How to Save Your Water-Damaged Wood Floors

Close-Up View of wet hardwood floors
Andreas Budavari / EyeEm / Getty Images

Flooding and hardwood flooring don't mix. For anyone who lives in hurricane- and flood-prone areas that have historic homes, this is no surprise.

If major amounts of water—flood-related or not—have come into contact with your wood floor, your floors will never be quite the same as new again, but you can take appreciable efforts towards saving them from the junkyard. Your local architectural salvage yard might love to have your pulled-up hardwood flooring, but it's not time to give up the ghost just yet.

While Floors Are Still Wet (Before Mold and Mildew)

The sooner you can attend to your wet floors, the better. Wood's cellulose fibers rapidly soak up water but only slowly release that water. So, you want to start pulling off the water with your shop vacuum fast. Even if you believe your wood floors are so well-finished that water cannot penetrate the raw wood, think again. Wood floors have many infiltration points besides the top layer—between seams, through breaks in the coating, under baseboards, through heating registers, and a host of other areas.

The secret to preventing mold and mildew growth is the same as with carpeting: eliminate the dirt. It's not just water that causes mold and mildew; it's the combination of water and dirt.

Tools Needed:

  • Shop vacuum
  • Stiff Brush or Broom
  • Mild Detergent
  • Bucket
  • Disinfectant (like Mr. Clean, etc.)
  • Absorbent Cloth

First, use the shop vacuum on "wet mode" (no bag) to remove as much water as possible. Then vigorously scrub all floors and related woodwork (baseboards, newel posts, etc.) with the stiff broom or brush. Use fresh water mixed with detergent and disinfectant added, to remove all of the dirt, mud, silt, and organic material which can later cause mold and mildew.

If Mold and Mildew Have Set In

If the wood is heavily affected by mold and mildew, it may need to be replaced. Otherwise, clean your moldy and mildewed flooring like this:

Tools Needed:

  • Stiff Brush or Broom
  • TSP (trisodium phosphate)
  • Bucket
  • Absorbent Cloth
  • Rubber Gloves
  • Optional: Bleach; Mild Abrasive like Barkeeper's Friend

TSP is a super-cleaning product that comes in the form of a powder that can be added to water (4-6 tablespoons per gallon). You can buy this at your local hardware store. Don't worry: it sounds harsher than it is.

Scrub with the water/TSP solution until mold and mildew are removed then rinse with clear water and allow to dry.

It helps the "healing process" if you can remove any pooled-up water from your cleaning efforts as soon as possible, rather than waiting for evaporation. A rubber push squeegee or shop vacuum will do the trick.

For Mold on Wood Under Paint

This is a trickier issue. Your only recourse at this point is to remove the finish.

For problem areas, you may want to scrub the wood with an abrasive cleaner like Barkeeper's Friend. Or, with the water/TSP solution listed earlier, you can boost the mold- and mildew-cleaning properties by adding one cup of ordinary laundry bleach per gallon of water.

Drying Procedures

As you might imagine, the drying of damaged wood flooring must be done slowly. Wood flooring dried quickly invariably will crack.

In general, you will want to remove as much standing water as possible, and then accelerate the evaporation process with fans. Do not apply any heat to the hardwood flooring, as splitting, cupping, and a host of other problems will result.

Sanding Water-Damaged Wood Flooring

After drying, you may have some concave or convex floorboards; this is called "cupping."

Heavy sanding with a drum or orbital sander can actually "take down" some minor high areas. Heavily cupped wood cannot be sanded down flat.

It is inevitable that some floorboards may lift up completely at the ends. In this case, face-nail the floorboards back down.

Bottom Line

The key to "saving" your wood floors is expediency. Because wood is an organic material, the more time it is in contact with water, the worse the problem will get. Remember that you need to expel the dirt and other organic matter to prevent mold and mildew. Removing water alone will not prevent these issues.

If you can get to the flooring right away, you can get your flooring back to "almost like-new" condition.