Spit & Burn Shoe Shine Techniques

Updated April 17, 2017

The spit and burn technique of polishing shoes is an old one. The term spit-shine originated in the military where soldiers were encouraged to keep their shoes shining like mirrors, although the term spit does not necessarily always refer to saliva. Small amounts of warm water can be used to encourage the polish into the grain of the leather, but some old-fashioned gentlemen may argue that spit is best! The term burn refers to the warming technique that further guides the polish into the leather of the shoe. Household accessories such as candles or hair dryers can be used to efficiently produce this effect and get those shoes shining like clean glass.

Preparing the Shoes

Clean any debris or dirt off the leather shoe before applying polish. You can do this with a scrubbing brush and cold water by thoroughly scrubbing off dirt from both the surface and sole of the shoe. Any remaining grains of sand or dirt will interfere with the polishing and scuff the final gloss. Wash your hands with soap and water. Oil on your fingers can disrupt the absorption of the oily polish. For an all over polish, remove the shoelaces so the tongue of the shoe can also be buffed.

A Clean Rag for Polishing

Wrap a clean cotton rag around your finger so that a single layer of cloth covers the tip. Lightly dab the cloth-covered finger into warm water, but avoid getting the cloth dripping wet. Only very small amounts of water should be used to prevent water spots on the final coat. Choose a polish that is comparable in colour to the shoe leather. Dab your finger in the polish and begin applying it to the surface of the leather.

Applying the Polish

Rub the polish in small circular motions over the surface of the shoe. The polish will initially appear waxy and dull, but continue polishing until a light shine appears. This may take some time depending on the age of the shoe. Older shoes may resist the oil of the polish, but this can be overcome with a little burning.


Stand a lit candle on a stable surface or find a hair dryer with a low heat setting. Gently guide the polished shoe around the heat source, keeping it a few inches away from the shoe. Be careful not to actually burn the leather; this term simply refers to the heating process. The goal of burning is to gently and slowly melt the oily polish so that it thins for easy absorption.


Continue to rub the polish in with the cloth-covered finger until a shine begins to appear. Additional applications of polish may be necessary depending on the desired shine. Repeat the gentle warming of the polish accompanied by continuous circular buffing movements over the entire surface of the shoe. Rotate the cotton rag on your finger so that fresh, clean cloth is used at the beginning of each repeated step.

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About the Author

Andrea Crist began writing professionally in 2010. She specializes in craft and DIY articles for various websites. Crist completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts at Columbia College Chicago.