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Published Oct 20, 2022 3:00 PM

Leather boots are among the most durable footwear materials, but that doesn’t make them impervious to wear and tear. The care and maintenance you put into your leather boots can preserve them for your lifetime or longer. Knowing a few simple steps in boot care can get you started, but knowing the type of leather and the manufacturer’s recommendations is necessary to get the most out of your boot maintenance

Since there are several styles of leather boots that utilize different types of leather, we are only going to focus on the most commonly used leather grains in hiking or work boots. Ideally, the boots you purchased came with care instructions, and we always recommend following manufacturer directions closely. Follow the instructions below for general information on how to care for your leather boots. 

How to Care for Leather Boots

Condition your leather boots at home, at a local boot shop, or by sending them back to the manufacturer. If available, remember that shoe repair shops and some leather boot brands perform conditioning, repairs, and resole. Well-conditioned boots help the shoe last much longer, not only for the leather upper but also for resoling. By keeping the leather well maintained and cared for, you make it easier to resole them in the future.

Choosing the Right Leather Conditioner

The first step in conditioning leather boots is knowing when to condition them and the best type of conditioner to use. Do not condition new leather prematurely. This can influence the break-in period. Leather that is too soft during the break-in period can lead to a loose-fitting boot as the leather over-stretches. 

Leather boots are typically made from full-grain leather or suede or nubuck leather (also known as rough leather). The type of leather the boot is made from influences the kind of conditioner appropriate. Animal-based grease tends to be the most common and highly recommended by boot manufacturers. Liquid oils and water-based waxes can be depending on the leather type. Liquid oils can easily oversaturate the leather, making them too soft and even causing deterioration. Water-based waxes also work but may not be as effective as animal-based products. Avoid wax-based conditioner if you plan to resole the boots. The wax residue can interfere with the resoling adhesive’s bonding process. 

We recommend Limmer Boot Grease as a standard conditioner for various leather options. Be sure to read care instructions carefully before using any conditioning option on rough leathers like suede and nubuck.  

Cleaning Leather Boots

Before conditioning the boots, make sure they are clean. How often you clean your boots depends on how often you wear them and in what kinds of environments. Never leave mud on leather boots; remove it before it dries when possible. Mud can quickly dry out and crack leather if left on for too long, so we recommend removing it as soon as possible. 

Cleaning is essential to upkeep the integrity of the leather. Ensuring the boots are clear of debris or dirt before conditioning allows the conditioning agent to penetrate the material better. Like waterproofing leather boots, conditioning works best when the boots are wet. 

Remove the boot laces before cleaning. Gather warm water and mild soap to mix a soapy solution. Any mild dish soap generally works for this, but avoid using detergents, corrosive cleaners, or scented soaps. Using a damp cloth or a soft sponge, begin cleaning the boots. Do not leave the boots in water to soak, but you can generously apply water or even use running water to remove excessively dirty areas. 

Conditioning Leather Boots

Condition the boots directly after cleaning and before the leather dries. The conditioning process works best if the first layer of leather is well-saturated. If the leather is dry or isn’t wet enough to apply the conditioner, wrap the boots in a wet towel for 1-2 hours, checking them periodically. Do not submerge the boots in water. 

Once the leather is wet enough, apply the conditioning treatment to the boots following the instructions provided by the manufacturer. 

Waterproofing Leather Boots

Waterproofing leather boots isn’t always necessary since many conditioners designed for full-grain leathers restore waterproofing.  

Follow the steps below to waterproof your boots: 

  1. Wash boots and soak the surface layer of leather with water. 
    • If the boots are not wet enough after washing, wrap them in a damp towel for 1-2 hours. Check them periodically. 
  1. Apply waterproofing or conditioning treatment. 
  1. Allow boots to dry completely. 

We recommend Nikwax Fabric and Leather Waterproofing treatment if the conditioner you use does not also restore waterproofing. 

Drying Leather Boots

Allow your boots to dry completely before wearing them again. Most boots will dry within 1-2 days, and the process can be sped up by crumping up newspapers and stuffing them inside the boot. You may need to change the newspapers out a few times over the course of a day as they absorb moisture. 

Never use a boot dryer or a heat source of any kind (including a campfire) to dry your leather boots. Air drying in a low-humidity environment is ideal, and some airflow can be provided with a fan if necessary. Letting boots airdry prevents the leather from shrinking or cracking. Don’t let your hard work conditioning the boots go to waste by drying them improperly. 

FAQ

Q: How often should you condition leather boots?

How often you condition leather boots depends highly on the frequency of use. For instance, leather work boots used daily for 10+ hours a day will need more maintenance and more frequent conditioning than leather hiking boots worn once a month to hike a few miles. Most boot manufacturers recommend conditioning leather every 3-6 months for boots that aren’t used daily. For boots used daily or in frequent water/mud, condition them 1-2 times per month. Look for signs that the leather needs reconditioning and plan accordingly.

Q: How do you know if leather boots need conditioning?

We may think of scuffs and scrapes in leather as requiring conditioning, but the main thing to look for is any dry or brittle leather. Over time, leather is predisposed to drying out, especially with frequent exposure to moisture. Dry leather becomes weak and can influence the boot’s performance in breathability and water resistance. Simply looking that your boots and running a finger over the surface will tell you if it needs to be reconditioned. Leather should have a soft, smooth feel. If it feels wrinkly, dry, or not smooth, then it is dry and needs to be reconditioned.

Q: Is mink oil good for leather boots?

Yes and no. Mink oil is not our first choice for conditioning leather boots because it tends to over-moisturize and soften certain types of leather. Mink oil can be used for industrial leather boots but should be avoided for softer and dry-tanned leather commonly used for hiking boots.

Q: Do you have to oil leather boots?

Eventually, you’ll need to condition or oil leather boots, but do not jump the gun when you buy a new pair. New leather boots require a break-in period, and if the leather is softened prematurely with conditioning, it can lead to a loose or sloppy fit. All leather boots benefit from conditioning to prevent drying and cracking.