Brilliantly shined boots are a hallmark of police and military dress uniforms. They indicate devotion to duty and attention to the smallest detail. Behind those shines lie hours of patient work by people who follow directions and keep commitments.
There are many different ways to achieve the deep shine these boots present, and they inevitably all claim to be the best. The fact of the matter, however, is that there is no single way to shine boots. Instead, there are several steps to accomplish in order to achieve a shined boot, and each step can be accomplished in through multiple techniques.
This article will list the steps involved in shining a police boot to a reflective gleam and discuss several proven techniques that may be used to complete each step. The techniques themselves are not critical. Completing the required step in any fashion will lead down the path to properly shined, inspection-passing boots. It should be noted, however, that some organizations have very strong feelings about exactly how things should be done. Using spit instead of water, using cotton balls instead of a T-shirt and many other variants exist, and no shine will cover up broken traditions.
Boot-shining lore even includes odd recipes that are best left untried. Don’t add cigar ash. Don’t use coffee. Don’t use a lighter, or a hairdryer, or saran wrap, or car wax. Follow the steps presented below and put in the time it takes to get a mirror finish. At the end of the day, shining a boot is just as much about the discipline it takes to get there as it is about a nicely shining boot.
Polishing boots can be messy. You can polish boots a hundred times with no problems, but disaster is always just around the corner when a tin of boot polish is open. If your floor costs more than a towel or an old bed sheet, then you already know what you need to do.
Shining a boot is like small-scale construction work. When you put down a new floor, all of the bumps and imperfections below it will eventually show through unless you prep the floor by putting down a good underlayment. The same thing is true with boot polish. The polish has to be applied to a good base, or it won’t adhere properly.
The most basic preparation is cleaning. You have to remove all dirt and dust that might be on the boot. A horsehair brush is best for this, but you can use whatever you have handy. If you use a brush with stiff synthetic bristles, you run the risk of scuffing the boot. Horsehair brushes have soft bristles and do the job nicely. A soft cloth will also work, but the brush gives more action and may be easier. If you use water in this step, be sure to let the boot dry completely before beginning the polish.
If the boot has been polished many times before, it may need to have some of the old polish removed. This step isn’t always necessary. You are going to be adding very thin layers of new polish on top of thin layers of older polish to create the shine, but even extremely thin layers eventually add up to a thick coating. Sooner or later, the coating of polish on the boot will be too thick, and it will flake. Dirt can also get embedded in the outermost polish layer and cause imperfections in the mirror surface you are going to create, and you may want to remove an old layer if it is especially dirty. Rubbing alcohol on a soft cotton cloth is the best way to strip old polish from the boot, but keep in mind that you never want to remove all of the polish. You will only be stripping some of the top layers, and you only want to do that if they have embedded dirt, which can happen if they haven’t been shined in a long while, or when they have built up too many coats of polish. Some troopers do an alcohol strip after every 20 coats of polish, but it really depends on how the boots are treated, the kind of polish used, how it is applied, the environment in which the boots are kept, and many other variables. Some troopers never strip their boots. There really is no rule of thumb for stripping old layers of polish.
If the boots are new, break them in. Every new boot is going to develop some creases as it is worn, and the best time for that to happen is before any polish has been applied. This step is especially important if the boot has been treated with beeswax to provide a smoother finish on the leather. After the boot has been worn a few days and developed natural creases, it will be ready for the first polish. If you apply the polish first and form a crease later, the polish will probably crack and flake.
The base coat provides the foundation for all future shines. It’s only required for new boots. Skip ahead to the next step if your boots already have a base coat.
For new boots, apply a thick layer of polish and let it dry for 15 minutes. The polish is easiest to apply when it is slightly warm. Use a dauber or a soft cloth to apply the base coat. Blacken the welts at this point. The dauber will do the job, but an old toothbrush is easier to use. Get a good amount of polish on the brush and gently work it down inside the rim where the sole meets the upper boot leather. A toothbrush can easily scuff the surface of the boot so only use it to gently work the polish down into the welts.
There are several options when choosing the polish to use. The standard, if there can be said to be one, would be Kiwi boot polish. Kiwi “Parade Gloss” polish has a silicone additive that will help protect the boot from water, and it shines well. Lincoln shoe polish is also an excellent product, and many troopers feel that it provides a superior shine. Some organizations, however, have restrictions on what can and cannot be used.
After the polish has dried for 10-15 minutes, brush the whole boot vigorously to remove excess polish. At this stage, you are only looking to rub the polish into the boot. The most you will get is a dull shine, but that is all you should expect from a base coat. You can use a horsehair brush or a cotton cloth. Cotton cloths are probably the preferred technique because everyone has one, and they allow for greater control of the pressure being applied. Old T-shirts or cloth baby diapers are perfect. The pressure works the polish down into the tiny bumps and irregularities of the leather. For a boot to get a mirror shine, the surface has to be perfectly smooth. That can never happen on leather, but it will certainly happen on the base coat with the right effort. Let the base coat dry for a few minutes before applying the shine coat.
Polish is applied in thin layers on top of the base coat – or previous shine coats – to establish the shine. It’s best to use a soft cotton cloth in this step. Wrap the cloth around your index and middle fingers and hold the remainder in the palm of your hand. Lightly brush your fingers over the polish in the tin to pick up a thin coating on the cloth. It is much easier to apply a thin coat than it is to apply a thick coat and work at thinning it down. Apply the polish to the boot in small circular motions. You should get a hazy shine at this point, but it won’t be anything spectacular. The idea is to keep applying polish in very thin coats with a circular motion of your fingers. Apply as much pressure as you can because pressure will help keep the layer of polish thin. Do this repeatedly over the entire boot. The shine will get better as you apply more thin layers. Let the polish dry before moving on to the next step. The first boot should be ready to shine by the time you finish applying polish to the second boot.
Put another cloth over your fingers in the same manner that you used to apply the polish. Dip your fingers in some warm water to dampen the cloth. It should not be dripping wet. If you need to wring the cloth out and wrap it around your fingers again, go ahead. This is the part of the shining process that is sometimes called “spit shining,” and some troopers do, indeed, spit on the cloth. Unless the tradition of your organization requires it, you are probably better off to forego the spit and just use water. Spit doesn’t make the job any easier. The moisture in the cloth is to keep it from holding the polish. You want to shine it to a glossy finish on the boot. You don’t want the cloth to pull it off the boot.
Gently brush the damp cloth on your fingertips over the polish in the tin. You want to pick up the tiniest amount of polish that you can. Rub it onto the boot with small circular motions, and rub it all in before picking up more polish. You want very thin layers, and you are going to have to apply multiple layers to get a glossy shine. Six or seven layers would be about right. Just keep polishing, picking up additional moisture and polish as needed, until the boot develops a high gloss. Some polish is going to adhere to the wet cloth. When that happens, reposition the cloth so that a fresh spot is over your fingertips and continue shining. The hazy shine should get glossier and glossier as you add each additional thin layer of polish.
When the boot has been polished to a high gloss, give it a final buff with a clean dry cloth. Some troopers use nylon at this stage, but a clean, dry cotton cloth works just as well. It’s best to keep things simple.
The first polish of a boot is always the one that requires the most time. From this point on, you will just be repeating the shine step. Your boots already have a smooth surface of polish, so each subsequent spit shin will just build on the previous shine layers.