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Polishing Shell Cordovan

Unlike calf leather, which requires cleaning, conditioning, and polishing; shell cordovan really only needs two of these three steps to bring out a deep shine: cleaning and conditioning. The materials I use for my most thorough polishing routine are: a soft cloth, a deer polishing bone, a soft horsehair brush, and Saphir Renovateur. I also wear nitrile gloves for two reasons. First, using the deer bone without the gloves makes my hand smell weird. Second, I just prefer not to have products such as Renovateur, be absorbed through my bare skin.

Some people may wish to add Saphir Cordovan Cream Polish at the end, my impressions of which I will discuss at the end of this tutorial. Since writing these instructions, I've incorporated a lambswool polishing mitt into my routine, and have almost completely phased out brushing with a horsehair brush in favor of buffing with a soft cloth followed by this mitt.

1. Clean! I start by gently wiping the leather boots off with a dry, soft cloth to remove any dust or other particulates. Then with moderate pressure I wipe them down with a slightly damp cloth to clean them. I find that this removes nearly all of the spotting from being in the rain (which is usually relatively minor to begin with, and has lessened as the boots age). I give them a very quick brush at this point, too, just for kicks. Here's a photo of my boots just after cleaning and brushing, surrounded by all of my supplies except the soft cloth, water, and lambswool mitt:

2. After cleaning, I bone the entire boot. Some people suggest moving the bone in small circles, and I've seen others move it perpendicular to its long edge. But because of my particular bone's shape with a few rough spots that can (and have!) left minor scuffs, I mostly move it back and forth like a bow, using moderate pressure. It leaves behind a fatty, oily residue that conditions the leather.

Speaking of scuffs, here's proof that they can be smoothed out like magic by doing the above, before and after:

The boot on the right (below) has had the deer polishing bone applied to it. With persistence and repeated applications, it is possible to smooth out even deeper scratches, though it can't remove everything. It's somewhat hard to tell from the photograph, but the leather has a waxier appearance after applying the deer bone:

3. After boning, I brush the boots with a horsehair brush to flatten the oils left behind on the leather from the deer polishing bone. I imagine that the friction from the brushing warms up the leather and oils, helping the leather absorb its nourishment. Below, the boot on the right has been brushed; the left has only been boned.

4. Next I apply a small amount of Saphir Renovateur, which both cleans and conditions, with a soft cloth over my index and middle fingers (too impatient to use just my index finger) in small circular movements. It soaks right in and darkens the leather before drying. The benefit of using a cloth, as opposed to just your finger, when applying Renovateur is that it will pick up any dirt or grime remaining on the surface of the leather. At this point any remaining water spots are gone. The right boot has Renovateur applied to it, so the leather is much duller than the boot on the left, which was just brushed.

5. The Renovateur brings out shell cordovan's natural shine, so it's time to start brushing and buffing. I don't spend too much time with the horsehair brush at this point, because I find buffing with a soft cloth or polishing mitt has a much greater effect. Treated with Renovateur but not brushed on the left; treated with Renovateur and then buffed on the right.

6. After brushing, the final step is buffing with a soft cloth, followed by buffing with a lambswool polishing mitt. I work over the entire surface with rapid lateral motions. As I buff, I gradually decrease the amount of pressure I'm applying, starting with moderate pressure and ending by barely grazing its surface. If I had an even finer cloth (or nylon stockings, I've not yet tried), I think I could bring out an even greater shine with not much more effort. The right boot has been buffed, the left just brushed:

And the finished boots, radiating in diffuse outdoor light.

At this point I could add a thin layer of Saphir Cordovan Cream Polish in neutral (since there is no matching color for saddle). But I choose not to. I like shell cordovan's deep, rich glow, and when I've used the Cordovan Cream Polish, the result has been a "harder" shine that looks more like a superficial luster than the results of ending with just Renovateur. Adding Cordovan Cream Polish does have one significant advantage, however. I frequently wear these shell cordovan boots in the rain, and water immediately dulls their shine. The shine from Cordovan Cream Polish, however, seems to endure rain better and last longer.

The above tutorial details a rather extensive regimen for maintaining shell cordovan shoes, and doesn't need to be done in full every time. If they just need to be a little shinier, I simply clean them and wipe them down with a very slightly damp cloth before buffing with a soft cloth and lambswool polishing mitt. If that doesn't bring out enough shine, or if it's been a bit since they were last conditioned, I will use Renovateur after wiping them down but before buffing them. I personally only use the deer polishing bone once a month or so, or when I need to smooth out any unfortunate scratches or scuffs.

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