Bangles, Baubles, and Brushes:
Boot-Polishing Implements and their Use

by Bootdog

I'm going to make this quick. The rodeo's in town this weekend.

So you've got your polishes and your creams and your dyes and your leather conditioners. Take them all, mix them together in a galvanized tub and soak all of your boots in there for a week or two. The end.


Huh? Oh. Yessir.

I have just been informed by He-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed that if I don't do this properly, there'll be no Rodeo this weekend. So let's see what we can do here.

Boot care implements fall into two general categories: implements to put stuff on, and implements to make it pretty. Let's start with the "put stuff on" group.

Implements for putting stuff onto your boots

The "stuff" you'll be putting on most commonly will be polish. If you're like me and I know I am, you'll find that paste wax gives you a more durable long-lasting shine than cream polishes. Boots, being somewhat clumsier and having more weight than shoes, are more prone to scuffs. As well, boots encounter environments (bars, back alleys, bathhouses, etc.) that are somewhat more hostile to polish jobs than those commonly encountered by, say, a pair of dress shoes (and don't write me letters about where your dress shoes have been; such stories belong on the Internet, dammit!).

Paste wax can be applied using a dauber, a cloth, or bare fingers. Daubers, small brushes with handles and medium firmness bristles, are more traditional. I don't personally use daubers for a couple of reasons. First, I prefer the amount of control that cloths give you. Daubers have a tendency to glop too much on at one time, and it's difficult to get the polish distribution right. Because of their consistency, paste waxes will often need a lot of rubbing to get them into a spreadable form. In order to produce enough friction with a dauber, it's easy to over-load the bristles, and when you start applying the polish to the boot, it'll look like some sort of high-concept oil painting. With a cloth, you can vary the amount of pressure and thus control where the polish goes more effectively. As well, cloths don't over-load with polish nearly as much a daubers.

Cream-type polishes, on the other hand, work wonderfully with a dauber. Because they are already at the proper consistency, no rubbing is required to prepare them for application, so the dauber doesn't over-load as long as you use a light touch. Cloths, on the other hand, absorb the cream-type polishes too much, and aren't terribly useful for cream polish.

And then there are fingers. Applying polish with one's fingers is a major way to get into polishing boots. Fingers have both a few advantages and a few drawbacks compared to daubers and cloths. Fingers work well with both paste and cream polishes. Fingers give you a lot of control over the amount of polish you apply. After only a little experimentation, you can reliably gauge how much polish to use. It's very easy to get into most (though definitely not all) crevices found on boots with your fingers. Most importantly, if someone is wearing the boots while you polish, you can include a bit of a foot massage into the polish job. People like this. Trust me.

Like I said, fingers do have drawbacks. First off, your hands will be dirty afterwards, unless you devote a good five to ten minutes to scrubbing them. This is not particularly convenient if you're polishing boots away from home. Even after you scrub your hands, your fingernails will be dirty (requiring another five or ten minutes of scrubbing). Now you know why I usually go after headscratches when I bootblack rather than handshakes. Ultimately, I feel that using your hands to apply polish is a good thing if you're bootblacking for one or more people, but if you're bootblacking unoccupied boots, there's no real advantage over a cloth.

Implements for making the stuff you put on your boots pretty

"All right," you say. "I've got the polish on my boots. Now what?"

The basic idea behind the "make it pretty" type of implements is to take the polish that's on the boots, and transform it into a thin and smooth shell. Essentially, you are putting pressure downward onto the polish (flattening it) and wiping across the surface (smoothing it). There are a variety of implements for this purpose, which fall into two general categories: brushes and cloths.

Brush-type implements include boot brushes and various mechanical buffers. These tools work vaguely in the same manner as weed whackers. Each bristle glides along the surface of the boot, lopping off any raised sections of polish (it's a little more complex than that, but the rodeo's already started and I don't want to miss the bull-riding). Hand-held brushes are pretty easy to come by. However, I've found that the bristles in most mass-produced boot brushes these days are too soft and sparse to do a good job. The bristles should be significantly firmer and more tightly packed than those you find on a dauber. I found an antique boot brush with nice firm densely-packed bristles that does a terrific job. You should be able to pick one like that up at an antique store. A good boot brush will be able to support the weight of a full large tin of polish without any noticeable bending of the bristles. Make sure the bristles are still firmly anchored in the handle, otherwise, you'll be picking horse-hair off your boots (and floor) for days.

Electric buffers work under the same principle. They just require a heck of a lot less physical effort to do a good job. Again, the firmness and density of the bristles is important. A good motorized buffer will probably cost at least $100 (but don't quote me on that). As I haven't used an electric buffer since the one that my father gave me (circa his 1950's college days) gave up the ghost, I'm not much of an authority on such items. I would say, though, that any piece of equipment that is not marketed for use by actual shoe-shine professionals is probably a waste of money.

Cloth-type buffing tools, including cotton cloths, sheepskin, and chamois, work by a) flattening raised sections of polish through pressure and b) absorbing extra polish. Frankly, I've found that sheepskin and chamois (sheepskin without the wool) are no more effective than a basic cotton cloth, and are rather more expensive and harder (read "impossible") to clean. I bought my polishing cloths at Wal-mart for some ludicrously low price (automotive section). Generally, try to find a low-nap fabric (flannel or flannelette works nicely). I go for the lighter colored rags, because it's easier to find an unused section than on darker rags. Be sure that the rags are all cotton (old cut up T-shirts work wonderfully, as well); polyester will bind to the polish and strip it all off and you'll have to start all over again from the beginning. Polishing boots is fun, but that sounds like some sort of afterlife for the wicked in Greek mythology.

That's about it for polishing tools (maybe I can still make it to see the calf-roping).

Yee-ha, everybody!

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