Stew Cues: Proper care of leather shoes, bags pays off with longer wear

Dec 6, 2017 by Alene Keenan

Stew Cues: by Alene Keenan

The cool spell we’ve been having makes me nostalgic for fall clothing and boots, and the smell of leather polish. I love that smell. I collected cowboy boots, and living in the cold, wet winters of Wyoming, cleaning, polishing and protecting them was a ritual I enjoyed.

Part of a stew’s job is caring for the owner’s  high-quality shoes and bags, and probably for the crew shoes, as well.  Whether it’s a $1,500 pair of the boss’s John Lobb shoes, or that pair of Biondi Castana ankle boots you couldn’t resist for yourself, the level of care is the same.

Women’s shoes need to be protected before the first wearing, to keep them looking good for as long as possible. The soles of most shoes are made of thin leather that wears quickly. A shoemaker can add a thin layer of rubber to the sole, and heel caps that will prevent heels from wearing down.

Store shoes properly to prevent scratching, fading and damage. Wipe with a soft cloth or brush before you put them away. Standard cedar shoe trees or inexpensive plastic models work well to dispel moisture and hold the shape for heels and boots.  Keep the boxes for expensive shoes, and use linen or flannel shoe bags for the others. Don’t throw them into the closet or stuff them into hanging plastic shoe holders. If they are not in boxes or shoe bags, line them up neatly in pairs on the floor or on shelves, with plenty of room for air to circulate.

Both women and men should use shoe horns to prevent breaking down the backs of shoes, and ladies should not drive wearing heels to avoid pressure on the heel that will ruin the backs.  

Smooth leather needs to be conditioned, moisturized and polished to prolong its life. Patent leather and suede do not need to be polished. Suede should be brushed with a stiff-bristled suede brush. There are other special products for treating suede if needed.

Conditioning leather keeps it soft and prevents cracks. Shoe polishes have been around for hundreds of years, starting with wax and tallow. Today’s polishes are usually a combination of synthetic and natural materials. They are usually flammable, can be toxic and should be used in well-ventilated areas, taking care to protect clothing, carpet and furniture. Whether you use a paste, cream or liquid to shine and waterproof leather shoes or boots, it will help maintain their appearance and extend their life by months, if not years.

Leather care requires the right products:

  • Terry cloth rags to apply creams
  • A mild sudsing cleanser or saddle soap
  • Clean, damp sponge to apply cleanser or saddle soap
  • Small and large horsehair brushes
  • Polishing cream, protective cream, or protective wax

First, clean the shoes by using the large brush to remove any dirt or debris. Pay particular attention to the feathered edge, the part of the shoe where the upper and the sole are joined. Be sure this is clean to properly protect the stitching that holds the shoe together. Next, clean the surface with the dampened sponge and cleanser. Don’t leave it on so long  that the cleanser soaks in. Buff dry.

Next, start to moisturize the leather. Wrap the terry cloth rag around your finger and apply product in small circular motions. Then use the small brush to apply cream to the feathered edge. Polishing creams come in different colors. To keep the color of the shoes as they are, choose a shade slightly lighter. For a richer color, go for a shade slightly darker. This will also color the stitching; to avoid that, consider a neutral shade. Use the small brush to apply a small amount of cream and rub gently. Allow it to soak into the leather for 5-10 minutes. Use the large soft brush to brush off any excess cream.

Leather is porous and needs to be protected from the elements. Apply a protective cream or a wax next. Use wax for a shinier finish. Apply the wax with a cloth wrapped around your finger. Add a drop of water to get the desired glaze. For softer leathers, use a cream. Then buff to a nice shine with a large brush.

Some tips for leather shoes:

  • Regular cleaning and moisturizing of shoes will protect against salt exposure.
  • A magic eraser or pencil eraser will remove minor marks, especially on white leather.
  • Hair spray applied to a cloth may remove ink marks.
  • Apply a 50/50 water and vinegar solution with a cloth to remove wine.
  • Spot removers applied with a cloth may take out oil and grease stains.
  •  If shoes get wet, insert a shoe tree or stuff the toes with newspaper or paper towels. Lay on their side and allow to dry naturally. Do not dry the boss’s shoes with a hair dryer or put them in the engine room to dry.
  • Don’t wear the same shoes two days in a row. (Unless you work on a yacht and wear the same shoes every day for 8-10 weeks at a time.) Shoes need a day in between to dry out and breathe.
  • Clean the inside of shoes with a damp cloth. Tea tree oil may be used as an antifungal.

Taking good care of guests’ shoes is an important part of wardrobe care, and taking care of crew shoes is an important part of uniform maintenance. It’s a given that crew shoes will have scrapes and water damage, but a little extra care can go a long way. I’m sure the owner will appreciate proper care over the long run.

Alene Keenan is lead instructor of yacht interior courses at Maritime Professional Training in Ft. Lauderdale. She shares her experience from more than 20 years as a stew in her book, “The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht”, available at Comments are welcome below.


About Alene Keenan

Alene Keenan is a veteran chief stew, interior training instructor/consultant, and author of The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht.

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