Steam Mopping a Hardwood Floor
December 27, 2009 10:19 AM   Subscribe

Is it really bad to use a steam mop on unfinished hardwood floors?

The house I rent has old hardwood floors that are not sealed. They're pretty beat up and will only look good again the day my landlord decides to refinish them, or I become willing to wax them -- which will be never, probably.

They're not going to be shiny and pretty while I'm living here, but I would like to get them at least really clean. I'm planning to get a Eureka Enviro Steam Mop. If I use it on the unsealed floors, will the damage be structural or just cosmetic?

If it will warp the boards and wreak all kinds of havoc, that's one thing. But if it will just make them icky-looking -- well, they're that already.

I looked at other posts on Metafilter before asking this question. This post had answers from people who recommended against doing it, but didn't give particulars.

Any advice? The steam mop will be worth the purchase for my tiled kitchen and bathrooms, even if I can't use it on the hardwood.

posted by Srudolph to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I have no experience with that appliance, and can't tell you whether it will do much to clean your floors. I can say, with confidence, that steam is going to make any loose, unfinished wood fibers swell and stand up like hair stubble, and increase the chances of splinters catching on your socks / feet. I wouldn't do it unless you're prepared to go over the floor and lightly sand it by hand after it dries. That said, you wouldn't be flirting with warpage / splitting / severe damage unless you really overdid it; you'd almost have to be trying to do damage.
posted by jon1270 at 10:28 AM on December 27, 2009

By the description of the mop in the first comment at Amazon, it "leaves very little water on the floor, dries quickly". If these are old floors, no matter how beat up, there's probably some finish on the surface and the surface is hard and compacted. So I'd say it's safe if you don't overdo it, unless they're really, really worn bare. Before buying the mop you could test by simply spilling a little boiling water in the corner and wiping it up with rags right away.

When you're done the floor will look that same, but you'll feel better about it being clean.

By the way, don't wax without your landlord's OK. If he ever does decide to refinish, it won't adhere to the wax, and will gum up sanding equipment. On the other hand, if he's just not going to refinish, you'll find that a couple of coats of wax will look great and last well. I'd buy a gallon of commercial floor wax at a janitorial supply place (or a price club might have it), slosh it on with a mop, let it dry, buff with a rented buffer, and repeat for even more shine.
posted by beagle at 10:30 AM on December 27, 2009

Do you know how they bend wood for boats and curved furniture? With steam. 2 + 2 = For the love of god, no!
posted by WinnipegDragon at 10:35 AM on December 27, 2009 [4 favorites]

Unsealed wood + water = buckling. The hotter the water, the better it is at permeating the wood. Seconding WinnipegDragon - do the math; this this not a good idea.
posted by squorch at 10:40 AM on December 27, 2009

Don't do it. It'll make the floors rough and annoying. I have an unsealed wood desk and even a quick swipe with a barely-damp napkin makes the surface fibres of the wood swell and stand up and snag on my sleeves.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:46 AM on December 27, 2009

That steam mop linked is fairly weak. I've steamed unfinished cabinets with a heavy duty steamer (302F @ 65PSI) with no ill effects. No way possible that you will bend boards with it.
posted by wongcorgi at 11:06 AM on December 27, 2009

Response by poster: The Enviro Steam uses steam at about 200 degrees.

Thanks, jon1270 and pseudostrabismus, I'm thinking you're right about small fibers swelling and causing annoying "stubble." But beagle's suggestion to test with boiling water makes a lot of sense. I'll probably try that.
posted by Srudolph at 11:24 AM on December 27, 2009

If its hardwood and not pine, I'd say no problem. true they use steam to bend wood, but they steam the wood in an enclosed chamber for hours before they can actually bend it.
posted by Max Power at 11:25 AM on December 27, 2009

You might consider doing a "soft refinish" using danish/Watco oil. We redid some pretty rough floors this way by sanding with a fine sandpaper and then liberally applying with steel wool a lightly colored/stained oil. We had great results and saved us from a full refinish for at least a few years. You'll definitely want to consult your landlord and do some test spots somewhere unnoticeable before doing the whole place, but it might work out great.
posted by maniactown at 11:59 AM on December 27, 2009

Everything I find online emphasizes using an absolute minimum of water, repeating that water is a wood floor's worst enemy. I found more than one suggestion to use a dry mop and some sort of (not oil- or wax-based) spray wood-floor cleaner.

If you're lucky and have one of those funky old neighborhood hardware stores in your area, full of older guys who're experienced and willing to give advice, I'd say ask them. If you're less lucky, even some of the folks at Lowe's or Home Depot could direct you to the best cleaner to use for unfinished wood floors.
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:54 PM on December 27, 2009

Look at it this way - if you use a spray cleaner and it doesn't work, all you have are the standard beat up floors. If you use steam and it doesn't work, you might end up on the hook to replace the floors.
posted by squorch at 2:43 PM on December 27, 2009

I recommend Bona, available in most home centers and some groceries. I've had good results.
posted by dhartung at 4:22 PM on December 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

It doesn't take hours or high temperatures to bend wood. Many is the tale of allegedly kiln dried wood cupping or bowing in a big way after spending just a day or two in a non-air conditioned shop in an region with high humidity. I have seen floors that someone did this (or something like it) to and the edges of every plank were a skosh higher than the centers.

The more likely effect is raised grain, which, your probably going to end up with anyway if the floors are as bad as you say.

Personally, I'd get the most powerful vacuum cleaner you can borrow/rend and go over them with that. It's not like carpet where there is going to be lots of crud buried down in there that you cant get out.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:00 PM on December 27, 2009

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