A Little Bull

April 13, 2015

A Little Bull

Spit shines (otherwise known as bull polishing) can breathe new life into old shoes. The trick is to not overdo it. Too high of a gloss can make your shoes look affected. Just the right amount, however, can help highlight the leather’s quality and character. 

Since spit shines are common in the military, you can find a lot of advice online from old Army guys. Some recommend putting a flame to your shoes before buffing them out (sounds a little too scary for me). Others suggest mixing a little cigar ash with your polish, or substituting coffee for spit. 

My technique fairly straightforward (and safe). First, pull out your laces and insert some shoe trees. Then wipe your shoes down with some leather conditioner and apply a little cream polish before buffing them out. The idea is to create a clean surface to work on and get a nice glow on the areas you won’t be bulling. (Jesse has a great video on how to perform basic shoe care in season one of our video series). 

After you’ve done a basic cream polish, you’ll want to start bulling:

  • Apply a teeny, tiny amount of wax polish on your shoes using a soft cotton rag (I find old t-shirts work well). Rub the polish around in circles and repeat until you’ve built three or four layers. 
  • Now start mixing in a small amount of water. You can do this by lightly spitting on your shoes, dipping your rag in water (I recommend putting some in the back of your wax polish’s tin lid), or using this fancy dispenser (which is demonstrated in this fancier video). The key is to only use a small amount, however. You want to help smooth out that wax, but not get the leather wet. 
  • Keep building and building those layers. For every two or three times I apply a layer of wax, I dip my rag into a bit of water once. You also want to move in small circular motions, but not keep your hand on the same spot for too long (otherwise, you’re just removing wax as quickly as you build it up).
  • Don’t be afraid to mix in slightly darker colors. On the dark brown shoes you see above, I build a few layers first with an even darker brown polish before moving on to black. If lightly done, this can give a nice antiqued effect. 
  • Only spit shine the toe boxes and heel cups. If you spit shine the areas where your shoe bends, the finish will crack and look ugly. 

Know this is going to take a lot of layers and a lot of time (about an hour or two, depending on how high of a shine you want). To get something that looks natural and subtle, build in some gradations and stop short of going glassy. With just a bit of bulling, you can make your shoes look better than they did brand new.