Buying a brand new pair of shoes is one of life’s greatest pleasures, and breaking them in is among its greatest pains. It’s no wonder, then, that a thriving ecosystem—made up of would-be leather whisperers, shockingly opinionated keyboard warriors, and plenty of fellas who seem more interested in feet than shoes—has emerged online to dole out advice to the blistered masses, some of it more sound than the rest. Perhaps you’ve seen the videos of your favorite TikTok star running over a new pair of Docs with a car. (Instant virality and broken-in shoes? Two birds, one stone.) Or perhaps you’ve heard whispers of a wild routine that involves stuffing your shoes with water balloons and stashing them in the freezer (next to your months-old raw denim, of course). These days, there’s no shortage of zany breaking-in methods floating around the web, so, with sore arches and raw heels, we went straight to the real experts to get the lowdown on what actually works. Don’t rev the engine of your janky Accord just yet—the process is way less involved than you might expect.
Breaking in your shoes starts before you even settle up at the cash register. Above all else, make sure you’re buying the right size. You shouldn’t feel any pain when you’re trying on new shoes, says Steve Taffel, owner of the NYC-based hard-bottom paradise Leffot. “They can be stiff or snug, but not painful.” Your leather shoes might not feel like a pair of Uggs fresh out of the box, but they shouldn’t feel uncomfortable, either. If you can avoid shopping online, go to the store in person and try on several sizes. (Start with the the size you think you need and then try on a half size larger and smaller, too.) You’d be surprised how often you need to go up or down a whole size, sometimes even more.
Once you’ve zeroed in on the right size, the real process begins. Here’s the bad news: turns out, the best way to break in leather shoes is to…wear them. Yes, it really is that simple. Remember that dubious-sounding advice you read online years ago, about only wearing your shoes every other day to allow them to breathe and dry out? That’s true—and it’s particularly relevant when it comes to new kicks, when the leather is most stiff, allowing your tender feet crucial time to recover. How long will it take until they break in? Well, that depends. It usually comes down to how stiff the leather is to begin with, and the construction of the shoe itself. But here’s the good news: you can expedite the process, and ease the pain along the way, with the help of a few simple tricks—and a handful of inexpensive products.
The oils and tannins pumped into leather make it stiff and durable, but “wear breaks up those oils and loosens the leather,” says Rory Fortune, owner of Goods and Services, a sneaker-savvy cobbling business. You can also accelerate that process with products like leather balm, which helps to moisturize your shoes, making them more pliable. Fortune often recommends Saphir, a popular brand among cobblers and self-professed shoe snobs. “Saphir cream really penetrates the leather, moistens it, conditions it, and softens it up,” he says. Fortune also recommends saddle soap, which cleans the leather and helps it stay moisturized and conditioned without drying it out. (Shoes: they’re just like us!)
You can also grab a shoe stretcher spray, which cobblers often use to stretch leather shoes to a larger size. (Simply spray your shoes and let the solution soak into the leather for a few minutes before putting them back on.) Whether he’s using leather balm or a spray, Fortune advises customers to apply the product in even coats all over the upper of the shoe rather than focusing on problem areas, a general rule of thumb he adheres to when using shoe products of any kind.
Let ‘Em Soak
Shoes are made by shaping leather to a mould known as a last, using heat, water, hammers, and nails; you could, theoretically, apply the same logic to break in your shoes at home. But if that feels a little too gung-ho, you could also soak them, a slightly trickier—but highly effective—way to break them in. Plop your kicks in water for a few minutes until they’ve absorbed the H20. Then take them out, pat them down with a clean towel, stuff them with shoe trees, and allow them to air dry. (Fortune emphasizes air drying over accelerating the process with, say, a hair dryer, to avoid overdrying the leather.) Before they fully dry, put them on and wear them out. One important caveat: over-soaking your shoes can cause them to dry out and become even more stiff, so make sure you moisturize them with a balm—yes, really—right after soaking.
A common complaint when it comes to breaking in shoes has to do with the heel counter, the area at the collar of the shoe that nudges up against your Achilles heel. In lieu of constantly swapping out Band-Aids, Taffel recommends an old-school method. Start by placing your shoes on the edge of a solid table or desk so that the corner of the table is inside the shoe. Cover the area you want to work on with a cloth or towel, and then use a rubber mallet (a hammer will also do, in a pinch) to pound the leather at the spot that’s causing irritation. For shoes that hit at the ankle bone, Taffel says, “try bending the leather top-line down to the outside with your thumb and work it until it starts to shape.”
And Finally: Be Patient
Leather shoes: For as long as cobblers have been making ‘em, fellas of a certain disposition have been grousing about ’em. (That might not be entirely accurate, historically speaking, but it feels true.) Our style-minded ancestors, so capable when it came to fashioning loincloths from palm tree fronds or whatever, somehow never got around to solving the most pressing fashion dilemma of their day: how on earth do you break these damn things in? Depending on the shoe and your pain tolerance, of course, the answer varies, but ultimately, it’s the same now as it was then—wear ’em and wait (and maybe keep a tub of leather balm and a bottle of shoe stretcher spray handy, too).
As for running over your Docs with a car? All Fortune has to say is: “Dude. Come on.”