Cleaning & Maintenance Management Online

Don't let wood scare you

September 19, 2010

Many of us are afraid of washing wood — no doubt because of the horror stories of wood floor cleaning jobs gone bad.

But, if we use our professional know-how and a little common sense, wood can be one of the most low-maintenance, rewarding surfaces in our buildings.

Wood is not perfect. It’s not made to be perfect — and that’s why it’s such a fine and versatile building and flooring material.

Wood has character — natural imperfections, texture, varied color and grain, and unevenness not only give wood its beauty, but also serve as camouflaging elements.

For example, slap a good finish on any wood floor, and you’ll have admirers.

Double vision helps
When looking at wood, get in the habit of viewing the finish and the wood separately.

Separating the wood from the finish helps you manage your building occupants’ expectations and recommend a solution within their budget constraints.

If we lump flooring and finish together, we can fall into the trap of never living up to a customer’s expectations.

For example, if the budget dollars are there and the finish is above average, but the wood beneath is below average, for a couple of dollars a square foot the floor can be professionally sanded and an 80-year-old gym floor in a school will soon look brand spanking new.

If the budget dollars are sparse, a quick screening and application of a new coat of finish will protect the floor from any further deterioration, and give it a new shine and a better surface to maintain.

This can be done for 30 to 40 cents per square foot — that’s not much more than you spend on a good carpet cleaning twice a year.

Every surface needs protection, and wood is certainly no exception.

Like those old wooden ships, some of which spent more than a century in water, it is a matter of good protection. Common sense says we need a coating on wood to sheild it from the elements and abuse.

For years, after the old varnishes were no longer made, we only had one choice: Oil-base finishes. These were mostly urethanes, actually manmade plastic resins.

We used mineral spirits and other volatile thinners as solvents to make them manageable, i.e. help us apply finish, and aid in leveling and drying.

Today, with VOCs, and environmental and worker-safety concerns, there is some new technology here.

Most technological advances involve the solvents used, because we still use similar urethanes. The challenge is getting a urethane to work well with a compatible and new, safer solvent.

Water, the universal solvent, is really the most desirable, but it’s always been highly incompatible with urethanes — like mixing oil with water. But, we’ve come a long way toward a water-soluble wood finish, and are getting pretty close.

The market is resisting the inevitable transformation. The biggest resisters are those who tried the onslaught of water-base finishes years ago, and failed miserably.

There are several products that use new solvents, but require a third ingredient (a catalyst) to chemically cure the finish (as opposed to the old solvents that dried by evaporation, causing VOCs).

Protect your investment
Use mats to your advantage.

Proper matting can last years and help our cleaning bottom line, whether it’s an in-house budget or contracting profit. The biggest enemy of floors is the dirt, sand and grit we don’t get at the doors with good matting, so it’s tracked in to grind away all our hard work.

One of the greatest tools to clean wood floors is a backpack vacuum — as opposed to a broom or dust mop — to vacuum away damaging grit.

If you come to a soiled area — even dried mud — an aggressive dry scrub action can remove stubborn soils almost completely.

Try these on wood floors, instead of dust mopping, and look at the direct and indirect costs. You just might get two birds with one stone: Provide the ultimate in wood floor care and cost reduction.

Watch those shortcuts
Shortcuts in any operation are often what get us in trouble.

We know this all too well, but with high turnover and constant budget pressures, sometimes we cave in.

Wood is one area where we can ask for, and usually get, the resources needed to maintain and protect the customer’s investment properly.

Create your wood strategy and communicate it to the customer, and almost without fail you will get what you are asking for (new equipment, matting, etc.).

Going for the quick fix can cause havoc with the next person trying to maintain that floor if he or she doesn’t know what finish is on there.

Don’t be afraid to use common sense with wood, and use it as a competitive advantage. Many companies will fight about hard surface and carpet dollars, yet wood is more forgiving, visually rewarding, and still provides plenty of profit dollars.

Create your wood strategy, communicate it to the ultimate customer, and commit to proper training.

Grant Aslett is author of the book The Guide to Easy Hard Wood Floor Care. He is creating “hybrid” cleaning programs at Magic Chemical, Salt Lake City. Grant can be reached at