Bad Advice About Wood Floors:  The Unvarnished Truth

Bad Advice About Wood Floors: The Unvarnished Truth

Vinegar and water as a cleaning solution, pickled finishes, antique cleaning brushes, stiletto high heel shoes.  It is not unusual for me to hear a lot of stuff about wood floors that falls into the bad advice about wood floors category. One of the problems I have detected is that there are a lot of people with little, if any, experience writing or talking about wood floors. For me, it is kind of like watching an infomercial where you have groups of actors struggling to give you the impression they know enough to come in out of the rain. Believe me, they have spent far more time on their make-up than they have spent working or learning about the products or procedures they are hawking.

So, I decided to go through a list I put together over almost 40 years in the business and drop some pearls of wisdom on you. Let’s call it the unvarnished truth.

Vinegar and water are the preferred method of cleaning a wood floor.

Bad advice about wood floors. I happen to like vinegar a lot – but not as a cleaner for wood floors. It is an acidic acid and once it starts making contact with wood, bad things happen. This is especially true with oak which is the primary wood flooring material over the last century. Any liquid coming into contact with oak will react with the tannin and you will start to see the wood darkening very quickly. When vinegar is mixed into it, it happens very quickly. I see this most often in kitchen areas since it is typically cleaned more frequently. In the photo on the right you can easily see how the wood had changed color very dramatically because the homeowner allowed the maids to use vinegar and water to clean the floors. Instead of a simple clean and recoat, the entire kitchen floor had to be sanded back down to bare wood. You will also see this same pattern around major entrances and high traffic areas. You can avoid a ton of unnecessary expense by using cleaning kits that get much better results and do not pose the same threat to the wood.

Bad Advice About Wood Floors: I can’t decide between a white pickled look on my oak floors or ebonizing them?

More  bad advice about wood floors. Either one of these is an extreme look and typically proves to be problematic and generate tons of complaints and trouble for homeowners. The white look involves a pigment in the stain and there have been many problems with bonding properly with the surface. This usually means that any minor damage escalates with discolorations that are pretty much impossible to blend in. There will always be additional issues from UV exposure with some areas looking lighter and some looking darker. In terms of practicality, this look can have tons of issues.

As far as the ebonizing, it is somewhat similar. Every small scratch, piece of lint, cat or dog hair can be seen from across the room. The process requires a significant amount of skill and when it doesn’t work, you could not have an uglier looking surface. To make matters even worse, it seems that everyone who goes in this direction also wants a high gloss look. If you want to go in that direction, my honest suggestion is to get some high gloss black enamel paint and go to it. Just don’t call me!

I really wish they did floors the old fashioned way. It seems like they had a much better system.

And maybe you would like to cook on a wood burning stove or heating your house with a coal burning furnace?  Believe me, you would not want to trade places with any homeowner in the past because wood floor finishing was tough but the care and maintenance was beyond unreal. I have researched the topic extensively in the U.S. and Europe. The products were hard to work with, took forever to dry and cure, required a small army to do the work and in some cases could (and did) burn the home to the ground. There is a lot of misplaced nostalgia and more  bad advice about wood flooring, when it comes to refinishing and maintaining wood floors. Take a look at the 25 lb. polishing brush in the photo and think how much fun you would have pushing that around the house!  Within the past twenty years the quality of equipment, stains, finishes and training has improved dramatically. Homeowners today have the luxury of getting work that will last for decades and if they make good choices and stay in the same home, should only have to experience it once in their life.

You always stain floors very dark because that is what the wealthy used to do.

I saw this quote in a posh Atlanta magazine. A well-known decorator was given credit for saying this. I hope she has an umbrella because I am afraid I am going to rain on her parade a bit. This is a common misconception for several reasons. First, if the wealthy wanted darker wood, they installed darker wood, primarily walnut and other types. Second, around the turn of the century you had a lot of patterned floors being installed in a lot of upscale homes. This was a very popular move among the wealthy. The quality and caliber of the wood was exceptional. It was the best grade of wood and the best milling available. Staining a floor like this dark would completely destroy the beautiful contrast between the different types.

The two photos show the selection available from catalogs I found in the reference library at Winterthur in Wilmington, De.

Third, few floors would have been stained dark because stains simply were not that dependable or stable for use on wood floors. Simply put, the technology for good stains did not exist. Even today, it takes a lot of skill and very good equipment to master staining large expansive areas. The ability to do this was simply not an option. Finally, the most common reasons for a darker floor during the past was the accelerated discoloration of drying oils and not because the surface was stained at all. Linseed was one of the most popular drying oils and it tended to go very dark very quickly. To compound that, the oils and waxes used to maintain them collected dirt, dust and grime like a magnet and that added to the darkness.

The point I am making here is that if you want a floor stained, the color should be based on what you want, how it compliments your furniture and paint scheme and the amount of light the areas receive. Not on some misguided notion that has no historic validity.

Believe me ladies; the problem is with the finish, not your high heel shoes.

More bad advice about wood floors. This is a question that can really stir up some emotions and it is everything I can do to handle it diplomatically. You have several things going on here but the difficult thing to deal with is denial. Denial in that, in my humble opinion, high heels are a flawed design as far as foot apparel goes. First, high heels can, and have, destroyed marble and concrete. Second, they will easily indent any finish on the market today, yesterday or at any time in the future. And third, invariably women’s weight gets drawn into the conversation and that is a subject I would encourage any male who values his life, his marriage and/or his sanity avoid. Do not go there hombres. Just copy this information that comes to me from the National Wood Floor Association and use it sparingly and judiciously:  A grown and mature elephant has a force of 100 pounds per square inch (PSI) on a wood floor, while a 125 lb. woman in high heels has a force of 2,000 PSI. If they are stiletto heels, that can easily escalate up to 8,000 PSI. Like I said, be careful when and how you use this information as it can be like throwing a hand grenade into a crowd.

Golf Shoes in the House?

Another point I make in front of a crowd of women on this subject is how many of them let their husbands walk around the house in golf shoes. That usually gets the point across and creates a pretty good mental picture. Bottom line; the best way to reduce or eliminate damage from high heels is to keep them off the floors in the first place. Short of that, always go for low luster coatings that show less contrast with high heel marks. And for that lunatic who tells you to use a high gloss on a floor you know for sure will get high heel traffic, show them to door and tell them to go get a life!

Michael Purser
Rosebud Co.
September, 2010


  1. It’s much eaiser to understand when you put it that way!

  2. Yeah, that’s the tikcet, sir or ma’am