How To Clean Hardwood Floors [Best Practices]

How to clean hardwood floors

Immaculate hardwood floors are a beauty to look at, and according to a survey done by the National Association of Realtors, 54% of prospective home buyers are willing to pay more for a house that has hardwood flooring.

When it comes to cleaning hardwood floors, it isn’t the wood that determines how you clean it but the finish.

Most hardwood surfaces have a protective polyurethane coating (or a type of clear coat finish).

This layer protects it from water, abrasion, and other contaminants from daily use.

Unless your home is more than 30 years old or hasn’t through any significant renovation, most likely, it has a sealed hardwood finish.

A hardwood floor is an investment worth preserving. To do that, you’ll need the right tools and know-how to use these instruments effectively to keep hardwood in pristine condition.

The outlined steps below will help keep your home’s value from dropping over the long haul. It also helps in avoiding costly repairs.

Your Hardwood Floor Cleaning Kit

Hardwood Floor Cleaner

Using the wrong type of cleaner can ruin the finish over time or, at the very least, dulling it, hence incurring the additional cost of refinishing it.

Avoid using cleaners formulated for vinyl or tile on hardwood surfaces.

The American Hardwood Information Center (AHIC) warns against using wax or petroleum-based products as these can damage the finish.

When in doubt, try contacting the installer and ask the type of finish, if that is not possible, use a generic floor cleaner.

One such brand would be the Bona hardwood cleaner. It comes in different formulations like concentrate or spray.

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Match this with their signature mops, and you have a winning combination.

The spray is particularly useful for spot cleaning or treating anything that requires a bit of extra attention.

Using concentrates are an excellent way to save money since you’ll be diluting it in water, so one container will last further.

Broom

Old fashioned? Yes, but still useful. You can use it to clean rugs the old fashioned way.

When shopping for one, look for something with exploded tips.

Vacuum Cleaner

To speed up the process, you could use a vacuum cleaner.

There are several types in the market. Choosing one will be dependent on different factors, such as the budget and size of the home.

Stick vacuums work well in smaller houses due to their compact size, while upright vacuums may be needed inside larger spaces as these machines have large bins.

Opt for a vacuum with a fluffy roller like a Shark ION P50 or an APEX upright. Its soft roller attachment spins at a lower rate, so it doesn’t kick debris forward.

Robotic vacuums are also a great deal of help because it cleans autonomously.

Dust Mop

dust mop

Dirt like dust can be difficult to clean using a vacuum or a broom.

The excellent news is dust mops are helpful tools to have cleaning such debris.

This tool attracts statically charged stuff like dust and hair from hardwood, and a must-have if you are serious about keeping your floors clean.

Bona recommends using a dust mop with a machine-washable microfiber pad for the best results as you can just throw the pad into the washing machine after mopping.

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A quick sweep with a dust mop goes a long way in preserving the finish.

Microfiber is a dust magnet, so it sticks on the pad’s fibers. Its fluffy nature provides enough cushion minimizing the risk of scratching the surface. Plus, you don’t have to worry about leaving lint residue on the floors.

Only use the mop for cleaning dust. For abrasive stuff like sand, use a vacuum cleaner designed for hardwood surfaces.

A Wet Mop That Is Easy To Wring Out

wet mop

Use a mop with a feature that wrings excess water out.

There are several types available. One alternative is a mop with a built-in wringer to discard excess water. Another option is a mop with a spinning apparatus that twirls the mop head, similar to a top load washer.

Regardless of what product you choose, the important thing is only to use a damp mop to wipe floors. Using a soaking mop will introduce too much water on the hardwood.

Excess water will damage it, and in worst cases, the surface may warp or buckle, creating an uneven surface with massive cracks.

Remember that hardwood and water don’t go together.

Polish or Wax

Waxing hardwood floors

Untreated surfaces that don’t have any protective coating will need regular application of wax or polish to maintain its appearance and integrity.

Make sure to remove old wax entirely before applying a new coat.

You have a few options in applying polish or wax. The first and more efficient way would be a buffing machine, but since these tools are heavy and expensive – it isn’t a practical solution.

The second option would be using a mop like the Bona Motion Mop or Spray Mop.

Read the label carefully because most polishes sold don’t polish. A lot of these are just fillers that fill in scratches.

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On the plus side, these products are easy to apply evenly with a mop. But since it does not correct imperfections, once it wears out, the flooring will look dull and will need frequent reapplications to maintain the glossy finish.

True polishes contain chemical abrasives that are harsh on the lungs. These products will require you to use a polishing machine. If you opt to use these products, make sure to wear protective gear like a face mask, and goggles.

Door Mat

 

Door mat

Photo by Kelly Lacy from Pexels

Although a doormat is technically not a tool for cleaning floors, there is no doubt it will reduce the frequency.

Placing a good quality doormat at each entryway (and encouraging family members to use it) will ensure less accumulation of dirt.

So you won’t clean as often, and you’ll have more time to spend with your family.

Make sure to buy good quality mats with enough thickness to absorb more dirt and grime. If possible, leave these mats outdoors, so it doesn’t bring contaminants inside.

If you need to leave the mats indoors, avoid those with rubber backs as these can discolor wood flooring (according to the AHJC).

When shopping floor mats, try to go to a wood flooring retailer and ask them for their recommendations.

LL Bean makes a line of mats called Water Hog Door Mats that absorb a lot of water and catch pounds of dirt. And you don’t need it clean it as often as a regular doormat.

Leave all outdoor footwear outside or have an area to store these items. This practice will significantly reduce the number of contaminants from going inside your home.

How to clean hardwood floors

1. Dry Mop, Sweep Or Vacuum

The first step in cleaning your hardwood floor is to vacuum or mop the surface thoroughly to remove as much loose surface dirt as possible.

It is essential to getting a good result when it comes to cleaning hardwood. Without this step, you are just spreading dirt around.

If you opt to use the dust mop, experts suggest not to lift the mop, so the dirt stays on the fibers and not scratch the floor.

For folks who prefer a vacuum, choose one without a motorized brush, or something with a fluffy attachment.

There are alternatives like the Dyson V6 or V8 and Shark ION P50 that offer a specialized tool for cleaning bare floors.

Robotic vacuums like the ILIFE X5 does not have any motorized brush that can scratch the surface. If you can spend a bit more, any of these robot vacuums will do a superb job on the hardwood.

2. Damp Mop

Water and wood are like oil and water; they don’t go well together. Excessive water on wood flooring can damage the finish and causing it to be dull over time.

Opt for mops with a microfiber cloth. These are soft, absorbent, and lint-free. You have lots of options with these products.

Some have a built-in wringer to remove out excess water. Others have a spinning system that works like a washing machine in a drying cycle.

It is worth investing in a quality mop that has easy to find replacement heads.

Use a cleaner specially formulated for wood with the damp mop like the Murphy Oil Soap, or Dr. Wood’s black soap. Read the instructions for the proper application methods.

After soaking the mop into the bucket, wring out the excess water. Remember, only a damp mop is needed, not a wet one.

Mop in the direction of the grain. Repeat the process until you complete the whole area or room. Don’t put too much weight on mop as it could scratch the surface.

Rinse often

Divide your floors inside smaller square sections. After completing one area, rinse the mop, and proceed to the next zone.

Do this until you finish mopping the whole area and replace the water once it turns murky.

Get on all fours

Some experts like Martha Stewart suggest something more extreme – scrubbing hardwood floors using a damp towel with your hands, Mr. Miyagi style.

Of course, if you’ve got back or knee issues, avoid doing this method.

3. Check For Missed Areas Or Stuck On Debris

After mopping, check the surface for any spots you may have missed. Go over these areas again with a damp mop.

If you spot surface residue, use a clean cloth and apply a hardwood cleaner and rub thoroughly.

For hard to remove blemishes, you may need to leave the cleaner on the spot for a minute or two.

Always rinse with a damp rag afterward, especially if using potent cleaners.

Types Of Hardwood Floor Finish

One crucial factor in choose a hardwood cleaning product is identifying the type of finish. The AHIC says that there are two main types of finishes – a penetrating finish and surface finish (most new homes use the latter).

Determining the types of finish

There are several ways to test the hardwood’s finish.

The first method would be running your fingers on the surface. If you can feel the wood grain, then most likely it is a penetrating finish.

Another way of testing is by using a paint remover.

Select an inconspicuous area in a room and apply a small quantity; if the area bubbles up, then it is a surface finish.

The last test I’ll share is a scraper test using a screwdriver.

Again, do this in an inconspicuous area. Grab a tool with a blunt edge like a flat-head screwdriver. Try to scrape the finish; if it comes out clear, then your hardwood has a surface finish.

Testing if the finish is still doing its job

Once you’ve determined the finish, it’s time to test whether or not it still does its job protecting the wood underneath.

Get a tablespoon of water and drop in on a high traffic area.

If water beads up, it means the protective finish is still intact. But if it slightly darkens, it means coating may have worn out (or at least partially).

Keep your eye on it.

However, if the initial drop leaves a dark spot, then the finish is worn, and it will require a recoat or refinish.

Urethane Or Polyurethane Surface Sealed Floors

Run your finger over the surface; if there’s no smudge, then most likely, it has a modern polyurethane finish.

Count yourself lucky because this is the most durable coating out there and does an excellent job repelling liquid.

Unfinished

Some older homes have an unfinished surface. This type of finish needs waxing every 6 to 12 months. Experts recommend not exceeding this cycle.

You also need to make sure to strip off any old wax or polish before applying a new coat.

Penetrating Seal Or Oil Finished Floor

Homes with this type of flooring will need a penetrating oil that will soak into the wood grain.

Penetrating oil contains hardening agents that strengthen the overall structure of wood, making it more durable compared to polyurethane.

The most significant advantage of an oil-finished hardwood is it usually never needs a refinish, unlike polyurethane that may need more frequent reapplications or even refinishing.

The biggest downside would be the need for more frequent wax application. But this finish has a more “natural” look since the finish becomes part of the wood.

Lacquer Or Shellac

Lacquer and shellac work similar to a polyurethane finish as it provides a protective outer coating to hardwood. It isn’t as durable as polyurethane, thus requiring more frequent reapplication.

These finishes are also popular for those trying to achieve an old school appearance. Shellac was once a popular treatment during the heyday of the Arts and Crafts and Craftsman home movement.

Most shellacs available in the market come in liquid form. It’s also available in solid form or flakes. Experts recommend liquid shellacs for most homeowners because it’s easier to apply.

Hardwood that has a lacquer or shellac finish needs the same amount of TLC as untreated hardwood, which means it needs regular wax application.

Do’s And Don’t For Hardwood Floors.

Here are some “best practices” guides for maintaining different types of hardwood finishes.

1. Clean Spills Immediately

Moisture is a wood floor’s worst enemy.

Some substances can harden as they dry and become very difficult to remove and may even stain the floor.

Tell your children to inform you if there are spills so that you can dry it ASAP. Better yet, train them to wipe any liquid spill.

If there’s a significant spill, dry the area quickly and don’t let the water sit as it will trickle through any opening and jeopardize the integrity of the wood.

After mopping, using a small heater or fan can improve the drying time. Using a dehumidifier can also help at removing moisture buildup.

2. Avoid Wet Mopping or Steam Moping

If there is one thing that wood hates – it’s water because it dulls the finish or worst case, damages wood.

So avoid wet mopping and even steam cleaning as this creates unnecessary moisture.

3. Mop Or Sweep Daily

Regularly vacuum or sweep the floors to keep dirt and other contaminants from piling up.

Abrasive debris like sand will scratch the surface and dull the finish over time.

A robot vacuum is an excellent alternative for a more hands-free approach as these machines are autonomous. The latest options have smart enough navigation that can clean large spaces more efficiently.

4. Paste Wax Offers More Protection

If your hardwood needs regular wax application, please note that a paste wax is thicker and lasts longer.

Liquid wax is easier to apply but will require more frequent application. Always use a product compatible with the finish.

For instance, homes with wax-finished hardwood will need solvent-based waxes, buffing pastes, or cleaning liquid formulated for such.

Always use a clean towel or mop to apply wax.

Any contaminant that gets in the way can an agent that scratches the surface.

5. Don’t Over wax

The National Wood Flooring Association advises against over-waxing, as it will cause wax buildup.

If the finish dulls, try to buff, but if buffing doesn’t work, then it may be time to apply wax.

6. Check Rugs

Some rugs may leave marks or stains on the surface. If this happens, make sure to replace the rug or place rug mat underneath to prevent the problem from getting worst.

Make sure to clean any dirt trapped beneath. Anything that accumulates underneath will act like sandpaper and scratch the finish.

Lastly, don’t hesitate to replace worn rugs if they cause more damage. It would more cost effective to replace the rug than repairing the hardwood surface.

7. Be Careful With Abrasives

For spot treatments, using fine sandpaper (or polish) and floor wax is okay, but avoid using it often.

Using any abrasive will wear out the finish and dull the surface. If you’re sanding the finish, make sure to reapply protective coating like polyurethane.

8. Use High-Quality Cleaners And Supplies

A hardwood floor is a beautiful luxury that will provide a lot of satisfaction and service over the years.

It is essential to protect your investment by using quality products.

Why have an expensive hardwood floor if you are going to use the cheapest and lower quality cleaners.

9. Beware Of Harsh Cleaners

Vinegar is not okay to use on hardwood because it’s too acidic and will ruin the finish.

Ammonia is another cleaner that you’d want to avoid because it can dull hardwood.

High pH cleaners like liquid soap may be useful for dissolving grime, but it strips away woods natural oils and will eventually dull the finish.

Don’t use products designed for tile or vinyl.

These products will cloud the surface, making it slippery and will eventually require sanding and refinishing to repair.

Libman makes an affordable hardwood floor concentrate that is widely available.

10. Put Stick-on Felt Protectors Under Furniture

One of the biggest culprits of scuffing and scratches on hardwood finish are furniture legs. Protect your investment by putting stick-on felt protectors underneath furniture legs to protect the wood from damage.

Replace these regularly if it accumulates dirt and dust, as this can be another source of scuffing.

11. Avoid Pushing Furniture

Avoid pushing furniture on hardwood floors as it will leave a nasty scuff mark.

Call a buddy instead to help you carry the furniture.

12. High Heels and Sports Cleats are a No-no

Avoid using high heels or sports cleats as it is another source of scratches and can dent the surface.

According to the NWFA, a 125-pound woman wearing high heels with an exposed heel nail can exert as much as 8,000 pounds per square inch.

More resources on how to care for hardwood flooring: