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How to blacken your boots...
By Tim Allen, revised by Dietrich Steiger

There is a common misconception among reenactors that German Army boots were commonly left in a natural or brown state.  Every so often you see someone wearing a nice, shiny brown pair of boots straight out of the box without any conditioning whatsoever. While it is true that footwear often receives less than it's fair share of attention, incorrect, untreated (mistreated), or poorly dyed footwear can draw one's eyes to an obvious problem and otherwise damage a solid impression.

In most cases, German boots were dyed black.  This frequency can be increased to "almost every case" when speaking of Marschstiefel or "jack boots".  In the infrequent situations where Schnurschuhe or "low boots" were not dyed, you can rest assured they were well treated (and therefore darkened) by conditioning and dubbing agents, bringing their appearance to a very deep brown approaching black.

Information on the proper treatment of leather footwear is something that can be found through simple online searches and can be achieved through products available at a wide range of retailers (Mink oil or Pecard's for conditioning and Sno Seal or Huberd's for dubbing work well).  A proper leather treatment paste was practically a part of the soldier's basic kit, as it was incumbent upon him to maintain the leather items issued to him as much as it was his responsibility to maintain his weapon.  For this article's purpose though it bears mentioning that newly dyed boots should be conditioned again once the dye has set and before use.

German soldiers also had several dying mechanisms available to them, including liquid leather dyes not dissimilar to those available at major retailers, paste dyes, and tinted polishes.  The following method is not documented to have been used by the German Army in particular, but if done correctly the results mirror a period correct finish and provide a good base for the maintenance of the black color in the future.

The reactive steel method

This method of blackening has been around for many years as I was told of it by an old fellow in Nashville who used it as a child back in the 1930's. It has been used to make black ink, leather dye and wood stain. Steel wool pads have been around since the late 1800's as a polishing by-product from the waste turnings on metal lathe machines. Sometime during the early 1900's it was found that by placing the steel wool pads in vinegar for a few days, it would make a beautiful "black ink" when rubbed on leather. 

The chemical reaction between the steel wool, vinegar and air is simple. The vinegar is used to break down the steel wool slightly so that it will "rust" and allow the hydrogen ions and iron acetate to become a clear ferrous tannate. When this solution comes in contact with the air and is allowed to dry, it becomes a black ferric tannate which has the color from dark gray to black. I was told by the gentleman that this was used in place of shoe polish and often used to dye farm equipment leather.

The reason I respect this procedure is because it allows you to have a true, black/dark gray base or primer when staining leather. Modern store bought chemical dyes are often bluish or purple in tone. This procedure gives you a rich background to apply your black shoe polish which will in turn give you a superb finish.


The process is simple to do. You will need a few house hold items and some fine to med/fine steel wool pad (Do not use Brillo or detergent laced pads). The items include:

Steel wool pads
Distilled vinegar
Plastic container
Black shoe polish
Denatured alcohol (optional)

The Process

Step 1: 
Pour enough vinegar into the plastic container in order for the steel wool to be submerged. Store for about
3 to 5 days. During this period, clean your leather with the denatured alcohol in order to clean off any post manufactured contaminates.

Step 2: 
Upon opening the vinegar / steel wool container, you will notice the steel wool is unchanged and the vinegar is still clear. This is normal, it will not change color in this short time (but over time may become rusty). Wipe your leather thoroughly and liberally with the wet, steel wool. The steel wool will not harm the leather. Remember, you will not see a difference right away.

Step 3: 
Once the leather dries, you will see the gray/black color in which your leather is now stained.  Polish your leather with black shoe polish as normal.

Step 4: 
Since the leather will be getting wet and then drying during the staining process, it will need to be oiled on the backside to make it pliable again.

This procedure can be used to touch up your leather at any time. The steel wool can be stored in the vinegar for many months before you need to make a new batch. If it gets too rusty, your leather will have not only black/gray stain but also a rusty brown on it as well. I hope this will help you if you ever need to dye some leather black.



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