In this article we explore the steps to create a reflective mirror shine followed by some helpful tips. So grab that whiskey and polishes, let’s get this show on the road!
Make sure you’ve also read the basic maintenance guide to maximise the best care for your shoes too!
When going for that pinnacle result of shoe shining, everything from correct technique, a scientific understanding of how it works, to top tier equipment is going to contribute in creating that killer mirror shine. Here is a list of what we need for the shine as well as some recommended products.
- Cream Polish
- Wax Polish
- High weave, soft cotton cloth
- Water (optionally add a tiny bit of rubbing alcohol to the water to improve its solvent ability)
A helpful image to have is understanding that there are really two steps in mirror shining:
- Fill the pores.
- Build glass physics on top.
Cream Polish Foundation
The pores in the leather are like potholes along a rocky road. The rough bumpy texture is what makes a shoe without any polish look and feel like a matte surface. This also means that incoming light on the shoe is reflected in all directions from the bumpy pores, which creates that non-reflective look.
By filling in the pores with wax, we start to create a smoother surface so the angles of reflection on the surface vary more smoothly, rather than haphazardly everywhere. This is what results in a reflective shine.
Use the cream polish (and optionally mix in a leather lotion) to help fill in the pores with some wax. Let the cream polish sit and dry after 15 minutes, so that they set in the pores more permanently. Brush with a horse hair brush to get rid of excess.
The pores will trap some of the cream polish, thus shallowing the depth significantly. Consequently, you’ll notice that the shoe has a soft shine after brushing as the light rays vary slightly more smoothly as the pores get shallower. Although a good start, it is still not good enough for a reflective shine in which you can floss your teeth in. Due to the aqueous nature and lower wax concentration of cream polish, it can only get as far as a soft shine. To continue, we switch to the wax polish to fill in the pores even more.
Wax Polish Foundation
Apply wax polish on top of the area already primed by the cream polish foundation. This first application aims to fill out the pores that were not completely covered over by the cream, and is also called by many shoe shiners as the base layer.
A common misconception many people have is that polishing is achieved by just dumping the product on the shoe and then immediately buffing it off with a cloth like those street shoe shiners do. This does nothing to achieve the shine as the wax does not get a chance to settle in the pores and build up a smoother surface.
Therefore, it is highly important that this base layer is dry before moving onto the next step. If unsure when it is dry, just leave it to dry for 30-60 minutes. If you’ve got the patience, waiting overnight produces the best result. Wax polish that is still wet will not settle in the pores and any buffing at this stage will just slide the polish around instead.
Smoothing Over With Water & Solvent
The way the base layer wax polish was applied will have filled the pores, but the surface on top of that will still be bumpy. This appears as a cloud after it is dry and is generally a good sign – we are now ready to cut back the bumps, like mowing the lawn, on the wax layer to smooth it out for a reflective shine.
To do this, dampen slightly a tight cotton cloth wrapped around your fingers and begin to buff the polish cloud with enough pressure to cut it back, but not too much to rip the polish out of the pores. This is learned through experience from tactile and audiovisual feedback from the shoe. The water should provide enough lubrication to let your cloth just slide over instead of get stuck with a lot of friction.
Too much water will also run the risk of getting water stuck in the pore potholes that haven’t been completely filled yet, and this will literally rip the layers of polish apart from underneath instead of smoothing out the layers from above, resulting in blow outs. This is why most guides will suggest using only one droplet of water for this step and only use it when the cloth starts to drag.
Most of the time, water is not enough to smooth it over completely, so a gentle one or two taps of the wax polish on the cloth will increase the solvent content to melt and smooth the wax layer, bringing it to a reflective shine.
The lubrication of the cloth from the water also means more heat from the friction is created as a higher surface area makes contact with the surface. The heat and the solvent content combined work together to smooth out the layer of polish.
Refining The Shine
Often you may find that after smoothing out the base layer, it is reflective but isn’t HD enough. This is probably due to the fact that there are still some pores not completely filled and even after smoothing out, the bumpy nature of what is underneath means it’s poking a little bit above the surface. Sort of like wearing one layer of clothes – you’ll still see the outline of what’s underneath but you’ll need more layers to completely cover the outline of everything.
So repeating the above step of spreading a layer of wax polish to fill in holes and smoothing over when it is dry will gradually decrease the amount of bumpiness on the surface. As the surface gets smoother and smoother, the shine becomes more reflective! Take advantage of glass physics and use neutral wax polish to bring out an even better shine.
Hence, it’s not about how many layers you apply and keep track of, but it’s about smoothing over a surface until there are no more bumps.
Useful Tips & Advice
Thin And Few Layers
It’s a matter of physics and leather health to aim to apply as few layers as possible and as thin as possible. Too many layers will smother the pores too much and dry out the leather – which is why an occasional (annual) strip, recondition and redo of the shine is recommended.
If the layers are too thick then imagine a thick sheet of glass being bent as the shoe is worn and flexes – it’s just going to crack and shatter. Wax is actually a brittle substance, and if it’s too thick the cracks from wear becomes more and more pronounced. As many people say, less is more.
Coloured vs Neutral Wax
Pure Polish Products has a great article on lensing and shading by using coloured wax polish. The coloured wax complements the patina of the shoe (whether natural or dyed) and creates interesting effects when under different light sources.
Neutral wax as the last layer of the shine creates the best effect for a mirror shine. This is due to its translucent nature which will reflect more light instead of absorb it.
Colour Affects Reflections
The colour of the pigmented polish base as well as the colour of the leather under the layers of wax will affect the reflectiveness of the shine. You can’t control the absorption and reflective properties of colour: lighter coloured leather will reflect more light (in all directions due to the bumpy nature of the leather), so interferes with the smooth reflection of the wax. Darker colours absorb more light, so the only rays of reflection are from the wax.
Therefore, black shoes results in the best looking mirror shines, but white shoes are nigh impossible to make reflective.
If you’ve got a lighter coloured shoe, you should look into dying the shoe a darker colour (on the parts you want a higher shine) and achieve a burnished patina effect on the toes and the heels before building a mirror shine.
Saphir Mirror Gloss vs Pate de Luxe
Many people recommend the Saphir Mirror Gloss product. It has a higher evaporation rate and dries a lot faster than Pate de Luxe, so is better for beginners or the rushed to get the mirror shine result.
However, it has a disadvantage of cracking more easily due to the presence of more hard waxes – it isn’t as receptive towards flexing. With patience, Pate de Luxe produces a better shine that lasts longer and doesn’t crack as easily.
A good time to use the Mirror Gloss product is when you want a faster evaporation rate (so you can work on smoothing it out sooner), stabilise water blow out spots with the hard wax content, or coat the final layer with a hard, reflective neutral shell.
Use A Clean Spot Of Cloth
Eventually wax builds up on the cloth and dries out. The dried up wax can scratch the surface as opposed to smooth it over. Being aware of when to move to a clean spot on the cloth is important to maintain smooth contact with the layers of polish.
Different brands will have different ratios of core ingredients and sometimes different ones altogether. This will change the chemistry and some small technique differences will be present when applying the polish and smoothing them over. This is best learned with personal tactile experience.
Bad Leather = Bad Shine
Cheap shoes often use terrible quality, corrected grain leather where a plasticky coating has been used to hide blemishes. This plasticky layer means there are no pores for the shoe products to latch onto, and as a result will just swirl around on the surface and do nothing.
Watch out for such brands. In Australia, such shoes are rife on the market, often selling for exorbitant prices for the low quality that they are. Aquila shoes are classic examples of horrible leather quality coupled with terrible construction and sells from $200-$300. They do not mirror shine well without caking on hard wax, and even then it does not stay on for long.
When watching most Japanese shoe shiners like Yuya Hasegawa at work, they often like to cake the shoe with one thick layer of polish and then cut it back and smooth over until the desired shine occurs. This method effectively fills in the pores and builds a layer on top as one step.
This method has sometimes been critiqued for using too much wax polish, which leads to higher risk of cracking. However, with more experience, the balance between too much and too little wax can be learned, eventually leading to a refined approach that creates a great shine.
I am a school teacher by day and in my free time, pursue my passion and hobby in leather shoes. I administrate the Welted Shoes Australia community on Facebook and our primary purpose is to educate Australians about quality footwear. I also co-founded the Thomas George Collection to bring high quality footwear to Australia at accessible prices.