Alright then, after spending many weeks delving into the minute details of shoe construction, memorizing the entire history of the worldwide tanning industry, obtaining and studying the last and pattern archives of 47 footwear manufacturers from 5 different countries, you have finally decided on THE perfect pair of dress shoes.

Dress shoes that not only speak to you, but announce to the entire world that you have arrived; and arrived with panache, for no one could see the graceful lines and gleaming calfskin and not understand that they are in the presence of a man of dignity and taste. Unfortunately, as is often the case, on the appointed day that the imaginary Barker in your head was primed to perform said announcement, Mother Nature decided to moisten the proceedings. Suddenly, your sodden leather perfection quickly deviated from panache to pancake, the graceful lines somehow remembered that exposed joint your Grandmother so thoughtfully left you, and the gleaming calfskin decided that it would rather, well, gleam another day. Despite the days' disappointment, however, all is not lost.

Shoes are meant to be worn (and worn means in all sorts of conditions) and this requires an additional, minor expense, and equally minor effort, to ensure that your investment in a high quality shoe is a long-term one rather than a short-term one. Wooden shoe trees are mandatory for the proper care of a calfskin dress shoe. Actually, despite the analogy above, when a shoe deteriorates, it does so from the inside out. Leather linings are vegetable tanned (meaning they are processed using, among other things, natural extracts that allow the leather to be soft and pliable) and therefore are much more prone to rotting as they do not have the "˜protection' of the harsher chemicals (Chromium salts, dyes, etc.) that are used in the tanning and finishing of upper leather.

Wooden Shoe Trees

Also, most people perspire a great deal from their feet, and the linings and insoles are able to absorb this perspiration. The main benefit of a WOODEN shoe tree is the quick absorption away from the linings and insoles of this moisture under tension. Without a wooden shoe tree, the linings (and therefore the uppers) would loose this moisture slowly, and contract when the moisture leaves. The shrinking/expanding process that occurs without the use of shoe trees cause the linings to deteriorate much more quickly than they otherwise should. The most popular wood used in the manufacture of shoe trees in the US is Cedar (which is light, absorbs very well and deodorizes) while Birch is most often seen in Europe, as Cedar is not native there. Both work equally well, in my opinion, while metal and plastic are to be avoided, as neither absorbs very well.

As for design, a split front (the tension is side-to-side) with a full heel and handle is very versatile, but many options are available. . True shoe aficionados can argue for hours over whether wax or cream is the most effective polish for their prized footwear. Both are effective, and the use of one or the other is certainly necessary for the proper upkeep of your shoes. Paste (Wax) Polish Finding the "˜recipe' that manufacturers use for their paste, or wax, polish is as difficult as prying a BBQ sauce recipe from a Texan - can't seem to be done. Nevertheless, in examining the Material Handling Safety Datasheets that the government requires of these concoctions, it appears that the overwhelming ingredient is Stoddard Solvent (Naphtha) which, in the case of Kiwi (division of Sara Lee) and Kelly's (Fiebings, Inc. in Milwaukee) exceeds 90%. The two other popular shoe polish brands here, Lincoln and Angelus, do not make their MSDS as readily available, so I cannot speak to their main ingredient, but both seem to contain more pigment/waxes than the more popular Kiwi*. A notable exception is the Avel wax polishes (Saphir and Medaille D'Or) which both use a turpentine (natural) base.

All use some combination of Carnauba and Beeswax as a binder. Despite this information, which would seem to counter-act the marketing messages of these products, all are useful in the general upkeep of the finish of fine dress shoes. A personal observation is that Lincoln and the Avel polishes are the most effective in regards to coverage, protection and filling/fixing minor scuffs and cuts.

Cream Polish

Available in a huge variety of colors, Cream Polish is very similar to the harder wax polishes with the main difference being some subtraction of solvent and a corresponding addition of mineral oil, or similar ingredient. While equal in it's ability to impart color, the cream polishes generally do not have the same ability to cover the inevitable scuffs and cuts that a leather shoe is prone to experience. In addition to the above manufacturers, others of note are Urad (Italy), Colonnil (Germany) and Smart (Turkey).

The most under-used products in the shoe care market might very well be the neutral, more natural "˜cleaner & conditioner' products. In my opinion, the continual use of these products on a weekly (or more often) basis is far more important to the overall "˜health' of a fine leather upper than even the regular use of colored waxes and creams. Easy to apply, these products all go a long way in keeping leather supple, protected and, in the case of the brown tones, help to bring out that all important "˜patina' that can only develop naturally thru time and attention. Containing little or no harmful chemicals, any of the following are worth investing in: Allen Edmonds Conditioner/Cleaner, Crema Alpina (Italy), Renovateur by Avel (Spain/France) and Lexol (USA).

The Process

Your shoes should be polished and/or conditioned at least a couple times a month...each week, ideally. Even if you don't do this yourself, drop a pair off at your local shoe repair shop or stop by a shine stand as often as possible. You can even purchase a set-up and give it to your favorite cobbler/bootblack and ask that they use these products to care for your shoes.

If you choose to polish/clean/condition your shoes yourself, start by applying a liberal amount of one of the conditioner/cleaners mentioned above. Allow a few minutes and promptly rub briskly with a cotton or felt rag. The shoe bags that often come in the box with "˜better' shoes are ideal for this...simply cut into large strips for your polishing use.

Next, apply the appropriate shoe cream to areas that are showing the most wear. It is not necessary for the colors to match exactly (except for black, obviously), but to either blend in, or to highlight at your choosing. For example, a "˜cognac' colored shoe might see "˜tan', "˜mahogany', "˜light brown' or "˜mid-brown' polishes; or maybe all four. Experiment. After the cream hazes over, apply another coat of cleaner/conditioner and let sit for a few minutes. Take a high quality horsehair brush (the best are from Frank-Brushes, in Germany) and brush along the sides and across the vamp (top to the tip).

Next, apply your choice of wax/paste polish and, again, allow to haze over. After 5 minutes or so, brush off as before. Finally, re-apply one more coat off cleaner/conditioner, allow to dry for a minute or two, and brush again. You can stop now, or continue to a "˜spit-shine' step, which really just involves taking and old necktie (or nylon hose), misting a little water onto your shoe, and rapidly buffing with the silk rag. The heat from the quick motion combined with a little water will "˜build' another protective layer onto your shoe.

A final step, though one I do not really recommend for most, is to use a "˜edge dye' (we simply use leather dye from Fiebings) to dye the sole/welt edge and trim. This is tricky, and it is easy to ruin an upper if you do not do this carefully with the included dauber, so I would leave this to the cobbler, but the leather dye is readily available from Fiebings.

Find a Cobbler

Which brings me to my final suggestion in regards to proper care of your shoes...make friends with your local cobbler. If you do not use one regularly, ask around. Every town has at least one guy who has been around for awhile, and knows how to re-build good shoes.

Really, what qualifies as a good shoe now, was a pretty average shoe not too long ago, so if someone has been around for a good while, chances are you will not give them anything they have not seen before. And the better the shoe they see, the better the work they will want to do. Trust me, most everything now is cardboard and paper...the older guys don't get to work on the good stuff much any longer.

And when you find the best one in your area, tell him you will pay for his best work, not just what's on his price list. Make sure you see a group of machines (and I mean ones that have seen years of use) and lots of scraps lying around...I have yet to meet a good cobbler who had a spotless shop. Ask him how old his MacKay is...ask him who works on it (nobody does anymore, they have to do it themselves)...ask him how he builds up heel bases (next to impossible to buy ready-made anymore)...ask him where his outsoles are sourced from (the last US source for really good outsoles, WestTan, just closed up; the German stuff is the best, at the very least make sure they are not cream colored - they are cheap, should be dark tan or darker). If the guy is worth his salt, he will entertain your questions, and will give you a top notch job. Find him and patronize his shop.