Hardwood, Not Hard Work

By Stephanie Cavanaugh
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 28, 2007

Maudline Cajou is at the helm of an alarmingly loud, ancient, dusty-pink Hoover buffer, pushing, pulling, carefully skirting the edges of the Oriental rug on the living room floor in Margot Kelly's Capitol Hill house.

For 14 years, the routine has never varied: One week Kelly's house cleaner waxes the 200-year-old floors and then buffs; the next week she only buffs.

"I love to wax," Cajou said. "I sweep it off first, then wash it with a tiny bit of dish soap and water and rinse very lightly. Then I lightly apply Johnson's paste wax on my hands and knees, the old-fashioned way -- let it dry for about an hour, then shine with the polisher. I like it to look nice when it's done."

Surely there's an easier way to put a shine on an old wood floor.

Most modern hardwood floors are covered with polyurethane, a plastic coating that needs no buffing. Applying it to older floors sounds as if it would make maintenance effortless, but polyurethane isn't necessarily the answer. It might even be a big mistake, particularly if your floors date back 50 years or more.

"If there's any contaminant on the floor -- Murphy's Oil Soap, paste wax, Endust, anything with silicon in it -- nine times out of 10, polyurethane won't bond," said Sprigg Lynn of Universal Floors in Northwest Washington. "It will end up scratching easily or peeling off."

You can bet that an old floor was kept waxed and that the wax is so ingrained in the wood that even sanding won't remove it completely. And though you didn't intentionally spray the floors while dusting, chances are that when you cleaned the dining room table, the spray drifted onto the floorboards.

"Polyurethane is the ultimate instant gratification. It's junk food for floors," said Judith Capen, a District architect and specialist in preservation. "Unless we have cleaning people, how likely are we to wax them? Easier to call the flooring guy to sand the heck out of the floor and slop on a coat of polyurethane. The day they walk away, it's fantastic . . . but five years later?"

When she tried polyurethane on the kitchen's wood floor in her turn-of-the-century home, "it wore fast, and it wore extremely erratically, patchily, in the high-traffic areas," she said. "We all know that polyurethane will wear through, but this was insane."

Even when there is no waxy residue on floors, polyurethane is not indestructible. "It's popular because it's easy to maintain; it can be damp-mopped," Lynn said. "But anything can scratch -- stilettos, dog's nails, they're like little knives on their feet, actually denting the wood."

And when it wears, it may need to be sanded off, shortening the floor's life. Despite the thickness of the floorboards, there's a mere quarter-inch of wood between beautiful and shot.

Lynn, who has been sanding floors for his family's 50-year-old company since "before I was paid for it," said the number of sandings a floor can withstand ranges from "five to 15, depending on who's behind the sander."

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