With proper care and maintenance, genuine leather shoes can provide a lifetime of use. However, when you inherit a pair of kicks or find the perfect vintage boots at the thrift store, the shoes' care history is out of your hands. While not every pair of leather shoes is salvageable -- for instance, there's no going back from holes in the leather without professional repair -- you can use a combination of fairly simple methods to restore your footwear to its former glory.
Remove the laces from the leather shoes and brush off any excess dirt or debris from the shoes with a soft-bristled brush. Place the shoes on a protected work surface in a well-ventilated area with all of your tools nearby.
Mix one part white vinegar and three parts warm water in a bowl to create a solution that will remove salt stains. Dampen a soft-bristled brush with the solution and gently scrub the surface of the shoes until they are evenly wet, but not soaking. Allow them to dry completely, evaporating the salt in the process.
Stuff the shoes with newspaper so that they hold their shape in resistance to pressure. Coat all the leather parts of the shoes with an even layer of neatsfoot oil using an old paintbrush. Allow the shoes to dry for at least 24 hours and re-apply -- you'll see lighter-colored areas where the oil did not penetrate. Repeat the process until the shoes feel soft and pliable. This natural oil restores essential moisture to leather and also serves as a preservative and water repellent.
Rub mink oil into the dry leather shoes using a circular motion with a soft, lint-free cloth. Like neatsfoot oil, this oil penetrates the surface of the leather to condition it. Allow the mink oil to dry for about 15 minutes and remove any excess oil with a dry cloth or paper towel.
Apply an even coat of leather polish with a clean, lint-free cloth and allow it to dry. Using another cloth or a clean portion of the same cloth, buff the polish out until the leather shines. Alternatively, you can forgo the polish for a natural, matte look.
- If possible, replace the old laces with new ones for a finishing touch.
- For patent leather shoes, fill in small nicks with just a dab of matching nail polish. This only works on patent leather, which has a glossy, varnished surface.
- Once you've revitalized your vintage leather kicks, maintain them with regular brushing and saddle-soap cleaning followed by the application of a leather conditioner.
- Neatsfoot oil permanently darkens light shades of leather and it temporarily darkens medium- and dark-colored leathers. It should not be used on suede.
- Don't dry your leather shoes near excessive heat as it causes leather to dry and crack and may alter the fit of your shoe. Instead, choose a temperate, airy and well-ventilated place.
With a diverse professional background and a decade of experience as a freelance writer, Dan has contributed lifestyle content -- from fashion to travel to fitness and more -- to publishers including Chron, Fortune, Sony, GlobalPost, ModernMom, Moviefone, Salon.com, Techwalla and dozens of others.