Floor polishing

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IMAG0096-3 Hoover 0212 floor polisher.jpg

Written by Charles (Joe) Stahelin [Pronounced "Stay-lin"!]


The following notes were written in 1990 on the basis of hands - on experience before my retirement in 1987. In the seventies and early eighties there had been a great deal of development covering, effectively, three generations of floor dressings - a term used to describe the modern liquid floor polishes: this resulted in the once established habit of stripping off all polish at regular intervals being abandoned and replaced by more effective systems of floor maintenance. Money was getting tight and it could be clearly seen that it would get tighter yet. The producers of floor cleaning products had to compete for sales on the basis of price both in the tin and on the floor, as well as appearance. It was a period of rapid and important development but I have to admit to not being fully conversant with developments that have arrived on the scene since 1987.. I recommend investigation, and where possible practical testing, before anyone commits themselves, finally, to the use of a particular process or product. If access to schools or similar institutions is possible a look around the floors in the middle of term, looking into the edges and corners and doing the Finger Test (described in para 6), is worthwhile: if all is well try to get into friendly conversation with the caretaker who, as he is not in a position to sell, may be regarded as an independent adviser.


There is no real difference in the processes for hard floors whatever equipment is selected for use. At the outset it is essential that all trace of any cleaning agent or dressing that may have been applied previously has been removed, and that there is no residual alkalinity (some detergents and all polish stripping solutions being alkaline). It is also essential that the floor is dust-free: this can be achieved by the use of a vacuum or by damp mopping, preferably the former in order to avoid any possibility of raising the grain of the timber. To sum up, the floor should be as nearly as possible as new.

If the floor is porous

(unglazed tiles, some compositions:, but see para 11 below for wood, cork and similar).

It is advisable to start off by applying a Water-Based Floor Seal which will fill the pores and make a good base for the floor dressing. Seals are similar to the top dressing but contain a high proportion of solids. If a floor seal is not used on a porous floor it may be necessary to apply substantially more coats of dressing to achieve a surface than would otherwise be the case. Floor seal is usually less costly than the dressing and its use when indicated will save time and effort.

If the floor is non-porous

(or after sealing as in para 3).

Apply thin and even coats of polish allowing each coat to dry before applying the next. The first coat is applied over the whole floor, right up to the walls: the second coat stops between three and six inches away from skirting boards, and all subsequent coats stop about nine inches, but not less than six inches away from skirtings. On a `new' floor three thin coats are advised as a minimum. In any case continue applying coats until a 'surface' is achieved: the situation can best be judged by looking at the floor obliquely against a light source, natural or artificial. When a surface has been achieved it is beneficial to apply further thin coats to heavy wear areas such as doorways (roughly in a fan shape narrowing towards the door), on the treads of staircases, in areas where walkers change direction, and below work areas where feet are likely to be shuffled about..

Note: If the means is available, the buffing of the floor between coats, between alternative coats, or whenever time permits, is recommended as it hardens the finish and is understood to improve its wearing properties.


On a day-to-day basis: unless the floor is subjected to heavy wear, it should be necessary only to remove surface dirt by brushing, by vacuuming, or by damp/wet mopping, or by a combination of these - different methods being used on different parts of the floor according to need. A final vacuum over the whole of the floor is always worthwhile. Periodically, in order to restore the floor to as new, or daily in heavy wear areas, the floor will need to be buffed with a cleaning/polishing pad under some sort of appliance. It is, however, important that sticky messes are first spot-cleaned by mopping or washing. Provided that the floor has an adequate covering of polish the buffing process will both convert normal dirt to loose dust and work the polish on the floor making good fair wear and tear including shallow scratches without the application of new polish.. This buffing process is improved with the application of a very fine spray of water containing a small quantity of neutral detergent: this can be dispensed conveniently from a trigger bottle. The detergent acts as a wetting agent reducing the surface tension of the water in the spray and does not act as a specific cleaning agent in this application. The water spray should be almost invisible: if too much is applied the floor and the buffing pad get wet, the polish on the floor re-emulsifies, and everything becomes difficult, time consuming, and therefore expensive.

It should be noted that, in the processes so far described, there has been no application of polish apart from that applied in setting-up the floor from 'new'. The use of a dilute polish solution when Spray Cleaning (the recognised term for the process described in the previous paragraph) is recommended by most people in the business on the basis that as well as making it easier to restore the surface it also deposits a sufficient quantity of floor dressing to extend the period of use between re-applications of polish. Personally I do not support this on the grounds that the emulsifier and plasticisers in the sprayed polish soften that already on the floor resulting in polish from the floor's high spots being swaged over dirt particles lying in low spots (e.g. the bottom of scratches) and thus enclosing them within a layer of polish. This needs further investigation - I tend to wonder whether this idea arose from the need of the manufacturers to increase throughput when the general practice of stripping polish from floors as a matter of routine was abandoned.

Further applications of polish must be made at intervals in order to maintain a useful layer of polish all over the floor surface, edges excepted. It is probably better to undertake this as and when convenient opportunities occur rather than to wait until the failure of ordinary maintenance processes indicates the need for it to be done. Small areas of the floor can be treated in isolation provided that they are properly prepared and provided that polish is not applied to areas that have not been prepared: this implies including in the prepared area a buffer zone of about six inches which extends beyond the worn area onto floor that still bears a useful polish film.

Proper preparation before applying polish is vital. Essentially it is the same as for preparing a new floor except that the floor does not have to be bottomed: to do so is to waste a good foundation of expensive polish. The existing polish surface must be cleaned thoroughly, all embedded grit, etc, being removed. This is best done by using the appropriate pad under a machine or bumper. Failing a suitable appliance hands and knees work with a scouring pad seems indicated but it would be worthwhile trying out some ad hoc arrangement with an old broom and a suitable scourer - fairly fine steel wool (Grade 0) is very suitable. Scouring finished, remove all dust by vacuum, damp mop or similar, then apply polish as for a new floor.


Buffing is a dusty process and throws up particles which, being warm, moist and sticky, will adhere to the floor surface as they dry: most of the particles consist of dirt, the rest is broken down polish. All-in-all it is a dirt making process and this fact has to be coped with both on and above the floor. Firstly, at the end of every cleaning operation, just before finally taking up the dust, it is essential that all particles that have become stuck to the floor are broken loose so that they can be collected. The existence of these particles can be verified by The Finger Test. The problem arises mainly at the edges of the floor and shows up in the form of a sandpaper-like texture being felt as the finger is drawn over the floor surface from about eight inches from the floor edge up to the skirting board. The roughness is dirt and, if not removed, will remain through successive cleaning and re-polishing processes until, suddenly, it appears in the form of dark patches on the floor. The only recourse then is the stripping-off of all the polish and starting again as if with a new floor. Expensive in both time and material. A simple way to loosen adhering particles is to push a buffing-pad along the edges of the room under a broom. If a buffing machine is used it will only re-activate the problem. It might be worthwhile establishing whether or not a vacuum with a revolving brush would be effective for this task.


The frequency at which the various maintenance tasks have to be performed depends on the use to which the floor is subjected, the success achieved in finding the right material and in establishing effective maintenance procedures. If the floor is treated with reasonable respect it may be possible to get by with a quick pass with a brush, or, preferably, a vacuum cleaner for several days before it becomes necessary to use a buffer. It might be worthwhile setting out with a trial based on one or two buffing sessions each week. The full polishing process should be much less frequent. A detailed inspection of the floor after four weeks is suggested: it could then be decided whether to part-polish, or to go another four weeks, or whatever. To gain full benefit of changing to the system outlined it is necessary to test the result to the full (and on more than just one occasion) so that the more extensive (and expensive) processes are only being carried out when necessary rather than on some sentimental assessment.

Buffing Systems


(Apart from the old established business of doing it on hands and knees)


The Army and other large institutions used to use The Bumper which is a heavy board of about 12 x 6 inches to which is affixed a pad of bristles. The board is weighted and attached to its handle by a joint which provides for the handle to move through nearly 180 degrees in one plane. This allows it to be used in a manner similar to that in which an upright vacuum is used, but with much more effort because of the friction between it and the floor. If the bristles are too rough a soft cloth can be folded and put underneath them.

Single disc polisher

The most successful means of buffing is the use of single disc polishers as used in most large establishments. These have the advantage of dealing with a swathe of between 12 and 20 inches, according to size, and of applying a beneficial amount of weight to the business. The initial cost is high but they are built to stand up to several hours of work each day. Their expectation of life is a minimum of ten years in industrial conditions. The real cost over ten years, including servicing and the provision of cleaning pads, is between two and three times the initial cost (not allowing for inflation). Even for the most expensive machines this works out at a weekly cost of something approximating to the cost of two hours of unskilled labour (Note that these calculations were made some years ago and may have varied since then). The machines are sold as separate items and it will often be necessary to purchase a Driving Disc (which positions and supports the cleaning pad) as another separate item. Some machines have integral vacuums to collect the dust they create: it is worth paying extra for this facility provided that the machine can still get right into the floor edges and is not held off the skirting board by the vacuum hood.

2&3 disc polishers

Smaller two or three-pad machines are made, mostly for the domestic market but some for industrial use. These are handier in small areas but suffer, generally, from lack of weight and are at a disadvantage when it come to thorough cleaning before the re-application of polish. However care must be taken to select a machine of a size that can be handled in the areas in which it is intended to be used.. Driving discs and a set of pads may be included in the price of the machine but this is not always so. Some have integral vacuums.

Floor Cleaning Pads

Brushes seem to be outdated and modern cleaning agents, etc, are formulated for use with pads. These have the advantage of being available in sizes to fit the various machines and in a variety of grades to suit different tasks: they are also easily washable (a trick that does need to be performed from time to time). There are several brands on the market but, up to the time of my retirement, the best by far were those made by 3M. Some of the other brands had a tendency to tear if they were thumped against a chair leg or took a dislike to the surround of a floor trap. Once torn they do not sit happily under a driving disc and are only really useful as hand pads. Pads are expensive but last a long time if looked after. The recommendation is that 3M pads be used, and that if the cost can be managed, their 51 Line (or any up-to-date replacement) should be used. These are more open in the mesh than other lines and pick up and hold quite a lot of dirt and dust that can be shaken out of them outside the building or within the effective zone of a vacuum. They are worth the money.

Pads are colour coded and the 3M 51 Line is described below to illustrate the system generally used.

Black (or is it green?)
Hard scouring pad used when stripping all polish off floor, or when floor has been very badly treated.
Cleaning pad used for cleaning a dirty floor which does not respond to a red pad. Also used for thorough cleaning before re-application of polish.
Standard polishing pad used for the polishing of floors in fair condition. This is the pad to use when spray cleaning and in preference to any other pad unless the floor does not respond to it.
A super-polish pad for upgrading the finish obtained with a red pad. (Luxury business.)
3M also make a brown pad known as a Burp Pad (Build-up removal pad).
See para 10 below for a reference to build-up.

Floor Polishes, Etc

Whilst traditional wax polishes give the most pleasing result on wood they are not, in present day terms, sustainable due to inadequate wearing quality and relative difficulty of maintenance.

The modern trend is to use Emulsion Polishes with a water base. The proper description of these is Water Based Emulsion Polishes sometimes termed Water Based Floor Dressings. These can be classified as follows:-


Soft polish which responds readily to buffing and takes a high sheen but which marks easily and is not suitable for areas subjected to anything other than very light wear.


This is the workhorse of the range. It resists marking in use and can be restored relatively easily by machine buffing. It is generally less shiny than the Buffable or Dry Bright varieties.


Akin to a varnish in that, when properly applied, it dries to a high sheen. The surface is not, however, repairable by buffing. The only effective recourse is the re-application of polish after due preparation.

Metalised and High Solids

In addition to the term Water Based Emulsion, terms such as Metalised and High Solids may be encountered. These relate to developments which took place in the eighties. Metalised polishes are desirable as they have increased resistance to marking and improved wearing qualities. High solids deposit more material on the floor surface but may be inclined to produce excessive quantities of dust during maintenance sessions if the application techniques are not absolutely correct. Based on experience prior to 1987, the use of a metalised polish is recommended: the use of a high solids polish is not recommended.

The application of polishes and dressings in general

The need to avoid the excessive application of polish at floor edges should always be remembered as the edges do not normally suffer wear.

The fastest and most effective way to apply polish and other floor dressings is by way of a flat "Kentucky" mop. These are available in a variety of weights rising in two ounce steps from about 12 ounces to 20 ounces. 16 oz is a reasonable size for most people to use. A clean mop should be soaked in water and then squeezed as dry as possible (the purpose of this is to prevent it absorbing and so wasting excessive quantities of the liquid in use): the mop-head should then be laid on the floor with the tail stretched out and polish should be poured onto its head close to the handle. The polish is spread onto the floor by dragging the tail of the mop over the floor surface with the head of the mop an inch or so above it: provided that the mop has not been overloaded with polish this results in a thin and even film of polish being deposited on the floor. As and when necessary further doses of polish are poured onto the head of the mop. The Wet-Edge principle should be followed and polish, once laid, should not be touched again by the mop unless it is still very wet, or is completely dry. Touching polish in a partly -dried state will cause it to pull and will inhibit its self-levelling properties. These self-levelling properties are such that properly applied polish dries evenly to a sheen and does not have to be buffed if it is not convenient to do so: however, both appearance and life will be improved by buffing before the floor is subjected to use.

Note: The technique of using the Kentucky Mop has to be practised but when learned provides a satisfactory and fast means of applying and picking-up liquids. One moves backwards step by step swinging the mop across the body at each step. The width of the sweep should be limited so that it does not exceed the comfortable and balanced reach of the user. The head of the mop is kept at an even distance above the floor so that the wide tail of the mop spreads out on the floor. When the sideways limit of movement is reached the mop handle is turned in the hands so that the tail of the mop follows round staying open and ready to cover the floor on the return swing across the body. Moving backwards the handle of the mop is rotated clockwise at the right-hand extremity of the swing across the body and anticlockwise at the left extremity. The strip covered on each backward run will depend on the physique of the individual but will probably be nearer 4 feet than 5 feet. Using the mop in this manner, a lot of ground can be covered quickly and without undue fatigue.

General application of the system described

This system works in the case of all the Hard Floorings with the following exceptions:-

Wood, Cork

The Water Based Acrylic Floor Seals are to some extent effective but in order to achieve a durable result wood and cork floors should be prepared by sanding (by and large by a professional) followed by sealing. Lever Industrial Ltd's BourneSeal Natural is well known and effective. Polyurethane is good in the right circumstances but has potential disadvantages. There are other modern mineral seals which are good but possibly not for DIY use. Whatever any sales person may say, I have yet to see a seal which retains its appearance in use without the application of polish to function as a barrier and wearing surface between the sole of the shoe and the surface of the floor seal.


A floor seal is not required unless the material has been severely scratched or is badly worn - in which case a Water Based Acrylic Floor Seal is likely to be more effective , quicker and cheaper, than building up a surface with multiple coats of ordinary water based floor emulsion.

Floors which are maintained properly should not need stripping off for a fresh start. Modern water based emulsions do not discolour with age: discoloration is inevitably caused by repetitive trapping of dirt between polish layers as a result of taking short cuts when cleaning. Build-Up, a term much used by those who should know better, to describe dark patches of trapped dirt which appear at floor edges, results from applying polish right up to the skirting boards, and in other places where it is not subjected to wear. (See Note a.) Provided good cleaning practices are observed the most likely result of build-up is excessive dust production during cleaning due to polish breakdown over a long period.

Note a: Accumulations of dirt and old polish commonly occur at door edges, round the feet of tables and heavy furniture, and in places not easily reached by machines. All corners and angles create problems as the disc of the polishing machine cannot reach the apex of the angle. It is in these areas that the quality of work done is immediately obvious. The only remedy involves extensive periods of exhausting work on hands and knees. It is better to keep up-to-date with it by dealing carefully with such areas during routine maintenance.

Note b: The shine on a well polished floor has no bearing on its slip factor. All reputable modern polishes are slip-resistant and the slip-factor is sometimes quoted on the container. If it is not to be found on the container it will certainly be found in the technical blurb. Many decorative floor surfaces become very slippery when wet: this is the case with emulsions and due care should be taken.

C.A. Stahelin Originated: Aug 90 Latest revision: Sep 96