The Washington Post

Handy Guide: Wood floors

Hand scraped floors from Universal Floors. (Universal Floors)

The appeal of glossy hardwood floors goes back centuries. The warmth of wood floors makes them a coveted design feature, and people who have wood floors work hard at keeping them looking good. Often when people move or make decorating changes in their interiors, or when floors get really dull and worn, they arrange for professionals to sand them to remove old finishes and then apply new ones. Installing wood floors, whether of new wood or reclaimed planks or antique wood, is a popular upgrade to houses, especially in living rooms, dining rooms and kitchens, as it’s known to increase the resale value.

For centuries, most wood floors were given a wax finish, which requires regular maintenance and waxing as part of routine housekeeping. Some homes still continue that tradition. But for the past 50 years, the vast majority of wood floors in American homes have been topped with layers of polyurethane. The advantage of this is a nice, durable finish and the ease of maintenance mostly by simple vacuuming and dry mopping.

One alternative to solid hardwood floors is engineered hardwood, which is made with a top layer of hardwood and a core of crisscrossed layers of other woods. Engineered wood floors are known to be very stable, so they are a popular choice for areas with concrete subfloors or in basements.

The best feature of wood floors: They go with everything.

What’s New?

Eco-friendly products. More environmentally friendly finishes, such as water-based polyurethane coatings, have lower VOCs (potentially harmful Volatile Organic Compounds) than traditional oil-based products.

Bamboo flooring from Universal Floors. (Universal Floors/UNIVERSAL FLOORS)

Faster-drying finishes. Manufacturers are developing new technologies that use ultraviolet light to cure polyurethane finishes instantly, instead of longer waits during drying.


Cleaning. The majority of floors today are sealed with polyurethane, so waxing is not necessary and could actually damage your polyurethaned floors. Dust mopping or vacuuming is usually all they need. For light cleaning, use a special professional cleaner such as Squeaky wood floor cleaner for polyurethaned floors.

Beware of footwear hazards. Keep pumps with worn heels or sports cleats off your wood floors, as they can dent them.

Trim pets’ nails. Scurrying dogs and cats can do serious damage to a wood finish. Keep scratches at bay with a regular clipping schedule.


Sprigg Lynn is president of Universal Floors in Washington, which has been in business since 1953 refinishing, installing, restoring and custom detailing wood floors. We asked him to choose three types of hard-surface flooring popular among consumers.


Recently bamboo, which is actually a grass, has been a popular alternative to hardwood flooring because of its environmentally friendly properties and affordable price. The look of bamboo plank floors is unique, and the floors are durable and practical.

$7 to $8 per square foot installed.

Wide oak plank

Choosing a floor made of three-to-five-inch-wide oak planks assures you will see more of the beauty of the natural wood. A floor can be installed pre-finished with polyurethane coating (with limited color selection). Unfinished planks can be custom-stained in any color from white to black. Multiple types of finishes are available.

$9 to $10 per square foot installed.

Hand-scraped wood

Universal Floors offers an option called hand scraping that produces a floor that mimics the rich character of antique floors. Lynn calls it a “footworn look for people who don’t want their floors to look like they came out of a box.” The look evokes the warmth of centuries-old floors. It is achieved through careful scraping with custom tools. It can be coated with polyurethane, although some prefer a wax or tung oil finish to preserve the patina.

$15 to $20 per square foot installed.

Shop Smart

1. If you have old wood floors that are looking dull and scratched, consider refinishing. If both the finish and stain are worn off into the grain of the wood, it has to be sanded before applying new coats of polyurethane or wax.

2. If you are shopping for new floors or thinking of re-staining your old ones, consider the pros and cons of dark vs. light floors. Dark floors are dramatic but will show pet scratches and dust and can make a room appear smaller. Lighter floors have a timeless look and hide dirt better; plus, they never look trendy.

3. Buy some new doormats if you install new floors or refinish your old ones. If you keep a doormat in front of all the exterior doors to your house, it can help keep dirt from being brought in on everyone’s shoes and wearing down your beautiful wood floors.

Did you know?


Percent of residential floors installed today that have poly-urethane coatings.

Source: National Wood Flooring Association


Most Popular Woods

1. Red oak

2. White oak

3. Maple

Source: National Wood Flooring Association


The amount in years (or longer) that a well-cared-for solid wood floor will last with normal wear and tear.

Source: Universal Floors

Read Handy Guides to pillows, towels, water purifiers and more at

The home and design coverage of Jura Koncius has taken her inside hundreds of homes, from tiny studios in Penn Quarter to country castles in Warrenton. Jura also hosts the Home Front live chat, Thursdays at 11 a.m. ET.
Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.