Oak floors are hugely popular, no surprise when the wood is so beautiful, durable and easy to work with. This week we thought it’d be useful to take a look at Oak floor maintenance, exploring how to tackle warped boards, fill gaps and finishing Oak flooring to gleaming perfection.
How to maintain an Oak floor
Before we look at the real thing, here’s some information about Oak laminate flooring, a product with an 8mm or so ‘skin’ of Oak glued to a core of HDF, AKA High Density Fibreboard. It’s Oak… but at the same time it isn’t.
About Oak laminate flooring
Oak laminate is made using advanced DPL (Direct Pressure method) technology, where the various layers are assembled first then squashed together into the right position. The best quality laminate flooring looks so good it’s hard to tell the difference between it and 100% Oak boards.
Laminates are scratch and mark-resistant, warm, durable and very easy to maintain. There’s an excellent guide on the UK Flooring Direct website. Some Oak laminates are guaranteed for as long as 25 years, and occasionally there’s a lifetime guarantee. But like all wood products, it’s all down to good ongoing maintenance.
One very important thing to remember: before you do anything at all to your Oak flooring, find out whether it’s laminate or solid wood. Over sanding can potentially ruin laminate finishes. Solid wood floors, on the other hand, respond beautifully to sanding.
Plastic Laminate Flooring v Engineered Oak Laminate Flooring
Which type of laminate flooring do you have, real wood or plastic? Plastic or photographic laminate floors are also popular. Their quality varies greatly with the cheapest versions being nothing more than a photographic image of wood glued and then sealed onto a core or base, usually made of compressed paper or wood fibreboard.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have high quality synthetic wood, made from very hard and durable plastic coatings. These are quality graded and tend to be anything from 0.5mm to 2mm thick. The advantage of plastic laminate flooring is it’s completely waterproof, making it perfect for use in bathrooms and other high moisture areas. The disadvantage of plastic laminates is that although minor scratches, dents and gouges can be repaired with a wax filler stick, much the same as a wood repair, they can’t be sanded and refinished like a solid Oak or an engineered Oak floor can.
About re-finishing a solid Oak floor
Oak flooring maintenance and refinishing can be hard work. But if you’re fortunate enough to have a smart, real Oak floor, it’s the only real way to return it to its original glory. So gird your loins and prepare for the long haul! Here’s how…
Getting rid of curling and warping
If your floor has been wet and dried several times, or is very old, it might have warped or curled. No problem – solid oak planks are almost always thick enough to take a really good, thorough, aggressive sanding to mitigate the effects of warping and curling. Be confident, have courage and sand ’til it’s suitably flat.
If it’s severely wonky, you can make diagonal passes with the drum sander, using a very coarse paper, until the levels look right. Just bear in mind that one of the charms of real wood is its natural finish. If you want smooth 100% perfection, you might be better off choosing a laminate in the first place.
Filling gaps in a wooden floor
You can use Oak dust collected from sanding to fill the gaps in your floor. You mix the fine dust generated during the floor sanding process with a wood filler gel to create a paste, which you work into the gaps a bit like grouting tiles. Here’s a video showing you how…
They’re using pine dust to fill gaps in a Pine floor, but it works exactly the same way with Oak.
You can also buy special filling products, for example a colour matched filler, which you simply squeeze into the gaps before cleaning off any excess. Bona Gap Master comes in 14 colours and is specially designed for the purpose.
Sanding to perfection
- If the floor is waxed or polished with a wood floor polish, use a wax and polish remover first to remove them otherwise it will very quickly clog up any sanding belts or discs.
- Fill any gaps and cracks before you start sanding, simply because it’s easier to fill the old finish than it is to fill the wood after it has been sanded and keeps the sanding required to a minimum.
- You usually need a couple of machines: a drum sander for the main floor area and an edger for the edges.
- Unless the floor is very uneven, has many layers of varnish or has the thick black tar-like substance around the edges of the room, try to avoid sandpaper coarser than 60 grit or less, which can cause deep scratches. The more coarse the first sand, the more passes you will need to do with progressively finer sanding grits.
- If your floor is level and the finish comes off with ease, you might only need to do two passes: one with 80 grit and one with 100.
- Because small scratches in oak blend in with the grain and are usually taken care of by your final finish, there’s often no need to finish off with 120 grit paper. The floor might be smooth enough with an 80 grit finish. Applying Meths to a test areas is a good way of highlighting any sanding imperfections and indicates if further sanding is required. The purple colour of the meths will show up any pig tails (sanding swirls) in the wood before it evaporates, returning the wood to its bare sanded state. If a non-solvent approach is preferred, water can be used but this will swell the grain which will then require a further light sanding.
- The amount of wood that a drum sander will remove from the surface of the wood depends on a number of factors, including the type of machine being used, the grit and type of sanding belt, the type of wood being sanded, i.e. Pine, Oak or another wood species, and the number of passes being made with the sander.
- The edger will take care of hard-to-reach areas around the edge, although you will probably need to get down and dirty with a floor scraper and mini-hand sander for the really fiddly bits.
How to re-stain your Oak floor
Now for the fun bit! This is where your floor suddenly starts to look really beautiful.
Oak accepts stains really well because it’s naturally pale. You can apply most good quality Oak stains with a rag. Oil and water-based finishes are both great to use on Oak – it’s entirely up to you. The best way to avoid making nasty streaks, bubbles and brush marks is to use a floor finish applicator, which makes it easy to follow the grain.
You usually need just 1 or 2 coats of floor stain, with a light sand or denib in between coats, ideally using a floor buffer and sanding screen. Remember to let each coat dry fully before applying the next, and remove any dust using a vacuum cleaner so it doesn’t mess up the next coat.
What about varnishing a solid Oak floor?
Polyurethane varnishes, such as Manns Extra Tough Interior Varnish, are a popular finishing touch because they are available in a range of sheens from Matt through to High Gloss and deliver a lovely deep finish and a fine lustre. Most modern water-based varnishes give a clear finish, unlike the super-shiny ‘toffee apple’ look of past decades. Depending on the on-pack instructions, you can either use a sheep’s wool or microfibre application tool. Most varnish products recommend a minimum of two coats, others may recommend more than two. Whatever you do, follow the instructions to the letter – the last thing you need is to have to sand it all off and start again.
When choosing a wood floor varnish for Oak flooring, take care to pick one that is suitable for the task at hand. Is it for a domestic or commercial property? Is it for somewhere where there is heavy foot traffic and heavy wear such as a pub, restaurant or perhaps a community hall? Is there a requirement for anti-slip properties on interior steps or entrance hallways?
What if your floor has water damage?
Dark, unsightly stains are a sign of water damage, often just a matter of long-term seepage and involving moisture rather than actual flooding. When the finish is old and damaged, the moisture penetrates the wood. The only sensible way to get rid of the stains is to sand the old finish off then bleach the wood back to its original shade. The most popular wood bleaching agents are hydrogen peroxide and oxalic acid, both of which are easy to find. It’s worth noting that wood dust containing bleach is toxic, so it’s important to wear a dust musk or other breathing apparatus.
What about a wax finish?
Many modern hardwood floors come with a polyurethane or urethane/acrylic topcoat which protects the wood, in which case it shouldn’t need to be waxed.
If you love a wax finish, your floor will look great. But regular maintenance is important, since waxes don’t offer the same durability as a varnish or hard wax oil. They tend to be a better choice on older woods or floor boards, where fine scratches and so on are less noticeable. On a new floor, a scratch in wax can stand out like a sore thumb.
Hardwood floor wax is free from silicone, lemon oil, ammonia, bleach, vinegar and Tung oil, all of which can stain the wood or discolour it. Make sure you get proper hardwood floor wax. There’s a choice of wax types. Paste wax tends to require more hard work, while liquid wax needs a bit less elbow grease. And there are some very important caveats:
- It’s not ideal to use wax on raw, natural planks if you plan to varnish at a later date. Waxes can be removed at a later date but it requires a ‘Wax and Polish Remover’ and lots of elbow grease. Waxes are commonly used to stain floors different colours and to maintain the colour and appearance of very old waxed floors.
- Make sure distressed or reclaimed wood floors have been properly prepared before applying floor wax.
Your first job is to remove the existing wax finish, which you can do using wax and polish remover. Just grab a mop, some rags and prepare for some hard yet satisfying work. Again, it’s really important to follow the instructions to the letter. A sander can be used but the wax will melt with the friction and will quickly clog the paper meaning more sandpaper will be required.
You don’t have to stain the stripped surface before you wax, but you can if you like. It’s an aesthetic decision rather than a practical one. The floor can first be stained with a water-based wood stain then waxed with a clear wax or alternatively, it can be waxed with a coloured wax to both colour and protect the timber in one process.
Waxing usually involves several layers. It depends on the manufacturer’s instructions, but you almost always have to apply the wax in thin layers, with regular back and forwards strokes at an angle to the joints. When you do it this way you fill the gaps between the planks with wax, which can help prevent noisy creaking.
If you like a deep shine, fit a buffing pad to your sander… or just apply more elbow grease. The more you polish, the more it’ll shine.
What about cleaning Oak floors?
Cleaning Oak floors correctly is the best way to preserve the finish and to keep them looking in tip top condition for longer. The easiest way to protect a floor finish is to dry sweep or vacuum treated floors on a regular basis, especially if located near an entrance and exit point such as a front or back door. Tiny particles of dirt and grit that are walked in from outside can act as an abrasive on wooden flooring, scratching the floor finish and wearing it away over time. Regular sweeping and vacuuming greatly reduces the potential for this surface debris to cause damage.
Cleaning Oak and other wooden floors with a dedicated wood floor cleaner will help to remove surface scuffs and marks. Wooden floor cleaners are specially formulated to be pH-balanced and non-abrasive so they’ll clean the floor without wearing away the finish.
Need help? We’re always pleased to provide expert advice
Like all wood projects, maintaining Oak flooring comes with risks. If you’re a beginner or first timer and could do with some solid, sensible, expert advice, feel free to give us a call. We’ll be delighted to help you pick exactly the right products for the job in hand and provide insights into exactly how to use them to their best effect.