The Care and Feed­ing of Shoes

While I’m still work­ing up con­tent relat­ing to the actu­al con­struc­tion of peri­od shoes I thought I’d touch on the sub­ject of look­ing after them. To some extent these instruc­tions apply to oth­er types of leath­er goods as well. This all applies more to veget­able-tanned leath­er than to chrome-tanned leath­er but to a large extent what’s good for veg-tanned leath­er is also good for chrome-tanned leath­er, though the reverse is not neces­sar­ily true.

The single biggest thing you can do to pro­long the life of your shoes is to have more than one pair. Because they have more chance to dry and ‘rest’ between wear­ings, two pairs, worn altern­ate days, will last a lot more than twice as long as one pair worn every day. The next major thing to do is get pat­tens and wear them whenev­er you are out­side. Pat­tens help pro­tect your shoes from wear and keep them off damp ground. They also stop you tread­ing muck from out­side indoors.

A key thing to under­stand is that when leath­er gets wet it goes floppy and stretchy, and when it dries again it will stay in whatever shape it flopped and stretched into. This prin­ciple can be used to mold leath­er into all sorts of inter­est­ing shapes, like las­ted shoes, but it can be the down­fall of those shapes if they aren’t cared for.

Mod­ern shoes have almost all the stretch taken out of the leath­er when they are made but the vast major­ity of repro­duc­tion medi­ev­al shoes, par­tic­u­larly ones made at home by re-enact­ors, don’t so they will stretch a bit more if they get wet and you walk around in them. There isn’t a great deal you can do about this save being mind­ful of it and not doing them up too tightly when wet, or per­haps even tak­ing them off when they are wet if they are par­tic­u­larly thin leath­er.

Save for hav­ing mul­tiple pairs, the next most import­ant thing is that when you take them off, don’t just leave them sit­ting there or they will sag out of shape, dry in that shape, and be uncom­fort­able or even unwear­able next time you come to wear them. When you take them off gently stuff them with some­thing so they dry in the right shape. It doesn’t really mat­ter what, news­pa­per is the com­monly advised stuff­ing for mod­ern shoes but fab­ric works too. Any­thing that isn’t too dense and that won’t stick to the inside of the shoe. If the stuff­ing becomes soaked, swap it out for some dry stuff.

If there is dirt encrus­ted on your shoes wipe it off before you put them up to dry or it will hold mois­ture in the leath­er and risk going moldy or mark­ing the spot.

Leave them some­where well vent­il­ated to dry and prop them up so that air can cir­cu­late all around them includ­ing under the sole. If you have very tall boots it may be advis­able to hang them upside down. Leath­er is a nat­ur­al mater­i­al and it will go moldy if it stays damp for very long and mould can be very dif­fi­cult or impossible to clean off, espe­cially on light­er colored leath­ers. Well made shoes will be stitched togeth­er with prop­erly waxed lin­en, which should be pretty much imper­vi­ous to mois­ture, but if the wax­ing job wasn’t so good lin­en thread will rot out right quick if it is left damp for any length of time. I’ve rebuilt a pair of shoes this happened to and it was almost as much work as mak­ing a pair from scratch and I couldn’t quite get them back into the same shape they were before I rebuilt them.

Nev­er, ever, ever, try to force dry any leath­er, espe­cially shoes. When you get wet leath­er hot it hardens, per­man­ently, and will crack the next time you try and bend it.

Aside from tak­ing care of them when they are wet, shoes need reg­u­lar main­ten­ance when they are dry too. I don’t advise pol­ish­ing peri­od shoes with reg­u­lar shoe pol­ish. It has a lot of wax in it to make shoes shiny and it will actu­ally stop the shoe from breath­ing, mak­ing them per­man­ently damp in use.

The peri­od solu­tion is to apply anim­al fat. Tal­low works well, as does goose fat but tal­low is a bit less oily than goose fat. Anim­al fats might smell a little but they do good things to the leath­er as they oxid­ise and they stop smelling once the fats have oxid­ised. Avoid neats­foot oil, it will attack the wax on the threads, and even­tu­ally dries out some­times leav­ing the leath­er in worse con­di­tion than it was before. If you want a mod­ern solu­tion that smells good, Effax Lederbal­sam is fant­ast­ic stuff. It is sold by sad­dlery shops. You can find a pic­ture of the tub on the manufacturer’s web­site here. Aside from smelling good it has the advant­age that it doesn’t require heat to apply . It isn’t really pos­sible to water­proof leath­er shoes com­pletely but a reg­u­lar applic­a­tion of grease will help keep sur­face mois­ture out and will keep the leath­er supple, mak­ing for longer last­ing more com­fort­able shoes.

In sum­mary:

  • Keep them clean & dry.
  • Nev­er, ever force dry them.
  • Wear pat­tens out­doors.
  • Apply grease on a reg­u­lar basis.

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