How the Heck Do I Take Care of Chromexcel Leather?

These days, it seems like every other boot on the market is made from Chromexcel® leather. It’s on everything from mid-range boots like the Wolverine 1000 Mile and the Allen Edmonds Higgins Mill to $600+ boots like the Alden Indy 403 and the brown Viberg Service boot.

Low-end, mid-range, and high-end boot companies alike are sold on Chromexcel. What the heck makes it so special?

What Is Full Grain Leather?

First off, it’s a full grain leather. Full grain is widely considered the best leather for boots that you’re planning to wear off of your office carpet. It comes from the top layer of the hide of the animal and it’s not only super durable, it ages beautifully. If you like that nice patina, you want to get full grain leather.

It’s often compared to top grain leather, which has the top layer sanded away. It’s more uniform in color, sure, but it’s less durable and again, you won’t get that patina. Full grain is imperfect, just like us. It’s not always consistent in color and sometimes you may even find a scratch on the skin that the animal endured, but that’s why people like it. It’s real, and as it ages and contours to the shape of your foot, it becomes more you.

Alden Indy 403 boot side

What Is Chromexcel Leather?

Chromexcel is the brainchild of the Horween Leather Company, a beloved American tannery that was founded in Chicago all the way back in 1905. It’s had an interesting history (it was used on engine seals in tanks during World War 2) and it’s known for its rich depth of color.

So why is it such a big deal? The unusual method of processing the leather. It’s not chrome-tanned as the name might suggest, it’s a combination tanned leather that has been processed largely the same way since its 1913 birth. (We say ‘largely’ because a couple of controversial ingredients, like whale oil, have been swapped out.)

According to Horween, Chromexcel (or CXL) undergoes “at least 89 separate processes taking 28 working days and utilizing all five floors of (their) facility.” You can read about the lengthy processing from skin to CXL on their site but the long and short of it is that the leather gets imbued with an enormous variety of oils, greases, and waxes, including food-grade beef tallow and cosmetic-grade beeswax. They call this “hot stuffing” and it’s responsible for the leather’s “pull-up” quality, meaning that when you give the leather a good firm rub you can see the oils and waxes moving around the leather itself.

All of these fatty, waxy ingredients give Chromexcel its famous lustre and depth that make it look pretty fantastic on a boot, particularly as it ages.

Wolverine 1000 Mile steps

How to Care for Chromexcel

First, you want a good horsehair brush. Brushing vigorously — and you want to brush it vigorously — not only helps to remove dirt but it also heats up the leather, moving around the oils and helping to remedy scratches and scrapes. Chromexcel scratches pretty easily, but the “pull-up” nature of the leather means they can be buffed out pretty easily as well.

If you’re planning to condition the boot, you can feel comfortable putting a dab of saddle soap on the brush when you’re dusting them off. (You might want to restrict using saddle soap to the times when you’re planning to condition the boots afterward, since saddle soap is a little alkaline.)

What about oils and waxes?

Here’s where Chromexcel’s popularity gets troublesome. Because so many companies use it on their boots, there’s a tremendous variety of “official” opinions from boot manufacturers about the right way to care for it as it ages. Everyone wants that beautiful patina, so how do you make sure your boots look their best after a few years?

Wolverine says you should use their leather conditioner. Allen Edmonds recommends their leather conditioner. Who should you listen to?

I figured the best person to listen to would be Nick Horween, who makes the Chromexcel at Horween Leather Company. He has three recommendations.

Allen Edmonds Higgins Mill bench

Products for Chromexcel

Before it leaves the factory, CXL is coated in neatsfoot oil, which is made from the rendered shin and feet bones of cattle. Horween says that’s usually his go to recommendation, which is why one of his favorite products is:

Saphir Greasy Leather Cream

This is a neutral-colored shoe restorer that’s neatsfoot oil and jojoba oil-based.

Saphir Renovateur

Renovateur is pigment-free and mink oil-based. It’ll produce more of a shine on the Chromexcel, if that’s what you’re after.

Venetian Shoe Cream

Actually made in Chicago, this is one of the most popular creams for conditioning leather and is great for keeping it moist and flexible. One downside is that the company is pretty cagey about the ingredients, but I do know it contains a blend of different waxes and it’s widely recommended among leather experts, including Nick Horween himself. See it in action in my Venetian Shoe Cream review.

Alden Indy 403 rear view

Wrapping Up

Those are the products most strongly recommended by Horween, who appears to lean a little closer to Venetian shoe cream or Renovateur. Avoid waterproofing sprays or creams if possible, since they can suffocate the leather and trap dirt and dust inside it — just clean ‘em with a brush and rub in some cream every few months, and your Chromexcel boots will age like a fine wine.

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By day: Manhattan-based journalist with reporting experience on four continents, published in Vice, Men's Health, Popular Science, and a bunch of other places.By night: ravenous consumer of anything and everything related to high end men's boots.Stridewise is where I nurture a maniacal obsession with footwear and share my findings. Say hey: [email protected]

28 thoughts on “How the Heck Do I Take Care of Chromexcel Leather?”

  1. Hi Nick, I just picked up a pair of Thursday Vanguards and Thursday recommends Venetian Shoe Balm on the shoe care page of their site. What’s the difference of Venetian Shoe Cream vs the shoe balm? Thanks!

    • I understand that the balm is a tiny bit more concentrated so you need to use less of it and it’s easier to carry around, but a little harder to apply.

  2. ‘Brushed vigorously — and you want to brush it vigorously — not only helps to remove dirt but it also heats up the leather, moving around the oils and helping to remedy scratches and scrapes. ‘ Dangling modifier error.

  3. I’ve got to buy MORE Saphire Renovateur ?

    I really should buy shares in that company, or start buying catering size jars of it. Oh well. (It is very good indeed).

    • Saphr is great! Trying to do more in-depth stuff on shoe care and trying to find cheaper alternatives — a lot of people think Lexol is perfectly fine on boots and it’s cheap as chips.

  4. I have the Alden 403’s bought new 20 years years ago at Alden of S.F. they told me to use Alden Boot Cream. That’s all that I’ve ever used. Boots still look great. The only bad thing I can say about the Indy boot is the sole . I go to Europe a couple times a year and the boots soles are slippery in the wet and on cobble stones. I no longer take them.

    • Yeah the 403s are great shoes, Charles! I’m always surprised how the nitrile cork isn’t as slippery as it looks like it should be, but it’s no Vibram mini lug.

  5. Hey Nick! Big fan of the website and YouTube channel. Bought and love the RM Williams Comfort Craftsman on your recommendation (kind of a gamble getting them to Canada!).

    Have you done much in the way of shining your Chromexcel-type boots? I have the Thursday Boots Wingtips in their Brown Thursday Chrome, and like a shinier boot. I’ve used a light coating of Venetian Leather Balm on the whole boot, with a couple extra applications and horsehair buffings on the toe cap and heel cap to get a nice shine and to give the boots a layer of wax protection for when I bang into things. It seems a little strange to use this product just for the shine and protection of the wax, and I am concerned that I may be over-conditioning. Have you used your Saphir wax polishes on Chromexcel or Thursday Chrome?

    • I haven’t! Honestly I just condition my shoes, I don’t really shine them. I definitely think Saphir’s polishes are a good bet.

  6. I just received a pair of Doc Martens Made in England burgundy Horween chromexcel oxfords. Can I use Red Wing mink oil to condition them?

  7. Hello Nick, all the way from Panama City Panama. I don’t own CXL boots but a pair of Allen Edmonds McTavish CXL shoes in natural finish. This article has been very educational and helpful!

    So which is it then for natural CXL? Saphir renovateur or their greasy leather cream? or any of them? I also have some kiwi saddle soap…


    • What’s up Panama! Natural CXL the same products will work just fine. Saphir or the Greasy Leather Cream. Saphir will give it a bit more of a shine and might be slightly better at preserving the color, Greasy Leather Cream a bit better at actual conditioning.

  8. Hey Nick! I have a pair of Thorogood 1892 Beloit (Genuine Horween Chromexcel Leather)
    I guess what I am trying to get to is, would 1 of the products above work just fine? Of course I’ll brush vigorously before hand and apply the cream afterwards. Just needing conformation. Thanks man!

  9. Nick:

    Appreciate the post, but I find a few things confusing:

    1) “Before it leaves the factory, CXL is coated in neatsfoot oil, which is made from the rendered shin and feet bones of cattle. Horween says that’s usually his go to recommendation, which is why one of his favorite products is…” — it seems conflicting. Is the go-to recommendation Neatsfoot Oil the …Saphir Greasy Leather Cream mentioned immediately thereafter.

    2) Regardless of the above, it goes on to say Nick Horween leans towards the Renovateur or the Venetian Shoe Cream.

    I just find it confusingly written overall (perhaps I’m being dense). His go-to recommendation is Neatsfoot Oil but one of his favorite products is Greasy Leather Cream, but he tends to lean towards Renovateur/VSC in personal use? Am I interpreting this correctly?

    Long/short, I have a briefcase in #8 that I would like to have a more polished/shiny finish so I was leaning towards using Renovateur, but I don’t want to ruin the depth of color in the #8

    • Thanks for your comment, Jordan. Basically, Horween is happy recommending any of the three products, it’s a bit silly to say there’s One Conditioner that’s better than every other as plenty of them work just fine on Chromexcel. Those are your three options. Greasy Leather Cream is neutral, renovateur has more of a shine, and Venetian Shoe Cream is cheaper and might darken the leather teeny tiny bit, but still a great conditioner.

  10. is Saphir Creme 1925 good for chromexcel if i want to restore the colour?
    Appreciate the colour variations developed by extensive use.
    Understand it’s quite a character of pull up leather. However want to give it colour polish at times.

  11. Thank you for a great review! Is the Indy in the shell cordovan basically the same boot and is it worth the extra money? For me, I have balance issues and fell more comfortable walking in a hiking boot. I was considering a pair of Danner s but stumbled upon Alden s by chance and the shells by choice. ??


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