How to Polish Boots (with Photographs, Step by Step)

15 min read

To polish your boots, start by unlacing and cleaning them. Use a dry brush, then a damp cloth to clean – and don’t skip the soles. Once you’re done, remove excess polish if necessary and apply conditioner. 

Now apply shoe polish using a polishing cloth or brush. Wait for it to dry, then buff the boot to a level of shine you’re happy with. If you want a high-gloss mirror polish, polish and buff several times and spit shine the boot afterwards.

Hi! My name’s George and I’m a shoe expert. I like to keep my leather boots clean and in good condition. In the image below, I’ve already polished the boot on the right:

You can tell it’s a little glossier on the photo. It’s also water-resistant and nourished. 

On this page, I’ll explain how you can polish your own boots. You’ll learn step-by-step, with photographs. 

We’ll go over cleaning, polishing and mirror shining. Afterwards, I’ll give you a list of products you’ll need for each stage of the process. 

This guide is for regular leather boots only. Do NOT use it to clean suede boots, rubber wet boots, etc. Now let’s get started!

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Table of Contents


Step - Unlace your boots

We don’t want shoe polish getting on your laces. It can make laces sticky and nasty. It can also change their color. So first thing’s first: get those laces off. Don’t put them back in until the polish’s dried.


Step - Clean the boots (optional)

Are the boots dirty? If so, use a horsehair brush to remove loose dirt and dust. Once you’re done, use a damp cloth – I recommend microfibre – to get rid of what’s left.

Pay special attention to the area between the upper and the soles. It can get real dirty and it’s hard to clean. If you have a welt brush, use that. If you don’t, you can use an old toothbrush.


Step - Stuff the boots (optional)

If your boot is soft or semi-soft, you may want to stuff it with paper, cloth or a shoe tree. This will give you a smooth, even surface to work with. It’ll also prevent the boot from cracking as it dries afterwards.


Step - Remove old layers of polish

There are 2 reasons to remove old layers of polish.

1. Shoe Care

If you use polish with ingredients like carnauba wax and beeswax, the leather doesn’t get any moisture. To keep it soft and supple, we need to remove that wax and apply leather conditioner. Once a year is more than enough for most boots.

2. Style and Appearance

Multiple layers of polish can alter the way a shoe looks. They can obstruct its finer points and hide colored stitching. To make sure the shoe looks good, we need to get rid of excess polish from time to time.

There are 3 ways to get the job done. Acetone, rubbing alcohol and saddle soap.

Saddle soap instructions

Take a clean shoe brush or damp cloth and apply saddle soap. Again, I prefer microfibre cloth myself. I also recommend rubbing the cloth against the soap until you get a nice, thick lather going. Add a few drops of water if necessary. This will make life easier for you.

Now start working that lather into the shoe. If the polish is really thick, let the lather sit a few minutes. Now take another damp cloth or a clean part of the one you just used. Start gently removing that lather. If you did a thorough job applying the saddle soap, the excess polish will come right off.

In rare cases, you’ll have to repeat the process. Example: a buddy of mine used to polish his cowboy boots with petroleum jelly for years… When he decided to condition the leather, it took him a few tries to get all that stuff off the boot. You should be able to tell when you get to the leather.

Rubber alcohol and acetone instructions

Take a bowl of water. Add a little rubbing alcohol or acetone to it. Now dab a damp cloth into the solution. Start rubbing the shoe polish off the boot.

Make sure not to use too much alcohol or acetone. You can always add more later, but if you make the solution too strong, you’ll burn the leather. You don’t want that.

If the polish won’t go, let your solution sit on the boot a minute or two. This’ll help you get to the leather quickly. Once you’re done, use a dry, clean cloth to wipe the boot clean.


Step - Apply shoe conditioner

Take your shoe conditioner product and get some on your shoe brush or cloth. Now start rubbing the conditioner into the boot. Do a thorough job. You want it to get into every pore. The better you do, the better your leather will look and feel going forward. Make sure to let the conditioner dry before you continue.

I have a specific caveat to make here. Shoe cream products polish and moisturize leather. As a result, some folks will tell you that a shoe cream base coat can replace conditioner. I respectfully disagree. While shoe cream does moisturize leather a little, it’s no replacement for shoe conditioner. Spend an extra few dollars and minutes to do the job right.


Step - Apply boot polish

Now take a polishing cloth or brush. Now apply your polish of choice to your instrument. I recommend a good horsehair brush or a microfibre cloth. Many people prefer an old-school cotton chamois.

Now use your instrument to rub polish into the shoe. If you’re using multiple polish layers – more on this below – start with a thin layer. Make sure to do a thorough job. You can always buff excess polish off later.

Note: there are a few ways to go about polishing your boots. One is to apply wax polish. Another is to use cream polish (i.e. shoe cream). A third is to start with a layer of cream polish, then use wax. Personally, I don’t recommend going with just wax – even if you want a mirror shine finish.


Step - Buff the boot

Now for the fun part. Get a microfibre cloth, cotton chamois or buffing brush (horsehair and hog hair are best). Now start buffing the shoe. This means going over the polish you’ve applied with fast, smooth strokes. Doing this warms the polish up, then makes it smooth. It also seals the polish for better water-resistance.

There’s no need to apply pressure. In fact, excess pressure can remove the polish we worked so hard to apply. Once you’re done buffing the shoe, give it a few minutes to dry. Loose dirt and dust get stuck to freshly-buffed boots easily, which we don’t want. If you want a mirror shine, you’re not done quite yet; follow the step below.


Step - Polish the boot to a mirror shine (optional)

Want to give your boot a high-gloss finish? Then repeat steps 6 and 7 – polishing and buffing – 3-5 more times. Make sure to use a thin layer each time. This will make the polish dry faster and stop it from getting thick and rigid. If the boots aren’t shiny enough, follow up with a spit shine layer (more on this below).

To get a high-gloss parade look, make sure you’re using the right products. You want a high-shine horsehair brush or high-shine chamois. You also want parade gloss shoe polish. The better your products, the easier it is to get the look you want.

How to Spit Shine Boots

Here’s the trick to “spit shining” boots. For the last few layers, apply a drop or two of water to the polish before putting it on the shoe. I literally mean one or two drops. This is where “spit shining” gets its name from.

Afterwards, polish and buff the shoe with very quick, very light movements. Use as little pressure as possible. Too much pressure, and the water and heat will cause our previous layers of polish to come off. We do not want this.

Most of the time, what happens is that the leather starts looking a little murkier at first. Then it gets hard to buff. At this point, you can add another drop or two of water and keep going. Eventually, the boot will start getting that picture-perfect mirror shine effect.

Since we’re using water, give the boot a few minutes to dry off afterwards.


Step - Enjoy and maintain your freshly polished boots

Well done! You now have a pair of beautifully polished leather boots. Now let’s talk about maintaining them.

It’s usually easier to maintain boots than shoes. That’s because they tend to have more polish on them. With boots, you’re often working all day, walking everywhere, etc. They’re exposed to more dust, more debris and more liquids. We need the extra polish to help protect them. This is completely different to a dress shoe that you only wear a few hours at a time.

Since most boots have a lot of wax on them, we can clean them without removing and reapplying polish. Just get a quality leather cleaner liquid, apply to a cloth and wipe. If the product is good, the shoes will look like they were just buffed. Just make sure to get a shoe or boot-specific cleaner! This way it won’t take the polish off with the dirt. Remember, in only ten steps, you can get perfectly polished shoes in no time.

What you need to polish boots...

For polishing…

A polishing cloth or brush. In practical terms, there’s little difference between the two. I find that a brush is good for thick leather. I also find that cloth, or chamois, is good for smooth leather.

Shoe polish. Cream polish moisturizes the shoe. Wax polish is more water-resistant and glossy. Hybrid polish products do a bit of both. If you want a mirror polish, go for a parade gloss polish product.

To buff the shoe after polishing

A soft buffing brush, cotton chamois or microfibre cloth. Again, not much practical difference between the three. Use whatever is easiest for you to work with. I prefer cloth.

For mirror shining: a horsehair shine brush or high shine chamois (optional). If you want a mirror shine, get mirror shine-specific products. They aren’t strictly necessary but will make it easier to get that glossy look.

For conditioning…

Shoe conditioner. Leather is a lot like human skin. It needs moisturization to stay soft and supple. This is where the leather conditioner comes in. Using it before applying polish extends the life of your leather shoe.

For cleaning the shoe…

A bowl of water. Warm water is best.

A microfiber cloth or shoe wipes. You can also use some all-purpose leather wipes

For removing old polish..

Acetone, ethanol or saddle soap. This will remove the old polish quickly and easily. If you can find saddle soap and don’t mind paying for it, get that. If you’re using acetone or ethanol, dilute with water first so you don’t damage the leather.

A shoe cloth, brush or cotton ball pack. All three will work fine. Cotton balls aren’t recommended if there’s a lot of polish to remove.


Can I use lip balm to polish my shoe?

Yes. You can use lip balm, wait for it to dry, then buff it. It’s a good way to touch leather up if you scraped your shoe and don’t have polish on hand. Petroleum jelly products like vaseline work too.

Can I polish exotic leather boots?

Exotic leathers shouldn’t be polished or wet-cleaned. The good news is, most exotic leather is patent leather. Cleaning it using a dry cloth or brush, then applying exotic leather conditioner or spray, should be enough. Make sure to research your specific exotic leather type before doing anything.

Can I polish suede or nubuck?

No. You’ll ruin the material. If you want to clean suede, check out our “how to clean suede shoes” article. If you want to restore suede, check out this video or see a shoe specialist.

Can I polish rubber wet boots?

No, you can not. They don’t absorb conditioner and wax polish doesn’t stick to them. If your rubber boots have lost their shine, give them a good clean instead. Then take a cotton ball, apply vinegar and buff. The boots will look new.

Is mink oil good for boot polish?

Mink oil nourishes and waterproofs leather. It also darkens leather, which you may not want. Some people say that, when used repeatedly, mink oil can also dry and harden leather.

Personally, I don’t use mink leather on boots I plan to keep for years. I only use them on leather I expect to last a season or two. Carnauba wax is just as good for waterproofing and doesn’t darken leather as much.


George P.H.

Last Updated:

July 6, 2022

George P.H.

George is the founder of Shoethority. He started testing and studying shoes after a series of sports injuries. He now shares his knowledge with Shoethority readers as a writer, tester and editor.