First Things First—Determine the Finish Before you grab a bucket of water and a mop, it's best to find out how your hardwood floor is sealed—if at all. Why? The finish, not the wood type, determines how you clean and care for the floor.
Surface-sealed floors: Most new wood floors are sealed with urethane, polyurethane or polyacrylic. Surface-sealed floors are stain and water-damage resistant and easiest to care for and clean: Sweep, mop and you're done!
Penetrating-seal-treated and oil-treated floors: Also common, a penetrating seal or oil finish soaks into the wood grain and hardens. This type of floor must be pampered and protected with liquid or paste wax.
Lacquered, varnished, shellacked and untreated floors: Although technically surface finishes, lacquers, varnishes and shellacs are not as resistant to moisture, spills and wear as the other sealants mentioned. Treat floors with these finishes and floors with no finish as you would penetrating-seal-treated and oil-treated floors.
Not sure what kind of finish you have? To tell the difference in a pinch, just rub your finger across the floor. If no smudge appears, the floor is surface sealed. If you do create a smudge, the floor has been treated with a penetrating seal, oil finish, shellac, varnish or lacquer, and then waxed.
Cleaning Surface-Sealed Floors Product Do's and Don'ts Don't use oils, waxes or furniture sprays. Oil leaves a residue, furniture spray creates a slippery surface (think ice-skating rink!) and wax takes time to apply and makes recoating (see Tackling Simple Wood Floor Problems) difficult.
Don't use straight ammonia, alkaline products or abrasive cleaners. They'll dull or scratch the finish.
Do use a floor-cleaning product recommended by the floor finisher or opt for plain soap and water. If the recommended product is hard to find or costly, and other floor cleaners contain ingredients that violate your floor's warranty, try soap and water. I add a quarter cup of mild or pH-neutral soap (like liquid dishwashing soap) or Murphy Oil Soap (despite the name, it doesn't contain oil) to a bucket of water.
Don't rely on water alone or a vinegar and water solution to clean hardwood floors. Mopping with water will result in dingy-looking floors and won't-budge dirt buildup. Vinegar and water is not as effective as soapy water and—some suggest—may dull floors sooner. (Eventual dullness and the need to recoat are inevitable no matter what you use. See Tackling Simple Wood Floor Problems.)
Routine Cleaning In high-traffic areas, like the dining room and kitchen, you should sweep daily, if possible, and mop once or twice a week. Mop less-trafficked areas once a month or once a season.
Mopping Technique Remember: Water is wood's worst enemy (even on sealed floors!), so use a damp mop rather than a soaking wet one.
Dip the mop into the bucket of prepared cleaning solution, wring it out completely, mop in the direction of the wood grain and repeat. When the water gets dirty, empty the bucket, mix a new batch of cleaning solution and continue mopping.
When finished, go back over the entire surface with clean water to rinse.
Don't be afraid to get on your hands and knees if necessary. When a floor needs serious attention, I clean it with a cloth. (It's better than a sponge because you can "feel" the dirt as you wipe!)
Tackling Simple Wood Floor Problems Scuff marks getting you down? A bit of baking soda on a damp sponge will erase them.
Noticed a stubborn food, water or grease stain on your surface-sealed floor? Always use a commercial cleaner to treat this problem.
Hairline cracks in the floor? Don't panic and attempt to fill them. Dry heat during the winter months causes wood floors to shrink and crack. Cracks should close up during the summer (though using a humidifier can also help).
Finish looking dull? Sand the floor lightly and recoat with an additional layer or two. Recoating is necessary about every five to seven years.
Cleaning Penetrating-Seal-Treated, Oil-Treated, Shellacked, Varnished, Lacquered or Untreated Floors Product Do's and Don'ts
Do use stripper to remove old wax buildup. Choose a product the floor manufacturer recommends, a commercial product from the hardware store or mineral spirits.
Do use liquid wax designed for wood floors or paste wax. Liquid wax is easier to apply but leaves a thinner coat (and provides less protection) than paste wax.
Don't use acrylic or water-based waxes, furniture waxes or one-step waxes. Acrylic and water-based waxes can turn floors white, furniture wax creates a slick surface and one-step waxes (despite the compelling pitches: They clean! They remove old wax! They lay down new wax!) can trap dirt.
Routine Cleaning Do NOT damp-mop waxed floors. Just vacuum and sweep the surface regularly. Once or twice a year, strip the old wax and apply a fresh new coat. If a high-traffic area gets dull in between treatments, you can spot-wax the area.
Waxing Technique Vacuum the floor to remove dust.
Strip the old wax with stripper (following the manufacturer's instructions) or mineral spirits (rub into wood and then wipe off with a clean, soft cloth). Keep the area well ventilated as you work and as the floor dries.
After the floor has dried, apply a thin coat of wax, using an applicator (if you're using liquid wax) or a cloth (if you're using paste wax). Let the wax dry. For added protection, apply a second coat of wax.
Finally, buff. Use a cloth or, to make the job easier, rent a buffing machine. Remember to always buff in the direction of the wood grain.
Tackling Simple Wood Floor Problems White water spots marring your floor's finish? Add a small amount of mineral spirits to an extra-fine (0000) steel wool pad and gently rub the area in a circular motion. Keep the area well ventilated as you work.
Got heel marks that won't wipe off? Add a small amount of wax to an extra-fine (0000) steel wool pad and gently rub the area in a circular motion.
Food stains causing you trouble? Wipe the surface with a damp cloth, rub dry and wax. When removing any stain (from wood or carpet), always work from the outside edge in toward the center.
Secrets to Preserving Hardwood Floors: 3 Must-Follow Rules To extend the life of your hardwood floor no matter what the finish, keep in mind these three simple rules:
Sweep or vacuum often. Ground-in dirt destroys wood floors. To prevent buildup, clean floors once or twice a day in high-traffic areas, like the kitchen and dining room. No time? Cut down on sweeping time by placing a doormat at each entrance to your home. (Some estimates suggest that doormats eliminate 80 percent of the dirt tracked inside!)
Wipe up mud and spills immediately. Wood is easily damaged by water.
Choose carpeting wisely. If you aim to protect your wood floor with a rug, be cautious. Rug dyes have been known to stain floors, and plastic backings may affect the wood finish. Ask the carpet store to recommend an underpad as a safeguard.