Caring for Boots That Polish Should Not Touch

When it comes to service boots, a word triad automatically pops into most people’s thoughts: spit, polish and shine. If you polish certain boots, though, you ruin the surface and create an eye-attracting shine in situations that require you to avoid drawing attention to yourself. Boots made of nubuck, suede or rough-out leather require care somewhat different from that given to service boots you should polish.

Manufacturers create some boots with full-grain leather. Leather, like everything else in the world, has two sides: the side on which hair grows and the side that faces inward and never sees the light of day. In full-grain leather, both sides remain intact as a solid piece and the side that once grew hair becomes the outer surface of boots. The outer side of this full-grain leather features a smooth surface that shows to advantage with polishing.

Boots that you should avoid polishing lack the smooth surface. These boots have a soft, velvety nap surface that not only does not take well to polish but also does not take well to soap, water and other boot-care products. If you want to keep these boots looking superb and lasting you a long time, you need to follow specific care guidelines.


While the hide in its entirety comprises full-grain leather, suede comes from hide that has been split, which explains suede’s alternate name of split-grain leather. To create suede, leather manufacturers split the hide to create two identically shaped but thinner pieces of leather. The fibrous underside of the split provides the suede used to make your boots.

Suede gives you a boot easier to break in and less expensive than full-grain or top-grain leather. Because of its light weight and water-unfriendly nature, you often see suede as the preferred material in desert combat boots and the like, but its nap and lack of water affinity render suede boots more difficult to clean.

To clean suede boots, remember two rules: Avoid water whenever possible and use suede-specific leather products. General leather-cleaning and leather-conditioning products suit full-grain boots but should not be used on suede, which, after the split, has entirely dissimilar characteristics.

Instead of water, you will find a bristled suede brush an indispensable tool for removing dirt and dust. Do not use circular or back-and-forth strokes of the brush; instead, brush the suede in one direction only. Brushing your boots in one direction both removes dirt and roughs up, or re-fluffs, the suede’s nap.

Brushing alone, however, will not remove scuff marks or streaks of color transferred from another material. To clean scuffs and streaks, use a suede eraser, which resembles a pencil eraser but crumbles into the suede. Remove scuffs by rubbing the suede eraser back and forth over the mark no more than three times or you risk damaging the nap, and remove color streaks by rubbing the eraser over the streak in one direction instead of back and forth. In both cases, the eraser will crumble, but those crumbles gather up the discoloration. After “erasing” scuffs and stains, use your brush to whisk away the eraser crumbs.

Include a blotting cloth in your suede-cleaning kit, and carry it with you when you in case liquid spills or drips onto your boots. Suede and liquid do not get along, so if you have a blotting cloth with you, you can blot dry any spills before they become noticeable water marks.

If you do not have a blotting cloth handy or are unable to dry a spot when it happens, a water mark will develop on the suede. Remove the spot by using a wet cloth to dampen, but not soak, the surface of the boot. Blot repeatedly until the dampness no longer transfers from the boot to the dry cloth. Once the surface has air dried completely, brush your boots to refresh the nap. Do not dry your boots with a heater as excessive heat damages suede.

For persistent stains, you could brush the spot with a toothbrush dipped into a small amount of vinegar or degreaser and then blot it dry; however, you should first do a test on an inconspicuous area of the boot to be certain it won’t ruin the suede.

Given suede’s susceptibility to water damage and stains, consider applying a protective spray designed specifically for suede. Keep in mind, though, that while protective sprays and waterproofing treatments prevent surface water damage, silicone treatments could slightly darken your boots; additionally, use these products only after you have cleaned and dried your boots.


After splitting the hide and using the inner layer to make suede boots, the outer layer, also called top-grain leather, becomes the material used to make nubuck boots. Although the exterior surface of this leather forms the smooth surface of boots suitable for polishing, it undergoes a sanding treatment to form nubuck. Nubuck appears almost identical to suede, but the external layer of hide has greater durability than suede, and this property translates into a stronger, longer-wearing boot.

Although nubuck’s sturdiness makes it better suited than suede to rugged terrain, both materials require similar care.

Like suede, nubuck does not tolerate water, so use a brush to clean away surface dirt. Nubuck has more forgiveness than suede for brush strokes, which means you can use circular strokes rather than being careful you brush the leather in one direction only. If you employ gentle pressure of the brush, two or three circular swipes should remove dirt and dust without ruining the nappy surface.

If you were unable to clean dirt away before it sets in, you can safely use a toothbrush dipped into a small amount of laundry detergent mixed with water to perform a spot treatment. Remove the detergent residue by dampening the toothbrush in plain water to lift the cleaning solution. Finish by blotting dry the treated area.

You can use a manufactured solution to clean large areas of soiled nubuck boots, but make certain you only use products formulated for this type of leather. Generally, you spray on the nubuck-specific solution and wipe it off using a nubuck cleaning cloth, but read the manufacturer’s directions before using the solution.

Whether you perform a spot treatment or clean a large area, allow the boot to dry fully before using the brush to refresh the nap.

As with suede, clean scuff marks and streaks of color on nubuck boots using a suede eraser, and employ the same technique used to remove these marks from suede boots. Rub the eraser back and forth over scuffs and in one direction over color stains. The marks will stick to the eraser’s crumbs and disappear when you brush them away.

This leather differs from suede in one respect: Nubuck leather will stand up to conditioning. You can use conditioner to soften the leather, but make certain you use a spray-on product created especially for nubuck. Regular leather conditioner will damage the nap.

Nubuck shares suede’s propensity to display water damage, so keep your boots looking nice by occasionally applying a waterproofing treatment. Use a spray-on treatment and, once the boots are completely dry, brush the boots to lift the nap up again. Of course, the best method of preventing water damage means tackling any spills immediately. Use a cotton blotting cloth to blot the spill, and repeat the blotting action with dry sections of the cloth until you have absorbed the moisture.

If, despite your best preventive measures during cleaning, the nap of nubuck appears damaged, use a pumice stone, fine sandpaper or a textured rock to renew the velvety, suede-like appearance. Gently rub the stone or paper against the surface of your boot to imitate the initial sanding that created the rough surface.

Rough-Out Leather

Unlike suede and nubuck, rough-out leather refers to the same full-grain leather used in the manufacture of boots that hold polish. In rough-out boots, however, manufacturers place the leather inside out: The rough, interior surface of the leather becomes the outer surface of your boots.

Rough-out leather resembles suede and nubuck, but use of the full grain means it has greater strength, durability, support and resistance to cuts and abrasions than split-grain leathers. Rough-out leather may look like suede and nubuck, but this leather has a less finicky nature when it comes to cleaning.

All leather requires careful handling with respect to water. With rough-out leather, the careful handling begins with brushing off as much dirt as possible prior to cleaning; otherwise, the combined water and dirt create a muddy, difficult to clean mess.

After you have removed all excess dirt with a bristled suede brush or old toothbrush, use warm water to moisten a sponge, but do not soak it. Place a few drops of leather cleaner onto the sponge and move it in small circles to work the cleaner into the leather until you have removed all the dirt. Rinse the sponge in clean water and use the moist, not soaked, sponge to wipe the cleaner off.

If you are hesitant about cleaning rough-out leather with water, you can clean the boot using a suede eraser instead: Rub the eraser against the leather until it leaves crumbs behind, and use a suede brush to whisk away the crumbs, which collected up all the dirt, discoloration and scuff marks that marred your boots’ surface.

Once you have cleaned the boots, you can condition rough-out leather with nubuck conditioner. Rough-out leather tolerates water better than nubuck does, but you still need to use caution with conditioning treatments. By using a spray-on nubuck conditioning treatment, you maintain the rough surface of the boot. The spray-on treatment extends also to waterproofing: Use the same spray-on waterproofing solution you would use on suede and nubuck boots.

Regardless of the type of leather, extend the life of your boots and maintain their appearance by following two tips for resting and testing.

Resting: When you take your boots off at the end of the day, use cedar shoe trees. You are almost guaranteed to sweat in your boots, and sweat contains salt and acid. Cedar naturally wicks acid, salt and sweat from the interior of your boots into itself, which prevents damage to the leather from the inside.

Testing: If you want to use a new treatment, cleanser or other product on your boots, or if you want to use a product you have experience with on new boots, always test the product on a hidden or inconspicuous area. Testing may seem redundant over time, but redundancy is easier to live with than destroyed boots.

At Military Boot Superstore, we know boots and have a firm understanding of caring for boots that you cannot polish. We also deal with extremely knowledgeable manufacturers of service boots who have a thorough understanding of their particular manufacturing processes. Based on company-specific processes, you might find discrepancies between this general care guide and care instructions included with your specific boots. Always heed instructions given by experts in the field if your boots require special care or treatment: They know their boots better than anyone.