Clarks Desert Boot in Bees Wax Cleaned with Saddle Soap.
I’ve had these boots for a year and have worn them hard; daily in NYC, as well as on short hikes in Austin, TX and Portland, OR. They’re not the ideal hiking boot, but when traveling, they are so light and versatile it’s too easy to wear them to work, the airport, and have them as the only shoe on a trip. During this year of abuse, the only care they’ve received was a new pair of laces after the original pair gave out on my walk to the office. With winter approaching, it was time to clean and restore them before the salt water puddles resume their assault on the dried, porous leather. The technique used here is quite simple and successfully brought my boots back to life. As visible in the photos they were thoroughly scuffed, but after a quick clean are, once again, presentable. Saddle soap was used because of the amount of dirt caked onto the shoes and the length of time gone without cleaning. However, it mostly cleans, so always use a conditioner after cleaning with soap. These boots have been worn frequently in the rain, which pulls oils from the leather, so they were pretty dry going in. I’ve selected Allen Edmonds Leather Lotion as the conditioner to add oils back into the leather and prevent drying or cracking. All it takes is a damp cloth, saddle soap, a dry cloth, leather lotion, and a bit of elbow grease.
Remove laces and use a damp cloth to gently wipe off surface debris. Gently, because you don’t want to scratch the surface of the leather with the dirt currently on the shoe. This is the same concept as when you’re washing a car, so wipe in a direction where the small scratches that inevitably do occur won’t be noticeable (this is usually parallel with the existing scratches).
Thoroughly rinse the cloth of debris and give a good squeeze to return to damp status. Rub the rag in saddle soap and apply a thin film to the leather uppers. The saddle soap is a translucent whitish color, you want to put on enough to let the leather soak up some of the soap, but not so much as to have clumps of the translucent soap visible. It won’t hurt if you over do it, but it’s wasteful. Let it soak in for a few minutes and wipe off any excess along with this second round of surface debris.
Apply more saddle soap as needed and buff it into the shoe. This is also the time to scrub away any serious build up of dirt or dye. I’d worn a new pair of dark blue chinos, which deposited dye onto the leather, but with a bit of scrubbing it was possible to remove the blue from the shoe.
With your shoe clean and lightly oiled from the saddle soap, it’s time to add the lotion that will condition and penetrate into the leather to maintain the leather’s flexibility and prevent water from being able to soak into the leather. Do this with a clean, dry, cotton cloth. Lightly buff the shoe to a dull sheen, aware that the color will be darker than it was originally.
Update (Feb 14, 2014): Below I’ve added a new photo in which I swapped out AE’s Leather Lotion for Obenauf’s Leather Preservative in step 4. It’s a little harder to apply since it’s solid at room temperature so you need to melt it with your fingers as you rub it in, but it offers superior water repellency. I also prefer the surface finish achieved with the Obenauf’s to the AE lotion as it returns the leather closer to the original sheen but with an added depth. And as a bonus it smells deliciously of honey. Do note that oiling shoes will make them considerably darker, and frequent, heavy applications of Obenauf’s LP can reduce depth and lead to an undesirable soggy brown look. To avoid this just apply light coats only as needed. I’ve taken side-by-side before/after photos to try to make it clear that darkening occurs. I’ve also done this same OLP treatment to my Oliberte Mogado Hi’s and include a side-by-side before/after photo in that post as well, which also shows considerable darkening. Since taking those photos, both pairs have lightened back up to their original color. As such, I haven’t had the issues exhibited in the “soggy brown” shoe linked to above, but it seems to be a real concern for much of Reddit. A good middle ground is to use coconut oil instead of Obenauf’s for a less aggressive treatment. Coconut oil is good for a few reasons, 1) it’s very stable, so it won’t go rancid in/on your shoes, 2) as a solid that melts with body heat, it’s easy to apply in the same controlled manner as OLP, 3) it’s a food, so clearly non-toxic, 4) you can also use it on dress shoes (don’t use OLB on dress shoes!) and 5) even the best stuff is very affordable and you might already have it in your kitchen.
Update (Jan 20, 2017): I’ve photographed another side by side before/after cleaning and conditioning. These are Oliberte Zabilo sneakers cleaned with saddle soap and conditioned with coconut oil. These shoes had been put through the wringer and relegated to yard work, but I was cleaning some other shoes and thought I’d see what could be done. I’m rather impressed by how much they recovered and I’ve brought them back into rotation.