The famous leather type cordovan, made of horse’s rump, is more popular than in many years. It’s a material that differs a lot from regular calf leather, both in terms of appearance, character, and not least in the way it is cared for. Here’s a guide to how to care for cordovan shoes.
The largest supplier of cordovan in the world is Horween in Chicago, but there are several other tanneries in for example Italy, Japan and Argentina that delivers cordovan of good quality. Most knows that cordovan comes from the horse’s behind, but what many doesn’t know is that it’s not the actual skin from the horse’s butt that is used. The horses’ skin is quite special, and between the outer grain layer, or epidermis as it’s called, and the corium layer of the dermis, is a thin muscle that is known as the shell. So on cordovan one turn the grain surface inwards, like on full reverse calf suede, and bring out this muscle membrane, which is then processed in various ways. The fact that cordovan hasn’t the grain part out is also what makes it so insensitive to scratches, on regular leather you are damaging the grain surface when you get the tears in it, for shell you can process it in a different way and restore it. The scratches may occur a bit easier, like for example watermarks, but it’s in return generally quite simple to recover and do well again.
In this tutorial I explain basics of cordovan care. As always, there are many different ways to care for shoes, and many works, this is something that I feel have worked very well for me. It’s divided into six parts, part 1, 6 and sometimes 2 are the ones that you perform regularly. Part 3, 4 and 5 are aimed at restoring the leather in different ways, and the respective stages being adapted to fix various kinds of problems, one can say, where step 5 also has an obvious protective effect. From time to time it’s good to conduct a thorough care of the shoes with all six steps, how often depends on how frequently the shoes are used, under what conditions, and also differs between different cordovan skins. The different steps briefly summarized:
1. Brushing with a horsehair brush.
2. Wiping with damp cloth.
3. Rubbing with a bone
4. Application of renovateur (or a similar product).
5. Application of shoe cream.
6. Polishing with a nylon cloth.
A more thorough walkthrough of the different steps:
1. Brushing with a horsehair brush
Just by brushing cordovan with a brush made of horsehair, ideally large and not too soft, you can often refresh the shoes quite dramatically. Brush with very fast takes over the shoe. This makes some of the oils and fats contained in the material come to the surface and shine comes back, and minor marks and stains can often disappear just by brushing.
2. Wiping with a damp cloth
When the shoes have become a bit more dirty it’s good to wipe them with a damp cloth. It works well with a regular dishcloth, with most of the water squeezed out, and with quite a lot of pressure you wipe the entire shoe, also sole and heel edges.
3. Rubbing with a bone
This step is one of the finest things with cordovan. The common type to use is a deer bone, and they can be bought at many retailers of shoe care products. The reason that the bones are good is that they contain some fat that makes it easily slide over the leather, and work in some of its fat and work up the fat and oils from the cordovan leather, and also levels the surface in a nice way. Even rather large scratches and dents can come away with some rubbing with the bone, and the wavy folds formed in cordovan is smoothed out some with the rubbing. It’s important to keep shoe trees in your shoes when doing this. Hold the bone at both its ends (if you like you can have, for example, polishing cloths between your hands and the bone, since they can get their hands to smell a lot), and with a smooth surface on the bone (often there are small bulges and bumps on the bone that can make new marks, avoid these areas), press hard against the shoe and rub back and forth across the shoe, some extra at places with marks. You will see how a greasy surface occurs. Afterwards you go over the shoes with the horsehair brush again.
4. Application of renovateur
There are those who think that you never need to treat cordovan with any product, but I think that even cordovan does good to receive some nourishing substances every now and then not only from a bone. Saphir Renovateur, or a similar product such as Bick 4, is excellent for this, it goes into the leather in a good way and provides good care. Apply with a cotton cloth, slightly larger amount than what’s used on regular calf leather, you feel how much the leather swallows. Let the shoes stand about ten minutes before brushing them with the horsehair brush again.
5. Application of shoe cream
If you want an as natural patina as possible, and a patina that develops quicker, you may avoid shoe cream, especially coloured, and the shine may also come out a bit different. The great advantage of the cream is that it makes the cordovan leather more protected against dirt and water marks, and pigmented cream is good for re-coloring (if desired) and to remove minor marks. There are special cordovan creams, but it really works just as well with regular shoe cream, they contain more or less the same things. Apply the cream with a cotton cloth, a bit harder and a bit more than for regular calf leather, and use an application brush for the space between the upper and the welt. Do not forget the sole and heel edges, and even if you don’t use cream on the upper leather the edges need care from time to time, and pigmented cream is recommended here as it covers much better than neutral. Let the shoes stand about ten minutes, go over them with a horsehair brush.
6. Polishing with a nylon cloth
As with calf leather a nylon cloth (such as a pair of old pantyhose) is excellent to get to that final shine on your shoes. Place the nylon cloth over your hand so it gets a bit stretched and rub fast, fast, fast so heat is formed and the gloss further developed. Between most use of shoes the only thing I do is to brush off the shoes after I have taken them off (sometimes wiping with a damp cloth), and before I put them on I rub them with a nylon cloth (just the same as for shoes in regular leather).
They look new again. Handsome boots. Great photos
Great tutorial. Little bit of work and they look brand new. I have to get myself a deer bone for my cordovan shoes.
Mark, David, Beny23: Thank you very much!
A bit late to post here, but I saw your post on Boot Black products and came to this link!
My queries are regarding the beautiful pair of Carmina Cordovans:
1) Are these on Rain Last?
2) How do you compare the fit of these shoes to your benchmark Loake Aldwych 10.5UK, are these the same size?
3) How will you compare the overall feel of cordovan shoe to a similar shoe made with calf skin, are these hard to break in? are these more comfortable compared to calf skin shoes?
Should one use a separate brush for cordovan or is it OK to use a horsehair brush that is also used for buffing other calf leather shoes? The reason why I am asking is that I was worried that some of the wax polish used on my calf leather shoes might – over time – transfer onto the brush hairs and then might transfer from the hairs to the cordovan – which wouldn`t be good. But I must admit I have not experienced a problem so far.
Henki: As I write in the article regular shoe cream works fine also for cordovan, so no problems if you transfer some of it over from the brush. Only thing, which is the same with calf, is if it’s light coloured shoes and it’s a brush used for dark coloured shoes that you might get some dark cream residues on them which can look bad.
Thanks a lot for your reply Jesper! Wish you a happy easter! 🙂
Henki: Thanks, you too!
Can you use this on recliners ? I have a recliner where the color
has faded on the foot rest.
Thank you so much.
Sandra Damron: If it’s a recliner it’s most likely not made of cordovan leather, just in the colour cordovan (burgundy leather is often called that in the US). So regular calf leather can be recoloured, you can test with Saphir Juvacuir if that’s enough, if not might need a proper leather dye like Saphir Teinture Francais or similar. Do use something like Saphir Stop Colour afterwards though, to prevent the colour from coming off on clothing. In this guide that I’ve written on Skolyx.com, the company I work for, you can read more about recolouring leather: https://www.skolyx.se/en/content/63-guide-all-about-leather-colouring-products