so the excess grease needs to be removed. A simple cotton cloth is good for this, particularly one with low nap and low lint, since oiled leather tends to be slightly sticky, and you can wind up with lint clinging to the boot.
One final note, which I found interesting. When I used the grease after I had been polishing boots, I found that the act of smearing the grease on the boot removed the polish from my hands. It's a neat after-effect, and I'm toying with the notion of arranging for someone with oiled leather boots to be my last pair of the day whenever I can, just to reduce the amount of time I spend scrubbing my hands. (It should be noted that the small amount of polish on my hands did not adversely affect the oiled leather I was working on.
The only size container I've managed to find is a 7 1/2 ounce can, which is probably 1/3 gone after 10 pairs of boots at a boot party and Dore Alley (counting a pair of thigh-highs as equivalent to two pairs of regular boots). So, for those who don't bootblack regularly, a can will last for a while. At $4.95 a can, it's a pretty decent value.
I'm very pleased with Huberd's Shoe Grease. It does what it's supposed to do, is easy to work with, doesn't make a mess, and doesn't make my tongue cringe when I've got some licking to do. The only negative comments I can come up with is that the can is difficult to open and makes it hard to access the grease inside.
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