Cleaning and Caring for Hardwood Floors

Best Practices When Taking Care of Hardwood Floors

  • Vacuum or sweep regularly with soft-bristled attachment or broom to prevent gritty dirt and particle buildup that can scratch the wood’s surface
  • UV rays from windows and excessive heat from sunlight will cause the wood to age quicker. UV blocking window coverings can help prevent this.
  • Homes many with sun-facing windows that allow long periods of exposure to sunlight cause the discoloration and fading of the wood finish to occur faster.
  • Trim pet nails and clean their paws to prevent stains and scratches.
  • Humidity can help prevent wood shrinkage when it is seasonally hot. Using a humidifier to keep humidity between 35% and 55% can help.
  • Spills should be cleaned immediately using specialized Hardwood & Laminate flooring cleaner.
  • Use compressed gas (such as Dust Off) to freeze gum or wax and gently scrape with a credit card or plastic scraper.

Wood is more susceptible to damage from sources that other flooring isn’t. Much like wood used for decks, porches, and siding, wood floors are damaged by temperature fluctuations, humidity changes, and direct sunlight.

Floor mats and protective pads under heavy furniture aid in protecting your hardwood floor from scratches and dents when moving furniture. Floor mats also help trap corrosive substances that can be tracked in from entrances/exits. These corrosive substances can include oil, asphalt, or driveway sealer. An effective way to reduce wear is to put floor mats in high traffic areas.

It is best not to use wet mops, damp mops, or cleaning your hardwood with water. Manufacturer recommended cleaners are best, but this is discussed further in a later section.

Choosing a Vacuum for Cleaning Hardwood Floors

Top Considerations:

  • Buy a vacuum with soft wheels. Hard plastic can scratch.
  • Will you need to vacuum large area rugs?
  • Do you have pets?
  • Do you have a mixture of carpet and hardwood or another bare flooring?
  • The vacuum must have a way to turn off the electrically powered brush if it has one. This is usually lacking in cheaper uprights and air-driven canister vacuum heads.

When buying a vacuum for a household that has all or some hardwood flooring, or other bare floors, it is important to look for features that can effectively clean all surfaces. Do you have large area rugs covering your hardwood floors? If your home has all of one type of flooring (only carpet or only hardwood) then your choices are narrowed.

If you have many rugs on your hardwood floor, you will benefit from a powered brush nozzle. A powered brush is not recommended for hardwood floors. This is because agitation is needed to loosen up debris from carpet fibers, and the brush will throw dirt around or possible scratch if used on hardwood. So if you buy a vacuum with an electrically-driven brush, you will want it to have the option to turn it off. Only being able to adjust the height of the rotating brush will result in throwing dirt around the floor; this is a common problem in cheaper uprights and air-driven canister attachments.

Hardwood and other bare floors do need some agitation when being vacuumed. A film of fine dust forms which doesn’t get picked up as well if you rely on only suction. This can be achieved with simple brush nozzles for canister vacuums that have rubberized rollers to protect hard floors (ex. Miele FiberTeQ floorhead). Uprights are less modular, so changing brush heads isn’t an option, so it’s important to make sure the upright has the features you need built-in.

Canister or Upright?

Characteristics of Uprights:

  • Great for carpet, but brushroll design and settings that don’t accommodate bare flooring can be a problem.
  • Being able to slow down or turn off the brushroll is often necessary to avoid blow back of debris.
  • Cordless vacuums are very easy to use.

Characteristics of Canisters

  • Primarily for cleaning bare floors, but carpet attachments are included with some models.
  • Versatility
  • More Variety of Brush Attachments

Canister vacuums only require you to hold the hose and attached brush nozzle when vacuuming instead of pushing around the entire vacuum. This isn’t much of a problem on hardwood but can be if you are vacuuming large or thick area rugs.

With the brush needs in mind, the next consideration is form factor. Canister or upright? These two different designs have their inherent pros and cons when vacuuming hardwood floors. An entry-level canister is usually more fit for hardwood floors than an entry-level upright because a powered brush is generally a more expensive feature for canisters than uprights.

For an upright, the brush is built into the body and is often belt driven. With canisters, the brush must be powered through the hose or be air-driven. The electrically powered brush can be turned off by a switch, but an air-driven brush cannot be turned off at all. While air-driven brushes are cheaper and effective for low-pile carpet, they are not ideal for hardwood floors.

If you are buying a relatively cheap canister and it comes with a motorized brush, then it is important to make sure it can either be turned off. This will prevent the brush from throwing dust around.

An important feature for both uprights and canisters is the ability to adjust the height of the brush. For example, if you transition from hardwood floor to a thick rug you will strain the motor if the brush isn’t off or adjusted high enough to handle the rug. This leads to overheating and the eventual failure of the motor or belt.

Bag or Bagless?

Characteristics of Bag Vacuums:

  • Easy disposal and cleaning
  • Long Lasting Suction
  • Bags are an ongoing expense
  • Best Filtration

Characteristics of Bagless Vacuums

  • Need to be cleaned often
  • Emptying the trash container often ends with a dust cloud
  • Not allergy friendly, as seals often leak
  • Overheat if not cleaned frequently

This choice is purely preference and doesn’t impact the vacuum’s ability to clean the floor, all other things equal. The primary consideration when choosing a bag or bagless is air filtration and allergens. Bag systems generally have the best filtration, and this is evident in Miele vacuums especially, as they have the best filtration on the market.

Most bagless vacuums require frequent and extensive cleaning of the filter and container system while bag vacuums require simply removing the bag. You will come into contact with concentrated dust and allergens when trying to clean a bagless system correctly. If the trouble of cleaning bagless systems offsets the relatively small cost of replacing bags, then you should stick with bag vacuums. The convenience of not having to deal with bags comes with a price.


Cleaning Spills and Spots on Hardwood Floors

Things To Consider:

  1. Steam cleaners can damage wood, bamboo, and laminate floors. Steam can strip the finish and break down the glue holding laminate floors together.
  2. Oil and wax substances attract more dust and dirt if left behind. This leads to dirt accumulation and wear due to the abrasive dirt being walked over, especially in high traffic areas.
  3. Citrus and lemon containing chemicals can damage the finish
  4. Cleaning products that leave behind residue make it harder to keep the floor clean

Simply using vinegar and water (1/4 cup vinegar per 2 gallons of water) is a safe and cheap method of cleaning hardwood. Always get the mop or rag as dry as possible before taking it to the floor.

Spots that have dried and stained the wood need to be approached differently. The hardwood may or may not be easily repaired depending on the type of finish.


Hardwood Floor Finishes

Things to consider when selecting finishing a hardwood floor:

  • Do you want to apply the finish yourself?
  • VOC’s and toxicity
  • Frequency the finish needs to be reapplied
  • Resilience
  • Color changes after drying and as the wood ages
  • Cost per square foot
  • Is it possible to reapply the finish in spots?

DIY Hardwood Finishes

Oil-Based Polyurethane

ProsCons
Cheaper than water-based polyMore expensive than oil-based
Very toughYellows with age(not necessarily bad)
High VOCs
8 to 10 hours between coats

The main differences between oil-based and water-based polyurethane are VOCs, final color, and drying time.

Due to the long drying time and VOCs, you will need to leave your home (bring your animals) between coats. You will need to apply 2 to 3 coats, so this is at least a two-day process.

Oil-based poly is a common finish used by professionals, but it is DIY friendly.

Water-Based Polyurethane

ProsCons
DIY FriendlyNot as tough as oil-based
Low VOCsMore expensive than oil-based
Doesn’t yellow with age like oil-based

Water-based polyurethane is eco-friendly and one of the most common finishes used today. Improvements over the years have made water-based polyurethane nearly as strong as its oil-based counterpart.

Water-based poly dries clear and will not yellow with age. It also has a fast drying time at around 2 to 4 hours between coats.

Wax

ProsCons
DIY FriendlyMild VOCs
Dries in 2-3 hours.Much less durable than urethane finishes.
Doesn’t give the appearance of having a coating on the floor.Too much wax attracts dirt and scuffs easily. Don’t coat too much.
Water turns the wax white. Not recommended for kitchens or bathrooms.

Low-sheen floors have seen a resurgence in recent years, especially with reclaimed/distressed flooring and historic renovations. Wax floors that are extremely slippery have too much wax. Part of the process of applying the wax finish is to buff the floor with steel wool or a white pad; this helps roughen the surface of the floor and cause more friction.

The wax finish is much less durable than urethane finishes and will turn white if water is allowed to sit on the wax. If you ever decide to change to another type of finish it may require completely sanding the floor.

Shellac

ProsCons
DIY FriendlyPeriodic Recoating required
Easy spot repairsNot durable
Mild VOCsHas a 6 month shelf life in liquid form; it will not harden if it’s too old.
Natural Product with sustainable supply

Shellac is a naturally occurring substance that comes from a resin secreted by the lac beetle. Shellac is safe enough to be used as a coating for foods and pills. However, when used as a floor finish, it is mixed with ethyl alcohol, a solvent. This results in harmful VOCs. Shellac is described by the “pound cut,” which refers to how many pounds of shellac are dissolved into one gallon of alcohol. Typically a 3-pound cut of shellac is used. The thinner the shellac the higher the VOCs which may exceed legal limits. For example, a 2-pound cut can help avoid lap marks during application but will have a higher VOC content than a 3-pound cut.

Shellac is usually applied first (2-3 coats) and then a coat of wax is put on top. Using a steel wool or abrasive pad is necessary between coats.

Professional Hardwood Finishes

Aluminum Oxide

ProsCons
Extremely Durable (20+ Years)Only comes on prefinished wood
Difficult refinishing techniques
Floor may need to be completely replaced; refinishing may not be an option.

Aluminum Oxide generally only comes on prefinished wood planks. You will need to consult a professional after about 25 years to see if the wood can be refinished.

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