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When your leather shoes or boots get wet, it’s important to take special care of them to make sure the leather is not permanently damaged. Follow these step-by-step instructions to treat wet leather shoes and boots for best results. Also, note that these instructions do not apply to suede, which can also get wet, but has a different treatment process.
Yes. Leather shoes and boots can get wet (even soaking wet in some conditions) without permanent damage, assuming you care for them correctly. If your leather shoes are soaking wet on a regular basis, consider investing in a pair of waterproof shoes to save yourself from having to treat them on a regular basis.
First, remove any excess water from the outside of the shoe. If there are rain droplets, wipe the shoe down with a soft, dry cloth to remove the water to prevent any water stains. Make sure to also remove dirt, mud, or grit while your shoes are still wet instead of giving the debris the opportunity to dry.
The laces on leather shoes are usually cotton or some other natural fiber. Removing them will allow both the laces and the shoes to dry faster, instead of trapping moisture between the two components.
If your shoes are truly soaked, there is probably moisture trapped between the insole and the bottom of the shoe. Removing the insoles allows the shoe to properly air out and lessens the likelihood that the shoes will smell or warp later on. Once the insoles have been removed, use a soft, dry cloth to wipe up any excess moisture from the inside of the shoe.
Leaving your shoes sitting on the floor will trap moisture between the outsole and the floor itself. Wipe down the outsole to remove grit and grime, then elevate the shoes so that the outsoles can breathe and dry out. You can do this with a mesh shoe rack, or by placing the shoes on their side, or by leaning them up against a wall with a cloth underneath.
Stuffing your shoes or boots with newspaper is especially useful when they are soaked. The dry newspaper will absorb moisture and draw it out of the leather. Using newspaper is incredibly effective, but it’s also a labor-intensive process. Once the newspaper becomes saturated, it’s important to remove it and replace it with dry newspaper until all the moisture is absorbed. Otherwise, the wet newspaper will trap moisture against the leather, defeating the purpose. For saturated shoes, the first round of newspaper will absorb a lot of water and will need to be replaced quickly (within 20 minutes). Subsequent rounds of newspaper will take longer, as there is less available moisture to absorb.
At a certain point, your shoes will still be damp, but the crumpled newspaper tactic will stop being effective because there is too little moisture remaining to absorb properly. At this point, air drying is the best bet to remove the residual moisture from the shoe. Put the shoes or boots in a cool dry place where humidity and moisture are limited. Do not use excess heat, which can dry the leather too quickly, causing it to warp and crack.
It merits further warning: do not use excess heat under any circumstances. Excess heat might include blow dryers, baseboard heating, radiators, or fireplaces - all of which should be avoided.
After your shoes have dried, take a look at them and locate any areas that look out of place - there may be salt stains or water marks which will require additional treatment to fix. These may not be immediately visible when the shoes are wet, but may present themselves when the leather dries. To treat salt stains, mix a vinegar solution and use a rag to wipe down the leather. For oil or grease stains, talcum powder can be used to draw out the stains.
Read more about cleaning leather shoes and boots.
Once your shoes have dried out, you should treat them with a high-quality leather conditioner. Leather is a hide and contains oils and tannins that, when preserved, keep it supple. When leather gets wet and then dries out, the oils and tannins are affected, leaving the leather drier and more likely to crack. Leather conditioner adds moisture to the leather, allowing it to keep its suppleness.
Before using a leather conditioner, look at the bottle to see if there are any specific instructions, like shaking it. Apply the conditioner to a clean rag and work it into the leather. Use enough conditioner that the leather is evenly conditioned, but not so much that there is excess conditioner sitting on the surface. If you accidentally use too much, just wipe it off.
After applying the conditioner, leave the shoes alone for 10-20 minutes. The conditioner will start to dry and leave behind a hazy appearance. Once it has dried, you can buff it away with another cloth. Next you can polish the shoes to restore them to their full shine. Follow our guide to polishing leather shoes and boots for a full explanation of the polishing process.
Once leather shoes have completely dried, shoe trees can be placed inside your shoes to help them retain their shape. Shoe trees are typically made of cedar, which is preferred for its ability to remove moisture (and also its pleasant scent).
Shop Samuel Hubbard’s collection of men’s leather shoes and boots, as well as our line of women’s footwear.