Experiment: Waterproofing Leather Boots with Wax

January 10, 2008

What: Experiment – Waterproofing old, worn, leather boots with leftover candle wax. Please note: This was not an unmitigated success. Read about the results at the bottom of this entry, or click the thumbnail just below to see before & after pictures.

Boots - Before & After

Why: I’ve found that biking (and walking, of course) in leather boots keeps my feet a lot dryer than sneakers, plus, they look better with regular street clothes when I get to my destination. Luckily, I already have the perfect thing for the job — a pair of 22 year-old army boots, which I’ve had so long that my feet are a full size larger now. I bought them brand new from a PX and have more than gotten my money’s worth. They’ve been resoled twice but never once been polished; I like the broken-in look. Unfortunately that also makes them especally susceptible to water damage.

I haven’t actually worn these particular boots in years now. The leather had become too squeaky; the soles were not tall enough to avoid Portland’s puddles; and though well stretched out, they were, after all, the wrong size. However, my regular boots didn’t fit well in my bike’s toe cage; so I decided to resuscitate these old things. They’ve still got a lot of life left in ’em… and to think I almost threw them out last summer!

Considerations: I studied up on waterproofing leather. Most of the info out there is produced by manufacturers, but I found a very informative page on Boot Care at American Scouting Digest. The gist of the matter is that oils are bad and waxes are good. (Silicone is so-so.)

Oils:

    Oils clog the leather’s pores which reduces breathability.
    Oils will eventually soak through to your socks, causing stains.
    Animal fats go rancid and deteriorate leather.
    Oils soften leather eventually causing heel and toe box collapse

Waxes:

    Wax is a non-absorbing surface treatment and will not soak through.
    Wax will not clog the leather’s pores. It remains fully breathable.
    Wax does not affect the breathability of Gore-tex components.
    Wax does not soften leather.

The one real drawback to wax is that it must be reapplied from time to time.

Beeswax is the ne plus ultra of leather conditioners. It has a very high melting point, which resists body heat better. Parrafin wax, on the other hand, has a slightly lower melting point (though it varies), but is more readily available. It’s what ordinary candles are made of; so if you have some melted candle wax bits, you already own a good leather conditioner.

What I Did:
1. First, I made sure the boots were clean and dry. Every little patch of dust I missed made the wax crackle and pill into a white mess.
2. I simply melted a chunk of candle (parrafin) wax (could use or beeswax) in an old pan. It was pretty fast and began to smoke quickly; so be careful to remove the pan from the heat before everything is completely melted.
3. I placed the boots themselves in a warm oven that had been pre-heated to the lowest possible temperature and then turned off. I left them in only very briefly. Please note: Some shoe glues will come loose in even low heat. Be sure to just warm up the surface!
4. After removing a boot from the oven, I dabbed wax onto the leather surface with a cloth. When it had cooled, I buffed off the excess with something abrasive. Cloth is not very effective, but a kitchen scrubber or steel wool works better. Ultimately, you’ll be using your thumbnail a lot to get larger chunks.

Done!

Boots - Before & After

Results: Mixed. While application was quick & easy and the boots do indeed seem quite waterproof, they also have a rather waxy looking finish. There’s lots of white crackling and flaky bits. Also, my efforts to remove excess wax for aesthetic reasons were a pain — very difficult and time consuming. Polishing the boots might actually make a difference here. According to what I’ve read, polishes contain wax; so this treatment will not affect results.

If there’s anything to add at a later date as to how the treatment stood up to the elements, I’ll be sure to leave a comment.