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Cleaning suede or nubuck shoes – what I’ve learnt

Etnies Ronin skate shoes (angle profile)
How a boxfresh Ronin should look…

[December 2010 – it’s snowy out there! Suede and nubuck HATES snow, and rock salt to boot (natch). So, protect your shoes BEFORE you destroy them! Get some suede or nubuck protector spray, I mention some later in the article, and give your shoes a good treating before you step out! My shoes are still great, and I last protected them almost a year ago. £5 and half an hour will make a big difference.]

I recently went out in some brand new trainers (a pair of Etnies Ronin skate shoes, which are black and white suede/synthetic material mixture with a white trim round the sole). Unsurprisingly, it rained on Saturday evening, and when I came back my shoes were DESTROYED.

Unfortunately, mine weren’t quite caked, but were fairly smattered in nasty looking mud. But what to do? Well, after some careful research (and even more careful testing), here’s some tips for cleaning these kinds of skate shoes.

Shoes like the Ronins aren’t all suede – they have what Etnies describe as an “action leather upper” combined with synthetic, woven sections (for example, the material around the E motif on the side of the shoe is a different fabric). However, in my case, the whole lot was just smothered with nasty, gunky mud.

So, what to do?


 

Well, first thing’s first – DON’T TRY TO CLEAN THE SHOES WHILST THEY’RE STILL WET! All you’ll do is rub the dirt right into the fibres, ruining them pretty much forever (or until you get them professionally cleaned which could cost a lot). Resisting the temptation to grab the scrubbing brush, put them in a warm place overnight and let the mud dry completely.

Before you start to remove the mud, you’ll need a couple of things:

  • A suede brush (they come in all shapes and sizes; a photo of one hereI bought mine from Timpson’s)
  • A suede eraser/cleaning block (or a soft white pencil eraser like a Staedtler if you can’t find a suede eraser – again, I got one from my local Timpson’s)
  • A small dish/bucket/container, into which you’ll put a mix of warm tap water and a small amount of bleach or clear vinegar (not brown malt vinegar!)
    • Optionally, something like the soapbar-shaped Vanish stain remover bar (which I used)
  • A small plastic-bristled scrubbing brush and/or J-cloth/dishcloth (I just used a J-cloth)
  • Some paper tissues / absorbent towels or cloths
  • Some spray-on suede/leather/nubuck protector (Kiwi and Punch make this stuff, along with loads of shoe shops’ own brands – I ended up finding some in Asda)

Start by using the suede brush to rub off most of the heavy soiling – you’ll be surprised, as long as you brush with the nap of the fibre, just how much comes off once the mud’s dried. The suede is also more resilient than you’d think – of course, having coloured or very light suede/nubuck shoes will affect the end result slightly as you may have some more permanent discolouration, but my black shoes looked almost spotless after this first brushing.

I ended up starting off gently, then slowly increasing pressure and speed as I got most of the mud off. To continue, I used the suede eraser – it’s quite hard and crumbles easily, taking the dirt with it, so I used that to crack off the more stubborn mud flakes and remove some of the smaller stains and marks.

I grabbed the Vanish stain remover bar (it looks like a bar of soap, but you can rub it onto problem stains), daubing it where necessary for the more heavily soiled areas – of which there were, fortunately, not many. Once that was done, I got some water/bleach mixture onto the J-cloth and used it to thoroughly wash the shoes’ outer fabric – NOT completely soaking the shoes or utterly drenching the fabric as that’s really bad for it. Being methodical is the key here, and then take the time to then go round the shoes with the paper towels and dab off the excess liquid. Repeat for the other shoe, then leave to dry overnight.

Once completely dry, give your shoes a good spray treatment with the protector – this will help to stop moisture ingress and keep your suede/nubuck/leather looking newer for longer! If you have coloured material be sure to test on a discreet area first, juuuuust in case it adversely affects the dye of the material). Some protectors state that the colour of your shoes may darken slightly after application – sometimes it’s just unavoidable, but it’s for the best in the long run. After the shoes have dried, use the suede brush to bring up the pile of the fibre again to restore some of its natural look. Finally, enjoy your newly-restored shoes again – without having to resort to professional shoe cleaning services!

However if you do need professional suede/nubuck cleaning, a professional shoemakers like James Taylor and Son in London look like a promising place to begin your search. (Watch their VideoJug feature on cleaning suede shoes – recommended viewing for all suede shoe owners regardless)

So, at all costs:

  • avoid washing your shoes straight away, avoid putting your shoes in the washing machine (AWFUL for both the shoes and the washing machine)
  • avoid using suede/nubuck cleaner as some people report that it actually spoils the fabric completely
  • don’t leave your shoes wet after cleaning them yourself and
  • don’t forget to BUY A MORE APPROPRIATE PAIR OF SHOES FOR MUDDY WEATHER!

I learnt that the hard way so you don’t have to (fortunately my shoes are as good as new now). Given all this snowy weather we’re having, the amount of mud/snow/grit you’ll be getting on your shoes is certainly not good for brand new suede or nubuck, so it pays to protect your footwear before you head out the door 🙂

27 Comments

  1. Christina says:

    Recently bought nubuck boots and went out in snow without having waterproofed them first.Next day they were slightly covered in snow marks.Any ideas how to remove them as i can’t find anything in shops to do the trick.PLEASE HELP 🙂

  2. Christopher says:

    It sounds like you’ve been unlucky enough to have the double whammy – water AND rock salt, if you’ve been walking through streets where they’ve put salt down to help break the ice up.

    In terms of stain removal, it should be fairly similar to cleaning mud – a very gentle mix of water and vinegar/bleach, although be aware of course that your shoes will probably lose a tiny bit of their dye from this.

    Alternatively there are some shop-bought solutions; there’s a product called Saphir Winter Stain Remover which can apparently handle salt, stain and perspiration from leather, nubuck and suede – it’s about €8 plus shipping (a French site, Valmour.com, has it here for €7.58): http://bit.ly/7hjRNB

    What colour are your shoes? Different techniques might work depending on their colour / makeup / age etc.

  3. wendy bannatyne says:

    my wife accidently sprayed cream leather seat with punch suede cleaner any ideas how to remove thanx and what to use?

    1. Christopher says:

      Hi Stephen

      What’s happened to the leather – has it discoloured or has it just dried out? (I’ve never tried what your wife’s done!)

      Your best bet might be to speak to an expert professional cobbler about this 🙂

  4. Dear Christopher,

    I have red Etnies (Fader is the sub-brand name) which I made the mistake of wearing on a rather long trek through a rather harsh storm over here in the States. They were *gasp* not protected in any way prior to doing this… against my better judgment.

    Thankfully I got them at a very low closeout sale price wherein they just happened to have my size, so even if they’re a loss it’s not that big of a deal.

    Anyway, they are mostly clean aside from the salt-stains on them, and I was wondering if you have any thoughts on how I could remove said stains using what’s available to me over here? I thought about trying your vinegar/water combo, but I figured I would ask first if you thought this would be a good idea.

    Do note as I mentioned before, I’m in the U.S. and would rather not have to pay to import some kind of specialized cleaner, and because I didn’t pay a whole lot for the shoes I don’t mind if the suede takes a little bit of damage in the process of removing the salt stains. (The dye fade you mentioned also occurred a bit, onto my socks and feet after said trek… oh well. 🙂 )

    Thanks for the help!

    Franklin Benjamin Richards

    1. Christopher says:

      Getting rid of salt marks from suede / leather / nubuck is a doozie of a problem. Fortunately I’ve not had that problem with my shoes – yet – but you could perhaps try this:

      Mix a little detergent (like Fairy / Dawn) in some cold water, not too much as it will leave its own residue.
      Dip a soft cloth / J-cloth / thick tissue paper in it and gently blot / dab over the stained areas.

      DO NOT SCRUB as this’ll take the dye out of the shoes along with the salt marks 🙂

      Let the shoes air dry afterwards, and if the marks are still there repeat the process. Use a suede brush to gently lift the nap of the fabric up again (if you want to). Then, spray with some suede & nubuck protector 😉 Use white vinegar at your own risk, I’ve heard of some people having problems with a vinegar/water mix where the dye fades afterwards.

      Let me know what you decide on doing and whether it works or not, I’m interested to know how you get on! If you’re not sure, SPOT TEST on a less obvious area before you do the whole shoe. Nothing worse than spending an hour cleaning shoes only to find you’ve irreparably damaged them!

  5. Kerry says:

    help I cleaned my son’s mouldy skate shoes with vinegar (sprayed on and scrubbed with a toothbrush) now guess what? they smell like vinegar!!! he is going to the UK in 2 days and would prefer if his shoes don’t smell like vinegar (he doesn’t know yet)
    ever helpful mum
    Kerry

    1. Christopher says:

      Hi Kerry, just throwing more stuff at them won’t necessarily work. You could try the following:

      • Leaving them outside in the sun (UV breaks down odour molecules)
      • Washing them gently with an amount of baking soda – YMMV on this one
      • Hand-wash the shoes with a little of your regular detergent, then add a little fabric softener, which may help break down the odour

      I would give the outside-in-the-sun method a try for 24 hours, then the fabric softener or baking soda method. I’m not too keen on getting caustic bicarb near to skate shoes though 🙂

  6. Philip says:

    Excellent post. I am experiencing some of these issues as well..

  7. Samina says:

    Christopher,

    Thank you!!! Your cleaning method worked like a charm on my grandson’s nubuck boots that had sat dirty for almost 6 months. I did what you said and instantly the stains were removed. I just knew I was going to have to throw them out… but now, he’s set for another season and they really look new. Thank you soooo much!

    1. Christopher says:

      Glad to know it helped. 🙂

  8. Mary says:

    I have some very nice cranberry suede pumps that have black, dirty blotches in certain areas. What can I do to get rid if these blotches?

    1. Christopher says:

      Hi Mary, sorry I didn’t see your comment sooner — did you figure out a good solution? I’d usually try my own setup first, depends of course what the blotches are from. (Mud? Oil? Food? Mould?) Try with a diluted version of what I went with, first testing on an inconspicuous area, then give it a crack if it doesn’t decay the colour.

      I did the same thing with bright blue shoes without affecting the dye so you may have some luck. Trick is retaining the nap of the fabric, be gentle with the brush.

  9. Daren Otis says:

    what a great web site! I am in Michigan USA. Isn’t it amazing that i can learn fomr someone thousands of miles away. Your answers are really helpful. thanks so much for creating this web site.

    1. Christopher says:

      I’m just happy that the random things I document are of use to other people. 🙂 Isn’t the Internet marvellous!

  10. Sinval Pereira says:

    Hello, I have a pair of synthetic nubuck (vegan) shoes. May I use the same chemical products to clean/waterproof them as if they were average nubuck made? Greetings from Brazil!

    1. Christopher says:

      What’s the actual material, do you know? Is it some kind of nylon or composite?

      1. Sinval Pereira says:

        I’m really not sure. Indications only say it is synthetic nubuck (and it really looks like average nubuck). It’s a Vans Rowley Pro (http://shop.vans.com/catalog/Vans/en_US/style/sdq.html#pr-header-SDQ).

        1. Christopher says:

          Nice shoes. 😀 and synthetic nubuck appears to be cotton or a hemp underlayer — the Rowley Pros may be vulcanised rubber on top. I’d try this method first:

          Spot clean with upholstery shampoo, foam from a mild detergent, or mild dry cleaning solvent

          (from http://westcorkcleaningservices.wordpress.com/2013/03/04/cleaning-synthetic-nubuck-microsuede/). What I’d probably do is use a little warm water and some fabric shampoo and test an area like the tongue or the ‘instep’ side of the shoe, give it a couple of hours to dry after you test. The red dye may lighten a little bit, it’s almost impossible to know how much though, it depends exactly what material the uppers are made from.

          I would even start off with a little plain soap and very warm water in a weak mixture (not boiling hot) — DO NOT get them soaking wet, just use a small towel or gentle cleaning cloth which is damp with the soapy water.

          Perhaps Vans have a method they recommend for the best results, have you tried asking them on Facebook or Twitter?

          1. Sinval Pereira says:

            I sent the same question to the customer service and they hit me back as follows:
            “To keep your new Vans product looking its best, we have three official Vans cleaning products. Each is specialized for cleaning and protection. Here’s the lineup:

            1) Vans Shoe Eraser – Cleans suede, nubucks, and fabrics of dirt, lint, hair, etc. Inside the self-contained storage box, you’ll find a bar that you can use like an eraser and a sponge to remove surface dirt.
            2) Vans Leather Cleaner – For use on suede, nubuck, canvas and rough-out type items (do NOT use on smooth leathers). This product comes complete with a “brush-cap” to assist with gently loosening and removing soil.
            3) Vans Water & Stain Shield – This product is best used to treat your clean, dry surfaces (do NOT use on patent leather or vinyl). When properly applied, this will provide a barrier against soil and moisture. Excellent for leather, suede, nubuck, cotton, canvas, nylon, polyester & similar materials.

            You can find these handy products in a Vans company-owned retail store. You can locate your local Vans store by clicking here:
            http://www.vans.com/dealers/

            Problem is I didn’t find those products cited. But you helped me a lot better. Thanks for the tips though!

          2. Christopher says:

            Ah, it sounds like they also sell suede erasers for their synthetic products. I have one which I use on my shoes. 🙂 Please let me know how you do, I’ll include your information as another solution for people with vegan shoes and link to you if you want!

        2. Sinval Pereira says:

          Firstly I don’t think they sell products specially for vegan shoes, it reads they (the vans cleaning products) are “excellent for leather, suede, nubuck, cotton, canvas, nylon, polyester & similar materials.”; secondly, technically Rowley Pros aren’t vegan shoes (http://vegankicks.com/2013/01/vansgeoff-rowley-pro-reissue/), although made from synthetic materials (I think there’s a problem with the glue or something like that). You can use the link to find a vans retail store in the UK and try to find the kit, I didn’t find it, not even on internet. Sorry ’bout that, bro.

  11. Bernie says:

    Please help my husband has sprayed his grey suede Adidas gazelle trainer with black suede and nubuck restorer by mistake any ideas how to remove it he didn’t check the can first.

    1. Christopher says:

      Not sure on this one. Suede’s so absorbent you might have to get a bit drastic.

      One or more of the following may work:

      Toothpaste will often work to dislodge problem stuff because it’s a gentle abrasive. You may be lucky in that the base colour of the shoes is hopefully fairly dark, so the staining may not be quite as obvious.

      Don’t over-wet the shoes. Blot as you go with kitchen towel or an old towel and avoid massively saturating the fabric for long periods of time, it’ll change their shape.

      Good luck!

      1. Bernie says:

        @Christopher: t@Christopher: Thank you Christopher for your advice the acetone nail remover with a toothbrush worked a treat, the trainers are nearly back to new.

        1. Christopher says:

          Awesome! I previously sprayed my shoes with Timpsons Instant Protector when I get them in a bid to provide some splash and stain protection, but my can just ran out.

          There’s loads of these products available online and I’ve just noticed a YouTube comparison of four products, time to go shopping again.

  12. Ken says:

    Some good suede care ideas on here. Seems the hottest tips are read the label before using the spray. Try not to wear suede in the rain/snow.
    Comment on solvents – in general isopropyl alcohol (IPA) is a good choice of solvent cleaner. It’s about the only one that doesn’t attack other materials around that might be found on shoes/trainers. Gentle use of White vinegar using soft cloth, just damp, and dabbing affected area works.
    Steam cleaning is often a good move. Never over saturate, hanging suede in a steamy bathroom if you don’t have a steam cleaner can be just as effective.
    For grease/oil marks, cover affected area with corn flour (maize flour) and leave overnight Stain will be attracted to the flour.
    Always clean the whole garment/shoe to prevent the cleaning marks showing.
    Using liquids, whether water, white vinegar or propietary products, barely damp will always beat wet on suede.
    Best tip for new suede, before wearing and looking good, give the suede some suede protector. Then hopefully the need to clean will not arise or will at least not become a crisis.

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