Sand-free Maintenance of Wood Flooring

March 9, 2009
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My first experience with sand-free or low-abrasion maintenance for wood flooring occurred early in my career, in a public building on the national register for historical buildings.

It was a 16,000-square-foot private residence of one of the early founders of a city in the northwest, built on a hilltop in the first decade of the 20th century.

In the decades to follow the house was abandoned by the family, leaving it exposed to the elements. After many years it was purchased by the city and restored to its previous splendor.

The wood floors, specifically, were magnificent, and required great skill, craftsmanship and knowledge to bring them back to life. The restoration required steaming the floors and manipulating them back into place using techniques practiced by craftsmen far more knowledgeable than myself. Once the floors were close to level again, sanding and refinishing was performed, leaving very little wood above the tongue and groove; these floors would not ever be capable of taking another sanding.

The floor maintenance system selected to preserve the floors was penetrating seal and paste wax. Although somewhat antiquated and in most cases obsolete, the floor maintenance program was perfect for this situation. The floors were dust mopped frequently to keep the grit down, and damp mopped on occasion to remove heavier soil. They were buffed regularly with a white polishing pad to maintain the natural luster with a thin layer of paste wax that was replenished periodically. Every year they would get a thorough cleaning with mineral spirits and steel wool to remove the old wax, and fresh paste wax was applied to combat the million or so visitors that visit the building every year.

In this case, the reason for employing sand-free or low-abrasion maintenance was because there was not enough wood left to sand. Fast forward to today and you will find that we are confronted with the same issues, but maybe for slightly different reasons. Solid wood floors that are sanded and re-finished can only have this service performed two or three times in their life cycle, due to the amount of wood above the tongue or groove; in some cases even less, depending on the thickness of the wood slat or strip.

Engineered or laminated wood flooring (not to be confused with laminate flooring) are cross layered with softwoods or hardwoods below and a thin layer of sliced, sawn or veneer on the top; sometimes as little as 1/16 inch. Even though they may have three to five layers to create an adequate overall thickness between ¼- and 9/16-inch, the top layer may not have enough material to accept even one screen sanding, and would probably be totally destroyed with a drum sander.

To solve this problem, more durable floor coatings and/or wear layers may be applied at the factory. Although penetrating seals and paste wax may have been the best technology in the past, there are many more-durable coatings today. Most come from the urethane or polyurethane family and fall into oil-modified, moisture-cured, acid-cured, ultra-violet-light cured, acrylic-impregnated or water-based products. Additionally, some of these coatings may be fortified with aluminum oxide, which gives them greater strength and adds life to the wear layer.

These products can be applied at the factory with far less problems than on-site. There is the reduction in noise, less disruption to the occupants, no obnoxious smells and the elimination of time needed for these coatings to fully cure. While these coatings are significantly harder than their predecessors, they will still succumb to the damaging effects of erosion and require some form of maintenance.

Daily/routine maintenance for most wood floors is relatively simple. Removal of dry particulate soil is accomplished with vacuuming, dust mopping or sweeping. Microfiber dust mop heads or cloth systems are excellent at removing dry particulate soils. Additional general cleaning may be accomplished by damp mopping (minimum moisture) with a neutral cleaner.

Microfiber mopping systems offer an excellent method of reducing the amount of cleaning solution to the floor surface. Dip or spray the microfiber mop head with cleaning solution and clean small areas followed by a dry applicator or mop to remove any excess solution that may be left. Sometimes dry buffing with a rotary floor machine and a white polishing pad can give a little extra luster.

Periodic maintenance may incorporate a spray buff system using a hand trigger sprayer and a rotary floor machine affixed with a red light scrub/spray-buff pad. This process is particularly popular when acrylic impregnated surface coatings are used. Spray/mist a small section of the floor and agitate with low abrasive pad until dry. The soil is transferred to the pad, and a small amount of polymer is left on the floor to give it a bit of shine.

Some approaches to periodic maintenance include a light scrub and re-coat using the same spray-buff principles, but instead of a polishing solution a cleaning solution is used. These systems are considered sand-free because they do not incorporate sand paper or sanding screens; the floors are agitated with a synthetic pad that contains no sand or silica. Once the floor has been thoroughly dried, a new application of floor seal/finish may be applied. This system works well on acrylic impregnated, and some aluminum oxide-fortified, coatings. Be aware, though, that there are many cases of non-adhesion when working on this type of floor.

Unless deep scratches or gouges are present, most urethanes can be maintained using low-abrasive techniques, implementing sanding screens as opposed to drum sanders to abrade the surface so another application of the coating can be applied. This system is more aggressive because the urethanes are very durable and can last for many years. The objective is to abrade the surface so the coating will adhere. This methodology is not for the novice or apprentice; it should only be done by trained, skilled technicians. It is also very important to know what type of surface coating is on the floor, because the same type of coating must go on the top.

The traditional restorative process is sanding and re-finishing, and can only be accomplished if there is enough wood above the tongue and groove to sand away. The objective of sanding and refinishing is to remove all pre-existing coating to bare wood and reapply fresh coats. Do not even attempt this if you have no training; a momentary loss of concentration and you may be buying your client a whole new floor.

In short, sand-free and low-abrasion wood floor maintenance is about taking care of the surface coating on the floor, not about trying to get to the wood underneath. Although this type of maintenance has been around for decades, newer coatings and polishes have made it easier to accomplish. These durable coatings give the floor a much better look for a longer period of time reducing the amount of labor required to maintain wood flooring.

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