Water and Wood

We all learned the basic life cycle of the plant in grade school. Trees need water to thrive and grow into the tall sorts of things we make into lumber. Once that tree has been cut and shaped into wood flooring however, water — in various forms — takes on a whole new role.

There are a few basic problems that can occur when water contacts wood. The troubles caused by water-on-wood crime can be easily averted by taking care to properly care for new wood flooring. That’s not to say that wood is a bad choice. On the contrary, wood has a unique and warm feel and look that is worth every bit of the following efforts which you should use to care for your wood projects.

There are a few behaviors of wood that you are going to encounter due to the very natural behavior of wood. Fluctuations in humidity will expand and contract wood flooring and may cause the wood to expand and contract. Maintaining control of the humidity and temperature of wood installed indoors is essential to fighting against wood floor troubles.

The simple explanation for water’s incredible effect on wood is to think of the tree as it was when it was alive. The fibrous channels that carried water from the roots to the very top leaf are still present in the wood. Now, though, the wood is dry and the fibers have dried and shrank to account for the water or sap loss. Introduce too much water back into this situation and you can see where rehydration may start causing some issues for your carefully laid wood.

Here’s how you should clean your wood floor:

  1. The first step should be to prep the floor and remove all of the largest particles with a simple broom sweeping.
  2. Around one to two times a week, use a vacuum to pick up dirt and sand that may be missed by the broom.
  3. When mopping or using similar products to clean up the tiniest or most stubborn dust and debris, be sure the cleaning end is damp and not wet. Excess water introduced in the cleaning process could potentially cause more problems than it solves.
  4. Occasionally you may want to periodically buff and wax your floor. This is fine, but be sure to check with the manufacturer of your specific wood product to determine ideal processes you should use.
Of course, there are a few things you can consider doing to minimize possible damage to your wood floors before cleaning:
  1. Carpet runners and area rugs to minimize impact
  2. When convenient wear only soft footwear on your wood flooring and avoid high heels or other high-impact shoes
  3. Got something to move? Use sliders on a clean floor. Dragging may seem fast and convenient, but you may pay for it later.
  4. Install floor mats at each entrance so you don’t track in dirt from the bottoms of shoes.
  5. Consider keeping pads under the furniture to avoid scratches or dents from the weight of the furniture.

A quality installer will be aware of the importance of maintaining moisture content of the wood. Moisture content is defined as the percentage of dry wood material to water material in the wood, which can be measured with special equipment. “Dimensionally stable” wood, or wood that will mostly maintain its shape, is typically at about a thirty percent moisture content. The percent moisture at which the wood is stable is known as the “fiber saturation point.”

If wood breaks too far away from its fiber saturation point, it can begin to change by shrinking (if below) or swelling (if above). Most flooring, because of the structure of the wood will tend to shrink and swell in width and rarely change significantly in length.

Most of the time, ambient humidity is not going to be the cause of water-damages to your floor. More commonly, and extensive soaking in water from a spill, leak or other source of water is the cause of your concern. Here’s what you need to do if water soaks into your floor.

The first thing you need to do is dry the wood and the area beneath and around it. Open a window and point a large fan down at the affected wood to dry the wood out quickly. Speed is a factor, as mold formation and continued warping may be a danger of slow response.

Cupping, the description of what happens when wood takes on a convex shape can be counteracted with sanding, but it is important that moisture content has returned to normal. If not, after the wood has dried, the flooring may take on a convex shape.