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Cleaning and Caring for Hardwood Floors

Some simple and very affordable products can help you maintain the look of your hardwood with near-zero effort.  What are 4 important things that can affect your hardwood?

Liquids, temperature, humidity, and abrasive debris.

Below we’re going to go over some helpful tips that can help you avoid damaging your hardwood and maintain its finish. 

1. Be Careful With Steam Mops

Steam is not meant to be used on unsealed hardwood floors.  Often the surface of hardwood is sealed at the factory, but when it is joined together on your floor the gaps between the wood aren’t sealed. If you want to use steam on your hardwood, then you need to make sure your floor was sealed after being installed. Using steam on unsealed wood can result in warping.  

Murphy, the manufacturer of many floor cleaning products, recommends some preparation before using your steam mop. Once you’ve cleared the room of furniture and rugs, they suggest you first mop the floor with water to get the initial layer of dirt and dust off the floor. This is another step that requires your floor to be sealed as if water collects in gaps between your hardwood it can cause buckling or swelling of the wood.

The nice thing about steam mops is that you have a lot of control over how much steam is released, and they tend to leave behind very little residual moisture. The small amount of water that condenses on the surface of the wood evaporates very quickly.

If you’re interested in reading more about steam mops as well as a variety of other mops, then check out our guide on the Best Electric Mops and Scrubbers.


2. Keep Your Pet’s Toenails Clipped

When your dog gets the zoomies on hardwood floors, you don’t want it to sound like he’s trying to dig a hole through to the center of the Earth. It’s terrible for your hardwood floor’s finish and is a sign you should trim those nails.

If you regularly let them play in your backyard, then it’s a good idea to check their paws before letting them back indoors and make sure they’re clean. Keeping an area rug or doormat in the entryway they typically use is also a good idea to mitigate some of the dirt that might get tracked in.  

Now, if you want to try something a little different, then check out these dog claw caps. They’re small caps that you can adhere to the tips of your dog’s claws that prevent them from scratching any surface, not just hardwood floors. While we haven’t tested these, they do have very positive reviews and are considered safe and humane.


3. Vacuum Weekly at a Minimum

Shark ION P50 in upright mode

If you’re a person that dreads vacuuming, then you should consider getting a high-end cordless vacuum. They have come a long way over the year, and some models can run for over an hour. The cleaning performance has also improved, and we can safely say they work well enough to be the only vacuum for some homes.  

You can read our review of the Shark ION F80 Cordless Stick, which is a relatively affordable model with 2 batteries that you can swap out for extra vacuuming time. It is one of our favorites and is one of the main competitors to the Dyson V10 Series of vacuums.

This brings up our next point, which is getting a vacuum designed for hardwood floors. Both the Shark F80 and Dyson V10 handle hardwood very well.


4. Buy a Vacuum with Padded Wheels and Designed for Hardwood

Shark ION F80 Wheels with rubber padding

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 other bare flooring?
  • The vacuum should have a way to turn off the brushroll or slow it down if it has one. Cheaper uprights usually lack this feature, so keep this in mind.

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.

With that said, there has been a lot of innovation from manufacturers like Dyson and Shark. They have created versatile cleaner heads on their vacuums that can handle hardwood and carpet with ease. Shark’s DuoClean cleaner head features a soft roller brush as well as a typical brushroll, and they both work together to pull debris into the vacuum on all floor types.

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 Classic C1 Pure Suction). 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, Upright, or Stick?

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 blowback 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

Characteristics of Sticks:

  • Usually cordless and easy to pick up and get started
  • Smaller dustbins than most uprights, but the Dyson V10 has an impressive capacity
  • Your vacuuming time is limited by the battery life, but up-to-date models usually last at least 40 minutes on a single charge

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. Also, lower-priced uprights often lack any control over the brushroll.

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 completely. However, they can usually be slowed down. 

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

Stick vacuums are great for hardwood since the battery lasts longer and hardwood is easier to clean. You don’t need super strong suction to pick up dirt on hardwood, whereas you have to pull debris up from carpet fibers to do any meaningful cleaning.

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.


5. Use Furniture Pads

Furniture pads are a cheap and effective way of avoiding damage to your hardwood floor. Sometimes even sitting down on chairs or couches can cause them to slide on hardwood, and this certainly can cause damage to the finish and wood itself. Floor mats and protective pads placed under heavy furniture aid in protecting your hardwood floor from scratches and dents when moving furniture. 

Adding furniture pads under your furniture is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to protect your floors.


6. Buy an Extra-long Doormat or Walk-off Rug

Rug on hardwood floor

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.

An entryway rug runner can help capture some dirt and debris that would otherwise get tracked into your home.  Ideally, everyone that enters your home takes there shoes off before walking through your house.  This is a habit that’s common in many countries and cultures, but for some reason doesn’t seem to be common in the USA.  Have you ever used a public restroom and looked at the floor?  There’s no way I would bring that into my home.


7. Plug Up Gaps in Your Hardwood with Wood Filler

Click to view on Amazon

Wood filler is stainable and can be used to repair damaged hardwood. Large gaps in your hardwood floor can allow liquids, moisture, and debris to accumulate and potentially damage your floor and subfloor.

Some fillers tend to work better with lighter stains, while darker stains don’t blend well. If you have trouble with your filler, you should contact a flooring professional.


8. Wipe Up Liquids Quickly

Spills are going to happen, but it’s important to get liquids off your hardwood as quickly as possible.  This is especially true if the liquid could potentially stain or corrode the finish.  

Area rugs in the places you tend to eat and drink can help avoid this.  It’s easier and cheaper to clean or replace an area rug than to deal with damaged hardwood.


9. Be Careful About Using Chemical Cleaners and Wax

  1. Oil and wax substances attract more dust and dirt if residue is left behind. This leads to dirt accumulation and wear due to the abrasive dirt being walked over, especially in high traffic areas.
  2. Citrus and lemon containing chemicals can damage some wood finishes.
  3. Cleaning products that leave behind residue make it harder to keep the floor clean.

Simply using vinegar, water, and clear dish soap 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.

  • 1/8 Cup of vinegar
  • 32 oz of distilled water (distilled is important)
  • 3 drops of clear dish soap

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.


10. Area Rugs in High-traffic Areas and Where There’s Direct Sunlight

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 can cause the discoloration and fading of the wood finish to occur faster.
Areas rugs are also a great addition to rooms where you may be eating or drinking as they can act as a buffer between the liquid and your hardwood floor.


New Builds – What’s Important When Installing Hardwood

There are a few things to consider when installing your new hardwood floor.  The wood must be kep in a dry, and preferably air-conditioned space, so that no warping occurs.  Keeping the wood away from direct sunlight and heat/air vents can also help to avoid warping.

Underlayments can be applied under your floor if needed.  For example, some condominiums require sound-dampening underlayment.

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

Pros Cons
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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