I get a lot of questions about how to clean and maintain a hardwood floor from two groups of people. The first group is lucky. To begin, they have a new floor finish. This new floor finish will be either on a new prefinished floor, or a sand-on-site floor, or on a recently resanded and refinished existing wood floor. Mostly what these folks are missing is information on how to maintain that floor finish.
Most hardwood flooring contractors give short shrift to this subject. They usually mention washing the floor with vinegar and water, or oil soap, or they try to sell you some rather expensive cleaning agents supposedly meant only for hardwood floors. They will try to convince you that only their special floor cleaner should be used or the warranty will be voided. Oh, what coercion ! So my task here is to set you on the right track from the beginning. In the second part of the article I'll address the people who have no idea what floor finish they are dealing with. How to improve the longivity of your floor
First, I'm going to refer to water based cleaners. These are the safest and easiest cleaners to use on a well finished floor. Well finished means the finish must be either 3 coats of oil modified polyurethane (no lacquer sealers please), or 4 coats of a water based finish (either a one part oxygen crosslinking formula, or a two component catalyzed type). The pre-catalyzed conversion finishes (Swedish finishes) and moisture cured urethanes are also very water resistant.
If the floor is in a kitchen or heavily used area, one more coat than is normal must be applied. A lot of poorly finished floors cannot handle any kind of water based cleaners. Be sure you know that you have one of these 5 finishing systems before you start to clean you floor. I'll assume that a prefinished floor has a factory applied conversion finish that is not a wax or oil based. These floors can be damp mopped with water based cleaners, but not wet mopped! I'll discuss this later.
The best cleaning agent for a new floor finish is a PH neutral cleaner. Be sure you wait until your new finish has cured. Oil based polyurethane finish take a month to cure while most water based finishes take 2 weeks to fully cure. Cleaners are available in various PH's. This is a measure of their alkalinity or acidity. The lower PH cleaners (more acidic like vinegar) will work on dissolving hard water and mineral deposits. So this makes vinegar a good rinsing agent but a poor cleaning agent. It won't clean grease or dirt.
A high PH cleaner ( more alkaline like soaps and harsh detergents) are really good at dissolving grease and dirt, but this higher PH will, in time, dull the floor finish. They will harm your skin also. Cleaners that are PH neutral are available at most cleaning supply houses but they are formulated for washing vinyl floors that have been waxed with an acrylic polish without harming the wax. That's how mild those cleaners are. The Cleaning Center at www.cleanreport.com carries a product that is specially formulated for wood finishes.
Wood Wash is one of these. It's safe to use on new floor finishes and is biodegradable. It comes in a concentrated formula and you can make a gallon of floor cleaner for about 70 cents. I like to use distilled water for dilution because it avoids any hard water streaks and brings my cost to only $2.50 per gallon of cleaner. I like to vaccuum my floors thoroughly first,then I get down on my hands and knees and spray the cleaner on an area that's easy to reach. I use one rag to clean the floor, and keep a drier rag handy to buff the floor dry. I get a super clean streakless floor that way, and the gallon of cleaner lasts a long time.
You can also mop this solution on a well finished floor. Damp mopping is a method where by you wet the mop slighly ( dip it in the bucket and wring out almost dry). Go over the floor twice, once to disolve the dirt and after rinsing the mop and ringing it, give it one more mop pass to remove the guck. If you have a prefinished floor it would be a good idea to buff the floor dry with a towel or buffer.
That brings us to one important issue. What special considerations should one make when cleaning prefinised floors ? The first two cleaning methods I described so far are OK for a prefinised floor that has a conversion film finish on it. This is a finish that is quite resistant to water, but because the wood has not been coated on site, any further wet mopping will send water down between the boards and damage the wood. Some contractors will install a prefinised floor, and then apply one or two more coats of a cross linking finish, to seal up these seams. This would be the rare case, so unless you know that this has been done, never wet mop your prefinished floor. Just damp mop and buff dry.
The wet moping method uses the same solution but wringing the mop out only a little. Again wet the floor first, and scrub the dirt off with a non abrasive white pad (and in this case a large area can be done). Wring the mop dry and remove the dirty liquid from the floor, then rinse the mop in clear water and rinse the floor once. You can, if you want, buff the floor dry with clean terry cloth rags. Wet mopping need only be done once a month or less, and only when the floor is really dirty. This would mostly apply to a kitchen floor or other heavily-used areas.
Let's stay with the first group that has new floors or newly refinished floors. The next most commonly asked question is what do I do when the floor gets scratched ? All film finished wood floors, no matter how tough the finish is, will, in time get scratched. So now there are two ways to go. The first is to ignore all but the deepest of scratches and plan on recoating the floor every so often. This is what I do on my floors.
On the deep scratches, I will however, fill them with floor finish applied with an artists brush. A couple of coats will be needed to fill up the scratches that have gone down to the bare wood. Use the floor finish according to directions even with these minor touch ups. A kitchen floor needs to be recoated every 2-4 years and the rest of the house every 5-10 years. A flooring contractor can do this for as little as 60 cents per sq. ft. In every case the old finish needs to be prepared by scuffing (a light sanding of the finish, not the wood) and good cleaning to remove all the fine dust that the scuffing made. I use lint free rags wetted with paint thinner. Be sure to let the paint thinner dry off before brushing on the new finish.
The very nature of these durable crosslinked floor finishes make them very difficult to blend in a small touch up. Don't be tempted to paint a fresh coat of floor finish where the surface has not been scuffed-sanded and cleaned. The finish will certainly not stick. You may find that you have to recoat a whole board that has been scratched, or a whole area of the floor from wall to wall. Before you go out to purchase a prefinished floor, see if they sell or provide free, a matching touch-up kit, with this rather expensive floor. Don't be too disapointed if the finish in the touch- up kit doesn't match the floor. Most factory applied conversion finishes are almost impossible to imitate with a site applied finish. In a few weeks of wear and tear, these will be less noticeable. After all it's only a floor.
The trick is to recoat the whole floor when it still looks good. You must be sure nobody has used anything on the floor other than the PH neutral cleaner that I suggested. A lot of professional house cleaners will apply various liquids on hardwood floors in an attempt to impress you. If any of those treatments in the 10 year period have been waxes, oils or silicone polishes, you are sunk. You can never be sure of removing all of these contaminents, and a recoatng with a modern film finish will either never dry properly or never stick on top the origional coating. Alas, you must then resand and refinish the floor all over again, or join the waxing crowd.
Waxing is not such an arduous task anymore, and the newer water based acrylic waxes are simply appied, left to dry and don't need to be buffed. The best place to use this water based wax, is a sand-on-site floor that is subject to lots of scratching. For some, the way to go is to use a high solids acrilyc wax. Top Gloss is available through the Cleaning Center at www.cleanreport.com. This is applied to a clean, well-finished wood surface and left to dry. It will give you that high shine you see on commercial floors. You will have to strip this wax off with a Mop Stripper and rewax, but this is only a once or twice a year project.
Just remember once you use this wax it may be impossibe to remove it all. Someday you may want to recoat the floor with a modern film finish, like polyurethane. You will have to sand the floor to the bare wood and completely refinish it. With a well maintained acrlyc waxed floor you may not have to for twenty years or so. I wouldn't suggest using this water based waxing and stripping system on a prefinished floor, there are just to many seams exposed to the water. But, a prefinished floor that has been re-coated at least twice on site will be quite water resistant.
For those that have prefinished floors, there is a floor refresher. While it's a little more trouble to use than a wax, Bona Kemi claims that you can re-coat over top of this with a floor finish at a later date. The Bona Kemi Swedish Formula Refresher Kit comes with cleaning supplies and a low solids acrilyc finish. After you thoroughly clean the floor you apply this finish and allow a couple of hours for it to dry. You needn't do this more than 2 or three times a year in heavily used areas. The main advantage is that it has such a low build up that when it comes time to screen and recoat your floors with a new coating of a water based finish, this refresher shouldn't interfere with it's adhesion. Visit the Bona Kemi web site for more information on these kits at www.bonakemi.com.
Both Bona Kemi and Basic Coatings have come up with recoating systems that allow you to recoat a water based floor finish without having to screen the finish beforehand. It involves use of some mildly toxic solvents and you still have to buff the floor with an electric buffer. You use a conditioning pad instead of a screen. This condioning pad will create less dust but is also needed to scuff the hidden bevelled edges of a prefinished floor. That's the best use for this rather complicated and expensive finish preparation system. Prefinished floors with even the most durable coatings will need to be recoated once they get scratched.
The Bona Kemi Prep System of the Basic Coatings Tycoat (www.basiccoating.com) recoating systems are expensive and generally for the professional refinisher, but may be the best answer for recoating those prefinished floors. The irregular surface that prefinshed floors present makes the normal scuff-sanding (or screening) impractical, whereas the gentle scrubbing with chemical prep agents provide a more thorough preparation of these surfaces. I have yet to try these professional products as I generally stay clear of prefinished floors anyway, but I hope to get some samples and will do some simple adhesion tests to see if these products live up to their promises.
In the next part of this I'll discuss how to maintain a floor that you have no idea what the finish is or how it's been treated in the past.