Better Leather Through Chemistry?:
Leather Luster Put to the Test

by Bootdog

Apparently, some people don't enjoy boot care. Some poor twisted souls out there don't enjoy a leisurely afternoon with a horsehair brush, some paste wax, and a little spit. Well, far be it from me to cast aspersions on such feelings. The folks at Leather Luster, Incorporated, however, say that they can make boot polishing a thing of the past.

According to their web site (, Leather Luster is a special formula which, when properly applied to regular hard leather, gives it a permanent high gloss shine comparable to patent leather. For $8.95 (plus $4 shipping and handling), they'll send you a complete kit, including a special cleaner, the Leather Luster itself, and steel wool (we'll explain that in a moment). Being the incorrigible boot hound that I am, the ad intrigued me, so I decided to give Leather Luster a try.

First off, the ordering process is a trifle peculiar. While you can place the order on Leather Luster's web site, you have to print out a copy of the info that you send to them electronically, to send along with your payment via postal mail. They don't take credit cards (at least as far as I could determine). However, once you got the payment to them, they responded quickly. I received my shipment within ten days of mailing the check.

Out of my collection, I selected a pair of steel-toed combat boots that had seen better days. There were enough deep scuffs that the boots weren't going to look great without of the attention of a professional shoemaker. These were perfect candidates for the Leather Luster treatment. My heart wasn't going to break if the boots wound up looking like they had been dropped in an acid bath (which, we'll see, they briefly did).

Step one is to clean the Leather with the special cleaner. We're not actually looking for "clean" here, folks. What we're shooting for is stripped. The cleaner is designed to remove all waxes, dyes, and oils from the leather, so that the Leather Luster will actually dry. This cleaner stuff was some serious solvent action let me tell you. The base is toluene, which by itself is carcinogenic, neurotoxic, inflammable, and stinky. (see and for details). Ten minutes of working with that stuff, I had a headache and was dizzy as hell, and that was in a ventilated area. Be VERY CAREFUL with this shit. Anyway, the idea is to dampen a rag with the cleaner (wear protective gloves) and wipe the leather with it. And keep doing it. I got two large rags completely filthy with built up polish and wax before the boots were properly cleaned. At that point (as was described in the instructions) the leather was an ugly gray color. Warning: the cleaner is extremely volatile. It evaporates fast. Work quickly and recap the bottle when you aren't actually putting the stuff on the rag.

Having allowed the boots to dry (fifteen minutes or so), I then applied a coat of the Leather Luster to the boots. Whereas the cleaner threatened your life, the Leather Luster itself threatens your clothes, your carpeting, and your upholstery. Put down newspapers, put on gloves, and wear clothes you don't care about. Usually, I believe that polishing boots in the nude is an option, that way clothing won't get dirty and paste wax comes off with a little simple soap; not so with Leather Luster. Unless you enjoy dousing your bod with turpentine, suit up. The Leather Luster is applied with a little sponge that's mounted on the inside of the cap. Halfway through the process I learned that the sponge was simply a folded piece of foam over an otherwise unremarkable brush. You'll need to invest $.49 in a ½-inch foam paint sponge.

Having applied a good coat to each boot, I then left them out on the radiator to dry. The instructions tell you to put them out in the sun to dry. They tell you to do this five or six times, so unless you live in the desert, this could easily become a month-long project if the weather doesn't cooperate. However, it is worth noting that the sun isn't required, it just makes things move a bit faster. Sitting on the radiator in full southern exposure overcast, the LL (I'm tired of typing Leather Luster) was dry within 12 hours.

Next we get to the steel wool. Essentially, one needs a good smooth finish on which to put subsequent coats of LL so that there are no imperfections which mess with the shine. So, you use the fine steel wool supplied with it. Only one problem: the steel wool they provide is not terribly dense, which means it dissolved before I finished the first boot. Solution: I went out and bought a pack of #0000 Super Fine Steel Wool (paint department of just about any hardware store). Cost: $2.99, but I now have enough freakin' steel wool to knit a sweater. So you polish and polish and polish. When the finish is smooth, you clean off the steel wool particles (not an easy job, let me tell you) and apply three of four more coats of LL, letting them dry (in the sun, naturally) between coats.

And after all this work, what's the result? Well, to some extent, the claims made by Leather Luster are pretty accurate. The boots do have a patent leather appearance to them. They're waterproof (mud and salt wipe off quite easily). And a little furniture polish keeps them looking freshly…uh…lustered.

That having been said, there are a few drawbacks. Looking closely at the boots (something that I do a lot, trust me) we see that the finish is not smooth, like real patent leather. No matter how much smoothing you do with the steel wool, the following coats go on somewhat thick, and the thickness shows through. Even using a sponge applicator rather than a brush doesn't prevent brush strokes in the finish. You simply can't get the mirror bright effect that a good spit shine can provide.

Another important issue (though perhaps not so much a drawback) is that the boots are indisputably no longer wholly leather. Leather Luster is, at its base, plastic. Water beads on the finish and mud and salt dry into fascinating patterns that belie the whole "leather boot" image. Finally (and to me most importantly) the damn boots taste like plastic. Where's the tanning salts? Where's the sweat? Where's the love?

A note to a boot mailing list (I love the Internet, don't you?) garnered the following reply:

The results of most of those products are very poor. They look great for a while, but then the shell created by the stuff begins to crack and the leather is ruined for good. I've found no means to repair the damage done by such products, and it ends up looking shitty. It's just not good 'leather care', AND I love 'the hides' to much to choke them with the stuff.

So, final verdict: don't use Leather Luster on your favorite pair of Chippewa's. Unless you have a need for a "permanent shine" boot that stands up to the weather, I don't see any real need to use Leather Luster. Considering the amount of effort it requires, you could spit-shine your entire boot wardrobe several times in the time it takes to do one pair with Leather Luster. And regular boot polish doesn't threaten your health, clothing, and upholstery anywhere near the way Leather Luster does. Leather Luster isn't a scam, but it doesn't do the job that I think any of us needs it to do.


What they say you need:

The kit (cleaner, Leather Luster, steel wool)

What you'll need beyond that:

Newspaper or tarp (to protect floor)
Protective gloves
A high tolerance for dangerous chemicals
Foam paint applicator
Turpentine or mineral spirits (for cleanup)
More steel wool
Q-tips (to remove steel wool particles from tight spaces)

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