How To Clean And Maintain Floors Where The Finish is Unknown

set of cleaning equipment on a wooden floor

How to clean and maintain your wood floors if you have no idea what finish is on them.

First, if you have a new floor or prefinished floor read my other cleaning article first. 

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 materials 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 stays 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 water based 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.

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 gray 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.