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How to clean wooden floors

Melanie Whitehouse / 28 April 2016

Get tatty wooden flooring shining again with our guide to dusting, mopping and waxing wooden floors.

Clean wooden floors
Keep wooden floorboards in good condition with our tips for dusting, mopping and waxing wood floors

They cost a fortune yet we walk all over them - and then we expect them to look clean and shiny!

Before you start your clean, look at the finish on your wooden floor. Most new wooden floors will have been sealed with a polyurethane or similar coating or be stained or painted to give a tough top surface. They are resistant to stain and water damage and easy to care for. Never use oils, waxes or furniture sprays on these floors as they can create a dangerous, slippery surface and make resurfacing more tricky.

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Other floors – particularly in older homes – will have a soft, oiled finish. The oil soaks into the wood grain and hardens, to form a top seal. This type of floor must be looked after and protected with wax.

Lacquered, varnished and shellacked finishes are not as resistant to moisture, spills and wear as polyurethane sealants. Treat these floors and those with no finish as you would an oiled floor.

If you’re not sure what kind of finish you have, rub your finger across the floor. If no mark appears, the floor is surface-sealed. If a mark is left, the floor has been treated with a penetrating seal, oil finish, shellac, varnish or lacquer, and then waxed.

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A weekly once-over

Dust the floor with a mop that has been specially treated to pick up dust, dirt and pet hair, or use an electrostatic cloth. Never use abrasive cleaners on a hard finish or you can permanently damage it. Then vacuum using the floor-brush attachment – you don’t want anything to scratch the surface of your wooden floor. Finally, give it a damp mop, going with the grain, and leave to dry, then buff with a soft cloth.

Do this at least once a week, depending on how ‘dirty’ your household is – pets and children tend to bring in mud and muck.

The occasional deep-clean

Over time, dirt, grease, oil and grime build up. These won’t be completely removed by a superficial weekly clean, so set aside a bit of time twice a year to give your floor some attention and keep it looking its best.

It’s best to use a proprietary wood-cleaning product diluted according to the instructions – if in any doubt, ask the manufacturer of your floor what they recommend. 

Soak a sponge or a mop in the water, then wring it out so it’s damp – not wet. Mop the floor with it but never leave puddles of water on any wooden floor as they can damage the surface and raise the grain of the wood. Then – and not all wood cleaning products need this - rinse off with a clean, damp mop. Open windows and leave to dry out.

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Waxing your wooden floor

Once or twice a year, strip off the old wax and apply a new coat.

  • Vacuum the floor to remove dust.
  • Strip the old wax off with a proprietary stripper, following the manufacturer's instructions. Keep the area well ventilated.
  • After the floor has dried, apply a thin coat of wax, using an applicator or a cloth, depending on the type of wax you’re using. Let the wax dry, then apply a second coat.
  • Use a cloth or rent a buffing machine, and buff up floor in the direction of the grain.

Removing stains and marks

The following remedies are for hardwood floors with an oiled finish:

  • Tackle scuff marks with baking soda on a damp sponge.
  • For oily stains, rub the area with a soft cloth and washing-up liquid to break down the grease. Rinse with clear water. Repeat until the stain has gone.
  • For dark spots, water marks and pet stains, rub with a fine grade steel wool and floor wax. If the area is still dark, apply bleach or vinegar and let it soak into the wood for about an hour. Rinse with a damp cloth, then buff up with the wax.
  • Remove heel marks by rubbing with fine steel wool and floor wax.
  • If stains don’t respond to treatment, lightly sand the floor, clean with fine steel wool and white spirit (or white vinegar), then stain or wax the wood and buff to match the rest of the floor.

Top tips

  • If in doubt about your floor cleaner, use washing-up liquid and water. Don't use straight ammonia, alkaline products or abrasive cleaners.
  • Always use a barely-damp, never a wet, mop.
  • Recoating sealed floors is recommended every five to seven years. You‘ll know when the time is right because the finish will look dull.
  • Put doormats both outside and inside exterior doors to pick up brought-in dirt.
  • Use furniture pads under furniture and put down rugs in children’s play areas to ensure the floor doesn’t get scratched.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.