The Compleat Spit Shine

by Bootdog

One of the most common things any leatherman (or leatherwoman) owns is a pair of boots. Some own several. As of this writing, I currently own nineteen pairs. Discounting suede, rubber, and other "non-polishable" boots, I have eleven pairs of varying colors, styles, and leather types. You better believe that they're all polished, dammit.

You don't have to be a fiend for boots to keep the ones you have in good shape, though. In spite of all the products, tools, and techniques that are exist for the purpose of boot care, the act of keep them looking good is actually not that difficult. In this article, I'll be describing a way of keeping your boots looking like you're as obsessive-compulsive about them as I am.

Applying the polish

Polish can be applied by two methods: by dauber and by cloth. A dauber (a round brush with medium-hard bristles and a handle) is particularly useful to get polish into tight spaces like the crease between the lower (the foot portion of the boot) and the sole. However, controlling the amount of polish that gets applied as well as where the polish goes is somewhat difficult with a dauber, so I prefer to use a cloth. Wrap the cloth around your first two fingers and hold the rest of the cloth wadded in your palm. Circle the cloth-covered tips of your fingers in the polish to get the polish onto the cloth, and then simply rub the polish onto the leather. A thin coat is generally good for most applications. In cases where the leather has begun to lose some of its color (due to scuffs or drying out), the leather may need to be dyed prior to polishing (I'll cover this in a later article). Go over the boot section by section, making sure to cover the area evenly. Polish goes on with a matte finish, so by holding the boot under a light you can see where you have missed spots. Allow the polish to dry briefly. Simply letting one boot sit while you apply the polish to the other is sufficient dry-time.


The process of buffing requires two things to happen. 1) The polish has to be compressed into a smooth surface. 2) The polish actually has to remain on the leather. There are a variety of items used for buffing, including sheepskin, brushes made of horsehair or other materials, and cotton cloths. I prefer to use a cloth similarly to the method for applying the polish outlined above. The other methods are restricted in how much pressure you can place on the surface. By increasing the amount of force you exert while polishing, you can create a thinner (and thus smoother) surface, which will be glossier. Mechanical brushes or buffers can only withstand a certain amount of pressure before the increased friction causes the motors to slow or stall, and brush bristles will flatten under high pressure. If you want to and are able to exert a lot of pressure using a cloth, you will be rewarded with a much more mirror-like polish job.

Part of the "spit shine" process is the use of moisture on the buffing cloth. The cloth will absorb less polish when it is wet (polish, being wax-based, doesn't mix with water), leaving the polish where it's supposed to be, on the boot. Spit is not necessary, however. Water applied to either the cloth or the leather via a spray bottle is quite effective as well. Furthermore, if you have eaten anything in the preceding half-hour, DO NOT USE SPIT. Do you really want cookie crumbs (or what have you) smeared onto your boots? No you don't. (At least not in this context. How you use the boots afterwards is your business; just remember that chicken and fish go best with white wine and combat boots) Generally, the use of water will necessitate a little more buffing than dry buffing, because too much water gets onto the cloth initially, and the heat from the friction created by rubbing is dissipated before it can melt the polish. Just keep buffing. The ideal amount of moisture will eventually be reached and the shine will suddenly "happen."

So you buff and buff and buff. What you're doing here is creating friction, which melts the polish, and pressure, which flattens it. This is the same basic concept as hot asphalt and a steam roller, but on a microscopic level. Keep an eye on your cloth. Even with the water, it will pick up some polish. When the cloth becomes saturated with polish, it's ability to produce a smooth finish will degrade. Simply move to a clean part of the cloth, wrap it around your fingers again, and re-moisten it.


At this point, the job is pretty much done. However, there is an extra bit that can improve even a superior polishing job. Some of my more butch readers may be dismayed to learn that this requires (shudder) buying pantyhose.

For reasons that I have never had adequately explained, a second buffing with a piece of nylon (such as that used in hosiery) will often give a pair of boots an even more mirror-like finish. I can only begin to guess why this is (I suspect it has to do with the nylon being even less prone to absorb polish than cloth).

For this, you will actually need a knee-high nylon (there's simply too much fabric in a pair of pantyhose, my flippant remark above notwithstanding). You can buy the cheap ones at the grocery store, they'll work just as well. Buy light colored ones, they show up polish better so you can find an unused section later. Stick your hand into the stocking and pull it taut. Then go over the entire boot with a firm buffing motion. The shine should be subtly, but noticeably stronger.

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