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.
Unfortunately due to gravity and the ease at which liquids disperse across floors it's all too tempting to pour and spread various useless and potentially harmful materals on our wooden floors. In a misguided attempt to fill in scratches, make the floor shine or nourish the wood, we bring home miracle treatments, which accomplish nothing more than to further enrich the retail and petrochemical industry. In this part of the discussion I'm going to teach you how to identify your floor finish and give you realistic and inexpensive options on how to maintain it.
If you 've just uncovered a wood floor that's been carpeted for decades, and you have no way to contact the previous owners to ask about the floor finish, you'll need to put the floor through a few tests before you start messing with it.
You should remove any wax first as this may skew the results of the many finish tests I'm going to discuss. I'll discuss how to remove various types of waxes later.
The easiest test will be a finish soundness test. Simply apply a few drops of water on the most worn area of the floor. If the water drops bead up and stay on top of the wood for a few minutes you have a sound finish. For a sound finish, water based cleaners (and waxes) are all right to use. If you find the drops of water soaking in or turning the wood dark you have an unsound finish. Water will further damage an unsound finish so don't wash it with any waterbased cleaners. You can however, wash an unsound finish with odorless mineral spirits, and wax it with a solvent based paste wax or, resand and refinish the whole floor. If you know there is no wax on the floor, you can use the orbital floor sanding machine, resand the worn areas and then recoat those spots and the whole floor. Refer to my article on the Orbital Floor Sanding Machine in the Case in Point section.
It is most important to determine if the floor has been waxed. This may be not so easy to see. A lot of heavily waxed floors have fooled me. Take a piece of extra fine steel wool and wet it slightly with water. Rub it on various areas that you think may have been waxed. Paste wax will show up as a light grey smudge on the wool. Paste wax will also be removed with a rag wetted with mineral spirits, and will show up on the rag as a dirty film.
Water based acrlyic waxes like Mop and Glo will be harder to dissolve and generally need an ammonia based wax stripper to remove them. Most of these acrylic polishes will give the surface a patchy, dirty appearance when they start to wear off. The most important thing to realize when you find either kind of wax on your floor, is that wax by it's very nature gets into all the cracks and pores of the wood , and it is impractical and impossible to remove every trace. Wax, will repell any coating you choose to apply to a floor, and if you're not resanding and refinishing, you should really learn to live with this wax. If you know you have an acrylic wax, you can use a mop stripper to remove it. Then apply a fresh coating of a good brand like Top Gloss, available at the Cleaning Center at www.cleanreport.com.
If on the other hand you find that the floors have been waxed
with a paste wax and the finish is unsound, you can continue to use paste wax to give the surface a satin shine. Paste wax is solvent based so you won't be harming the finish if it's not sound. Just be sure to clean the finish with a mild solvent like odorless mineral spirits instead of water, so that the wood is not further damaged.
You can use various solvents to determine just what generic type of finish it is. The first solvent to try on the finish is alcohol. Use rubbing alcohol that you find at the drug store. Apply a few drops of this in a inconspicuous spot and observe. If, in a few minutes, it starts softening the finish and makes it sticky, the finish is shellac. This is the least durable of all the film type finishes so that may be why you are having problems washing the floor. A lot of people start waxing these shellac finishes and in order for this test to work you will have had to remove the wax with mineral spirits or paint thinner first.
The next step is to apply a few drops of lacquer thinner on a different area and watch this. If the finish is a lacquer or a water based finish, the lacquer thinner will start to soften it. Unless the floor has a pale look to it and has been resanded in the last 15 years, it's unlikely that it is a water based finish. To prove if it is a water based finish apply a few drops of toluene or xylene and if the finish softens it's a water based coating, and not a lacquer finish. If you find that none of these solvents affect the finish, you then have some sort of reactive finish, polyurethane varnish being the most common used on wood floors for the past 30 years. There are other reactive finishes but for the sake of maintenance and recoating it really doesn't matter.
The point being that once you are sure of the type of finish you have on the floor, and you have determined that the floor needs a touch up or a full recoating, stick to that finish for all future coatings. As long as the floor has never been waxed, a well prepared old finish can, in most cases be successfully recoated. Oh, by the way, that's the trouble with those renewal kit's, they all contain a water based coating. Now why would someone want to recoat an oil based, or lacquer based finish with a water based finish ? It sure will get confusing if you have to repair the floor or do a major touch up of damaged finish.
As a general rule a finish that was done prior to 1930 is probably an old tung oil finish, or shellac that by now has many coats of paste wax on it. You can clean this floor with odorless mineral spirits. Use a soft white floor cleaning pad to dissolve the old wax into the solvent and while still wet wipe it up with clean rags. Wait over night for the solvent to dry and wax with a liquid paste wax. There are two available; Lite n Natural by Bruce at www.bruce.com, or try Dura Seal's Liquid Floor Wax at 800-526-0495. These waxes have about the same consistency of semi melted butter. That makes them easy to apply, and be sure to do a thin coat. It will haze over when it's dry (about 30 minutes), and then you can buff it with an electric buffing machine. Try to find one that has natural bristle pads on it, this will easily buff the floor to a nice satin sheen. You can also use the paste waxes from those little tins. The best method for these is to wrap a golf ball sized lump of wax into a piece of cheese cloth. Squeeze it gently and apply a thin coat to the floor and buff it when it hazes.
A common finish used in the 1940's and beyond would be floor varnishes and lacquers and later polyurethane. I have managed to test and recoat even 50 year old finishes. Just be sure to do an adhesion test, before you commit to recoat the whole floor. A poorly adhered floor finish will scratch with the least provocation. Once it's starts peeling you will have a mess on your hands until you resand and refinish the whole floor. Prepare a small area, by scuff-sanding and cleaning, and apply the proper matching finish. Old alkyd varnishes can be recoated with modern polyurethane, as they are both classified as reactive type finishes. Lacquer, shellac and water based are best recoated with the same type after the finish test spot has cured, and that depends on the finish. Water based and lacquer finishes take 2 weeks, and oil based urethanes up to a month. If you're impatient wait at least half that time. Then using a razor, cross hatch the spot and apply a piece of duct tape. Rip it off and take a close look at the test spot. If you see any missing finish or edge peeling at all, don't recoat the floor with this method. You will most likely need to resand and refinish instead.
Recommended tools for the job...
A lot of people are using the newer water based finishes, and as long as they are one of the two types I mentioned before, you should get up to a decade of use out of them. These finishes together with the finishes already on most prefinished floors are the only ones that should be recoated with the new recoat-without-resand kits, that I mentioned in the first part of this article. I find it quite disturbing to see some of these recoat kits that claim that they are good for recoating any kind of floor finish. They usually include a rather less durable water based finish, which most people find will scratch even easier. These products just keep you coming back for more. If you really want to use this method, try one of the pro kits I mentioned before.
So, like most things, it takes a little knowledge to find the right maintenance products and methods to suit your floor needs. A well maintained 3/4" strip floor can be screened (scuff sanded) and recoated every 10 years, and if done 3 times you should be able to make the original floor sanding job last 40 years. You could then resand the floor 6-8 more times, giving this floor at least a 300 year life span. But you can do a similar treatment using acrylic wax. Just strip and re-wax once a year. And only resand and refinish every 40 years or so. You can avoid all those nasty fumes of recoating, and your floor will always have a high gloss. If you want, experiment with those refresher or re-coat kits offered by companies like Bona Kemi or Basic Coatings. Take your choice. Its your floor.