In the past week, perhaps as it has been particularly wet here, I’ve had three comments from readers on old posts about dealing with soaking-wet shoes.
Those old posts were never very comprehensive, so here is something fuller - dealing with all the care and maintenance of shoes in the rain, as well as my personal experience and advice.
This article is about repairing the damage, once it has occurred.
A second article will follow about avoiding the issue in the first place, with different types of shoes and soles.
Leather shoes are great for many things, but they aren’t naturally great in the rain. Water can soak into the leather, over time it can cause it to crack, and the dreaded ridges of salt marks can permanently distort them.
Leather is still pretty water-resistant, certainly compared to a lot of trainers and canvas shoes, but the look of them can be ruined by rain - and that look is a big part of why we wear them.
There are various ways to deal with this, depending on the severity of the soaking, and affecting both what shoes you buy and how you look after them.
Damage to shoes can be minimised by how you dry them out.
Putting shoe trees in will help retain the shape of the shoe, and stop hard creases forming on the vamp (where the shoe bends) that can crack later.
However, if the shoes are really drenched, it’s best to leave the shoe trees out for a couple of hours, so air can get inside and help the drying. Or, stuff some newspaper in, which will help draw out the water.
Laying the shoes on their sides can also help dry out the soles, which (being thick) soak up a lot of the water.
As with most natural materials though, don’t dry shoes close to any artificial heat source, like a radiator, as this will dry them out too quickly.
Restoring the leather
Once shoes are dried out (best to allow a full day), give them a thorough brush: often a big part of the problem is dirt and debris that has got into the shoes’s folds when they were wet.
Then, apply some shoe cream. When leather dries out, the oils in the skin rise to the surface - and their absence in the leather is what causes it to crack. So apply cream as you would normally would, or a serious conditioner like Saphir Renovateur if it looks particularly dry.
The cream will take away some of the polish on the shoe, so you will probably want to re-polish them. This is a pain - a lot of work just to get back to square one - and is one reason readers often say they hate getting shoes wet.
However, it does mean the shoe is fully recoverable, which isn’t the case with many materials. Leather is a living material that can be worked at and repaired, unlike plastic-coated shoes or cheap split leather on trainers.
Dealing with salt stains
By far the biggest danger with rain is salt stains, because they can cause permanent scarring of the leather, potentially making them unwearable.
Salt is everywhere - not just when it’s added to the streets to deal with snow - and you can see it come to the surface in white tide marks as shoes dry. Those tide marks are also where the leather will swell, creating a ridge along its edge. It is this ridge, this distortion of the leather, which it is hardest to get rid of.
Personally, I find that it’s best to try and tackle these salt marks as soon as possible.
When you take off your shoes after rain, look and see if there are any signs of marks or ridges - they're usually above the welt, on either side of the vamp where the shoe bends (and there’s less protection from polish).
If you can see some, take a damp cloth and rub at them. This will start to take off the salt and reduce the ridges. Once that’s done and the shoes are fully dry (check them now and again), you can add cream and polish - the difference being that more will be required, because you have rubbed away more of the surface.
Sometimes just a damp cloth is enough. Certainly, it’s worth doing that if you can’t do the next stage, which is adding white vinegar* to the mix.
Here, you do the same process but with a mix of vinegar and water, say 3 parts water to 1 vinegar. (Leather likes to be quite acidic.)
Some hard rubbing should deal with those ridges, leaving the surface of the leather feeling smooth. If it doesn’t, you can increase the concentration up to 1:1. If you can, using distilled water is also better as you’re not rubbing any impurities into the leather.
This vinegar treatment can also be good if there are no salt stains, but the leather has grime worked into it that doesn’t come out with wiping or brushing.
And there are specialist products for removing salt stains, from Saphir among others - although I’ve found the vinegar mix to be just as effective (and cheaper).
Suede is often seen as a delicate material, unsuited to wet weather. Certainly, it is easy for the nap to come off when scraped or rubbed when cleaning.
But suede has one big advantage, which is that it rarely develops salt stains.
Once it’s dried out (see above) all you usually have to do is brush the nap back up. A specialist suede brush might be useful for dirt, but rain on its own is easy. (See video on brushing suede jackets here.)
You can use a delicate version of the vinegar treatment above if suede does develop salt stains - but be careful. Start by dabbing and trying to blot the surface, rather than rubbing. The danger with suede is always scraping off that nap.
Dealing with oil
This isn’t really related to wet weather, but oily stains on shoes are usually the hardest to deal with, and are one stain usually not helped by the vinegar mix.
There are products to try and lift off oils, but I’ve only tried using them once, and managed to make the problem worse. In the end, I think this is a problem you'll have so rarely that you’re unlikely to master it.
With this and anything more serious than water or dirt, I’d recommend taking the shoes to a specialist. Stripping back the leather and having someone re-patina it might be the best option.
See article here on such resources.
*White vinegar is sold as such in the US, and most of Europe. In the UK, it’s hard to buy except online - the best equivalent is sold as ‘distilled white vinegar’, even though this is actually malt vinegar and so a different process. All are different to white wine vinegar, which is for cooking not cleaning, not as strong, and a different process again.