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How to Clean Your Hardwood Floors

Article by: Bonnie McCarthy

Although installing hardwood flooring is usually more expensive than rolling out new carpet, it’s an investment worth considering, according to data from the National Association of Realtors. Surveys show that 54 percent of home buyers are willing to pay more for a house with hardwood floors. The question now: What’s the best way to clean and care for that popular flooring and keep that natural beauty (and value) shining through? Here’s how.

It’s not the wood — oak, maple, mesquite, bamboo, engineered hardwood or something more exotic — that determines how the floors should be cleaned, but rather the finish.

Surface finishes, often referred to as urethanes or polyurethanes, are among the most popular treatments today and are usually applied to hardwood floors after installation to protect them and make them more durable and water resistant. These finishes create a protective barrier. There are four types of surface finishes, according to the American Hardwood Information Center: water based, oil based, acid cured and moisture cured.

Homes built before 1970, including historic residences, may have original wood floors that were sealed with varnish, wax or shellac. These require a different approach to cleaning. The American Hardwood Information Center says these types of finishes work by penetrating the wood to color the planks and form a protective shield. Using a wax coating after staining provides a barrier against wear and tear and gives the floor a beautiful low-gloss satin sheen. The classic look requires a little extra TLC, however, since water-based products and mopping can damage the finish.

How to Determine Your Wood Floor Finish

To figure out whether or not your wood floors are finished with a polyurethane, shellac, wax or varnish, or have a finish that has worn away and is no longer providing coverage, the American Hardwood Information Center suggests these tests:

  • Run your hand over the wood. If you can feel the texture of the grain, the floor has a “penetrating” finish (usually a combination of a natural oil, such as linseed or tung oil, mixed with additives for drying) topped with wax.
  • In an out-of-the-way spot, dab on a little paint remover. If the finish bubbles up, it is a surface finish, like polyurethane, which coats the floor in a protective layer.
  • In an out-of-the-way area, place a few drops of water. If the water beads up and does not soak into the wood, the finish on the floor is intact. If the water is absorbed into the floor or leaves a dark spot, the wood is unfinished or the protective layer has worn away.
  • If you sprinkle on a few drops of water and white spots form beneath the droplets after about 10 to 15 minutes, the floors are sealed with wax. To remove the white spots, use a piece of fine steel wool lightly dampened with wax and rub gently.
  • If you suspect a varnish or shellac, take a coin and scratch the surface of the floor in an inconspicuous corner. If the floor has been sealed with one of the older finishing methods, it will flake off.

Preventing Dirty Wood Floors

Not wearing shoes in the house is one of the best ways to significantly reduce dirt, scuffs and daily wear and tear, and lessen cleaning time.

The National Wood Floor Association, or NWFA, is more specific and warns against walking on wood floors with cleats, sports shoes and high heels. It also offers this cautionary example: A 125-pound woman walking in high heels has an impact of 2,000 pounds per square inch. Furthermore, an exposed heel nail can exert up to 8,000 pounds of force per square inch. 

Whether you got out your calculator or not, the possibility of impact and denting appears to be undeniable. However, while you can’t always ask guests to shed shoes at the door, it might be a policy worth considering for family members.

What Not to Do

No matter what type of wood flooring you have, the NWFA advises against using cleaning products meant for vinyl or tile flooring. Their take: Self-polishing acrylic waxes cause wood to become slippery and appear dull quickly. 

Another no-no: wet-mopping wood floors, since standing water can dull the finish, damage the wood and leave a discoloring residue. Along the same lines, avoid overwaxing unfinished wood floors in an attempt to restore luster. If a waxed floor has become dull, try buffing the surface instead.

Regular Wood Floor Cleaning

Cleaning floors with contemporary polyurethane wood finishes (for floors installed after 1970) starts with vacuuming, sweeping or dust-mopping the surface.

Vacuuming. Vacuum wood floors daily, or at least once a week with a vacuum fitted with an attachment for wood floors. For regular machines, the American Hardwood Information Center advises turning off interior rotating brushes or beater bars if possible.

Regular vacuuming helps remove dust and dirt particles that play a leading role in scratching and dulling the surface of the floor.

Sweeping. The American Hardwood Information Center says choosing a broom with “exploded tips,” also known as synthetic fiber ends, is step one.

Damp mopping. Damp mopping should be done with a simple solution of pH-neutral soap (like dishwashing soap) and water; or one capful of a mild cleanser such as Murphy Oil Soap in a bucket of water; or a solution using products specially formulated for wood floors, such as Eco Mist Colloid W, Dr. Bonner’s or Method.

In conscientious cleaning circles, controversy swirls around whether to use a mixture of vinegar and water for damp-mopping wood floors. Ultimately, everyone has to do what works best; however, within the past 10 years this method has lost favor, and popular belief now holds that the solution causes floors to dull more quickly and is not as effective as simple soap and water.

To begin mopping, dampen the mop in the prepared solution, wring it out completely, and mop in the direction of the wood grain. Repeat as necessary. As the water in the bucket becomes dirty, dump it out and refill. Many experts (including Martha Stewart) believe scrubbing wood floors with a damp cloth by hand is the ultimate cleaning strategy — unless abundant square footage or protesting knees prove problematic.

But avoid cloths or mops dripping with water. If your floors do get wet or worse, dry them immediately!

Another technique: After the floor has been swept or vacuumed, put your cleaning solution of choice in a spray bottle and mist the floor, then use a dry microfiber mop or cloth and mop in direction of the wood grain. 

It’s important to note that just because a floor is clean doesn’t necessarily mean it will be shiny. If the floor has lost its luster, it may be time to have it refinished professionally. Whatever you do, don’t wax a polyurethaned finish.

Unfinished or Waxed Floors

Unfinished or waxed floors, like those in older and historic homes, as well as floors in which the protective seal has worn away, should never be treated with water or liquid cleansers, which may penetrate, stain or warp the wood. Instead, according to cleaning experts, sweeping with a soft-bristled broom and vacuuming should be done as the primary line of defense. The NWFA says to step away from the mop: Never damp-mop a waxed floor.

Beyond basic care, buffing and waxing the floors once or twice a year should maintain the shine. 

Old-fashioned shellacked floors are not common in most homes. However, if you find yourself the proud owner of this vintage flooring, regular care should include sweeping and vacuuming often. Avoid water and liquid cleansers.

Engineered Wood Floors

Engineered wood flooring is created with a thin veneer of hardwood fused atop a plywood base. The material is stronger and more durable than regular hardwoods, and as a result has become a popular choice.

The cleaning procedure for this type of wood is the same as for hardwood floors with urethane finishes. Keep clean on a daily basis by sweeping and vacuuming and use a slightly damp mop as needed.

Painted Wood Floors

Painted wood floors make a strong style statement and are a clever way to disguise wood flooring in less than perfect shape. To clean them, sweep, vacuum or dust-mop regularly. Avoid scratching or damaging the painted surface by staying away from abrasive cleansers and opting for a simple soap and water solution for damp mopping. Experts suggest drying the surface immediately by hand to avoid streaking and unnecessary moisture.

What to Ask Before Choosing a Hardwood Floor

Article By: Mitchell Parker

So you’ve decided to get hardwood floors. Easy enough, right? Pick a wood and be done with it. 

Not so fast. There are a lot of factors that will determine what kind of hardwood floor your home can accommodate, and what will look best with your existing or planned furnishings and decor. 

You have some basic options: solid wood and engineered wood. Solid wood is what you generally think of as a hardwood floor: thick, solid planks of wood. Engineered wood is made of a veneer layer that sits atop a core of plywood. This construction deals with moisture a bit better and is recommended for concrete slab subfloors. Which brings up another point. The construction of the floor you’re working with pretty much will dictate what kind of wood you can use. 

Here’s how to prepare yourself for choosing a hardwood floor for your home. 

1. Where will the wood be going?

Installing hardwood floors on a second story is much different than doing so in a basement. A space beneath ground level is what’s known as below grade. A floor that’s even with the outside ground level is on grade, and any floors above this are above grade. Where you’re installing the wood will limit your recommended options.

“For example, you’re not supposed to put solid wood below grade, because the moisture coming up through the ground can cause problems,” says Bob Hagen, who owns Magnus Anderson Hardwood. “So an engineered wood is recommended.”

 

 

 

 

 

2. What is the subfloor made of? 

Find out what kind of subfloor you have. The three most common types are concrete slab, plywood and particleboard. This will help you determine whether you can install solid wood floors, or if an engineered wood would be best. 

Concrete. “If you have a concrete slab floor, you’re pretty much limited to engineered wood,” says Andrew Zheng, manager of Unique Wood Floors, which specializes in and ships prefinished hardwood. But don’t fret. You can still get any type of wood in an engineered format. And the thickness of the veneer on engineered wood varies. Higher-end engineered woods “are no less than solid woods in performance and price,” Zheng says. 

(Note: Even the hardest woods, such as Brazilian cherry and hard maple, will ding on an engineered floor if the plywood onto which they are veneered is soft, like lauan, which is a commonly used base.)

Another option is to install plywood over the concrete, but you’ll have to pay for the additional plywood, insulation and labor. “Most people just choose to stick with what they have,” Zheng says. 

If you’re still not sold on the engineered product, Hagen says there’s a way to still have solid wood on a concrete slab (as long as it’s on grade). It just needs to be glued down, preferably by an experienced professional. 

The downsides are that you need completely flat boards (hard to come by in longer lengths), and the glue is so strong that there’s a permanency to it. “If you have a leak or a flood, getting the material up is incredibly difficult,” Hagen says. “You’ll also want to check the VOCs [volatile organic compounds, which are toxic] in the product. And we ask clients about any chemical sensitivities.” 

Plywood. This is probably the most common subfloor and allows for the most versatility with hardwood floors. You can nail solid wood on top or use engineered wood. 

Particleboard. This material was commonly used under carpet in homes built in the 1970s. It’s basically a cheaper version of plywood. For hardwood floors, you’ll need to replace the particleboard with plywood. Then you can add engineered or solid wood.  

3. What are your living habits?

Think about how much abuse your floors will take and learn about specific wood species and their durability. Do you have kids and pets? Have large parties often? Or are you a single person who travels a lot? 

If you have a high-traffic house, you’ll want to go with a harder wood. The Janka scale measures how strong a wood is; basically a BB is fired into a plank and the size of the dent it leaves is measured. “Red oak is considered the bell curve,” Hagen says. “It’s pretty hard and medium priced.” 

You can also play with grain patterns as well as with stains and finishes that will hide dents and scratches. 

4. What style is your home?

You might love the look of hickory but then think differently when you see it covering a floor in a kitchen with modern cabinets. That’s because some woods lend themselves better to certain styles. 

When choosing a wood, consider cabinets, trimwork and door casings to make sure the wood won’t clash with other design elements. And coordinate with the colors of the walls and the amount of natural light. This will affect color choice. If you have a lot of windows and skylights, then you probably have enough light to balance out really dark floors. If you have a dark house already, a lighter floor choice will help brighten things.

If your style is modern: Natural maple lends itself well to modern styles. “It’s more of a Norwegian-looking design with a clean look and not a lot of variation,” Zheng says. Gray-stained oak and boards without knots create a clean aesthetic that also works in modern settings.

If your style is traditional: Go with something like hickory. “It mixes lighter and darker pieces, and it’s more like a traditional cabin feel,” Zheng says. Also, boards with knots and wider planks fit a more traditional style.

Of course, designers do incredibly creative things with mixing old and new, so don’t discount a wood just because it’s considered more appropriate for a certain style. Playing with grain pattern and stains can yield all sorts of interesting results. 

5. What’s important to you? 

Is budget the biggest factor? Or is the appearance all you care about? Determining what’s most important to you will help you determine the right wood for your floor. 

Cost. Engineered wood isn’t always the cheapest route, so don’t think you can’t have solid wood floors on a budget. Zheng says you can purchase generic oak flooring in various stains for $3.50 to $4 per square foot, while lower-end engineered floors start at $2.50 to $3 per square foot. Beautiful hardwood like the popular acacia species can be as high as $6 per square foot.

Maintenance. If you want something that will hold up over time, you’ll want to look at the harder woods (with higher Janka ratings). Also pay attention to the stain. 

The traditional method for staining wood uses a polyurethane finish, which produces a higher sheen. If the floor gets dinged or scratched, light bouncing off the semigloss finish can exacerbate the appearance of those flaws. 

Oil finishes are increasingly becoming more popular these days. They soak into the wood and provide a more matte finish. This can help hide wear and tear; plus, they last longer. While the up-front cost is higher, you won’t need to restain the floor as often, saving you money in the long run.

You can play around with finishes too. Hand-scraped or wire-brushed treatments rough up the appearance, creating a worn look so that if something does scuff it, the mark is not as noticeable. Note that the thickness of the veneer on an engineered floor affects how often it can be sanded down and finished. 

Appearance. Everyone’s preference is different. Some people are attracted to oak more thanwalnut, and vice versa. 

Acacia, shown here, is an exotic wood from Asia that Zheng says is a hot seller right now, because of its mix of lighter and darker tones; plus, it’s harder than hickory. The cost ranges from about $4 to $6 per square foot at his warehouse. The unique look is worth the higher cost for some. 

Pay attention to knots and grain pattern. Patterns in hickory and maple are different than in oak. You might want to spend the extra money for a unique grain pattern, or you may want to save money and go with a less-expensive wood with a better stain.

Consider plank width, too, which alters the appearance of your hardwood floors. Wide-plank walnut and 7-inch European oak are popular in traditional homes at the moment. 

The best thing you can do is see and feel the wood in person. “Wood is a living species. You need to feel what you’re attracted to. You’re the one living in the house, not the designer pushing you,” says Ilan Zamir, CEO ofAmber Flooring. 

6. How will you stain and finish it? 

A stain adds color to the wood. The finish protects the floors from getting dirty. Any stain or finish can be applied to almost any wood. Some people like the color of oak but want the grain pattern of walnut. That’s where staining can come into play. 

Some people can’t tell the difference between unstained black walnut and white oak that’s been stained espresso. Others can look at those woods and their grain patterns and immediately know the difference. It all depends on what’s important to you. 

A finish affects the maintenance. A solid wood that’s been hand scraped for a lower-sheen matte finish is easier to maintain, because you won’t see as much wear and tear. But maybe you want a semigloss look. 

Also, purchasing wood that’s been prefinished will give you a good idea of what it will look like and will save you the time and effort of finishing the floors onsite. Engineered wood is usually prefinished. 

7. How will you test it? 


This step is incredibly important. The last thing you want to do is install 800 square feet of black walnut based on a photo or tiny sample you saw in a showroom only to find it’s overpoweringly dark and contrasts poorly with your furnishings. 

Always ask for a 2- by 2-foot sample of what the floor will look like with a stain and finish on it. Use this to test it with your paint colors and decor to make sure it’s exactly what you want.

An Angie’s List Guide: Hardwood Flooring

Hardwood Flooring

There are few home improvement choices that add as much character and warmth – not to mention resale value – as hardwood flooring. But before you install or repair hardwood flooring it’s important to know both its advantages and disadvantages. 

Defining ‘hardwood’

With the advent of modern manufacturing techniques, it may be hard to determine what constitutes an actual hardwood floor. Flooring manufacturing techniques such as engineered hardwood flooring differ from actual hardwood floors, but can often replicate the look and feel of a hardwood floor at a reduced cost. Take a look at how the two wood flooring systems work:

  • Hardwood Floors

Real hardwood floors are almost wholly comprised of wood planks shaved down to uniform or near-uniform planks that are then installed directly over floor joists. Flooring planks or strips can be harvested from a huge variety of tree species, such as maple, cherry, oak and walnut, offering consumers a great range of wood color, grain and texture. Added to that variety is an almost equally large selection of stain and finish choices, making color and texture options nearly infinite. 

Hardwood flooring is the most long-lasting of wood flooring types due to its ability to be refinished multiple times over its lifetime. If scratches from furniture, wear patterns from foot traffic or general wear-and-tear detract from the appearance of a hardwood floor or its finish, the floor can be stripped of its finish by sanding it down to the wood grain. A new stain or floor finish can then be applied to give the floor an almost brand-new appearance. 

Real hardwood flooring is the most expensive option in wood flooring choices, due to both the higher cost of materials and installation. Hardwood floor planks are typically screwed or nailed directly to the supporting floor joists, which means repairs to or replacement of a hardwood floor can also be more expensive. 

  • Engineered Wood Floors

Engineered wood floors can offer the look and feel of traditionally manufactured wooden floors, but at a much reduced cost. Engineered wood flooring generally consists of a thin strip of actual wood mounted to multiple layers of thinner, less expensive plywood. This top-most piece of hardwood is referred to as the “wear layer” because it offers some of the same durability of real hardwood floors.

Like real hardwood flooring, the wear layer of an engineered floor can be stripped of its finish, sanded down and have a new layer of finish or stain applied to it. However, because the wear layer is much thinner than the all-hardwood plank of a real hardwood floor, the sanding and refinish process can only be performed a relatively few number of times compared to a bonde fide hardwood floor. 

Engineered wood flooring is significally less expensive than hardwood flooring. Additionally, since the engineered wood planks are much thinner than hardwood planks, engineered wood flooring can be installed more easily over surfaces such as concrete or an existing wood floor. Another benefit of engineered wood floors is ease of repair or replacement. Since the planks are held together with a tongue-in-groove feature along the length of the planks, repairs can be completed by simply removing a plank and replacing it by locking a new one into place.

Common Problems

There are many great reasons to install hardwood flooring:

  • It matches well with almost any décor

  • It can reduce dust and other allergens

  • Cleaning is relatively quick and simple

But even with these benefits, hardwood flooring is not maintenance-free. Installation errors, wood’s natural tendency to swell with changes in humidity and long-term wear and tear can all cause unsightly conditions that detract from a hardwood floor’s appeal.

If you own a home with hardwood floors, look out for these common issues:

  • Buckling and Crowning – this is caused when the original installer did not provide enough space between the wood planks for expansion with humidity. Eventually, the planks may swell into each other and become raised. These raised areas not only look uneven compared to the rest of the floor, they also attract more wear and tear.

  • Scratches, Dents, and Dings – these are some of the most common hardwood flooring issues and they generally occur over time as the floor is used and its protective finish wears off. This can be avoided by not wearing shows in the house and by installing protective pads on furniture.

  • Fading – a floor’s exposure to UV rays from sunlight can cause noticeable difference in the floor’s color over time. Blocking sunlight by lowering the shades or closing shutters can help prevent this fading.

  • Warping – when exposed to or saturated in water, wood can swell and warp. Prevent water from coming in contact with wood floors by using area rugs below sinks and near entry doors, and by placing houseplant pots or containers on top of water-collecting dishes.

Professional Maintenance

If your floors have begun to show wear patterns from foot traffic or appear dull, it’s probably a good indicator it’s time to hire a professional to improve their appearance. Most hardwood floors should be periodically maintained by adding an extra finish layer, known as recoating, every three to seven years. Recoating involves lightly scuffing the existing finish layer to promote adhesion, then adding a new layer of finish. If the floor’s finish is still intact, a maintenance coat will help it last another five years and may save you up to 60% versus the cost of sanding and refinishing the floor.

When floors become worn to the point that the top layer of finish no longer covers the wood grain or when deep scratches are present, hiring a professional to complete a more comprehensive – and expensive – sanding and recoating may be your best option.

During a sanding and recoat, a flooring contractor will use a heavy-duty sanding machine to remove all the finish on a hardwood floor, exposing the wood grain. Once the grain has been exposed, deep scratches and other blemishes can be sanded down to give the bare wood a more uniform appearance. Before a new top coat of finish is applied, you also have the option of adding a different stain to the wood grain to change the overall appearance. Once the sanding or staining is complete, a flooring contractor can add a new layer of protective finish, which can add lasting beauty and durability to the hardwood floor for years to come. 

A flooring contractor will also be able to provide advise or repairs for other hardwood flooring issues such as fading from UV exposure, stains from water, pets or other contaminates, and broken, chipped or damaged hardwood strips. Flooring specialists can often repair badly damaged wood floors even if some of the original boards are too far gone to be saved.

(Also see our Flooring Care & Cleaning Guide)

Hiring Tips

When hiring a professional contractor to install, maintain or repair your hardwood floors, choosing the right contractor can be the difference between a perfect finish and a floor that was more damaged than to begin with. Although a homeowner may choose a contractor based on a low price, this type of decision-making may lead to less-than-desirable results. 

Consider the following when making a hiring decision for a hardwood floor contractor:

  • Licensing, Bonding and Insurance – although it’s likely that many jurisdictions don’t mandate flooring contractors hold licenses, some municipalities may require it. A valid license also means it’s more likely that your contractor is in good standing both legally and financially. Insurance and/or bonding are likely more important characteristics in a qualified flooring contractor. Because flooring can represent a significant investment and the fact that maintenance requires heavy machinery that can easily damage a floor, it’s important to make sure your contractor holds the proper insurance policies.

  • Industry Accreditation – accreditations from trade organizations such as the National Wood Flooring Association can indicate that a flooring contractor is serious about his work and willing to take continuing education courses to improve their skill sets. Trade organizations can often also indicate that a flooring professional is well versed in industry standards for workmanship and work site conditions, as well as trained in proper installation techniques.

  • Experience – always ask a contractor about their background and experience in the field. The answer may surprise you.

  • References – a well qualified contractor should be able to provide references for recent customers or a portfolio of recently completed work. And remember, don’t just ask for references, take the extra step to call recent customers to see if they were satisfied with the work and the contractor’s performance.