How to take care of your leather high heels (and fix stuck heel tips)

Life

I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that America is a culture of disposable things. Besides property and fine jewelry, we’re not encouraged to keep things for long. Broken? Replace it. Seen better days? Toss it. Ford regularly tries to persuade me to replace my five-year-old car. It makes me wonder what they must think about their products if they’re already trying to get me to upgrade.

Last year in the midst of the lockdown, YouTube decided I would be interested in videos about men with a passion for footwear. And it turned out YouTube was right. I sat mesmerized, soaking up 20-minute videos of elaborate leather care and shine techniques I had no idea existed. To me, shoe care was a $4 shine sponge from Walmart and hoping my heels survived the driveway rocks. We had a cobbler near our house growing up, but there isn’t one anywhere near where I live now, so when my shoes wear out I’ve always bought new ones. I didn’t know you could replace heel tips until 2020.

So I decided to document my newfound passion for shoe care. 

You can re-dye, re-stain, polish, and protect your leather heels AND replace the heel tips—at home

I experimented on my favorite 10-year-old Nine West heels. The leather wrapping the heels had torn off, revealing the plastic underneath. The inside was peeling, the leather dry and faded to gray in places. They were still comfortable but no longer appropriate for work. Joining those heels was a 15-year-old pair of Steve Madden heeled sandals (bad tips), a pair of black leather and cork kitten heels by Dollhouse (bad tips and peeling leather), and my Bandolino flats that tore the first week I owned them. The chewed-up undersides had earned them banishment to the back of the closet. 

The products I used:

  • Saphir Renovateur Cream
  • Saphir Creme Renovatrice in black (use this sparingly!)
  • Saphir Liquid Dye Teinture Francaise in black
  • Saphir Creme Polish in black
  • Saphir Pate de Luxe polish in black and neutral (for my non-black shoes)
  • Saddle soap
  • A mini horsehair brush
  • Replacement heel tips (I found mine on Amazon; not sure how they’ll hold up but we’ll see!)
  • Tile nipper (to remove the tips – more below)
  • Hammer (to pound in new tips)

I invested about $150 in shoe care products. The Saphir products will last me years (and clean my leather handbags too). I estimate I’ve already saved more than I spent since I don’t have to immediately replace my shoes. Yay!

Here’s the basic process I used: First, replace the heel tips. Next, if the leather is dirty, gently clean the shoes and allow them to dry. Dye faded leather as needed and allow the tincture to dry completely. Use Renovatrice to fix holes, scuffs, and peeling heels. Next comes polish and/or moisturizing cream, depending on the state of the leather. Let dry and gently polish. Stuff older heels with crumpled paper to help them keep their shape!

IMPORTANT: These products are not intended for suede or patent leather. And I wouldn’t recommend using any of this stuff on your super expensive heels unless you have a good handle on how to use them (or the heels are headed for the trash anyway). I tested Renovator on faux leather to see what happened. It seemed to improve the appearance but you can’t hydrate plastic. Those went in the trash.

How do you fix the chewed-up underside of ballet flats?

I still can’t believe this worked. With a Q-tip, I applied the Sapphir Creme Renovatrice to the underside of my destroyed Bandalino ballet flats (I hate these shoes, but I paid for them so…better take care of them). Here is the before and after:

Before and after: The Renovatrice sealed and re-colored the destroyed underside of these ballet flats

I was also able to pretty much fix the torn leather. If these were better constructed and weren’t paper-thin leather stretched over fabric, I would have been able to successfully glue this down. I’m hoping that repeat coats of the product will more permanently close the hole. But I’ll get a couple more years out of these now, so I won’t complain. 

I’ve actually worn these out many times since this fix, and the fix has held!

How do I remove a stuck heel tip from my high heels? And how do I put the new heel tip in?

I’m including this part since I spent an hour searching the internet and finally hitting on an idea thanks to a nice British man on YouTube!

Heel tip replacement videos will generally recommend you using a pair of needle-nose pliers, and if your heel tip is still in good condition, that might work. But if your heel tip has worn down to just the metal pin and you can’t get a grip on it with the needle nose pliers, you will need a tool that applies all of the pressure to a narrow area, allowing you to get a firm grip on the pin. 

I ended up using a pair of tile nippers, which are similar in build to a style of pliers I saw on YouTube, except that mine have a spring to keep them open. As long as you have a grip on them, they work like pliers. The pin on my Nine West heels hardly extended out of the heel, making it impossible to grip with needle-nose pliers. I thought I’d have to throw out the heels (no cobblers nearby) until I thought to try this other tool. 

Using the nippers, I had the pin out of both shoes in under one minute. I had failed for two hours (and several episodes of House of Cards) to get the pins out with needle-nose pliers. I ended up with severe blisters I had to cover in Band-Aids for a week. 

Don’t be like me. Start with the better tool. I got my tile nippers at Michael’s craft store for probably $10. They’re metal with rubber handles, and you’ll find them in the mosaic tile section. I imagine a similar style of pliers is probably available at the hardware store. 

Once you get a grip on the pin, twist very very gently. You don’t want to rotate the pin and break the shoe, just get it to start moving. When you’re certain you have it,  pull straight out to remove the pin. I held the shoe between my knees and use both hands to pull up. 

When pounding in the new heel tip, you want to be sure not to damage the toe of your shoe. I fit my heel over a 3 lb dumbbell standing on its end, putting the other end roughly where the ball of the foot would go. That kept the shoe off of the floor but gave me something hard to pound again. Be careful not to pound too hard and break the shoe! A few good taps should be all you need. A smaller hammer would probably be smart, but I only have the kind you use for your wall.

Heel tips will list two sizes: the size of the tip itself and the width of the pin. I had no idea what size pin my shoes needed and couldn’t find the information online, so I bought a set that included both the thinner and wider versions. My Nine West, Dollhouse, and Steve Madden all took the larger 3mm pin.

How can I repair peeling or missing leather on my heels?

Saphir’s Creme Renovatrice: My miracle worker

If you still have the pieces of peeling leather, you may be able to push them down and get them to reattach with Saphir Renovatrice. On mine, the leather had completely fallen away, leaving me with exposed plastic, but I used Renovatrice to paint in the missing sections. I did not build it up enough to create a totally even look. If you want your heels to look perfectly even and brand new, you’ll need to do more work than I did. I was simply interested in getting an even color and seeing if it was possible to salvage the shoes.

I would recommend wearing gloves and squeezing extremely gently. The metal tube makes it easy for a lot of the stuff to glop out. Don’t apply it directly to your shoes! You could get a big glob and it could stain. I used a Q-tip to get out little amounts or dispensed it onto my (gloved) finger.

Okay, so we can fix our shoes. What about faded black leather gloves?

SUCCESS! These are my favorite leather gloves that I’ve owned since high school, more than 20 years. They have spent the night in my driveway, gone swimming in the Lowe’s parking lot, and been all sorts of abused. The fingertips had faded to gray, and the leather looked thirsty. They were still warm so I wore them in the winter, but I tended to keep them at home if I was going somewhere nice.

I dabbed on Saphir’s teinture to re-dye them black, then let them dry for an hour. Then I applied Renovateur and let it sink in overnight. The next day, the leather was supple and the gloves looked like they did when they were new. 

Only use the teinture in a very well ventilated area and make sure you wear gloves to protect your hands. I worked outside and kept the dogs away from the product. I imagine you can follow the same process with other colors of leather. Saphir has a whole line, but I’ve only tried black. 

So…what was the YouTube channel?

The Elegant Oxford. Preston also has an online store, which is where I was able to buy my shoe care products (he offered free shipping that day, too)! Preston, you will probably never see this, but thanks for the information and for saving my shoes. 

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