By Lee Wallender
Because hardwood flooring has literally been around for centuries and many of the floors found in historic homes are still the originals, it is easy to think of them as being impervious to damage.
But like any house element, hardwood floors are prone to damage from accumulated wear and tear as well as unexpected events such as flooding.
The potential for damage is magnified by the fact that, unlike ceramic or vinyl flooring, hardwood is an organic material.
Wood’s cellular structure will break down more easily than ceramic’s minerals or vinyl’s polymers, especially when subjected to moisture.
However, with proper care and maintenance, your hardwood floors can retain their beauty and last for decades to come.
Overview of Hardwood Floors
Lines tend to blur when it comes to categorizing hardwood flooring. With technological innovations in floor manufacturing in the last couple of decades, these lines have become even blurrier. Basically, though, it comes down to three areas.
Solid hardwood flooring is 100 percent natural wood from top to bottom, no additives or changes except in the case of prefinished flooring, which comes with a factory-applied urethane-based top coating.
Even so, this is just a surface coating, and all material below the coating is natural wood sawn directly from hardwoods such as ash, cherry, maple, or oak.
Pro: Provides fantastic resale value since home buyers place great emphasis on real, solid hardwood flooring.
Con: Solid hardwood can be damaged when subjected to long periods of moisture.
Compared to solid hardwood’s deep history, engineered wood is a baby. In the mid-20th century, flooring manufacturers began to laminate thin veneers of real hardwood on top of thicker layers of plywood. Thus, well over 95 percent of this flooring is plywood. However, the top – the part that is visible – is 100 percent real wood.
Pro: Engineered wood flooring is considered to be dimensionally stable, since the plywood base is relatively unaffected by climatic changes and even minor flooding.
Con: Engineered wood flooring can only be lightly sanded down a couple of times in its lifetime.2
Laminate flooring looks like hardwood because its top layer is a photographic image of real hardwood. Atop that is a transparent wear layer that protects the flooring.
Below the photographic layer is the majority of the product – a fiberboard composed of wood pulp and resins.
Pro: Laminate flooring can be quite cost-effective, especially because it can be self-installed.
Con: While today’s laminate looks better than ever, many home buyers still view laminate negatively. Thus, resale value for laminate will be lower than with solid hardwood or engineered wood.
Protecting and Maintaining Your Hardwood Floors
Solid hardwood flooring, when protected and well maintained, will easily last for the length of your home ownership.
Protect from Moisture
You are already protecting your solid hardwood floor from destructive water by not installing it in moisture-heavy areas such as full bathrooms, basements, and laundry rooms. But what about the rest of the house?
Solid hardwood is often installed in kitchens, and here you may find excess water from the sink, dishwasher overflow, and water seeping from the refrigerator.
Soft natural rubber mats are a favorite of many chefs chiefly because they make it easier to stand for long periods of time. But they are also great because they protect the floor from water.
Water can form under open windows in the event of a flash rainstorm. If water forms, mop it up immediately.
The same holds true even for spilled water glasses and other small splashes of water. Wipe them up right away to keep the water from seeping in between the floorboards.
Water is tracked in at entryways such as front and back doors. Put down mats in these places and enforce a shoe-free home policy.
Keep the Coating in Good Shape
Your hardwood floor is only as good as its top coating. No wood floor should ever be uncoated for more than a few days.
Coatings range from the thick, shell-like factory-applied coating of prefinished floors to site-applied sealers and stains.
Coatings will wear down in certain high-traffic areas (entries, near kitchens and interior doors, tops of stairs, hallways, pivot points like sinks and fridges, and living rooms).
Both prefinished and site-finished (the term for unfinished flooring that receives stains and sealers on site) flooring can be refinished.
Solid hardwood floors can receive several hard sandings with a drum sander during their lifetime prior to resealing.
Engineered wood can, at best, receive two or three light sandings with a rotary sander before resealing.
Minimize Daily Wear
Copious use of area rugs is the absolute best way to mitigate daily wear and tear on your hardwood flooring. Major hardwood floor manufacturer Bruce recommends a breathable rug underlay. Avoid mats or underlays composed of latex, synthetic rubber, or vinyl, as they may discolor the floor. Choose natural rubber, felt plus natural rubber, or 100 percent felt backings instead.
Take care when moving heavy objects, and be sure not to slide items across the floor. Place soft floor protectors under stationary furniture such as sofas and easy chairs.
Of all the animals present in your home – human or otherwise – dogs and their claws represent the greatest danger to your hardwood floor.
Keep dog claws trimmed as far back as safely possible. Provide area rugs in places where dogs tend to lie, because these are also places where dogs can spring to action and take off running.
Cleaning Hardwood Floors
Never wet-mop a hardwood floor. Instead, follow a multistep process that begins with dry cleaning and culminates in a light damp mopping:
Roll up accessible area rugs and shake them outdoors.
Sweep with a soft bristled broom in key traffic areas every couple of days. Every week, sweep the rest of the floor.
Vacuum the floor, especially along baseboards, behind doors, and in corners. Do not use a vacuum designed for carpeting (unless it has a mode for hard floors) as its beater bar will damage the flooring.
Damp mop with a Swiffer WetJet or with a mop whose head has been thoroughly wrung out. Add a special hardwood cleaner to the water, such as Bona Hardwood Floor Cleaner or Murphy Oil Soap.
Avoid steam or wet cleaners, as they produce too much water and can damage floors. Never use vinegar or any floor cleaner that is not designed for hardwood flooring.
Fixing Scratches in Hardwood Floors
One benefit of real hardwood flooring is that damage such as scratches and dents can be fixed relatively easily. By contrast, scratches in engineered wood flooring are more difficult to fix, and laminate flooring is impossible to fix (board replacement is the only “fix”).
Scratches that only affect the protective coating can be fixed by lightly hand-sanding with a fine grit sandpaper in the #180-#100 range. Follow this with application of polyurethane sealer with a soft cloth. Do not apply too thickly.
For numerous scratches that penetrate both the coating and the top of the wood, machine-sand with a rotary floor sander, followed by application of a clear coat. If the scratches are more localized, you may be able to hand-sand with an oscillating electric hand sander, followed with clear coating.
Dents and Gouges
Do not try to sand out deep gouges and dents; doing so will produce dips in the floor. Purchase a matching color wax filler available at flooring stores. This crayon-like stick rubs into and fills the gouge/dent. When the wax is flat with the flooring surface, rub with a soft cloth to remove excess.
Alternatively, for a longer-lasting fix, fill with wood putty that is colored to match the color of your flooring. After the putty is dry, lightly sand down until it reaches the surface of the floor. Be careful not to sand off coating from peripheral areas. Clean with a tack cloth, then cover with clear coating.
Hardwood floors are a beautiful, though expensive, investment. This guide helps you protect, clean, and repair your flooring so you can prolong its life and great looks for decades to come.
Lee Wallender began remodeling homes when he transformed a World War I-era farmhouse into a comfortable new home. He has been writing about home remodeling on About Home Renovations since 2006.