Romancing the Stone Proper Marble Floor Care

Romancing the Stone

 If you want to make a good impression, nothing quite says luxury and elegance  like a vast expanse of polished marble—particularly in the lobby of an upscale condominium or co-op building. Marble  has been used in palaces, temples, and homes for thousands of years, and is  prized for its beauty, durability, and variety of colors and patterns. Stone  floors need maintenance, however, and knowing what they need can make them look  better and last longer.  

 Uniquely Marbled

 Some of the first marble floors were created and installed in ancient Rome. King  Louis XIV filled Versailles with it, Michelangelo carved David from it, and  Shah Jahan used it to build the Taj Mahal—but why? Marble, for all intents and purposes, is simply beautiful. Few natural  materials have the longevity and versatility of marble, and its wide variety of  colors and veining patterns give it personality and mystique. Formed from the  metamorphosis of carbonate rocks, primarily limestone, marble may be more  expensive than other flooring options but it lasts longer and is actually  easier to maintain than say, for example, hardwood.  

 Marble comes in many different designs and patterns, according to Marino “Marty” Jollette, general manager at Renue Systems of Chicago, Inc. in Addison,  Illinois. White, blue, green, red and beige are but a few of the hundreds of  options available for flooring.  

 Marble traditionally has a very high sheen and that style is popular in many  high-end buildings. However, there are more muted and matte finishes available,  says Giovanni Gigliotti of MS International, Inc., a natural stone and  porcelain distributor in Elk Grove Village.  

 “Usually the marble is installed as tiles,” says Lina Gottesman, vice president of the trade organization Professional  Women in Construction (PWC) and president and owner of Altus Metal, Marble & Wood in Long Island City, New York. “There are various sizes. Some very large lobbies will use a very big slab—maybe 55-x-100 inches—but that is a much more expensive way to install.”  

 Classes of Marble

 “There are all kinds of marble ranging from very soft to much harder marble,” says Gottesman. “It depends on their composition. Some marble is very solid, and some types have  sand veins running throughout, which tend to make them bad for flooring. All  those veins really add to a delicate marble’s beauty, but when walked upon over time, the veins will start to crack. We  recommend that kind of marble for walls, where there isn’t hard pressure being applied to the sand veins.”  

 Stone is classified with letters from A to C with A or B being more suitable for  flooring. It’s not that C is a bad stone—it’s just that it has more natural fissures in the stone and wear-and-tear by foot  traffic can upset those fissures. Stones that are more veiny or colorful are in  class C.  

 Know Your Stone

 Marble has some close cousins in the world of materials that can play a similar  role in residential buildings. There is actually a lot of marble, a lot of  limestone, and a lot of granite in city buildings located in places like  Chicago and New York, according to Gottesman. “Of those, limestone is the softest. It has a high lime content—obviously—which reacts to acids and has to be cared for in a certain way. It can’t tolerate very harsh acids.”  

 “Marble is a mixture of sand and limestone,” Gottesman continues. “It’s a little bit harder than limestone, but it still reacts to acids because of  the lime content. So you have to be careful how you use acidic polishes, and  know how to use them on marble.”  

 Granite, says Gottesman, is a different type of stone entirely. It only contains  a tiny amount of lime and is the hardest stone used as a building material. “Granite has to be treated very differently, because it won’t react to acids like marble and limestone will,” concludes Gottesman. “We have to use a totally different process to care for granite.”  

 Although polished granite may be a very hard surface, and does resist scratching  and pitting better than marble and limestone, when it does get scratched, it is  more costly to fix because it has to be diamond-ground, honed, and polished,  notes Gottesman.  

 “And you can never really get it as shiny as the factory finish because of the  fact that we can’t apply enough pressure to the flooring to actually polish it. We have to use  abrasives like diamond pads with weights on top of the machine. It’s a little more costly. Sometimes, it’s better in the long term to use a honed granite surface as opposed to a  polished one, because it does get very costly to keep a polished granite floor  shiny over the years.”  

 Travertine is another form of limestone that is used in flooring. “Travertine is a stone that is made over thousands of years through hot spring  deposits. As the water goes through the stone, it leaves small erosion holes  that are either filled or unfilled in the factory. Filled travertine is most  common in floors so that it won't collect dirt,” explains Jollette. Travertine is used in both modern and traditional  architecture, including the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris and the 20th-century Getty Center in Los Angeles,  California, and more close to home, in the walls of the lobby of the Willis  Tower.  

 Upkeep and Maintenance

 In addition to its aesthetic merits—and despite the limitations of some of the more delicate varieties—marble is considered a very durable material. The frequency and type of  maintenance it needs depend on where it’s installed, the wear and tear that it’s subjected to on a daily basis, and how glossy you want keep it.  

 For the typical marble floor, try to use cleaners with a neutral pH, since  acidic cleaners will eventually affect the material, says Jollette. He gets  many calls from clients that have tried to use the common household cleaner,  white distilled vinegar, on their marble floors and have unintentionally etched  off the polish from their floor.  

 Instead, “you want to dust mop the floor to remove any type of debris that gets in. Dust  particles that are sharp can potentially scratch the floor. If you do want to  wet mop, you would use a cleaner for marble that is neutral pH or only slightly  alkaline,” says Jollette.  

 Gigliotti adds that ammonia is another product that should be avoided. Rather  than being acidic, ammonia is strongly alkaline, the opposite of acidic, yet  still damaging to marble. Commonly used to clean glass, porcelain and stainless  steel, ammonia contains compounds that react with the minerals in marble,  damaging and discoloring the surface, Gigliotti says.  

 Diamond grinding is another technique that is used to polish the floor. “Over time, the stone becomes dull and you may think that the marble isn't any  good. But that is the great thing about natural stone. We can come in and using  diamonds, the hardest stone known to man, we can actually polish the stone  using different levels of grit,” Jollette says. A lower grit is used to rid the floor of deeper scratches and a  higher grit is used to actually polish. Afterwards, a polishing compound goes  on top.  

 Since a highly-polished marble can scratch, Gottesman says that if a building  wants a very shiny, clean appearance it’s important to have a professional come in routinely for sanding, honing, and  polishing to maintain a mirror finish and buff out particularly deep cracks.  

 A professional stone-care company will generally first sand a floor to remedy  the deepest scratches, using a diamond grinding pad like the one Jollette  mentions above. After that, fine screens are used to perfect the surface. Once  that’s done, an acid solution and a superfine polishing wheel are applied to get the  sought-after mirror finish on the very top surface of the marble.  

 The frequency of a maintenance program depends on the stone, the finish, and the  traffic it receives, Jollette says. “Basically when you start to notice that the polish is coming off and the stone  is looking dull and scratched, that is when you should do it.”  

 A client of his that is a realtor and runs her business out of her home, has a  marble foyer that she has Jollette maintain once a year. In typical residential  cases however, a resident or association should have a professional clean the  space every couple of years, he explains.  

 Marble floors require a little extra TLC at certain times of the year, says  Gottesman. “It’s especially important during winter months to protect marble and limestone from  the products that we use to melt snow, as those products can truly damage the  surface.”  

 Rescuing Your Flooring

 If your building’s marble surfaces are looking a little care-worn—either from years of neglect, or from poor installation or misguided cleaning  methods— it’s not necessarily the end of the world.  

 Using inappropriate methods to install or clean marble or attempting at DIY  polishing job can lead to further discoloration and damage with very expensive  repairs. “The equipment is big and bulky and if you do not know what you are doing, it is  not like a rug doctor, where you rent the machine. Even the polish has an acid  that reacts with the calcium in marble and needs to be done in a particular way—so it is not an at-home type project,” stresses Jollette.  

 The upside is that marble can be easily restored. Even floors that are old or  heavily damaged can be brought back to life.  

 “With very old marble, we find that we need to add one extra step in the process,” adds Gottesman. “We need to add a step called poulticing, where we diamond grind [the marble  surface] to get as much of the top layer off—to open up the pores, so to speak. We then apply a clay-like mixture with  bleaching agents (called a poultice) to the marble with a trowel. Then we cover  it up for 48 to 72 hours. It works sort of like a clay mask that you would put  on your face, and it draws out impurities. We apply this poultice mixture,  cover it up, and let it draw out as much of the stain as possible. Then we come  back in two to three days and remove it, then hone and polish that surface. And  that process will generally give the best results for old, stained marble.”  

 Despite its special needs, marble remains a material for the ages. A few simple  care tips combined with special maintenance every couple of years will ensure  that your floors make it to the next century and beyond.   

 Denton Tarver is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The  Chicagoland Cooperator. Editorial Assistant Maggie Puniewska contributed to  this article.  


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