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How to clean and care for hardwood floors

It’s hard to beat the classic look of wood floors. Here’s how to keep them clean and shining for many years to come.

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Q: How do I take care of the wood floors in my home?

A: These days, there are many types of wood floors, including traditional strips of natural wood with interlocking tongue-and-groove edges, and manufactured planks that have a thin layer of natural wood on top of particleboard. But regardless of the type, wood floors share the same basic needs: removing grit promptly, even daily; cleaning less frequently, maybe monthly; and recoating or spot-repairing as needed. Plus, all types of wood floors last longer when homeowners take care to avoid stains and scratches.

Wood — whether in natural boards or in manufactured planks made of glued-together fibers — expands when it absorbs moisture, either from vapor in the air or in liquid form. Fluctuating humidity, which is affected by temperature, can cause wood flooring to cup or crack, so avoiding extremes is important. The National Wood Flooring Association recommends keeping a home with wood floors between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit and between 30 and 50 percent relative humidity year-round. And you never want to clean a wood floor by wet-mopping it, because that could slosh around enough water to warp the floor. Steam-mopping is also out.

It’s also important to recognize that, when you clean a wood floor, you’re really cleaning the finish, provided it’s intact. That’s why grit, which acts as sandpaper when people track it around on the soles of their shoes or drag it across the floor under chair legs, is a wood floor’s biggest enemy: Too much sanding via grit wears through the finish. The flooring association recommends sweeping or dust-mopping every day and vacuuming once a week with a hard-floor attachment. But the best cleaning tool and how often you use it really depends on how much traffic there is and how you like to clean. Vacuuming works best, because it removes the grit on contact, while sweeping and dust-mopping move it around. But pulling out a vacuum is more trouble, so people tend to put that off. Thus the recommendation to dust-mop or sweep daily, at least in high-traffic areas.

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Modern floor finishes are sturdy enough that you can wipe away sticky spills and dirt with a slightly damp cloth. The flooring association recommends using whatever specific cleaner the flooring manufacturer suggests. But if you don’t know that, use plain water. Improvising with other cleaners, even ones that sound benign, may lead to problems. Cleaning products intended for vinyl floors can ruin wood floor finishes. “Oil soap” wood cleaners can leave residue. Vinegar is acidic enough to gradually etch floor finishes, leaving them cloudy. Ammonia, sometimes recommended for lifting stubborn stains, is very alkaline and can take off some floor finishes. But a little water — just enough to dampen a cloth or sponge — takes off spills and leaves the floor plenty clean. Follow up by immediately buffing the cleaned area with a soft, dry cloth. Can’t get down on your hands and knees to clean the floor? Use a mop, but think of it as wiping the floor with a substitute for the barely damp cloth, not actual mopping. The mop needs to be wrung out well.

It makes sense to wipe up spills right away, of course, but you can be more relaxed about overall cleaning. The flooring association recommends doing that once a month. First vacuum to remove grit, then clean with a recommended cleaner or plain water. Be sure to rinse and wring out the cleaning cloth or mop frequently.

To minimize how much grit gets into your home, consider instituting a shoes-off policy. (Make exceptions for elders, or put a chair by the door to make taking off shoes easier.) Install floor mats inside and outside each exterior door. For the inside mat, avoid styles with a rubber backing, because rubber can react with some finishes and damage a wood floor. For the outside mat, make a habit of shaking it out every two weeks. Vacuuming it also works, but if the mat is exposed to rain, use a wet/dry vac; a household vacuum can short out if it suctions up water.

Install felt pads on chair legs, but brush off or vacuum the pads frequently, so they don’t collect grit and become little sanding pads when people scoot in or out. Replace the pads when grit becomes embedded. When you move furniture or other heavy objects, vacuum or sweep first, then place pads or old towels underneath pieces while you scoot them around.

Dealing with gunk in the gaps of old hardwood floors

If you spot scratches deep enough to cut through the finish, use a touch-up marker in an appropriate wood tone to make the exposed wood blend in. Paint and hardware stores usually sell markers in the aisle with wood stains; home centers may carry them there or with flooring. Some wood-flooring manufacturers sell markers color-matched to specific products.

If your wood floor gets dented, you may be able to make the fibers swell back into place with a little steam. Dampen the corner of a cloth, place it over the dent and position the tip of a hot, dry iron over the cloth. The heat and moisture in the cloth will send a little burst of steam into the wood and make the dent less noticeable, especially if you repeat the process a couple of times. This trick won’t repair torn fibers, though, and it probably won’t work if your flooring has just a thin layer of wood veneer over particleboard.

Avoid stains by never placing potted plants on a wood floor. Even if the pots don’t have weep holes, you could easily spill water while tending to the plants and not notice until it’s too late. It’s sometimes possible to lighten stains with chemicals such as oxalic acid, but you’d also need to refinish the floor. A floor installer can remove and replace damaged pieces. If you have a “floating floor” with manufactured wood flooring glued or clipped edge-to-edge and not to the subfloor, you might even be able to make the switch yourself, provided you have extra pieces.

At some point, a wood floor will start to look dull even after you’ve cleaned. That’s a signal that it’s time to recoat the floor after first prepping the old finish with a light sanding. The flooring association recommends hiring a pro to do this every three to five years, but it really depends on how the floor looks. Do it before the finish wears through in spots. Wait too long and the floor will have to be completely refinished, which involves a lot more sanding and expense.

A full refinishing, according to the flooring association, should be needed only once every few decades. At that point, it’s best to delay the work as long as possible, because sanding past the finish means taking off some of the wood, too. A wood floor can withstand that only a few times before the top layer wears through or nails start to show. And then you need a new floor — which probably isn’t an option you want.

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