Shell cordovan, that most magical of leathers derived from a horse’s hindquarters, is also one that stands to benefit most from regular care.
Can you just let your shell breathe, take a beating, and patina away? Absolutely! And it can look great! Please send me pictures! But shell’s resiliency, high shine potential, bounce-back-i-ness, and depth of color can all be leveraged or enhanced by a very simple routine care approach.
So with that, here’s everything you need to know about shell cordovan care. Enjoy.
How often should I engage in shell cordovan care? What’s the best approach?
Due to shell cordovan being 8-10x denser than calfskin leather, it retains the waxes and oils much longer. Truly, the two best things you can do for your shell footwear, is to brush it regularly, and store it with shoe trees between wears.
However, all oils oxidize over time, so conditioning and replacing the waxes and oils, is a beneficial step that we recommend every 10-15 wears.
How much conditioner should I use? How much is too much? Is too little a thing?
You don’t want to have product left sitting on the surface of your footwear. Err on the side of too-little, rather than too-much. Too much product becomes sticky and attracts dust and dirt. Too little product and you just need to catch up with the next conditioning session.
What about colored cream vs neutral cream? What are the plusses and minuses?
Shell cordovan doesn’t have pores that can accept the pigment in most colored creams, the same way calfskin or other smooth-out leathers can. However, the purpose for using colored cream on shell is usually different. You use colored cream on calfskin to replenish the color loss from scuff marks, or to brighten color loss from fading over time. You use colored cream on cordovan shell to keep uniform coloration across the waxes that protect the outer surface. And, scuffs, are dealt-with through heat and friction “rubbing out”.
Many shell cordovan consumers love the natural patina that develops from the migration of oils and UV fading that occurs over time. For that approach, a neutral cream offers the same protection and conditioning benefits of a colored cream, but without any additional pigmentation.
Should I use colored polish on my shell?
This is a personal preference. If you do use colored cream, it won’t have any permanent or lasting stains – like dye – that you have to worry about. But, it will better retain its coloration across wears. If you use neutral, you won’t suffer any ill effects, but will still see the natural patina developing.
How do I mirror shine shell cordovan?
Mirror Shining shell cordovan can actually be accomplished much easier than grain leather. Grain leather requires filling in the pores beforehand, whereas shell cordovan does not. Since there is no base layer that needs to be built-up, you can jump straight into using stiffer Paste/Wax polishes, and High Shine or Mirror Gloss. These stiff waxes will still need to adhere to the shell cordovan. So, apply them in very thin layers using your fingertips, or a thin cloth. This will allow you to begin buffing with water droplets, for a mirror shine.
I recommend 1-2 thin layers of wax, before starting the buffing process. Then, lightly “dab & swirl” stiff waxes, buffing a single droplet of water across the surface, will bring out the highest reflective shine.
Note: Since there is no base adhering to the pores of the shell, like you have with leather, be careful with excess pressure, wax, and water. As too much of any of these, will quickly clump or slough off the shine.
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What causes spotting? Is it water?
Yes, water spotting is common with shell cordovan. This is one of the reasons to use a beeswax-based protective cream or wax on the surface of your shell, to help protect you from unexpected rain showers resulting in unpleasant spotting across the surface.
Ok, so how do I get rid of it?
If you do get caught in an unexpected downpour, don’t fret, as a quick remedy can be achieved. After taking them off for the day, use a damp cloth for a quick wipedown. Some water spots become more difficult to remove if you don’t address them quickly. Later, you can then brush them off, followed by a thin layer of protective cream polish, rubbed into the shell, and a thorough brushing. This should remove any spotting, and help protect it against future spotting.
And can it be prevented ahead of time?
Some shell will spot at the sight of rain, while others (even the same maker and tannery) will soak it up and keep clear of spots, like nothing happened. You can minimize the likelihood, but can never 100% prevent it. See above.
Alright what’s the deal with these deer bones? Do they actually do anything?
Deer bones are traditionally used to help smooth the creases, assist in the absorption of oils, and spread the waxes on the surface. They have a similar effect to horse or boar’s hair brushes, but with more direct pressure, that helps with pushing against the dense tissue of shell cordovan. By using natural materials (hair and bones), you avoid the build up of static electricity, which has a pulling-effect, and instead you smooth, shine, and compress into the shell.
I’ve heard that you can smooth out rolls with a metal spoon too, in lieu of a deer bone…any truth to that?
Yes, absolutely. It still offers the same pressure and smoothing effect. Only spoons don’t come with embedded oils. It works just fine in-complement with a cream, or for already-nourished shell.
How do I get rid of scratches and scuffs?
The aforementioned techniques with a bone or spoon can help smooth over rough scuffs on the surface of shell cordovan. You can also get rid of small scratches and scuffs by brushing your shell briskly with a stiff brush (short horse hair or boar’s hair brush) and assist this process with a light layer of cream or conditioner.
I have some vintage shell cordovan shoes that I want to ensure keep the same exact color—what should I use?
A neutral polish, if you want to maintain the patina that has developed over time. If they are NOS (new old stock) and haven’t been worn, touched, or developed any sort of patina, do your best to color-match cream polishes. The pigment from the cream will mostly stay embedded within the wax itself. So, you won’t have to worry about it dying the shell a different shade. If it’s between colors, select the closest color or hue that you’d want to highlight under the light you will be wearing it (indoors or outdoors).
How do I repair old, beaten, weathered shell cordovan?
It takes a lot to beat up shell cordovan. Even 50 year old shell cordovan can come back to life with a good amount of quality care. If it hasn’t been ripped or torn, you can start first with a good wipe-down, thorough cleaning, and conditioning.
Brush it briskly before wearing. Wear them lightly, then add another layer of protective cream or conditioner, and then let it absorb overnight. Let it slowly come back to health.
If I find some really old, beaten up shell shoes…should I buy them? Can they be resurrected? What should I be looking for, on the good or bad side?
Look for rips/tears in the shell itself. Those are extremely difficult or impossible to repair. Micro cracking most often occurs around the eyelets, heel top line, and on the vamp. Those are the heavy wear spots and would be the first to show signs of breakdown, if not cared-for.
Ensure it’s the correct sizing. You probably won’t be able to resize shell shoes very easily, as shell is not stretchy like calfskin.
Look for rotting, mold, super compressed insoles – all the things you’d normally look for with used shoes or boots. But be super picky with regards to sizing, cuts, and tears.
Whether you should buy them is really up to you. A quality pair that fits you can last a lifetime, if cared for properly.
How should I store my shell shoes and boots? Any special way? Maybe inside a humidor???
You can store your shell shoes and boots using a shoe tree and kept inside cloth bags. Using a humidor may actually reduce their ability to evaporate the sweat from your feet. So, that’s not recommended. You want to keep them in a dry and clean environment.
I’ve heard about the pencil trick—putting a pencil across the vamp of new shell shoes and then flexing them (without walking) a number of times to get nice straight rolls started. Any idea if that actually works?
For new shell cordovan shoes, you will want to establish a fixed flex-point. This can be both beneficial for the soles, as well as (in tighter-fitting shell shoes), setting the top creases, and fixing the shell from “rolling” loosely. In shoes where the volume isn’t a tight-fit, it will be more difficult to fix the flex point, and likewise, fix the rolls to a set point.
Is there anything else I should know?
Nope, that’s literally everything, as promised by the headline.
Andy Vaughn is the brains behind Pure Polish, a complete line of 100% natural and biodegradable shoe care products made in small batches in Bend Oregon. They just so happen to make some stuff for shell cordovan.
@deshellvedge is that guy from Instagram who has a much better shell cordovan shoe collection than me. Follow him here.