Some types of flooring won't look their best unless they're waxed regularly, which means you'll also need to know how to remove wax from flooring. If your flooring requires wax, over time, the coating will build up and discolor, and instead of bringing out the beauty of your flooring, the accumulated wax will make it look dingy and dull even when it's perfectly clean. Removing the old wax to restore your floor's sheen requires time and effort, but it's not complicated.
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Floor Wax and Flooring Types
Before you set about removing wax from your flooring, it's important to take a moment and verify that wax is indeed what you're walking on. Of all the flooring types in widespread domestic use, only a few typically use traditional wax. These include traditional wood flooring, linoleum, terra-cotta tiles, and vinyl composition tiles, or VCT (not luxury vinyl tile, which is a different product). What all of these flooring types have in common is that their surface is porous. The wax isn't simply cosmetic but penetrates into the flooring material and provides a protective coating.
Most other flooring materials, including vinyl sheet flooring, ceramic tiles, engineered hardwood, luxury vinyl tile, and laminates come with a factory-sealed finish that should never be waxed and typically should not be polished. Using wax-removal methods on these types of flooring can result in damage to the flooring or its finish. In addition, most solid hardwood floors installed in recent decades are sealed with polyurethane rather than the traditional wax or oil-and-wax treatment. Varnished floors should not be waxed.
To confirm that your floor has been waxed, choose an inconspicuous spot to test the surface. Scraping gently with a coin or the edge of a spoon (something that won't gouge the floor) should raise up a small ridge of waxy buildup on the edge of the metal. If nothing comes up or you see a few flakes of clear material instead, you have a varnish or another permanent finish. Alternatively, tip a careful drop or two of mineral spirits onto your chosen spot and cover the spot with a shot glass. Wax will turn cloudy and soften to the point that it can be wiped away with a soft rag.
Remove Wax From Wood Flooring
Removing wax from your wood flooring is essentially the same process as spot-testing but on a larger scale. You'll need mineral spirits and a large supply of clean cloths, and the process, while tedious, is simple enough. Mineral spirits are volatile and flammable, so work in a well-ventilated space and avoid any sources of flame or spark. Wear gloves when handling the spirits and ideally a ventilator if you're sensitive to inhalants. Although traditional DIY techniques using vinegar and water or ammonia and water can indeed remove wax from your floors, they should be avoided. Because they're water-based, they can damage your wood flooring or its finish.
Before you do anything else, clean your floor thoroughly. Sweep, clean up any stuck-on food or grime, and then vacuum or dry-mop to remove any remaining dust and soil. Next, working in areas of just a few square feet at a time, rub or mist the mineral spirits onto the wax and allow it to sit for a few minutes as the wax softens. Optionally, you might abrade the surface lightly with a green kitchen scrubber or fine steel wool before applying the spirits (this can help speed the spirits' absorption into the wax).
Then, wipe away the softened wax with soft cloths, replacing them as they become fouled with wax. Scrub gently on tough areas with your steel wool or green scrubber. After a while, you'll establish a rhythm, wiping the wax from one area as the next patch softens.
Repeat the process until you've covered the entire floor. You may need to do some extra scrubbing in tough areas, such as corners or along baseboards. Once the floor is entirely stripped, wipe it down with a damp cloth and then dry it with a towel. At this point, you can apply a fresh coat of wax or sand and refinish the floors as desired.
Remove Wax From Nonwood Flooring
Stripping wood floors is a very manual process, but removing wax from linoleum, VCT flooring, and terra-cotta tiles can be less so. Those materials aren't as susceptible to moisture, so you can use a liquid stripping product with some combination of mops and brushes or rented equipment. It's faster and easier on your back and knees.
Start by cleaning your floors thoroughly, removing any furniture, and masking baseboards and cupboards with tape and plastic to protect against splashes. Choose a commercial wax-stripping product that's appropriate for your flooring and dilute it according to the manufacturer's instructions. Make a note of the manufacturer's recommended dwell time — the length of time the stripper should be left to sit on the flooring. Commercial wax-stripping products contain harsh chemicals and should only be used in a well-ventilated space. Open windows and doors wherever you can and set up fans if necessary to help move air out of your workspace.
Mop the diluted stripping solution onto your flooring a section at a time and let it sit until the dwell time has elapsed. Then, scrub it with a deck-scrubbing broom or a dry mop with a scouring pad attached to remove the softened wax from your flooring. Take up the slurry of solvent and wax with a clean mop or a wet-dry vacuum. If you're working with a rented floor-scrubbing machine, use that to do the physical scrubbing.
Repeat until the entire floor is stripped and then rinse the flooring with a clean mop and fresh water to remove any remaining stripper. Rinse the mop and bucket thoroughly, fill the bucket with fresh water, and add up to a cup of white vinegar. Mop the floor once more with this mixture. Floor-stripping chemicals are strongly alkaline, so the vinegar will help neutralize any residues.
An Alternative to Consider
If you love your floor but hate the cycle of "strip and re-wax," you can now use modern synthetic sealants on these types of flooring, which will last for years and require minimal maintenance. Just make sure the sealant can be used over previously waxed surfaces. If not, the new sealant might not stick.
Fred Decker is a trained chef and prolific freelance writer. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. His articles have appeared on numerous home and garden sites, including OurEverydayLife, GoneOutdoots, The Nest and eHow, as well as the San Francisco Chronicle's SFGate.com.