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A Complete Guide to Buying, Installing, and Properly Caring for Hardwood Floors

Hardwood Flooring at Home Hardwood flooring has long been a mainstay of home construction. Today, it continues to be a favorite for adding beauty, value, and warmth to living spaces. Many choose hardwood flooring for its long-lasting attractiveness but originally, hardwood flooring served structural purposes. It would be laid perpendicular to wooden support beams of a building, adding strength to the construction. In today’s modern construction, it is largely an aesthetic addition to a home.

Since hardwood flooring can be a sizable investment, it is important those considering this material fully understand the choices of woods and finishes available. They should understand the challenges of installing it themselves vs professional installation. Hardwood flooring is an investment that needs to be properly cleaned and maintained.

This guide is intended to help those considering hardwood flooring make the best choice for their particular situation and lifestyle. It will answer common questions about what type of woods have which traits and what to do in the event of scratches, stains, and wear. It will address the things you should avoid with a hardwood floor and situations that absolutely must never happen.

Part of the value of a hardwood floor is the comfort and joy it brings. The proper hardwood flooring material installed the right way and routinely maintained is sure to provide decades of satisfaction. The more you know, the more value you can get from your new hardwood floor.

Buying Considerations

Most are surprised at the large number of choices available when selecting hardwood flooring. Between natural, solid wood flooring through a variety of engineered hardwood flooring and laminate products the options are seemingly endless. Of course, large factors in the decision-making process will be a personal style and available budget. Other critical components should include where the flooring will be installed and the type of wear to which it will be exposed.

Buying hardwood flooring is a long-term decision that will likely stay in place through multiple decorating changes. While paint, window treatments, and even furniture may change in a room, the hardwood flooring will likely remain. That means the choice in hardwood flooring should be considered thoughtfully and carefully.

Types of Wood

One of the most appealing aspects of hardwood flooring is the wide selection of types of woods available. Not only do the various grain patterns in hardwood flooring bring personality into a living space but each wood also has its particular strengths and weaknesses. Here are some of the most popular choices of hardwood flooring.

  • Solid Wood Flooring – Solid wood flooring is considered “traditional” wood flooring, made out of a single piece of wood. It is usually cut for tongue and groove installation and is usually nailed in place, making installation somewhat lengthy. It is also more expensive than engineered woods and laminates. Owners of solid wood flooring love that it can be renewed easier than others by sanding and refinishing. It is frequently used in hallways, living rooms, and bedrooms. Because it can swell, it is not suitable for damp areas such as bathrooms and kitchens.
  • Engineered Wood Flooring – Engineered wood flooring is made from several layers of wood glued together and topped with a real wood veneer. This wood veneer can be sanded and refinished if scratched. While some engineered wood flooring is made for tongue and groove installation, most are now manufactured with a click-and-lock system that is faster and easier than nailing or gluing. Cheaper than solid wood flooring, but with some of its benefits, engineered wood flooring is still more expensive than laminates. It also holds up better in damp and humid areas than solid woods.
  • Wood Laminates – Wood laminate flooring is made from compressed wood particles, finished with an image of a particular wood type and coated with a protective clear laminate. Modern wood laminates look extremely authentic, even including imperfections and wood knots. Click-and-lock installation is simple and wood laminate flooring is durable and less expensive than solid wood or engineered wood flooring. Damaged pieces of wood laminates are difficult and more involved to repair and if they are not properly installed can be very disappointing.
  • Bamboo Flooring – Technically a grass as opposed to a wood, bamboo flooring has grown in popularity due to its solid hardwood characteristics and the fact that it is much more sustainable than solid woods. It is more water resistant than solid wood but not waterproof and should not be used in bathrooms. Bamboo flooring is not only durable but easy to clean. Homeowners should note that darker bamboo flooring may be slightly softer than lighter colors.
  • Cork Flooring – Cork flooring is actually made from a bark which is ground up, compressed and glued together into sheets and cut into tiles. Since the bark grows back, it is considered a very sustainable flooring product. Cork has a slightly softer surface making it an excellent choice for kids rooms and play areas. It is also comfortable in bedrooms. Cork flooring serves as a natural insulator of sound. Due to its softer texture, cork flooring is not as durable as solid wood and can be more easily damaged by furniture.
  • Parquet Flooring – Parquet flooring is made using short blocks or strips, making it a popular choice when homeowners want a distinctive design or pattern in a room. Parquet flooring is durable and an excellent choice for high traffic areas but it can be extremely expensive. It also can be a challenge to install properly. It should not be used in damp areas like bathrooms.
  • Reclaimed Wood Flooring – Reclaimed wood flooring is basically recycled wood from a vintage property. In some cases, it may already be in a room, under layers of laminate or carpeting. It can frequently be restored by sanding and refinishing, depending on the desired effect. It is extremely environmentally-friendly and can add drama to any living space.

Types of Finishes

Hardwood Flooring With a Nice Finish One of the more misunderstood options when choosing hardwood flooring is the various finishes that are available. A floor’s finish or “sheen” can dramatically impact its overall appearance and improve wear. Here are some common options when it comes to hardwood finishes.

  • Water-Based Polyurethane – This is one of the most popular finishes because it is available in high gloss, satin, and semi-gloss finishes, dries quickly and cleans up easily. It is simple to apply, wears well and resists yellowing. While high gloss finishes are most popular, they can be prone to showing more scratches than semi-gloss or satin.
  • Oil-Based Polyurethane – For those in search of a high gloss finish that will wear well, even in high traffic areas, an oil-based polyurethane is a good choice. Because an oil based product tends to last longer than a water-based polyurethane, there will be less frequent need for refinishing. The application can be a challenge, however, as it is slow to dry and more difficult to clean up.
  • Moisture-Cure Urethane – For those in search of the most durable surface moisture-cure urethane may be the best option. This is the type of finish used by bowling alleys and offers a clear, clean and hard surface that will resist scratches. It “cures” by drawing moisture from the air and can be very fickle in very dry and very humid conditions. Because moisture-cure urethane can be so challenging to apply it may be a job better left to a professional.
  • Wax – Prior to the introduction to polyurethanes, wax was the primary finish for those with wood floors. Wax delivers a lower sheen finish and it is labor intensive to apply. It is also prone to yellowing over time and is not very durable. It is available in a paste or liquid and offers a very attractive, natural finish.
  • Shellac – Shellac has been used as a finish for wood flooring for hundreds of years and remains a popular choice for those concerned about the release of VOCs because it is a natural product that dries quickly. It adheres well to oily woods. It must be thoroughly mixed before applying and because it dries so quickly it can be prone to lap lines. It is relatively easy to repair.
  • Penetrating Oil – This is a natural product that really brings out the grain in the wood. It is one of the best options for revealing the personality of a wood floor but it is expensive and will generally need to be reapplied every few years. Penetrating oils dry slowly and can take 24 hrs. between coats. It does not hold up well to high traffic. It is often chosen as a finish for those restoring a historic home.
  • Acid Cure – Perhaps the highest level of floor finishes is acid cure, sometimes referred to as a Swedish finish or conversion finish. This is frequently used for wood flooring with patterns like parquet floors and is even more durable than polyurethanes. It is extremely durable even against spilled chemicals. Be prepared for strong odors and high VOCs when applying an acid-cure finish.
  • Aluminum Oxide – This is an extremely durable finish that is available only on pre-finished planks. It is almost impervious to scratches but when scratched is difficult to repair. Refinishing an aluminum oxide finish floor will likely take professionals since it is so challenging to work with. It is available in a variety of high gloss to satin finishes.

Planks

Planks are the individual, strip-like pieces of wood flooring material that are placed together to form a floor. Like wood and finish options, there are more plank width and length choices than ever before. You’ll also have to decide between solid vs engineered planks and tongue and groove vs click and lock installation.

While traditional plank flooring ranges between two and three inches in width, homeowners are discovering the beauty, warmth and classic look of wider planks ranging to 10” and wider. In some cases, the wider the planks, the more rustic and natural the floor will appear. Wider planks almost result in fewer seams. Homeowners are also choosing flooring installations with wood planks of varying widths for an even more dramatic look. Hardwood planks in wider widths can be challenging in locating, however, and buyers may be limited to Eastern Pine as the best option for this style.

Plank flooring is available in a choice of tongue and groove and click and lock installation options. Click and lock is the preferred choice for do-it-yourselfers while tongue and groove takes more time and may require the assistance of a professional.

Plank length is another way a wooden floor can be customized. By selecting planks of varying lengths, interest can be heightened. To make the most of any wooden flooring project, design the floor using all the available choices including plank width and length. The differences can be significant.

Other Buying Tips

Buying wood flooring starts with an honest appraisal of your current flooring and what you do and do not like about it. Beyond an improved appearance, what are you looking to achieve through your new flooring? Do you want to add warmth or soundproofing? Do you want the easiest to maintain floor or the most attractive? Are you interested in creating a contemporary or rustic atmosphere?

Once you have a basic idea of what you are looking to achieve it is time to touch or feel any potential materials and look at samples. Talk to a flooring expert to explain your goals and budget. Can the flooring be installed above a current laminate surface or will that need to be removed? What type of guarantee does the flooring have?

You may also want to inquire about any potential sales that may be just days or weeks ahead. Ask if there are any discounts for paying cash or if the store offers an initial discount when applying for a store credit card. In some cases, stores will offer 10-20% off an initial purchase with a credit card application and that can be significant when buying wood flooring.

Remember to ask about related materials needed for installation including sub-flooring, padding, glue, nails and tools.

Hardwood Flooring Installation

How to Install Hardwood Floors Before making the decision on whether wood flooring can be installed as a do-it-yourself project or if professional assistance is required, there are several factors to consider. These include:

  • Will the flooring be installed on top of the current flooring?
  • The condition of the subfloor
  • The thickness of the new flooring material
  • The difficulty of the installation process
  • The skills of the do-it-yourselfer

For example, flooring installed on top of linoleum flooring is far simpler than removing the old surface. If the subfloor needs to be replaced it is a more involved project, so grab your metal toolbox and get ready to put in some work. A thicker flooring material may get in the way of baseboards or require doors to be shortened. Nailing tongue and groove flooring in place will be far more challenging than click and lock material.

Of course, before making any decision you’ll want to be honest about your own skills and ability to get the job completed properly. Keep in mind, a poor installation may do more damage than good.

Reasons to Choose a Professional

If the flooring is thicker than the previous flooring, or the installation process more difficult, professional assistance may be the best choice. This is particularly true if the flooring is tongue and groove, in varying widths or a challenging material like parquet. If your choice of finishes is difficult to apply, like moisture cure urethane, you’ll also likely want the help of a pro.

Keep in mind, depending on your situation, adding new flooring can be labor intensive and difficult. Sometimes it’s not as easy as grabbing the tools you have in the toolbox in the back of your truck. It is also a significant investment and you’ll want to be assured of a superior result. There will likely be less waste with professional help and the job will probably be completed in a more timely manner. Professional assistance is a no-brainer if you lack confidence or the tools to get the job done.

Is DIY Installation Possible?

If you’ve been successful at other projects around the home, installing your own wood floor can be a rewarding experience. Modern installation processes like no glue, click and lock features make self-installation easier than ever — although you’ll want to make sure you find the right tool kit for any troubleshooting down the line. When materials and finishes are selected based on ease of installation and the right tools are available, a do-it-yourselfer can install wood flooring over the course of a weekend. It is always best to be honest about your skills before undertaking any home improvement project.

Cleaning Hardwood Floors

How to Clean Hardwood Floors While wood flooring offers exceptional beauty and value, caring for wood flooring is unlike caring for any other flooring material. One of the most important factors in caring for wood flooring is keeping it clean. Sand, dirt, and grit can scuff and scratch the finish and perhaps even the flooring itself. Excess moisture and spills can leave marks or discolor the floor. Strong chemicals can create stains and spots. It takes the right cleaning products and materials and a higher level of attention than many other materials.

If a home has not previously had wood flooring or the homeowner is not used to caring for wooden floors it is worth taking the time to learn how to properly care for a wood floor on a daily, routine basis, and how to conduct an occasional deep cleaning. It will pay back dividends in years of lasting beauty and compliments.

Routine Cleaning

Homeowners with wood flooring quickly discover the higher the gloss or sheen, the more it will show any dust or dirt. Routine cleaning of wood flooring starts with a daily dusting with a microfiber, Swiffer-style product. This keeps the floor clear of small pieces of dirt and grit that can scratch and damage the floor if it is left to be ground in.

Along with this daily dusting, the floor should be vacuumed and wet mopped once weekly. When vacuuming, take care not to use a vacuum with the beater bar. This beater bar can lead to scuffing and scratching. Instead, vacuum with a brush attachment. After vacuuming, the floor should be wet mopped using only products recommended by the manufacturer. It is extremely important that the use of water is minimized as it can cause dulling and potentially damage the wood. Any liquids placed on the flooring should be wiped promptly.

To better protect hardwood flooring some owners will choose carpet runners in high traffic areas and hallways and even use area rugs in living spaces. While this certainly will help, nothing replaces keeping wood flooring clear of dust and dirt.

Deep Cleaning

Deep cleaning a wood floor generally involves one of two processes. One is polishing the floor and the other is refinishing a floor. When you polish a floor you use a product to even out and polish a floor’s sheen while removing light scratches. The original finish remains. When refinishing a floor, the original finish is removed and replaced with a whole new surface. Polishing a floor can be done several times a year. Refinishing a floor should only be required every five to ten years or more unless the floor has been severely damaged.

  • Polishing a Floor – Before polishing a floor, remove all of the furnishings in a room. Care should be taken when moving furnishings so that the wood flooring is not scratched or scuffed in the process. The floor should then be completely dusted and thoroughly wet-mopped. After making sure the floor is dry, the polish should be applied evenly over the surface of the floor according to instructions. In the case of liquid polishes, it frequently can take up to 24 hours to properly dry before moving furniture back into the space.
  • Refinishing a Floor – Refinishing a floor completely replaces a floor’s initial finish and is an involved, intensive and frequently dusty process. Remove all the furnishings from a room and cover doorways with plastic sheeting to keep dust from reaching other rooms. Renting a floor sander is usually the best and easiest way to remove the initial finish, following instructions and using a face mask. Once the old finish is removed, the floor should be inspected to see if there are any small areas that may need more hand sanding to remove stubborn deep stains. It is very important that the floor is free of the dust from sanding that could potentially negatively affect the new finish. Follow the instructions on your new finish to properly clean flooring before application. Apply the finish per instructions. In some cases, homeowners may wish to apply a second coat to improve durability. This second coat should only be applied after the first coat has thoroughly dried and been sanded very lightly. Depending on the type of finish applied, the floor should dry 24-48 hours prior to use.
Both polishing and refinishing adds new life to wood flooring and can be well worth the effort.

Repair and Maintenance Tips

Scratches on Hardwood Flooring A wood floor is an investment that requires proper care and maintenance to provide full value. Like other aspects of a home, repairs should be taken care of before they become more extensive and expensive to repair. Many repairs can be avoided with appropriate maintenance. Even with proper maintenance, however, accidents can happen. Spills can cause stains, scratches can occur inadvertently and water may create damage. For homeowners with a pet, their “accidents” can be even more problematic when there’s wood floors.

Knowing how to quickly and successfully address stains and scratches can add life and beauty to your wood flooring. Knowing how to maintain your floor and what to do and not to do can increase enjoyment significantly.

Dealing With Stains

It is critical that homeowners react to any spills on wood flooring promptly. Any liquid, if left on a wood floor long enough, will cause damage. Any liquids should be quickly wiped with a clean, damp, microfiber cloth and promptly dried. If the finish is good enough and the liquid dried soon enough, damage may be slight. The steps taken to remove deeper stains will depend on the severity of the stain.

In some cases, hydrogen peroxide can be used to “bleach out” a stain on a wood floor. After soaking a cotton cloth in hydrogen peroxide, place it on the stain allowing it to soak into the wood. Remove the cloth and reapply to areas as needed. Once the stain has been removed, clean up any remaining hydrogen peroxide so it will no sit and continue to bleach the floor.

Deeper stains and water rings may take a bit more aggressive action, like very light sanding with steel wool or a very, very fine sandpaper. This, of course, will leave a dull surface which can be addressed with a wax, mineral spirits or other wood floor repair product.

In extremely severe cases where stains have seeped deeply into the wood, it may take deeper sanding to erase the stain from the wood. Once the stain has been sanded and/or bleached out, the area will need to be refinished. Check the local home improvement store for products that may be designed to remove stains from your particular type of flooring material. Be sure to use safety glasses when sanding, because particles can get in your eyes and cause severe damage.

Fixing Scratches

Even the most durable wood floor finishes can be subject to scratching. Scratches can occur from a single cinder in the heel of a shoe, moving furniture, pet nails and more. While keeping floors clean can minimize scratches, they can still occur. You’ll want to make sure any rolling tool boxes you wheel through your home have wheels do not scratch the surface of your floors. Thankfully in most cases, they can be fixed or covered up using a variety of techniques.

  • Crayons and Markers – You may be surprised to know that crayons and markers can be an effective and affordable way to repair scratches, especially if the scratch is with the grain. Use one or more colors to best try to match the color of the wood and “polish” the crayon into the surface. There are also crayon type products that are created by floor manufacturers designed to perform the same repair. Some of these products even contain custom stain colors and urethane to mimic the wood flooring.
  • Spot Sanding – Some deeper scratches may require spot sanding. It is best to start with a softer steel wool pad or very fine sandpaper to see if you can get results. If not, grittier sandpaper may be required. Sand with the grain and fill in the scratch using wood putty and a plastic putty knife. Stain the putty to match the wood and apply a similar finish over the repair to best match your original floor.
  • Olive Oil and Vinegar – In some cases, a homemade mixture of 50/50 vinegar and olive oil may cover scratches. Apply the solution to the scratch and allow drying overnight. Repeat until results are seen.
  • Wood Putty – In severe scratches or damage, using a like colored wood putty may be the best solution. Apply to fill in the scratch and apply a thin finish coat, similar to that of the original flooring. The better you can match the putty to the color of your wood flooring the better results you will achieve.
For flooring damaged with multiple smaller, less severe scratches a complete floor polishing may be in order. Of course, if the flooring is more severely scratched over a large area, the floor may need to be completely refinished.

Hardwood Maintenance

Repairing Hardwood Floors There are several simple steps homeowners can take in keeping wood flooring in good condition. For many, it starts with smart use of floor mats, area rugs, and runners. If wood flooring is directly adjacent to an entranceway, floor mats are essential in protecting its surface. High traffic areas like entranceways and hallways can benefit from the use of carpet runners. In living spaces, area rugs can be easily utilized to minimize wear and scratches to wood floors.

Floors can be better protected from inadvertent scratches from furniture with the use of furniture pads and rubber furniture leg protectors. These can help keep furniture in place and serve to protect the flooring should the piece move.

Some homeowners are unaware of the long-term negative effects UV rays can have on natural wood flooring, including fading and dis-colorization. The solution can be as simple as closing curtains, shades or blinds during daylight hours. Similarly, rooms that are too dry or too humid can negatively affect wood flooring. Depending on a particular situation a room dehumidifier or humidifier may extend the life of wood flooring.

Things to Avoid

While protecting a wood floor through proper cleaning and maintenance is critical, the lifespan of a natural wood floor can be extended by avoiding certain practices. Here are some things to avoid and never do when you have a wood floor.

  • Wearing shoes in the house. If shoes are currently allowed to be worn in a house, that is a habit that should be changed. Shoes can easily trap dirt and bring small stones into a room. This brings dust and dirt into the space and along with them, floor scratching hazards. It is best to leave shoes at the door and enjoy your wood floor in socks or comfortable slippers.
  • Using vinegar to clean floors. While a small dose of vinegar and water may be fine while performing a deep cleaning, repeated use will eventually dull the finish of wood flooring.
  • Cleaning with a beater brush vacuum. A beater brush vacuum is generally designed for carpeting and hard surfaces. The actual beater brush that is designed to sweep up dirt can actually scratch the surface of wood flooring. This will ultimately shorten the time between deep cleanings. Instead, use a brush attachment when using a vacuum.
  • Using a steam mop. A steam mop brings two elements to a wood floor, neither of which is helpful. The first is heat and the second is moisture. This may be a good combination on tile or linoleum, but it can damage a wood floor.
  • Use of harsh chemicals. Only clean wood flooring with products recommended by the manufacturer. Harsh chemicals can discolor and damage a finish. Ammonia, in particular, can be problematic.
  • Pouring liquids directly onto the surface. Even recommended liquid products should not be poured directly onto the surface of a wood floor. Instead, apply liquids to an appropriate cloth or applicator and then apply to the floor.
  • Moving furniture without lifting. Many wood floors have been deeply damaged by owners who thought they could move a heavy piece of furniture by dragging it. Get help, put towels under legs or make sure legs are properly protected before moving furniture.

Yes, there will be some adjustments that may need to be made to a lifestyle once a wood floor is installed, but the minimal sacrifices can be well worth the effort.

Troubleshooting Common Issues

Homeowners with wood floors often experience similar issues over the lifespan of their floor. These problems are often minimalized with proper initial installation. This is why installation instructions need to be followed precisely and if, in doubt, professional assistance should be sought.

Even properly installed wood floors can be subject to conditions that cause common issues. These can include separation of the flooring, cracking, cupping, fading and warping.

Many of these issues can be repaired by puttying, staining, sanding and refinishing the damaged areas but in some extreme cases, planks may need to be replaced. Where large areas need to be repaired, the floor may require refinishing. In some cases, floors can be stained a darker color to help hide imperfections and damage that has occurred through the years. While small fixes can be made as a DIY project, larger projects involving plank replacement may be better handled by a professional. This is particularly true where tongue and groove installation was previously used.

Once budget, lifestyle and aesthetic choices have been made and once it has been decided whether the flooring will be installed as a DIY project or by a professional, homeowners are now on the path to a beautiful new floor. Yes, a new hardwood floor will take a bit more care and cleaning and it may even impact other aspects of your life, but most agree, the richness and beauty are well worth the choice.

Choosing a hardwood floor will impact the atmosphere of a living space and the value of a home for years to come. Make thoughtful initial choices, including how and who will install your floor, and make the commitment to its care. It is sure to reward you with decades of service and beauty.