What is a Spit Shine?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

A spit shine is a high-gloss shoeshine, typically applied to military boots. A soldier is sometimes judged by the quality of the spit shine on his or her boots. Ideally, a spit shine results in a surface so shiny it becomes reflective. Giving ones boots a perfect spit shine is an involved process that takes hours. Though there are "quick fixes" that approximate the look of a spit shine, those used to inspecting uniforms can easily spot the difference.

Cotton balls may be used with spit shine.
Cotton balls may be used with spit shine.

The basic elements of a spit shine are shoe polish and a moistened cloth. Regular Kiwi polish or a similar brand will do the job. Other implements, such as cotton balls, a stiff-bristled brush, or a soft-bristled brush, may be helpful for certain parts of the process.

A spit shine is a high-gloss shoeshine.
A spit shine is a high-gloss shoeshine.

The first step in a spit shine is to make sure both the boots and the hands are thoroughly cleaned. The trick to a perfect spit shine is being thorough and taking one's time in every step. Every part of the boots must be cleaned: the soles, the laces, the tongues, and so on. Any dirt, dust, or old polish left on the boot will prevent one from achieving a perfect spit shine. A toothbrush or stiff-bristled cleaning brush may be used in this step.

Next, a thick layer of polish is applied to the boot and carefully buffed. The usual method is to stretch a slightly worn, but clean, cotton cloth over the index finger, making sure it is perfectly smooth across the fingertip and moist, but not dripping. Some people prefer cotton balls to cloth, but under no circumstances should polyester be used. Again, thoroughness is key. After the thick base layer is applied, thinner layers of polish are built up on top of each other and buffed until a perfect shine emerges.

The spit shine takes its name from the moisture required on the buffing cloth. This moisture repels the wax based polish, making sure it adheres to the boot rather than the cloth. While some people do use spit, others use water or rubbing alcohol. Some advise against using spit, while others swear by it. In any case, do not use spit to shine your shoes if you are drinking beer or soda or have recently eaten.

During a spit shine, the polish will first look milky will noticeable swirls before the high gloss appears. Patience and elbow grease are required. Once enough layers of shoe polish have been applied and the boot is polished to a mirror-like finish, the job can be finished off in a number of ways, such as an all over final buffing with a soft cloth or brush.

Combat boots with a beautiful spit shine are often the result of years of careful treatment. Touch-ups need not be as thorough as the first application, but at times, the boots may need to be completely stripped of old polish and the process must begin fresh. If the old polish has a scratch or major damage in only one area, it can be melted and smoothed with mineral oil and new polish can be applied in its place. In the United States military tradition, combat boots are regularly stripped of old polish, while in the United Kingdom and Australia, it is traditional for soldiers to allow the polish to build up over time.

If the old polish has a scratch or major damage in only one area, it can be melted and smoothed with mineral oil and new polish can be applied in its place.
If the old polish has a scratch or major damage in only one area, it can be melted and smoothed with mineral oil and new polish can be applied in its place.
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments

Todd Cercone

Tips: I use an old white T-shirt that has been washed several times. (A great use for those T-shirts with holes under the arms.)

From the rubbing alcohol bottle, use a cap full of rubbing alcohol to the water that you are using.

Ice cold water works better.

If you see any more than tiny beads of water on your shoes, you are using too much water.

Cotton balls work O.K., but they will put small scratches in the shine.

If you are right handed, shine shoes with your left hand inside of the shoe, to tighten the leather. (Visa versa for lefties.)

Small circles are the key.

If you feel resistance while shining, you just need a dab of water. Good Luck!

Todd Cercone

To answer First Violin: Any leather shoes, without serious wrinkling can be "spit" shined. Most civilian shoes come with a thin layer of paraffin to keep the manufacturer's shine, and protect them from scratches. This must be stripped off. You can use alcohol and a toothbrush for this.

Once all of the protective layer is gone, you need to start a base coat. Generously add Kiwi polish (It's the best) and hit it with a hair dryer to get the wax into any creases or folds. Do not hold the hair dryer in one spot for more than two seconds or it will melt all of the wax off. Put the hair dryer away and never use it on the shoes again. This is for the first base coat only.

Add base and brush it off until you can no longer see the pores of the leather, then shine away.


How can I do a military spit shoe shine on a pair of normal boots?

Is this even possible, or do the boots have to be of a military style, i.e., is there a type of material that takes a military spit shine best, or can you do it on any type of boot?



I never knew that so much work went into making a spit shine. I guess that gives me a whole new respect for people spit shining their boots.

Besides what's listed in the article, do you have any more tips on how to spit shine shoes or boots?


I always wondered if they actually used spit when doing a spit shoe shine -- now I know.

Thanks for the information -- now I want to go try spit shining my shoes!

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