Work boots are built tough enough to handle hard use and frequent exposure to mud, dirt, stains, and spills.
But even the best boots will quickly begin to show wear and tear if you don’t give them the proper care and maintenance.
The fact that your work boots are exposed to all those potentially damaging particles means they’ll require more care and maintenance than casual or dress boots. In a perfect world, you’ll want to clean your leather work boots at least once every 1-2 months to give them the best chance at a long, productive life.
Follow the steps below, and your boots will come out the other side sparkling clean and well-protected against future damage.
What You’ll Need to Clean Work Boots
- Shoe brush (I recommend horsehair)
- Dauber brush
- Soap and water (or saddle soap)
- Leather conditioner
- Microfiber cloth
- Boot powder, spray, or baking soda
How to Clean Work Boots: Step-by-Step Instructions
Step 1: Remove the Laces (and Wash Separately)
While you can clean your work boots with the laces still on, removing them allows you to clean the tongue and get at the insides of the boot more easily.
Plus, you can give the laces the care and attention necessary to extend their lifespan.
Before you clean the boots, set the laces to soak in a solution made of a quart of water and a tablespoon of dish soap. Soak the laces until you’re done cleaning the boots, then scrub them off and leave them to dry alongside the boots.
Step 2: Dry Brush with a Stiff Brush to Remove Dirt
Grab yourself a shoe brush and get scrubbing (gently). The idea is to get as much of the dirt, mud, sand, and debris off the leather as you can.
Pay particular attention to the welds and seams. They are the “vulnerable spots” that tend to accumulate particles and debris, and will be more likely to break from repeated friction over time.
Get inside all of the nooks, crannies, and cracks in the boots, both on the upper and the outsole. With the laces removed, it’ll be much easier to clean around the tongue.
You don’t have to worry about getting the boots fully clean. Just focus on removing any big clumps of mud or dirt or very visible sand or dust particles.
Step 3: Rinse the Boot
Note: This step is only applicable if your boots are waterproof.
Leather work boots without a waterproof coating may be damaged if they are exposed to water. You could accelerate the natural deterioration process or weaken the leather.
I repeat, only wash waterproof boots.
Slide your hand inside the boot and get a grip on it from within.
Place the toe of the boot under running water (or dip it into a basin) and use your scrubber to gently scrub off any visible mud, dirt, dust, or particles.
Once the toe is clean, turn it around to let the water run over the heel and scrub the back of the boots.
Give the shaft, sides, and tongue of the boots a scrub, too.
Step 4: Apply Mild Detergent or Saddle Soap
When it comes time to soap up your boots, you’ve got two options:
A) A mild detergent or dish soap. Typically, any generic brand will do. Just make sure it’s a gentler product, without any very harsh chemicals.
B) Saddle soap. Saddle soap is formulated specifically for cleaning leather (saddles, hence the name, but it’ll also work for boots). It combines ingredients like beeswax, soap, water, and neatsfoot oil.
If you’re going the detergent/dish soap route, simply apply a small amount on the sink (NOT onto the boots) and dip your scrub brush in to get some on the bristles. From there, get scrubbing gently to remove any and all dirt, mud, and oil stains.
Using saddle soap is slightly more involved, but the end result is well worth it. Watch our video below for the full step-by-step process:
Step 5: Clean The Outer Thoroughly
With soap on a dauber brush or scrub brush, work first on the heel, sides, and toes to make sure they’re clean.
Once these easy-to-reach parts are scrubbed, work on the shaft and tongue next. With the laces removed, it’s easy to get into the nooks and crannies around the tongue. You can use a toothbrush to really get at those cracks and get out any sand, dirt, or grit.
Soap up the eyeholes and speed hooks and give them a good scrub for good measure.
Move on to the seams next, using both the scrub brush and a toothbrush to get out as much of the dirt, grime, and mud as you can. Any particles left in the seams may cause friction and wear down the threads, so it’s worth investing a bit more time and effort into cleaning them out to lengthen the lifespan of your boots.
Finally, give the outsoles a good scrub with soap and water.
You don’t have to be too particular about scrubbing around the lugs. Still, it’s a good idea to give the outsoles a good clean just to eliminate any oil or dirt that could compromise traction or accelerate the breakdown of the rubber.
Step 6: Clean Inside The Boot
Typically, the interior of work boots will be a synthetic fabric or mesh lining that isn’t fully waterproof. This means you can’t hit it with water like you did the outside.
Instead, make up a solution of 2 cups of water with a tiny dime-sized amount of dish soap. Dip a clean rag into the solution and wring it out really well so the rag is damp, not wet.
Take that damp rag and use it to wipe out the inside of the boot.
You won’t clean away all of the dust, dirt, debris, and sweat stains with just a single wipe-down, but the end result will still be a cleaner boot.
Step 7: Allow The Boots To Dry Completely
Your leather boots need time to dry off thoroughly after your wash. If not fully dry, the conditioner won’t soak in.
I recommend washing your boots in the afternoon or evening, then letting them dry overnight. Typically, Friday or Saturday nights are best for this because you can take your time the next morning and really give them the proper love and attention they deserve.
Step 8: Apply Leather Conditioner
Leather conditioner is my go-to for treating my work boots, because it’s the most inexpensive solution around.
However, you could use mink oil, which adds waterproofing, but darkens the leather.
Or, if you really want to lavish some love on your hard-working boots, you can use a Venetian shoe cream, a higher-end and higher-priced solution that’ll make the leather very soft and supple.
I recommend the Blackrock Leather ‘N’ Rich because it’s an economical choice, it doesn’t alter the color of the leather, nor does it clog up the pores of your leather. It won’t bring old leather back from the dead, but it can keep relatively fresh leather looking fantastic for years and adds a bit of waterproofing too.
Now that your boots are fully dry, it’s time to apply the conditioner.
Leather conditioner is designed for one simple purpose: to restore the protective oils and waxes that you’ve washed off using detergent or saddle soap.
The conditioning ingredients (typically oils like lanolin or mink oil) will absorb into the leather and create a layer that keeps out water and prevents dryness, stretching, and cracking.
Squeeze a dime-to-quarter-sized amount of leather conditioner onto your hand and slide your other hand inside your now-clean boot, gripping it from the inside.
Use your fingers and palm to apply the leather conditioner all over the boot. That small amount should suffice to cover the entire boot.
Pay extra attention to the seams and threading to ensure they absorb plenty of oil. Really take your time to spread the leather conditioner around so every exposed inch of leather is properly moistened.
Give the conditioner a few minutes to dry and absorb into the leather.
Use a horsehair brush to brush the conditioned leather, similar to how you’d do after applying shoe polish. This will buff up the boots, encouraging the leather to absorb the conditioner while also removing any excess. As a bonus, it’ll add a gorgeous shine to the leather, too.
After testing 10 of the most popular leather conditioners, Venetian came out as my top pick because it nourishes leather, doesn't change the color, and actually adds a decent amount of weather resistance as well.
Step 9: Re-lace Your Boots, and Go!
With your boots freshly cleaned and conditioned, it’s time to re-insert the laces, slide them onto your feet, and head out the door for another day on the job.
Time Spent Cleaning is Never Wasted
The entire cleaning process I shared above will take you a grand total of 15 to 20 minutes per pair. Not a huge investment of time, but the effort will be absolutely essential for extending your boots’ lifespan.
Frequent exposure to mud, dirt, dust, sand, grime, snow, and ice-melt (which often contains salt, here in British Columbia) can damage the leather and accelerate the breakdown of even hardy, waterproof work boots.
Cleaning the boots will prevent those particles from speeding up the leather’s deterioration, and applying a leather conditioner provides an additional protective layer to shield the boots from damage.
You’ll not only walk with the confidence that your boots will last longer, but they’ll look handsome for longer, too. Form and function combined in the best way possible!
Can you wash work boots in the washing machine?
Leather doesn’t handle prolonged submersion/soaking in the washing machine well. Even just a short wash cycle (which still runs for 15 to 20 minutes) can damage leather boots and speed up their breakdown.
However, if your boots are fully synthetic (made from materials such as polyester, nylon, etc.) without any leather (including synthetic leather), there’s no reason they can’t go through the washing machine and come out the other side undamaged.
Why should you clean work boots?
I’m a proponent of “look good, feel good,” even on the job. However, cleaning work boots isn’t just about the look. It also extends the boots’ lifespan and cleans away oil, grime, salt, mud, sand, stains, and particles that will damage them and cause them to wear out or break down more quickly.
How often should you clean leather boots?
Mid-to-high-end leather boots—particularly dress boots and casual boots—are typically made with lower-weight leather that isn’t as resilient to damage and thus needs cleaning more often. You should aim to clean your nicer leather boots every three or four months, depending on use.
Leather work boots are usually built with a higher-weight leather (eight to twelve-ounce) that can withstand a lot more wear and tear, but are exposed to more damage, friction, scuffs, scrapes, and particles. You’re better off cleaning leather work boots every one to two months.