Maple floors account for the vast majority of gym floors today, and can last 100 years if maintained properly. Luckily, proper care needn’t be complicated. Daily dust mopping, a weekly scrub and timely refinishing are simple tasks that, if done consistently, are all that is needed to keep floors looking like new.

Although the cleaning techniques are simple, gym floors can still be a challenging area for many cleaning crews. This is mostly because of the vast types of events that take place in the gym and the footwear that attendee’s wear.

Whether custodial crews are preparing the gym for a basketball game or a school assembly, careful attention is always given to protect the floors. Step one, carpets and runners are often recommended at gym entrances and in heavy traffic areas.

If a sporting event is going on, facility managers recommend also surrounding the playing floor with runners for protection from shoes of coaches, managers and fans. Doing this not only protects the floors from hard-soled shoes, folding chairs and coaching stools, but it minimizes exposure to harmful dirt, grit, sand and salt.

No matter what preventative measures are taken, though, proper maintenance and cleaning before and after events are essential to extending the life of the gym floor.

Maintenance On A Regular Basis

Mopping — whether wet or dry — can be a very effective way to extend the life of the floor if done daily. Regularly tending to floors will help eliminate the dust and dirt particles that often get ground into the floors finish. A simple once-over with a microfiber or flat mop on a regular basis is all that’s needed.

At Portland, Ore.-based, Catlin Gabel School, Eric Shawn, director of facilities, prefers to dust mop gym floors with microfiber. The school recently installed a maple floor and the microfiber was purchased specifically to maintain this hard wood. To prepare for tournament basketball, volleyball and badminton events in the gym, Shawn’s night crew dust mops the floor nightly with microfiber.

Microfiber used for either wet or dry mopping is a great way to capture even the tiniest of dust particles, clearing all debris from the floor, which is essential prior to events.

“Basketball players plant a foot, and if it slips, they could lose the ball in a turnover or miss a shot at the buzzer,” says Jeff Haines, supervisor of housekeeping at Kansas Wesleyan University in Salina, Kan. “To eliminate this, coaches will look at the floor before a game to make sure the kids are getting good traction on their shoes.”

Not only could a clean floor mean a notch in the win column, but removing dust and debris from floors will extend the life of the floors finish, both aesthetically and performance-wise. This is essential in any facility, but especially true for those gymnasiums that receive heavy activity and constant national attention.

Roger Schuster does just that as the maintenance mechanic for the Kohl Center, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Athletic Department’s indoor sports arena. Schuster and his staff care for the portable maple floor that’s mounted over the hockey ice and a protective subfloor — playing grounds for both Big Ten basketball and hockey.

The floor has to be “media-ready” twice a week in the winter when both sports are in full swing. In addition to the regular cleaning and maintenance, Schuster and his crew must remove the 210 four-by-eight-foot, 200-pound squares for hockey, and return them in time for the next basketball game.

Maintenance for the hardwood amounts to rigorous dusting schedules for the custodial crew. But in addition to dust mopping, Schuster has found that regular wet mopping improves both the aesthetics and functionality of the floor. Before every basketball game, the Kohl Center cleaning crew cleans with a cotton mop moistened from a bucket of one-part white vinegar and two-parts water.

“Soap dulls the floors finish,” says Schuster. “I learned this by trial and error. There are lots of cleaning products out there, but this seems to be the best for my needs. Cleaning takes anywhere from a half hour to 45 minutes and is done daily.”

A More Rigorous Clean

Regularly mopping gym floors is essential, but when a deeper clean is necessary, many cleaning mangers turn to their autoscrubbers.

Haines maintains a strict schedule and scrubs hardwood floors right before events. He uses a 24-inch riding scrubber mounted with two nonabrasive, 12-inch pads and a premeasured neutral cleaner, which is dispensed directly into the tank from a wall-mounted dispenser.

“All the operator has to do is release the button at fill level,” says Haines. “The scrubber automatically puts solution down, scrubs, squeegees and vacuums, so there is little to no moisture left on the floor. This also won’t leave a film or attack the finish.”

The night crew at Catlin Gabel School also uses an autoscrubber for a more rigorous clean. Specifically, Shawn uses a 26-inch walk-behind machine with nonabrasive pads and a preportioned, sustainably formulated, neutral cleaner.

“Autoscrubbing removes sweat, body fluids and various debris tracked into the building,” says Shawn, adding that the procedure adds about 45 minutes to the daily maintenance.

When cleaning with machines, it is important to make sure equipment is running properly. In addition to regular upkeep, manufacturers recommend keeping an eye on the machines floor pad thicknesses, which can flatten as they’re rewashed and reused.

“You don’t want them too thin,” Haines advises. “Or the pad driver bristle brush could get on the floor and cause damage.”

Beyond Clean

Regardless of a stringent cleaning program, gym floors receive a lot of wear and tear and will require refinishing from time to time. This can be a daunting task, though, and many cleaning managers opt to outsource the service.

“Refinishing is very labor intensive,” says Haines. “We did it ourselves one summer as a cost cutting measure, but it put us so far behind in other areas, it was more cost effective to bring the contractor in.”

Haines hasn’t yet had to refinish the new maple floor, but when he does, he says he’ll hire a contractor to screen (evenly rough up the surface), which removes the two layers of finish for better adhesion for the new finish. That will be followed up with vacuuming and dust mopping, mopping with a tacking solution to remove any leftover residues, a seal coat and two coats of water-based urethane finish.

“You can use either water- or oil-based urethane,” says Haines. “In some cases, oil is being phased out due to state and local regulations for hazardous materials. Water-based treatments don’t leave a slick film like oil-based and they dry almost instantly, reducing the risk of slips and falls. Also, oil can be darker or more yellow, so floors tend to darken out. We have gone with the natural look of the maple floor, which I think is more pleasing aesthetically.”

Like at Kansas Wesleyan University, Shawn has a contractor screen and coat the gym floor annually, using a water-based finish.

“If you don’t clean regularly and screen and recoat, the floor becomes slippery,” Shawn states. “According to my vendor, recoating every year also maintains the right alkalinity. If alkalinity is too low, it gets slippery.”

Although the task of refinishing can be labor-intensive, facilities with the manpower and equipment can save some money and complete the task in-house.

At the Kohl Center the floor is screened (or sand-gritted, as Schuster refers to it) and resealed by the in-house staff annually using a scrubbing machine, with sandpaper-like grit mounted over a floor pad. Workers use slow, circular motions to get an equally rough pattern, until all other marks are eliminated.

“We usually do it right after basketball camps in August, when those floors take a beating,” he says. “After screening, the floor should be dull, no shine.”

Pads should contain enough grit to rough it up, but not so much to create ridges so deep they show up in the seal and under the lights.

“I had to go to a thicker grit once, because of a hardener on the floor,” says Schuster. “We did it twice, first with 80-grit, then with a finer 100-grit to get any swirl marks out.”

After removing all debris, he uses a sheepskin applicator to apply two coats of water-based gym floor sealant using what he calls the plough method.

“You have a seam of seal, and you push it back and forth,” says Schuster. “You have plenty of time to work with it to try to get it even. You can tell visually how you’re doing it, because it looks like glass and reflects any irregularities.”

He adds that water-based sealer is also much easier to work with.

“It doesn’t smell as bad and it dries within a few hours, so I can put two coats on in one day,” Schuster continues. “Oil-based usually has a harder finish. We’ve used it, but it’s messy and the smell is pretty bad.”

After sealing, the portable floor is taken apart so that it doesn’t harden together, and is left to sit for at least a couple days.

Starting From Scratch

When treated right, wood gym floors should last a lifetime, but if a facility rebrands or changes its colors, like the Kohl Center did, the floor is typically sanded to virgin wood so the new colors and lines can be painted on. Although resanding gym floors to the virgin wood is a rare occurrence, it is necessary from time to time.

“We’ve only sanded once in 15 years — when the floor absolutely needed it,” adds Shawn. “You see the finish starting to get too thick, or boards that have to be repaired, and you need a clean start.”

Whether starting from scratch or working with what you have, the case of wooden gym floors is clear. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Lauren Summerstone is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wis.