Dealing with Polishes on Wood Floors

Floor Polish Stock Photo
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Definition of Polishing

Professional finishes used on wood flooring do not require polishing. These finishes are designed to be walked and lived on. Whether a film finish or penetrating natural oil, all wood floor finishes have been designed to last for many years, even decades, while withstanding daily foot traffic. When these finishes get worn to a point where they begin to lose their appeal, the floor owner begins considering their options on how to make their flooring investment look good again. The beauty of real wood floors and the finishes that protect them is that they usually either can be recoated or re-oiled (depending on the type of finish). A new coat of finish on a wood floor is one of the easiest ways to maintain and revitalize a wood floor, and prolong its life.

Sadly, much of the wood flooring industry does not always do a good job of educating the homeowner about maintenance, or of staying in front of them after the job has been completed. Without proper education, homeowners are left to navigate the wood floor maintenance world on their own.

The next time you are at the grocery store or your local big box store, walk down the cleaning aisle and find the wood floor cleaning section.

Then, go online and search for wood floor cleaners. What you will find can be confusing, even to a flooring professional, to decipher good from bad.

There are some great wood floor maintenance products available at these stores, but there also are many products that are not. The ones that are problematic often include descriptive terms such as “refreshes, restores, rejuvenates, polishes, renews, renovates, shines…” all terms that are indicative of adding something foreign to the surface
of the floor.

Polish with Hazy AppearanceThe reason these types of products are not good for wood flooring is that many of them contain chemicals such as acrylic polishes that can interfere with future coats of wood floor finish. These chemicals can add an artificial shine to any floor. In many cases, the shine can make an older, dulled-out finish look shiny. This shine is meant only to last for a couple of weeks, at the most. After a short time, the shiny gloss can look really bad. In fact, many of the products suggest monthly applications. This is because these products are not designed to withstand daily foot traffic. These polishes dull and scuff easily. Most users of these products will fix scuffs by applying more polish.

After several applications of these products, the floor will take on a hazy appearance. (Photo above).

Once the floor gets to this point, the only option is to strip the polish off of the floor.

Stripping the Polish

Stripping of Polish ExamplesSo why do you have to strip the polish off of the floor? Why can’t you just apply a new coat of wood floor finish to the floor? The answer is simple: Wood floor finishes will not adhere to acrylic polish. (Photos 1, 2, 3).

Chemically, these polishes can be stripped. Technically, the process of stripping these polishes involves applying a polish stripper, or ammonia solution, to the floor, letting it sit for a period (several minutes), then extracting the polish slurry from the flooring surface. There are obvious concerns with this process that must be taken into account.

  • Leaving any solution on a wood floor for several minutes can risk damaging the floor.
  • Wood has pores, cracks, knots, and other voids that still may contain acrylic polish, even after the stripping and extraction process.
  • Polish strippers and ammonia can permanently damage some types of wood floor finish.

Always Test First

If you have been commissioned to assess a wood floor for a maintenance coat, you should always test the floor for contaminants before making any promises or giving an estimate to do the work. (Photo below).

Test for Contaminants

These are some simple tests that may help indicate if there is an acrylic polish on the floor:

  • Place a small amount of polish stripper or ammonia onto the floor. If milky white spots appear after approximately two minutes, acrylic polish may be present. (Photos 4, 5).
  • If the floor is contaminated with an acrylic polish, it must be completely removed from the flooring prior to a new finish application.
  • Use extreme caution when chemically stripping any wood floor so as not to damage the floor with excessive moisture. Be cautious of any remaining contamination in the seams and soft grain of the flooring.
  • Resanding the floor may be the best option.

Closets may not be the best test area. Testing in one area does not guarantee acceptable performance. Advise the client of this before proceeding.

If you determine there is an acrylic polish on the floor, it must be addressed prior to any new coating of wood floor finish being applied. Once these polishes have been applied, it is hard and oftentimes impossible to remove them from the floor surface.

Wood Flooring Sand and Finish GuidelinesTo read about testing for other contaminants, check pages 64-67 of the Sand and Finish Guidelines for tips on recoating a previously coated floor.

When it has been discovered that an acrylic polish has been applied to a wood floor, it is sometimes possible to address the situation. If you can strip the polish from the flooring surface and communicate with the homeowner that it may not be 100 percent effective, you can tap into a virtually untapped side of our industry. There is risk, but with the proper communication with the homeowner, and a clear understanding of what the worst-case scenario may be, there is opportunity.

In cases where resanding is an option, you will still want to set the expectation that these polishes can seep into the cracks and crevices, adversely affecting the topcoats of finish adhesion to those areas. In cases where the wood floor is unable to be sanded (engineered floor with a thin wear-layer), replacement may be the only other option.

It is truly heartbreaking when it is discovered that a contaminant like acrylic polish has been applied to an otherwise beautiful wood floor. The most important business practice to embrace is to stay in front of your customer and properly educate them on what to use, and what not to use, on their wood floor.

Brett Miller is the vice president of technical standards, training, and certification for the
National Wood Flooring Association in St. Louis, Missouri. He can be reached at brett.miller@nwfa.org.

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