Every NYC winter, I see countless men trudging through the rain, snow, and ice, painfully underdressed in the footwear department. They all look absolutely miserable, as I’m sure I would be if my feet were cold and wet on my way to work every morning. I learned long ago the utility of wearing season-appropriate footwear after destroying a pair of leather-soled dress shoes one winter–a season that more than any other necessitates footwear that can stand up to the elements. That’s why I’m almost exclusively in boots as soon as the temperature dips.
But having the proper footwear is only half the battle. Sure, you may have just dropped $300 bucks on a pair of Goodyear-welted boots with lug soles and now you think you’re all set, but you’re not. Those boots are likely made from leather, and leather is a porous material that will soak through if it’s exposed to enough water. Plus, winter conditions can be incredibly harsh on leather and can cause drying and cracking, and let’s not forget the serious damage street salt can do. So with winter rapidly approaching, I’ve put together this handy little guide that will help you winterize your footwear and protect your investment.
First, you’ll need the right pair of boots. This guide is not meant for footwear made of fine calfskin. The sort of leather you’ll find on most dress shoes and boots does not take to waterproofing, and you’ll never be able to polish them up after any sort of treatment. I suggest going with something a bit more rugged, such as the pair featured in our gallery (these Danners and Red Wings are nice, too), which are made from a more casual pull-up leather and come with a solid rubber sole. Because it’s already packed with oils, pull-up leather inherently does a better job against moisture than dressier calfskin does (read about pull-up leather here). You’ll want a rubber sole–something like Vibram’s popular lug sole–because they generally provide much better traction in snow and ice. Plus, leather soles wear down much faster when constantly exposed to moisture, so a tough rubber sole will do wonders for longevity. I would, however, avoid from Dainite and Vibram Christy soles. Though they’re good for rain, they’re terrible on ice.
The first step– and one that many overlook–is to clean your boots, especially if they’ve seen some wear. Use a moistened cotton rag to give the boots a good once over. Remove the laces so you can get at the tongue, a spot that builds up quite a bit of grime over time. If there is any stubborn grit over the stitching or near the welt, use an old toothbrush to break it up. Allow the leather to dry naturally (do not place them in front of a radiator, as excess heat can dry and crack the leather).
With the leather now dry, it’s time to condition your boots. There are a number of great leather conditioners on the market, from Lexol to Saphir Renovateur, but I personally use Allen Edmonds Conditioner Cleaner ($5 for fl. oz.). As the name suggests, in addition to feeding the leather, it also does a great job at cleaning it, so you’re bound to get whatever the first round of cleaning may have missed.
Dab some of the conditioner on your fingers and work it into the leather. Once they have been sufficiently conditioned, wipe away any excess cleaner and leftover dirt with a cotton rag. Allow the conditioner to fully soak in before going on to the next step.
Depending on the leather, your boots may darken considerably after conditioning, but they will lighten over time as the leather dries. If you’re worried about the color of the leather changing, I suggest applying some conditioner to a discrete spot first to see how it reacts.
**Tip: I often apply conditioner to the welt of my footwear as well. Welts are generally made of leather and can dry out if not properly taken care of. Plus, conditioner will darken the color of the welt, giving it an attractive patina.
Now you’re ready to properly winterize your boots. There are a number of products readily available on the market for this purpose–there’s Sno-Seal, Saphir Invulner, and mink oil (though there is some debate whether or not the latter actually does more harm than good). A happy (and affordable) medium is Obenauf’s Heavy Duty LP, which can be purchased for about $12 for a 4 oz. can.
Obenauf’s Heavy Duty LP was created by a firefighter named Marv Obeanauf, who wanted to make something that would protect his wildland boots from all possible conditions. His wax-based formulation is truly the stuff of wonders; it contains no harmful silicones or paraffin, it nourishes and restores dry leather, and it does a great job protecting against chemicals, salt, and cracking.
Obenauf’s Heavy Duty LP is a wax that will melt with body heat, so you’re going to want to work it in by hand, rubbing and massaging the stuff directly into the leather. You can use a cotton swab to get it into every nook, and you should wipe away any excess with a clean rag. With the LP, a little goes a long so you don’t have to overdo it and a light layer is fine. You are done when the boots are well saturated. They will take some time to dry (approximately a day), and the smell, which is quite delightful in my opinion, will linger. It may be a good idea to place them in a well-ventilated room and away from heat to air out.
After they’ve dried, you have yourself a pair of boots built for winter. Upkeep is simple from this point on. You should periodically wipe your boots down, especially after exposure to street salt. Beyond that, they’re good to go. And when you see that the leather is beginning to dry out, you can repeat this process with no ill effect.
by Ilya Ryvin