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A wood floor is a thing of beauty. But wood floors take abuse and require proper care to keep them looking good.

To preserve its finish, a floor has to be kept clean. Dirt and dust are natural abrasives that shorten the life of the finish and stain the wood. One way to minimize dirt is to place doormats at all entrances, but it is still important to dust and vacuum often. Do not sweep the floor with a broom, because the bristles scratch the finish. Instead, use a dust mop or a vacuum. Buy a dust mop with wool or synthetic fibers. They create a static charge that attracts dust particles. Dust areas with heavy traffic every day; floors that see less use can be dusted once a week.If dusting and vacuuming do not sufficiently clean the floor, try a commercial self-cleaning polish. Those preparations dissolve the old wax, remove dirt and leave a new coat of wax. Read the label carefully to ensure that the cleaner is solvent-based, not water-based. Change the applicator pad or cloth frequently.

If the floor continues to appear dull, it may be necessary to strip off the old wax completely and apply a new coat. Use a solvent-based wax remover and read all directions carefully.

Apply the de-waxer with clean cloths or No. 2 steel wool. After removing the old wax, apply a new coat. Paste wax is more durable than liquid wax, but it is also more difficult to apply. First, apply the wax with a damp cloth. Then buff to a smooth shine. A power buffer fitted with a lambs-wool pad makes the job easier and produces a better finish. The buffers can often be rented.

Do not overwax a floor. That invites dirt buildup and can make the floor slippery. Usually a light coat of wax applied once or twice a year is all that is necessary to keep the floor looking new.

Wax will give the floor luster and afford some protection, but there will still be mishaps that require further measures.

Black scuff marks are a common problem. They can sometimes be removed by rubbing them with a rag dipped in solid vegetable shortening like Crisco. If that fails, rub with fine steel wool and mineral spirits.

Some heel marks can be even more damaging. The only way to remove dents caused by high-heel shoes is to resand the floor. It is best to walk lightly or remove high heels. But guests cannot usually be expected to remove their shoes. So protect your floors with area rugs.

Spilled liquids present other problems. Once they penetrate the wood, they can warp the boards and leave stains. Wipe them up before they penetrate.

If they do leave a stain, there are ways to remove it. A light-colored stain indicates that only the wax has been affected and the wood has not been touched. Remove the stain by rubbing the area with fine steel wool dipped in mineral spirits.

A dark stain, however, indicates that the liquid has penetrated into the wood. First remove the wax with steel wool and mineral spirits. Then lay a clean cloth over the area and saturate it with white distilled vinegar. The vinegar should bleach the stain. If there has been no change after 10 minutes, you will need something stronger.

An effective bleach can be made by dissolving oxalic-acid crystals in very hot water. Wear rubber gloves and mix the solution in a glass or enamel pan. Soak a cloth in the solution and apply it to the stain. Let it stand for an hour. Then wash the area with water and let it dry. Then wax.

Chewing gum can be difficult to remove, but applying ice may help. Place a cube wrapped in plastic on the blob of gum until it becomes sufficiently brittle to scrape up with a putty knife. You can also apply mineral spirits around the perimeter of the gum with an eyedropper or a spoon. Let the solvent penetrate under the blob. You should then be able to dislodge it with a knife.

Scratches on a wood floor are noticeable because they are a different color than the surrounding floor. You can fix them by applying a matching color with a special felt-tipped furniture marker or a wax touch-up crayon. You can also apply oil-based wood stain with a small brush.

Let the color dry. Then brush on polyurethane varnish. Build up the polyurethane to match the thickness of the surrounding floor by applying three or more coats.

Gouges in the wood require fillers, as well as stain. Use commercial colored putty or color your own filler by mixing stain with neutral-colored putty. Pack the putty firmly into the gouge, creating a slight bulge above the floor. After the filler has hardened, sand it, starting with a medium-grit paper and moving on to a fine-grit paper. Then apply polyurethane.

It is important to treat scratches and gouges when they occur, because they collect dirt. They discolor the wood and make repairs more difficult.

Wood floors are affected by humidity. In the winter the air is dry. In the summer it is humid. A wood floor expands or contracts with the fluctuations and creates warps or cracks.

The problems can be eliminated by controlling the humidity. Install vapor barriers in crawl spaces to keep moisture from rising into the floor above. In damp areas run a dehumidifier. In very dry areas like a room above the furnace use a humidifier.