Floor Polishing, Buffing, Waxing Or Refinishing ?

shiny floorFloor polishing, buffing, waxing & refinishing are each different ways of restoring shine & renewing dull & scratched floors. These processes remove grime & restore the topcoat. Though these terms are often used interchangeably or may be assumed as the same thing, each is a specific process suitable for certain floor types. In this article we’ll explain each process, tell which is appropriate for every floor & what you can do yourself or whether you should hire a professional. At the bottom we’ve included every floor type along with details on what can be done to restore it’s shine.

To Summarize:

• Floor polishing can be done by hand with polishing products for all floor types.
• Floor polishing in professional terms means using a very high speed machine (burnisher) to remove some of the finish layer & give a high gloss. On wood floors this is called floor screening.
• Floor buffing in professional terms means using a slower speed machine called a buffing machine to coat & shine the floor with a buffing solution, this is the most common method for shining floors in the flooring industry.
Floor polishing & floor buffing with machines is for hardwood, tile, marble, stone, concrete, VCT & linoleum, not for vinyl, luxury vinyl or laminate which can be damaged by machines.
Sanding & refinishing uses a sanding machine to remove the top layer of wood floors & expose new wood which can be stained & finished with urethane or instead can be waxed.
• Waxing (Strip & Wax) is another way to seal & shine a floor – it’s most commonly done on VCT but is also used for unglazed floor tiles like terracotta & wood floors that aren’t urethane finished. Existing layers of wax sometimes need to be stripped if it’s causing the floor to look dull.
Concrete Polishing is done with a machine for concrete which grinds the concrete to a smooth, shiny finish. Concrete buffing is done routinely to keep the polished concrete shiny.

floor polishMost floor types have floor polishing or waxing products available that you can apply yourself with a cloth or flathead mop. These products are practical for most residential areas and just require the floor to be thoroughly cleaned and dried before applying. The product must specify that it’s for your floor type. Some products are supposed to be suitable for all floor types. While the ratings for several of these products are mostly favorable, there’s always a good portion who found they would have been better off having it done by a professional. In some cases floors were ruined or costly fixes were incured.

Floor Polishing & Buffing Machines

Professionals use machines for more reliable results. Floor polishing & buffing machines are used more often on commercial floors which are larger areas with higher traffic that need buffing or polishing more frequently. Commercial floors may need to be repolished or waxed every one to three months to keep them shiny. Residential floors polished with a flathead mop & polishing product may need to be repolished every 6 months or so.

Using a machine makes floor polishing, buffing, waxing & cleaning much easier, faster & with better results. You can rent a machine and do it yourself for a more professional result, but whether you do it by hand or with a machine you should be careful to know what you’re doing first. Using wrong substances like harsh cleaners or abrasive sponges & pads can scuff & damage a floor. Buffing & polishing machines can also damage floors if not properly used & are not for use on vinyl floors like LVT (luxury vinyl tile) or laminate floors. Machines are particularly for use on hardwood, tile, marble, stone, concrete, VCT & linoleum.

floor buffingAside from this one must know the right type of machine to use as there are several types – one for cleaning, buffing or waxing, one for polishing (burnishing) & another type for sanding wood floors. Machines operate at different speeds & you must use the right speed & the right type of pad. There are many types of pads & levels of abrasiveness. Using the wrong pad or speed can damage the floor or otherwise be ineffective by being too dull & clogging the pad quickly. Choosing all the right equipment, materials & knowing how to operate the machine properly, generally requires professional experience though any determined do it yourselfer can figure it out with some care and attention.

Buying a floor polish product & doing it yourself may be called floor polishing, but when it comes to professional services with machines, floor polishing and floor buffing are different processes. Both increase longevity of floors by removing buildup & scratches, restoring shine and making floors look new again. There’s a different machine for each process. Buffing machines operate at a slower speed. Standard speed is 175 RPM & high speed is 1250-1500 RPM. Polishing (also called burnishing) machines are heavier & faster, running from 1500-2500 rpm. Polishing (Burnishing) is less common than buffing. It requires more expertise to operate the heavier & faster machine. Polishing actually removes the top layer of floor finish, removing nicks & scuffs. It gives more shine, more smooth surface & is longer lasting. Buffing is done either by hand or with a machine & it fills in nicks & scuffs with a buffing solution (often called ‘floor polish’) that’s buffed to a shine.

Professional buffing involves buffing the entire area once or twice with a spray on buffing solution (Spray buffing) & then buffing it again without solution to remove any residue & enhance shine (Dry Buffing). More details on the procedure below.

Do It Yourself Procedures

polished floorFloor Polishing with a polishing product & flathead mop (most common for residential): Make sure the floor polishing product is made for your floor type. Some claim to be for all floor types. If it’s a wood floor make sure the floor has a urethane finish, most do. Floors without a urethane finish are much less common but should be waxed rather than polished. If unsure, you can scrape a little in the corner to see if there’s a clearcoat substance that comes off, in which case it is urethane.

The floor must first be deep cleaned – sweep or vacuum (avoid beater bar on wood), deep clean with a suitable cleaning product for your floor type. Clean again with only warm water to remove any cleaner then dry the floor completely, a fan helps. Apply polish according to instructions using a flathead mop, working away from one corner outward, avoiding stepping on polished area. Let dry, avoid heavy traffic or replacing furniture for 24 hours. Many polishing product reviews report that they applied polish about every 6 months without having to strip away the existing polish. In some cases however, people did get clouding or unsatisfactory results even with the very first use & ended up having to do a good deal of work to remove the polish.

Floor Buffing (with a machine): Floor buffing machines are for hardwood, tile, marble, concrete, VCT & linoleum (not vinyl, luxury vinyl or laminate). Floor must first be deep cleaned. Sweep or vacuum (avoid beater bars on wood). Damp mop with a cleaning solution for your floor type. Clean again with only warm water to remove cleaner. Dry floor thoroughly with fan, then dry mop. Spray buff once or twice, dry buff once, then finally dry mop once more.
Spray Buffing (done with machine under 1000 RPM). Fill a fine mist sprayer with buffing solution for your floor type or make your own with 1 cup white vinegar per gallon of water. Spray on buffing solution evenly – spray should be wet while buffing so only spray as much as you can buff before it dries. With buffing machine & appropriate pad, buff floor starting in corner furthest from exit, (so you don’t step on buffed area, it needs to dry) going back & forth over one 3×3 ft area at a time. Buff over scratched areas a little longer (not too long, you must be careful with a buffing machine). Watch for excess buildup on pad if using a machine & pad & change pad when needed. You can do a second buffing of the entire floor for more shine.
Dry buffing (with buffing machines): after spray buffing the area is dry buffed with an appropriate pad without spray to remove any spray residue & leave a dry, shiny surface. Use the same technique of moving the machine back and forth as you work your way back without walking over the buffed area, again giving some extra buffing to scratched areas. Again watch pad for excess buldup & change pad when needed.

floor waxFloor Paste Wax – Used on VCT (vinyl composite tile), unglazed floor tiles like Terra Cotta & unfinished wood floors. Wood floors that are not finished with urethane are sealed with paste wax, an old time natural wax made with beeswax, carnauba wax, linseed and plant based oils. Nowadays there’s many other types of waxes made synthetically which come in liquid & are easier & faster to work with. Still, some folks prefer to stay with the old time natural stuff so paste wax is still available & we’ve heard it’s regaining polularity with environmentally friendly people. In New York City however, where we work on many wood floors, hardly any have wax. We recommend water based urethane for an environmentally friendly finish that will last alot longer & be less work than wax.

To apply wax, the floor must first be swept or vacuumed & deep cleaned with an appropriate cleaner & mop. Clean again with only warm water to remove cleaner and thoroughly dry floor with a fan. Apply wax with a clean lint free cotton cloth. Apply a light, even coat according to directions on the product. Once dry, buff by hand or with a machine. For a machine follow the same procedure for buffing given above. Wood floors may need a waxing twice a year. Additional waxing may sometimes require removal of existing wax if you feel wax buildup is causing the floor to look dull. It’s removed with mineral spirits, a cloth & alot of elbow grease or a machine.

Strip & Wax is a job done mostly on VCT vinyl composite tile which is common in schools and hospitals. Whenever wax is applied the vct tile must be completely stripped of wax, scrubbed & recoated with four wax coats.

Floor Polishing Methods for All Floor Types

floor buffing machineHere’s what can be done with each floor type to make the floor shine. As mentioned above there are polishing products that can be used on all floors. With such products be sure it’s for your floor type, always deep clean floors and dry thoroghly before applying and follow instructions carefully. Keep in mind that there’s some risk in using any floor polishing products even the best rated ones. If possible, consider first testing it on small area & don’t use it in areas that get wet. No matter which product you’ll find a large portion of reviews which had a bad experience & either their floors were ruined or they had to do alot of work or pay a professional a good sum to remove the product & restore the floor.

Bamboo: Comes factory finished which generally lasts many years & keeps shine. The main recommendation is to use an appropriate floor cleaner regularly. You can use a commercial cleaner like Bona or use 1 cup of white vinegar to 4 cups of water. While this floor polishing product doesn’t specify bamboo, it’s used on many wood floors and the reviews have several positive recommendations for bamboo floors. Machines are not usually used on bamboo.

Cork: Like wood, either polyurethane finish or wax is used to seal, protect & give a cork floor shine. As such they can be machine sanded & refinished with polyurethane (urethane finish is completely removed & reapplied), screened to restore a urethane finish (urethane finish is just slightly sanded then buffed), polished with a wood floor polishing product or buffing machine (if finished with polyurethane), or waxed by hand or with machine (if without polyurethane).

Concrete: Concrete floors are ground & polished with machines, sealers & a variety of pads from coarse to fine until achieving a mirror like finish. Once a concrete floor is polished it can last a lifetime & maintenance buffing with a hair pad to maximize the shine is done about twice a year. More about concrete floor polishing:

Engineered wood: comes with acrylic factory finish which is only recommended to damp mop & use a cleaner recommended for engineered wood. Engineered wood flooring is a thin veneer of hardwood attached to a backing. So it cannot be sanded & refinished like hardwood can many times, but possibly once or twice. A machine buffer may be used carefully, and wood polishing products applied with a flathead mop can be used such as Bona Hardwood Floor Polish.

Laminate: Has acrylic factory finish & machines are not used on laminate. If the wear layer is removed by a machine then the design layer could be ruined. The main recommendation for laminate is to clean it regularly with spray laminate floor cleaner & a microfiber pad/ lint free mop. You can also apply liquid polish for laminate as several products are listed as usable on laminate.

Linoleum: Machine buffing or polishing with a polishing product for linoleum can be done on linoleum after being cleaned with a linoleum floor cleaner. Homemade polish can be made with 1 cup of vinegar per gallon of warm water & few drops baby oil. Apply with a spray bottle & buff.

Marble: May be machine buffed or polished with polishing product for marble. To make your own polish & hand polish first scrub marble with a damp sponge or microfiber cloth & mild detergent, then rinse & wipe. Apply a mix of 3 tbsp baking soda per 1 liter water & let dry a few hours. Then buff with a clean cloth going in circles from large to small. For machine polishing marble is first cleaned with pH neutral cleaner then sanded and polished with a microfibre pad & powder.

Stone Tile: Stone may be polished with a buffing machine or by hand with a flathead mop & floor polishing product for stone. Use a cleaner & sealer product for stone. This polishing product is made also for stone
Here’s more details on machine polishing stone:

Tile (ceramic & porcelain): Tile is usually glazed or else sealed with wax. Machines can be used on tile or polished by hand with a product like Bona Hard Surface Floor Polish for non wax sealed tile like ceramic, Mexican & Quarry tile. For glazed ceramic use a tile sealer once a year to protect grout. More info from Bona here on how to polish tile floors:

Vinyl: buffing machines are not used on vinyl as they can cause damage. Polish vinyl & luxury vinyl with a product like Bona Hard Surface Floor Polish or Quickshine. You can also make polish with 4 tbsp baking soda & 3 liters warm water. Liquid acrylic finish applied with a mop is another option to restore vinyl finish.

Wood: wood floors can be machine sanded & refinished, screened with a machine, buffed with a machine or polished by hand with a polishing product for wood & flathead mop. Sanding & refinishing is an intensive process of completely removing the finish & top layer of wood to expose a new fresh layer of untreated wood, which can then be stained & finished with polyurethane, or just stained & waxed. It removes deeper scratches than screening or buffing. Screening is done using a machine to slightly sand down & buff the polyurethane without completely removing it. It can remove scratches & scuffs which which don’t go into the wood & restore shine to the top layer of finish. Machine buffing is done using a buffing solution to fill in nicks & scratches in the polyurethane & shine it. Wood floors which are not urethane finished should be waxed regularly (6-18 months).

The Floor Master

Hardwood flooring expert for over 30 years, serving in the NYC area.

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