Cleaning an unknown finish: is it wax, oil or polyurethane?

Q: I bought a house last fall that has hardwood throughout a joint living room/dining room area. The floor is in good condition, however, it needs “something.” All I have done since I moved in is to vacuum and dust mop it often. It now looks like it needs a cleaning in some areas. I can see my dog’s paw prints and the floor just looks blurry, not shiny.

It does have a couple of lighter spots where furniture use to sit that is now gone, but they aren’t in conspicuous areas to worry about. The problem is, I have NO idea what kind of finish is on the floor. The color is about the same as my medium light oak kitchen table. Each board is slightly beveled on the sides and ends, it doesn’t “feel” waxed, you can actually feel the grain of the wood when you rub your hand across it. If I scrape my fingernail in between the beveled ends I get a tiny yellow finish or something.. it’s such a small amount I can’t tell if it feels waxy or what..

I’ve asked at our local Home Depot and Lowe’s and all I get is really scary answers of don’t put anything on it until you know what kind of finish is there. No wax on a urethane finish, no urethane cleaners or finishes on a waxed or unfinished finish, or I will “ruin the floor and it will cost thousands to fix it! Good grief..I was thrilled to have hardwood, now I’m terrified I’m going to ruin them. I don’t know WHAT to do to them or how to tell what kind of finish is on there. The house was built in the late 70s, but I don’t know that the hardwood is that old. There was an addition built on to the dining room about 10 years ago and the floor has all the same look! Can you please offer any suggestions on what I can do to figure out how to take care of my beautiful wood floors.

A: Your floors sound like one of the **** pre finished that was going out back in the ’70s. Some of them were waxed. Put a few drops of water on the surface and let it sit 10 minutes. If it leaves a spot, you probably have a waxed floor. I suspect that is what you have, or someone applied a wax or other such finish on top of polyurethane.

If it turns out you have a wax finish, Dura Seal ( has a very good maintenance product called renovator you can use. If it is not a wax finish, you need to find an appropriate cleaner for polyurethane finishes that does not leave any sort of oily residue such as oil soaps. Even the Swiffer wet pads seem ok since according to their MSDS they leave no residue. Or Home Depot carries such a cleaner called Zepp.

Am I assuming correctly that this floor is 3/4 thick? Not to worry. You won’t destroy your floor, though the finish itself might get messed up. From my end, sanding, staining and finishing with 3 coats of polyurethane is $3.00 sq. ft., although I would likely have to charge more because of the bevelled edges. Properly finished and maintained, your floors should not require sandings every few years. Rather, at 5-10 year intervals, a buff and recoat may be needed, depending on the type of traffic it gets.

Related Q: Our hardwood floors were covered for 50 years with padding and carpet. Everything is now removed and the floor looks good, but it looks like it needs a cleaning. I do not know if the original floor was waxed, oiled or polyurethane (50 years ago?) Any suggestions?

A: You can leave a few drips of water in a spot for 10 minutes and see if it leaves a mark. If it does, it is wax. If it is wax, Dura Seal makes a good product to restore such floors called Renovator. If it is polyurethane etc a cleaner for polyurethane made by floor and finish manufacturers should help to remove any dulling residue on the finish. Possibly it may require a buff and coat of fresh finish.