How to Clean Wood Floors
They’re one of the things that make your home special. Here’s how to give them extra love—but not too much
Think about all the abuse your wood floors get just because they take it lying down. Grit, dirt, mud, soot, dust, food debris, things stuck to the feet of pets—and you don’t even want to think about where they’ve been—all get pounded into the polyurethane finish and forced between the boards. Unfortunately, the cure is sometimes worse than the grime. “Too much water, any amount of steam!” says Brett Miller, a technical expert at the National Wood Flooring Association. Other no-no’s: strong vinegar or baking soda solutions that can degrade polyurethane, and “glow” enhancers that sound as if they would work on your hair.
As Miller and other experts like to stress, properly cleaned floors are not hard to obtain, especially if you stay ahead of the game. Put down tough-bristled mats, park gritty boots and shoes at the door, sweep, dry-mop, or vacuum often, and when the floor looks dull, get into all the nooks and corners with a damp mop and a neutral solution.
Floor installer Michael Dittmer, who lives outside Chicago, dispatches a robot vac daily to keep an eye on his entire first floor. “Then I clean the kitchen floor weekly and in other rooms twice a month.” Of course, he has a yard, dogs, and teenage boys. For many households, this regimen should do the trick. Read on to learn how to clean wood floors without damaging them.
Take preemptive action. If you favor quiet, meditative sweeping, choose a soft-bristled broom angled to get into corners and wide enough to swiftly do the job—moving with the grain, of course. Vacuum with a soft floor nozzle; carpet beaters and brush rolls can damage the finish. Robot vacs do the work for you; shop for one that won’t vacuum itself into a corner and will last at least an hour before stopping to recharge. Attack sticky debris ASAP with a damp cloth, a mini squirt of wood-floor cleaner, and a vigorous rub; if you don’t like to crouch, plant one foot on a rag. Lift off dust and pet hair with a microfiber mop head, ideally treated with a positive electric charge so it can capture negative-ion ephemera. Keep the mop head moving, again with the grain.
And when it looks dingy. Damp-mop with a flat-head mop and microfiber pad or a microfiber string mop that has been thoroughly wrung out. Move with the grain, and control the amount of cleaning solution by using a spray bottle, aiming for a heavy mist or gentle squirt of about a half teaspoon per 2 square feet. No need to rinse. No need to buff either, but cloth diapers and soft socks do work well here.
Letting it go. In most households, wood floors should be cleaned at least four to six times a year.
Ignoring wet or sticky spills. They won’t go away on their own. Did an ice cube just shoot under the table? Go get it.
Bringing on the heavy equipment. You can damage the finish by attacking with a broom meant for the garage or a floor-cleaning machine designed for tougher flooring.
Applying the wrong product. Experts say Murphy Oil Soap can leave a residue on polyurethane. Paste wax simply makes it slippery. As for acrylic polishes that claim to remove the glow while putting more on? They can dull polyurethane—just remove the grime and it will shine.
Flooding the zone. Standing water and overly wet mops shoot moisture between boards and through tiny tears in the finish that form when wood shrinks and expands with the weather. Over time, moisture can damage the wood.
Steam cleaning. Never on wood. Save it for tile, linoleum, and vinyl.
BROOM + DUSTPAN
Regular soft sweeping does the job. Try Casabella’s Wayclean Wide Angled Broom ($13; Casabella); for $2 more, you can have its Neon Broom and Dustpan set. Or wrangle those crumbs skulking under the table with the tony horsehair and waxed-beechwood Room Broom ($58, with handle; Nessentials).
Choose one that’s easy to pick up and maneuver and has a soft roller head, like Dyson’s V8 Absolute ($600; Dyson).
Look for a swivel head and a fluffy, reusable pad for dry mopping and a denser one for damp mopping. (Wipes should be formulated for wood floors; Bona’s come as a 12-pack, $8; Bed Bath & Beyond). Some spray mops have refillable tanks riding on the shaft, such as Libman Freedom Spray Mop ($20; Target). O-Cedar’s Dual-Action Microfiber Flip Mop ($13; The Home Depot) has pads for dry and wet mopping—throw them in the wash but avoid fabric softener, which can cause streaking. Or go for a microfiber string mop that can be wrung out till just damp, like Casabella’s Spin Cycle Mop ($60; Casabella).
You want a pH level of about 7, or matched to cured poly; higher is too alkaline, and lower is okay for an all-purpose cleaner, but not here. One example is Bona’s free & simple Hardwood Floor Cleaner ($13; Bona).
WHY BOTTLED IS BEST
Old-fashioned remedies involving vinegar or dish detergent can’t do the same job as today’s multifunctioning solutions and can actually damage or dull polyurethane. (One way to check for residue is to spray a bit of solution on glass and see what it leaves behind.) Here are the key components of ready-made solutions engineered specifically for wood floors.
speed the drying process, reducing exposure to moisture and making the job go faster; they also minimize streaking and filmy buildup. Method’s Squirt & Mop Wood Floor Cleaner contains two solvents, one derived from cornstalks ($5; Target).
loosen grease and dirt and emulsify them so they can move to the mop head; they’re the key ingredient in Minwax’s Hardwood Floor Cleaner ($24; The Home Depot).
found in Method’s cleaner, fight water spotting and snow-melt salts.
breaks up dirt and combines with alkaline ingredients to help achieve a neutral pH.
release hydrogen peroxide to bust up dirt on long-neglected floors and are in extra-strength solutions like Bona’s PowerPlus ($12; Bona).