How to Soften Leather Shoes

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Man's leather shoe.
Man's leather shoe. (Image: erserg/iStock/Getty Images)

Genuine leather shoes have lots to offer, including a rich, textured and timeless look, and durability that can span lifetimes. But straight from the store, they may feel inflexible and stiff. While Queen Elizabeth employs a royal shoe-wearer to break in her heels, your footwear budget probably doesn't allow for that. Turn to simple -- and perhaps more sensible -- methods for softening up stiff shoes.

Clean and Condition

Make conditioning a regular part of your leather care routine to ensure optimal longevity. Start as soon as you bring the shoes home from the store, and condition often. In addition to improving the appearance of your shoes and extending their lifespan, treating your shoes with a high-quality leather conditioner -- or dubbin, for treated leather -- helps soften the material, making it more pliable and comfortable. Always follow any instructions provided by the product manufacturer. Typically, you clean the shoes with a lightly dampened cloth or brush, allow them to air-dry, then apply the conditioner with a soft, lint-free cloth in a circular waxing motion. Let the shoes rest overnight and wipe away any excess conditioner in the morning.

Shoe Stretching

Although too much water can be enemy of leather shoes, a little bit of moisture helps you stretch and soften footwear. Dampen your shoes with enough clean water to just soak through the material, but not enough to make your loafers dripping wet. Stuff the shoes with plenty of tightly packed newspaper and set them in a dry, airy location. Let the shoes dry slowly via indirect heat; avoid using a nearby radiator or a hair dryer, for instance, as these accelerated methods will over-dry the material, leading to damage and cracks. Allow at least a day for slow-drying natural leather to dry completely.

Working Through Wear

Break in your leather shoes at home to soften them before wearing them out. Put on a pair -- or a few pairs --- of thick socks and keep them on for an hour or two at a time. Do this at least a few times before debuting your new shoes to loosen them up. To accelerate the process, spritz the leather with a bit of water and walk around the house until your shoes dry. With this little trick, the shape of the shoe will conform to your feet.

More Tips

If you don't have the time to break in your shoes or employ do-it-yourself leather-softening techniques, take them to a shoe repair store. Many cobblers can soften stubborn leather and flatten the edges and stitches of the shoes to make them friendlier to the feet. Or start with a shoe that's naturally soft; choose unfinished rather than treated leather, for example.

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