Fifty years ago, if you had asked anyone how to rejuvenate a wood floor, you'd have been told there was pretty much just one way to do it — with wax, down on all fours. And it was not considered fun, which was one reason for the huge market gains that wall-to-wall carpeting began making in the 1950s: The promise of low maintenance put a huge dent in the wood-flooring trade.

When wood floors began their renaissance in the late 1970s, much had changed. Most notably, the use of waxes had decreased, while new coatings — the best-known being the various polyurethanes — had been introduced with the sole purpose of reducing maintenance. Although there is still debate about the durability and aesthetic desirability of...

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