How to Deep Clean Hardwood Floors (5 Simple Steps)

How to Deep Clean Hardwood Floors

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Hardwood floors add beauty, charm, and warmth to your home but, besides their aesthetic value, one of their best attributes is that they’re easy to clean. Most of the time, a quick vacuuming is all they need.

Every once in a while, though, especially if you have kids and pets, they require a deep cleaning.

I’m not talking about vacuuming for a little longer than usual or wiping them down with your Swiffer. I’m talking about rolling up your sleeves and getting rid of the stains and grime that have built up over several months.

So how exactly do you deep clean hardwood floors?

It’s actually pretty easy; here are the basic steps:

  1. Step 1: Pick up loose dirt and dust with a vacuum, microfiber mop, or broom with split tips.
  2. Step 2: Determine whether your floors are protected with a surface or penetrating finish.
  3. Step 3: Pick a hardwood floor cleaner specially designed for your floor finish.
  4. Step 4: Spray the cleaner on the floors and mop in the direction of the floorboards.
  5. Step 5: Remove deep stains, grease, and scuff marks.

Although the process is quite simple, there are important details to know about each step to maximize your efforts and, more importantly, avoid damaging your floors.

To get the full story, keep reading. In this article, I explain step-by-step how to deep clean hardwood floors. Plus, I teach you how to avoid common cleaning mistakes, how often your floors need cleaning, and how to prevent stains in the first place.

Use the links below to navigate this article:

Step 1: Pick Up Loose Dirt and Dust

The first and easiest step in the process is to remove loose dirt and dust from your floors. The best tool for this step is a vacuum with a floor attachment that has soft bristles.

Vacuuming dirt with soft bristle vacuum head
Pictured: Dyson Ball Multi Floor Canister Vacuum

Avoid using a vacuum with an aggressive beater bar with hard bristles. A beater bar is a cylinder-shaped bar within the vacuum head that spins rapidly to lift dirt embedded deep in high-pile carpets. Large upright-style vacuums designed for carpets typically have ultra-aggressive beater bars, and most of them will scratch hardwood floors unless the vacuum head is designed specifically for hard surfaces.

If you’re thinking about investing in a new vacuum, I recently published this article comparing the top vacuums for hardwood floors and area rugs. Spoiler: I highly recommend canister-style vacuums, and the best one you can buy is the Dyson Ball Multi Floor Canister Vacuum. It’s super powerful and comes with plenty of attachments for hardwood floors.

Dyson big ball multi floor canister vacuum
Dyson Big Ball Multi-Floor Canister Vacuum

If your current vacuum doesn’t have an attachment for wood floors, the next best option is to use a floor mop that has a detachable microfiber head like this one. The microfibers act as a vacuum for particles of dust while other mops and sponges with thicker fibers push dust along but don’t pick it up.

Bona Microfiber Floor Mop: Microfiber side
Bona Microfiber Floor Mop: Microfiber side

To get the best results, fill a spray bottle with water and give your floors a very light spritz before wiping them immediately with the microfiber mop. The water will attract dust and dirt particles, and the microfiber cloth will absorb the water.

If you don’t have a vacuum safe for hardwood floors or a microfiber mop, sweep up the loose dirt and dust with a broom that has fine bristles and exploded/split tips (like this). The fine bristles are small enough to pick up dust and dirt sandwiched between the floorboards. Some brooms have thicker bristles that won’t pick up dust as well and could scratch your floor.

Step 2: Identify Your Floor Finish

Now that you’ve cleared out the loose dirt and dust, it’s time to determine the type of finish on your floors. This step is vital because floor cleaning products are designed for particular finishes, and using the wrong product could lead to severe, and in some cases irreversible, damage.

The good news is that you don’t have to be a home improvement guru to figure out which type of finish is on your floors. Let me explain in straightforward terms.

There are two categories of floor finishes; surface and penetrating.

Surface Finishes

Surface finishes are the most common type of residential wood floor finish. Some examples of finishes in this category are polyurethane, oil-based urethane, water-based urethane, and moisture-cured urethane. They are applied on top of stained wood floors to provide a layer of protection and give them a glossy, semi-gloss, or satin look.

Surface finishes prevent water and other liquids from absorbing into the floor, making it easy to wipe up spills. This type of finish is so popular because it makes floors super durable and easy to maintain.

Penetrating Finishes

Rather than creating a barrier on top like surface finishes do, penetrating finishes (also known as oil finishes) absorb deep into the fibers of the wood to oxidize and harden it from the inside out. Most floors with penetrating finishes are coated with a layer of floor wax, which adds some surface protection but not nearly as much as a surface finish.

Floors with penetrating finishes are very prone to water damage. Since the finish and wax coating doesn’t completely seal the surface, liquids can seep into the wood, causing it to expand and warp.

Since floors with penetrating finishes require more maintenance, they are much less common than surface finishes, especially in newer homes. However, before surface finishes came about in the 1920s, oiled and waxed wood floors were the only option. If your home was built before 1920, there’s a decent chance your floors have a penetrating finish.

Now that you understand the two types of finishes, how do you determine which finish is on your floor? There are a couple of methods; the water method and the scraping method.

  • Water Method: Pour a small amount of water on your floor. If the water pools up, you have a surface finish. If it absorbs quickly into the wood, you have a penetrating finish.
Water on Hardwood Floor with Surface Finish
Water Method (This floor has a surface finish)
  • Scraping Method: Run the edge of a dull knife over a tiny area of the floor. If you’re able to scrape a transparent material off the floor, it’s a surface finish. If the floor smudges but no transparent materials scrape off, it’s a penetrating finish.
Determining Floor Finish Scraping Method
Scraping Method (This floor has a surface finish)

Step 3: Pick the Right Hardwood Floor Cleaner

Now that you’ve identified your floor finish, the next step is to choose the appropriate hardwood floor cleaner.

Floors Protected By Surface Finishes

Surface finishes don’t allow water to penetrate, so it’s safe to use most water-based cleaning solutions.

The product I recommend for floors with surface finishes is Bona Hardwood Floor Cleaner (see on Amazon).  It comes in a spray bottle, making it easy to apply while keeping the amount of moisture in check. You can also buy a larger tank to refill it.

To learn more about why I recommend Bona Hardwood Floor Cleaner, check out our in-depth review that covers how to use it, what it’s made of, it’s key benefits, what customers complain about the most.

Bona Hardwood Floor Cleaner
Bona Hardwood Floor Cleaner

Alternatively, Bona makes a great microfiber mop that comes with their cleaner and spray functionality built-in. All you have to do is pull the trigger below the handle to wet the floor as you mop. It’s super popular and is very affordable on Amazon.

When it comes to water-based wood floor cleaners, there are so many options. You can save money buying generic brands, but I typically choose Bona products since they’re a trusted brand that has been completely dedicated to the installation, renovation, maintenance, and care of wood floors since 1919. Their water-based wood floor cleaners are incredibly effective and have very low VOC emissions making them not only safe for your floors but also safe for you. I’ve talked to many unaffiliated floor experts over the past several years, and 8 out of 10 of them recommend Bona products.

If you’re not a fan of Bona, another great water-based cleaner that’s very affordable and gets excellent reviews is Black Diamond Stoneworks Wood & Laminate Floor Cleaner. Like I mentioned, there are dozens of others if you browse the cleaning aisle at any home improvement store.

You can’t go wrong with either of these specially formulated cleaners, but you can go wrong by trying to develop a solution of your own. Many blogs will tell you to grab a bucket and mix water and vinegar, or water and lemon juice, or even water and tea bags—I’ve read it all.

What they don’t tell you is that the acid in these homemade solutions will break down the top layer of sealer, allowing moisture to absorb into the wood. When moisture gets in, the wood expands and begins to warp—not good.  

The tricky part is that your floor may look great after cleaning it with water and vinegar/lemon/tea once, but experiments have shown that repeated use will degrade the finish and lead to severe damage.

While they sound like great “hacks,” your hardwood floors are too important and frankly too valuable to risk it. Spend the $15 or so and get a cleaner that will get the job done without the risk.

Floors Protected By Penetrating Finishes

Since floors protected by a penetrating finish are even more susceptible to water damage than floors with surface finishes, use only pH-neutral cleaners specifically designed for penetrating/oil-based finishes. Avoid all water-based floor cleaners as those will quickly absorb into the wood and lead to irreversible damage.

The best product on the market is the Bona Professional Series Natural Oil Hardwood Floor Cleaner (see on Amazon). Its solvents and surfactants are specially formulated for hardwood floors treated with penetrating oil finishes. It’s not only safe for your floors, but it’s also non-toxic, non-flammable, biodegradable, and GREENGUARD Children and Schools Certified, making it safe for you and your family.  For more details, check out this product’s technical datasheet.

Step 4: Mop in the Direction of the Floorboards

Now that you’ve removed the dust and dirt, identified the finish, and gathered the proper cleaning solutions, it’s time to get cleaning.

For surface-finished floors, spray the water-based hardwood floor cleaner of your choice on your floors and wipe it immediately with a microfiber cloth or floor mop with a microfiber cloth head. You do not need to mix the cleaner with water; the cleaner is designed to work on its own. Also, it comes in a spray bottle to limit the amount of moisture on your floors.

If you don’t have a mop with a microfiber head, you can buy one on Amazon (they’re very inexpensive), or you can use a regular sponge mop. I recommend microfiber because it will attract and absorb dirt and grime better than anything else.

Bona Microfiber Floor Mop

The process is the same for penetrating surfaces, but instead of spraying a water-based cleaner, spray the cleaner specially designed for penetrating finishes.

Regardless of the type of finish, it’s important to mop in the direction of the floorboards. Doing so prevents streaking and allows the fibers of the mop to pick up dirt and grime that’s wedged between the floorboards.

If you take anything away from this article, please take this: water and wood are natural enemies.

Exposing penetrating-finished wood floors to water is a definite no-no. But, even floors protected with surface finish can become damaged when excess water leaks between the floorboards. Sure, you might get away with wet-mopping your floors a few times, but eventually, moisture will absorb into the wood.

If you forgo my advice to use a spray-and-wipe cleaning solution and instead use a mop and bucket method, I strongly urge you to ring the mop out as much as possible and make sure it’s barely damp when you wipe the floor. There’s no reason ever to soak your floor with puddles of water; it’s a recipe for disaster.

Bottom line—there’s a reason that specially formulated floor cleaners come in a spray bottle. If you use the right cleaner, your floors only need a light mist.

Step 5: Remove Deep Stains

The fifth, and final, step is to tackle those scuffs and stains that remain on your hardwoods after mopping.

Every stain is a little bit different, and so are techniques necessary to remove them. Here’s a list of the most common stains and tips on how to get rid of them quickly and safely.

Note: The techniques I’m about to describe are for treating stains on wood floors with surface finishes (polyurethane and urethane). Since floors with penetrating finishes are so susceptible to damage from water and water-based products, the best way to treat stains on them is to use a specially formulated spot remover. The best one, by far, is the Woca Denmark Spot Remover. All you have to do is spray it on any stain (wine, coffee, water, pet mess, etc.), let it dissolve the stain for about 15 minutes, and wipe it with a slightly damp cloth.  After you’ve removed the stain, you might need to apply a new coat of wax or oil for added protection.

Scuff Marks

Walking with rubber-soled shoes or dragging furniture across your hardwoods will cause unsightly scuff marks. Fortunately, there are a handful of easy ways to get rid of them.

The easiest way to clean scuff marks is to erase them with an eraser (yup, a regular pencil eraser). Just rub the eraser firmly across the scuff marks and sweep away any of the remaining eraser shavings.

Another easy way to clean scuff marks is to rub them with a tennis ball. If large areas are scuffed up, cut a hole in a tennis ball and attach it to a broomstick, so you don’t have to bend over.

If neither of those two methods does the trick, mix a little baking soda in water, dab a clean towel or the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser in the mixture, and gently rub scuff marks out of the floor. Dry the area immediately after.

Oil and Grease

To get rid of grease and oil stains, mix a few dashes of dish soap with water and use a cloth to rub the stains gently in a circular motion. Surfactants in dish soap break down the molecules in grease and loosen it from the surface of your floor, just like they do on messy dishes.

For stubborn grease stains, put a clean cloth over the stain and place an iron on top of the cloth and turn the iron to medium heat. The steam from the iron will lift the grease into the cloth. Prolonged heat exposure can damage your floor finish, so only use the iron for a minute.

Paint

Even if you protect your floors while painting, a drop or two will inevitably sneak by the drop cloth. When this happens, rub the paint with a damp microfiber cloth. If that doesn’t work, rub it with a cloth dipped in rubbing alcohol. Wear gloves and avoid topical contact as the alcohol can irritate your skin.

Pet Stains

Mix a solution of 1 part white vinegar and four parts water. Never use a water/vinegar solution with more than 25% vinegar. As I mentioned earlier, prolonged exposure to the acid in vinegar can damage your floor, so ‘not enough’ is always better than ‘too much.’

Dip a cloth in the water/vinegar solution and scrub the stained area for a few minutes. After you dry the area, sprinkle baking soda on it and let that sit for a couple of hours. The baking soda will absorb and deodorize the nasty smell.

Finally, clean up the baking soda with a damp cloth and dry the area again.

Water Stains

Water stains are common on hardwood floors, and the biggest culprits are potted plants. Most people overwater their plants and don’t realize they are leaking out the bottom until it’s too late.

If you notice water staining on your floors, first try wiping it with a slightly damp cloth. If the water hasn’t penetrated the surface of the floor, the stain should wipe right off.

If that doesn’t work, place a clean cloth over the stain. Take a hot clothes iron with the steam setting off and rub it over the cloth for several minutes, keeping the iron in constant motion. The heat from the iron should evaporate the moisture that’s embedded into the wood and lift the stain out.

If this doesn’t work, your last resort is to lightly sand the area until the stain is gone and reseal it with a surface finish. This process is a little more involved, so I’d highly recommend consulting with a flooring expert (get a free quote from one on HomeAdvisor.com), especially if the stain is more significant than a few inches

Chewing Gum

To remove chewing gum that’s stuck to your floor, put a handful of ice cubes in a plastic bag and hold it against the gum until it turns rock-hard. Once cold and hard, you can easily chip off the gum with a plastic knife or any other flat tool.

Sticky Residue

Tape and other adhesive materials can leave a sticky residue on your hardwood floors. When this happens, dip a microfiber cloth or Mr. Clean Magic Eraser sponge in a 4 to 1 water/vinegar solution and gently rub out the residue.

If that doesn’t do the trick, pick up some Goo Gone Pro-Power Spray Gel on Amazon. Goo Gone is specially formulated to clean up sticky messes (or Goo) while leaving the surfaces, in this case, your floor, completely unharmed. Spray it on the residue, let it sit for 5 minutes, then wipe it off with a damp cloth.

Frequency: How Often Should You Deep Clean Hardwood Floors?

Keeping hardwood floors clean and beautiful isn’t a complicated process; you just need to stay on top of it. Here’s the cleaning and maintenance schedule that the National Wood Flooring Association recommends:

  • Every Day: Remove dirt and dust by sweeping or dust mopping.
  • Every Week: Vacuum using a wood floor attachment that won’t cause scratches.
  • Every Month: Perform a deep cleaning. Mop with a floor cleaner designed for the finish on your particular floors and spot-treat stains.
  • Every 3 to 5 Years: Add a fresh coat of finish. Applying a new coat of finish will restore the look and extend the life of your floors and is a much cheaper alternative to completely refinishing. Speaking of which…
  • Every 30 Years: Completely sand down, re-stain, and refinish your floors. You only need to do this if your floors become extremely damaged or worn out from decades of abuse. The total cost will depend on where you live and the size of your home, but you can expect to pay between $1 and $5 per square foot.

Preventative Measures: How to Minimize Cleaning Frequency

Hardwood floors don’t need to be cleaned as often if you take some simple preventative measures to limit your floors’ exposure to dirt, dust, and stains. Here’s what you can do:

  • Shoes Off: Take your shoes off when you enter the house. Even if your shoes are clean, the rubber or hard soles will wear on your floors over time, causing them to dull. If you’re serious about preserving your floors and want to clean as infrequently as possible, take off your shoes.
  • Floor Mats: Place floor mats directly outside and inside external doors and in high traffic areas like near the kitchen sink and at the bottom of the stairs. This anti-fatigue mat is fantastic to stand on while your doing dishes. Not only will it protect your floor from spills, but it will also stick to the floor and prevent you from slipping.
  • Area Rugs: Put area rugs under furniture, especially tables and couches where you and your family have meals and snacks.
  • Furniture Pads: Stick soft pads under the legs of your furniture to prevent scratches and marks on the floor.

Deep Cleaning Tips to Remember

Deep cleaning hardwood floors is a simple process, but there are a few key things to keep in mind.

  • Soft Bristles: Vacuum dust and dirt with a soft bristle brush. Upright vacuums with aggressive beater bars will scratch your floors.
  • Specialized Cleaning Products: Use a cleaner designed for the specific finish on your floors. Floors with surface and penetrating finished require different care. Before you apply cleaning solutions, make sure you understand what type of finish is on your floor.
  • Water and Wood Don’t Mix: Stick to cleaners designed specifically for hardwood floors. Apply them with a spray bottle to limit the amount of moisture on your floors.
  • Avoid Homemade Cleaning Solutions: Never use a homemade solution of water and vinegar/lemon/tea. Over time, the acid levels in vinegar, lemon, and tea will break down the finish and lead to permanent damage.
  • Clean in the Direction of the Floorboards: This allows the vacuum or mop head to clean dirt and grime that’s built up between the floorboards.
  • Never Use a Steamer on Hardwood Floors: Steamers work great for some surfaces like tile, but the National Wood Flooring Association says to avoid them on hardwoods because they expose the wood to excessive heat and moisture. The heat and moisture cause the wood to expand and contract quickly, leading to warping, cupping, and long term damage.

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Tell Us What You Think

Do you know of any better methods for deep cleaning hardwood floors? Have you tried any products that work well? Leave a comment below; we’d love to hear your feedback.

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