How to Polish Shoes (with Photos) | 10 Step Guide | 3 Things to Avoid

14 min read

To polish shoes, start by cleaning them with a brush or cloth. Use soda to soak out any oil stains. If necessary, remove old shoe wax layers. 

Next, apply conditioner. Once it’s dry, apply polish. Buff the shoe with a cloth or brush. If you’re going for a mirror shine, polish and buff several times. 

Hi! My name’s George P.H. and I’m a shoe expert. I like to keep my shoes clean and in good condition. Here’s a “before” and “after” of the last shoes I polished to a light mirror shine:

Pretty good, right? And all I used was a microfiber cloth, conditioner, and Kiwi shoe polish. That’s all you need to get your shoe looking this clean:

Below, I’ll show you how to polish shoes quickly and easily. We’ll go step-by-step with pictures and clear instructions. By the end of the page, you’ll know how to polish your own shoes quickly and easily. Afterwards, we’ll talk different polish types, removing old polish, and more. For a clean mirror shine, read our mirror shine guide.

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Table of Contents


Step 1 - Unlace your shoes

Before you do anything else, unlace your shoes. Clean them separately if they’re dirty. Otherwise, just set them aside for now.


Step 2 - Clean the shoes

To remove oil, dust, dirt and debris…

1. [For oil stains only] Sprinkle baking soda on the stain. Leave for a couple of hours or overnight. The soda will soak the oil out of the leather.

2. Use a soft horsehair brush to remove dry dirt and debris. If you removed an oil stain, make sure to swipe the dry soda away.

3. Use a wet microfibre cloth or shoe wipes to remove dust and small particles. Make sure to get the soles, too.

Clean thoroughly. Stains and dust left on the leather can be visible on the polished shoe. They can really ruin a shoe‘s clean, polished look.


Step 3 - Remove previous layers of shoe polish (optional)

There are two reasons to remove old layers of shoe polish.

Reason 1 – they’ve been treated with waterproof polish that includes beeswax, carnauba wax, etc. Materials like these dry leather out. We want to remove them and condition the shoe before applying more polish.

Reason 2 – the polish is so thick it affects the look of the shoe. This is especially common with wax polish.

Removing Polish With Saddle Soap

Apply a little saddle soap to a damp microfibre cloth. Now gently rub the cloth over your shoes in smooth, circular motions. You should see some lather. Work as much of it lather as you can into the leather.

Next, remove excess lather using another cloth. The excess polish will come right off with it. After you’re done, wait for the shoe to dry before proceeding to the next step.

Removing Polish With Ethanol or Acetone

Make sure the leather is dry. Next, take a bowl of water and add ethanol or acetone. Use them sparingly; you can always add more later. Using too much will damage the leather you’re working on.

Now take a microfiber cloth or cotton ball, dip it into the solution and start working it into the shoe. The excess polish should immediately start coming off. If there’s a lot of polish, let the ethanol or acetone sit on the leather a few minutes. It’ll work its way into the polish, making it easier to remove.

Once you’re done, use a clean cloth to remove all the remaining solution and polish from the shoe. Wait for the polish to dry before continuing.


Step 4 - Pack the shoes with paper, cloth or a shoe tree

We’re about to start applying shoe conditioner and polish. Packing the shoe prevents the shoe from creasing when we’re working on it. It also makes buffing easier.

It doesn’t matter what you’re packing the shoe with: cloth, paper or a shoe tree. Just make sure the shoe feels firm when you press on it. Pay special attention to the mid-foot and toe section. These areas tend to cave in more than the others.

Note: I uncreased my shoes while filming this video. If you want to do the same, use the link in the previous sentence. You’ll need an iron and another microfibre cloth. Do NOT use the guide for suede footwear!


Step 5 - Apply shoe conditioner

Take a microfibre cloth or cotton chamois. Apply a dab of shoe leather conditioner. Apply all over. Pay particular attention to shoe parts that are creased or display more wear. These need the conditioner most of all. Make sure to let the conditioner dry thoroughly before moving on to the next step.

Don’t skip this step. Shoe leather is a lot like your skin. If you don’t keep it moisturized, it’ll start to shrink, crack and harden. Apply shoe conditioner, even if you’re using cream polish. Proper shoe care will extend the life of your shoes and make them look better in the long run.


Step 6 - Apply shoe polish

Take a thick dab of shoe polish and apply it to your chamois, polishing brush or microfibre cloth. Once you’re done, work the polish into the shoe.

Make sure to get the hard-to-reach places. I sometimes use an old toothbrush or applicator brush to get into the area between the sole and the upper. If you have a welt brush or a narrow horsehair brush, use that. Make sure you don’t miss anything. Get the entire shoe, back to front.

Once you’re done applying shoe polish, wait for it to dry before proceeding to the next step.


Step 7 - Buff the shoe

Take a clean buffing brush or cloth. Do not use the ones from the previous step. Now gently rub your cloth or brush over the dried polish. This will smooth it and give it a clean, smooth finish. It will also seal the polish, stopping dirt and dust from getting stuck to it in the future.

There’s no need to apply pressure. Use fast, light strokes. Once you’re done buffing, let the shoe dry one more time.

Note: do not wear shoes immediately after buffing them. Let them dry a few minutes first. Buffing can heat up and soften the polish we applied. We don’t want to expose it to dust and particles at this stage, as they can get stuck to the polish.


Step 8 - Polish shoes to a mirror shine (optional)

First, make sure you’re using the right tools. A high-gloss wax polish and a high-shine chamois or horsehair shine brush are best. Using those, repeat steps 6 and 7 – polishing and buffing – an extra 3-5 times. Keep going until the shoe grain disappears. Make sure to let the polish dry each time you polish and buff.

3 mirror polishing tips:

1. Apply very little pressure and work quickly when buffing. The faster your movements, the more heat you create. This heat will soften up the polish and lead to a better, smoother finish.

2. Use as little polish as possible for each layer. We’ll be using multiple layers so we need to keep them thin. This is especially true for the toe box and heel areas. Since they’re smooth, they need a little less polish to get a mirror shine finish.

3. If you want really shiny shoes, i.e. a parade gloss look, use the method below.

How to spit shine shoes

Here’s the trick to “spit shining” a pair of leather shoes. For the last few layers, use a slightly moist chamois or microfibre. We’re talking one or two drops; hence the term, “spit shine“. The trick is to apply a tiny amount of dampened wax polish using very little pressure. Otherwise, you’ll be washing away and removing the previous shoe polish layers you worked so hard to apply.

Apply that little bit of polish in very quick, very light motions. Two things will likely happen. First, the shoe may start to get more matte instead of glossy. Second, the the polish and cloth will both dry out. Buffing the shoe further will get hard if not impossible. When this happens, take another drop of water and apply it to the cloth again. Repeat if necessary.

The main trick to spit shining is to use very little water. If we use too much, the combination of heat, pressure and moisture will rub off the previous layers of polish. We don’t want this to happen.

Once done, wait for the shoes to dry before wearing them.


Step 9 - Touch up unfinished areas (optional)

Are your shoes polished and buffed all over? If not, you want to touch the areas you missed right now. This way, the shoes will have a uniform, smooth look. Leaving areas that need extra work for later can give the shoe a bit of a spotty, mottled look.


Step 10 - Enjoy your polished shoes!

A good polish job can turn old, busted leather shoes into something you’re proud to wear. I always get a feeling of accomplishment once I’m done. I hope you do too.

Note: I uncreased my shoes while filming the materials for this article. If you want to do the same, learn how to uncrease leather shoes here. 

What You Need to Polish Shoes

For shoe polishing

A polishing cloth or shoe brush. A polishing brush is best when you need to work polish into thick leather. Personally, I prefer cloth – microfibre or cotton chamois – for most shoes. Polishing brushes are usually better for boots.

Shoe polish. There are a few different kinds of shoe polish. We’ll talk about them at the end of the article. As a rule of thumb, shoe cream, a.ka. cream polish, moisturizes your leather. Wax polish doesn’t but can be glossier. You can achieve mirror polish shoes with either, but wax is better for a strong spit shine effect.

To buff the shoe after polishing

A soft buffing brush, a cotton chamois or a microfiber cloth. These will help buff the shoe polish until it’s shiny and even. A good chamois or brush will work best. A tough microfibre cloth is fine too.

A horsehair shine brush or high shine chamois (optional). If you want a mirror shine effect, buy these. They have fine, densely packed bristles and fibres that you need to get shiny shoes.

For shoe polishing

Shoe conditioner. Leather is a lot like human skin. It needs to be moisturized to stay soft and supple. This is where the shoe cream 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 or brush. I like microfibre and hog hair, depending on whether it’s cloth or brush. A non-abrasive cotton chamois is fine too. I don’t recommend soft horsehair unless you’re working with fine, smooth leather.

Different Types of Shoe Polish

There are many, many types of shoe wax out there. Let’s go over some main ones.

Colored vs Clear Shoe Polish

You can buy brown polish for brown shoes, black polish for black shoes, etc. You could also buy an all-purpose clear polish. 

In most cases, go with colored shoe polish. There are only 2 times you really need the clear kind.  

1. Shoe repair

If your shoes are dried out and discolored, neutral polish will refresh them. 

2. Multicolor leather and rare colors

If your shoes are bright aubergine or orange and black, then yeah… Clear polish may be what you need.

Cream Polish vs Shoe Wax

Cream shoe polish is absorbed by leather. It tends to moisturize the leather, improving its condition.

The downside is that cream polish has a matte finish, rather than a glossy one. This doesn’t mean you can’t make cream polish shiny; you certainly can. It just takes more work, especially for a mirror shine.

Wax shoe polish is shinier. It also has water-resistant properties. This is why I use carnauba wax in the winter and autumn. It protects shoes from rain, puddles, etc.

Overall, wax vs. polish is mostly a matter of personal preference. If you want glossiness and water resistance, use wax. If you want to nourish the leather and give it a more natural finish, use cream.

Can I use wax and cream polish together?

Absolutely! You can apply cream as the first layer of polish, wait for it to dry, then apply wax. This will result in a shinier finish, but give you the nourishing benefits of cream.


Should I use a polishing brush or a cloth to polish?

For thick leather, use a horsehair brush. Its bristles make it easy to work polish into the leather. For thin, smooth leather, use a microfibre cloth or cotton chamois. They require less effort to use. For a mirror polish, get a horsehair shine brush.

Can I polish shoes with salt stains?

No! Never polish shoes that have salt stains on them. Instead, use a quality saddle soap product to get the salt out.

Can I polish over scuffs?

In my experience, you can definitely polish over most scuffs. You can tell that’s what I did with the dress shoes in the photos above. The one I didn’t polish has visible scuffs; the other one looks smooth. Without polish on, they look identically scuffed and nicked. If you do need more help, check out this video.

Can I polish suede shoes?

Absolutely not. If you have suede shoes that need to be cleaned, check out our “how to clean suede shoes” article. If you’re looking to repair scuffs and restore color, my advice is to seek out a shoe specialist.

In Conclusion

To polish shoes, clean them with water – and maybe a light application of cleaning solution. Then apply conditioner and wait for it to dry. Once you’re done, apply polish, let it dry and buff the shoe until you get the desired effect.

If you want a mirror shine, apply and buff multiple layers of polish. For a strong parade gloss effect, spit-shine the shoes. This involves using a drop of water when applying the final polish layers. Make sure to apply no more than 2 drops of water and keep your strokes very light.



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.