Refinish Your Hardwood Floors

by Kathy Batesel

We refinished this 52 year old hardwood floor the "wrong" way and got beautiful results.
We refinished this 52 year old hardwood floor the "wrong" way and got beautiful results. | Source

How would you refinish a wood floor?

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DIY Floor Refinishing: When You Don't Want to Spend on a Pro

When my husband and I decided to merge his office and mine, we decided that it was time to resurface our much-abused hardwood floors, but we didn't want to spend a couple thousand dollars on hiring a professional to come in. It's not the first time we felt this way. Last year, we experimented on his daughter's bedroom with good results.

We might not have had the courage to try if it hadn't been for a few things. First, I'd spent a number of years working in real estate, where I'd seen refinished floors my clients had resurfaced while rehabbing houses for resale. Second, I'm an investor that purchases rental homes and leases them to tenants. Third, I'd stumbled upon an industrial floor sander for sale for $350 a couple of years ago, and figured that it'd save me money on the floor I was needing to refinish then.

I was wrong. I discovered that I wasn't able to use it on that floor, because it was simply too damaged. However, the sander has paid for itself in savings on the two floors we have refinished, and we couldn't be happier with the results. Keep reading to see if a DIY (do-it-yourself) refinishing project is a good choice for resurfacing your own hardwood floors, and find out why it's not as scary as it might seem at first glance.

Debunking Myths About DIY Floor Refinishing

Professionals and laypersons warn people about some terrible sounding problems that can result from trying to refinish floors without hiring an experienced tradesman. We've found that the problems they promise aren't terribly significant. Our floors may not be tradesman quality, but only a trained eye would discern the difference.

  • "You'll get gouges in the wood if you hold the sander too long in one area." This is undoubtedly true if you use a drum sander instead of an orbital or vibrating sander. However, as long as you stick to a vibrating sander, its flat surface and the way it operates will prevent you from digging too deeply into the wood at one time. If we have any areas that aren't flat in our floors, we sure haven't found them - on either of the projects we've completed.
  • "You'll get dust everywhere!" Sanding floors does produce some dust, no doubt. However, we found simple methods of controlling this. We taped newspapers over our air conditioning ducts, opened a window in the room and placed a high-powered fan in it to blow sawdust out the window if it was floating in the air, and we used sanders with bags for capturing the sawdust. On our most recent project, my husband dug out his shop vac and replaced the capture bag with its hose, effectively vacuuming as we went.
  • "If the surface isn't 100% free of dust or particles, you'll get imperfections in your new floor." Well, sure. However, a thorough sweeping and mopping will eliminate this problem for the most part. Even if it misses something, it's not likely to be noticeable if you're not actively looking for imperfections. (We found a stray hair in ours when we scrutinized our work, but it took me a long time to find it when I looked for it again.)

Water damage and termites forced this homeowner to replace the floor and subfloor because refinishing was no longer an option.
Water damage and termites forced this homeowner to replace the floor and subfloor because refinishing was no longer an option. | Source

Is the Floor Too Damaged?

When I bought my sander, I was recently divorced and had purchased a house to live in and fix up, with the idea that as I got my career established and the house up to par, I'd buy another home for myself and rent the one I was living in, which was a near disaster when I bought it. I'd known it had hardwood floors when I made an offer to purchase the foreclosed house, but until I pulled out the horrendous orange shag carpet, I couldn't see its condition. It was worse than I would have thought possible and could not be refinished.

Ancient spills and a dog that apparently wasn't housebroken had turned huge patches of the wood black - damage that clearly went much deeper than the surface. I scratched at it with a screwdriver to how deep the damage was, and found that it was too deep to repair. No fresh wood could be seen without making deep grooves with the blade of the screwdriver. I'd discovered a fair number of worn and broken planks that would have to be replaced, too.

It definitely wasn't a DIY job that I was prepared to take on. I ended up hiring a pro to come in and install new flooring, but I was stuck with the floor sander I'd purchased. (Ladies, lemme tell ya - men are impressed by a woman with exotic power tools!)

In the photo below, you can see the tongue and groove cut each hardwood plank has. When resurfacing or refinishing a floor, you can remove some of the wood to reveal a fresh, smooth surface, but if you take too much material from it, it exposes that tongue and groove, which prevents the planks from holding their tight fit.

In other words, a "one inch" hardwood floor would only be able to have maybe a quarter inch of material removed over the floor's lifetime before it would become worthless. Fortunately, most floors don't need much material removed at all.

Notice the tabs and grooves on these floor planks? Hardwood floors can't be sanded too deeply or their tongue-and-groove fit will be damaged and result in loose, missing, or damaged planks.
Notice the tabs and grooves on these floor planks? Hardwood floors can't be sanded too deeply or their tongue-and-groove fit will be damaged and result in loose, missing, or damaged planks. | Source
Our floors were badly scratched from decades of use!
Our floors were badly scratched from decades of use! | Source
We definitely needed to do something. After our first pass with 40 grit sandpaper, the scratches were still very visible.
We definitely needed to do something. After our first pass with 40 grit sandpaper, the scratches were still very visible. | Source

Stains, Scratches, and Creaks

The two projects we did undertake involved stains and damage, too. We were happy with the results of our first project, so we felt confident about our new plans. Scratches marred the surface everywhere, but we didn't have large stains to deal with - just one, about three inches in diameter near one wall.

We made our plan. Our office floor needed work, and so did our hallway. We agreed that our house, which was built around 1964, did not need to have the same quality of floor finish that would be expected in an upscale house, but it would benefit from having a smooth, attractive finish. We knew our results could prove inferior to what an expert might do, but we'd be spending a couple hundred dollars to get results that would look pretty comparable. We also elected to leave the closet floors alone because we had to store some of our items in them. The finished floors are a bit lighter in color than the closet floors - something that would be easily seen with the doors open, but wouldn't be a major issue if we ever want to sell our house (fat chance of that - we love it here.)

Our floor has some squeaks, and while there are some easy fixes for squeaky floors, we both happen to like our noisy house - so we decided to leave them alone. (I'll provide some resources for people who want to quiet theirs, though, because it's really not difficult.)

We removed all the furniture from the room and gathered our supplies:

  • Floor sander
  • Hand-held orbital sander
  • Broom and dustpan, mop
  • Wet-dry vacuum
  • Fan
  • Paint pan and sponge mop
  • Earplugs (these machines are loud enough to damage hearing!)

We were ready to work.

Edges of the Floor

I used the large floor sander as my husband worked the edges of the room, so you can see the effects of both. He used the Black and Decker model shown here, and was able to sand the edges of the entire room and hallway, including the doorways, in about an hour and a half.

We started with a rough 40 grit sandpaper because we knew we wanted to get all of the floor's varnish off. He used this grit just once around all the edges, and I used it twice with my big sander.

Although I think my sander was adequate for the job, my husband decided to rent a heavier sander for 4 hours and to use mine for the final passes, when we'd be smoothing the floor instead of getting below those deep scratches.

We used 40 grit, followed by 80 grit, then 120 grit, and a final pass with 200 grit paper. A bigger "grit" number means a finer finish. (I am guessing that this has to do with how many pieces of "sand" are in each square inch. A paper with 40 would have larger pieces of sand, while one with 200 would have much smaller ones in the same area.) We graduated to finer sandpaper as we got closer to the look we wanted.

This video shows the approximate speed we used to traverse the floor's surface.

Removing Material from Hardwood Floors: How Much?

As you can see in the video above, our hallway floor was well worn. Its original protective coat was nearly worn off in the middle, where the wood had become dry and gray. Using this heavy floor sander with 40-grit paper worked well to get down to the prettier wood underneath.

Although a sander like this one weighs a lot - certainly more than I'm able to lift in and out of my truck - it's actually easy to operate with just one hand. When it's on, its vibration helps it move on the floor, so it goes in the direction you want it to with very little effort. When it's not operating, wheels on the back let you tip and roll it to where you want it.

This model was the one we rented from a local equipment rental company. We paid $75 for four hours, and it made the job easy for us.

We didn't want to remove more material than necessary. A good hardwood floor can be refinished multiple times before reaching that tongue and groove if the material is preserved as much as possible. Our scratches were mostly in the surface, which meant we would have to get rid of all the existing varnish but not too much wood.

We went over the surface of the floors until no traces of shine - the old varnish - were noticeable Once we had it removed, we evaluated the scratches again. There were still a few, and we had to make a choice. We could continue sanding the entire floor, or do the wrong thing and use the handheld orbital to spot-sand the scratches. We did the "wrong" thing, and it worked out perfectly. Contrary to popular belief, there are no noticeable dips in the floor because of the shortcut we took.

Before and After Shots of Our Hardwood Floors

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Before we started refinishing...The scratches are gone. This shot is the same general area as the next one, which shows how the scratches looked before.Thank heavens it doesn't like this now. These floor scratches were everywhere in the room. We didn't stain our hardwood floors, but they look terrific. (I'll have to get rid of that horrible paneling soon, too!)
Before we started refinishing...
Before we started refinishing... | Source
The scratches are gone. This shot is the same general area as the next one, which shows how the scratches looked before.
The scratches are gone. This shot is the same general area as the next one, which shows how the scratches looked before. | Source
Thank heavens it doesn't like this now. These floor scratches were everywhere in the room.
Thank heavens it doesn't like this now. These floor scratches were everywhere in the room. | Source
We didn't stain our hardwood floors, but they look terrific. (I'll have to get rid of that horrible paneling soon, too!)
We didn't stain our hardwood floors, but they look terrific. (I'll have to get rid of that horrible paneling soon, too!) | Source

Whew! Finished Sanding!

Sanding is the most time-consuming part of the project. After spending about six hours total sanding (it would have about ten hours for just one person), we decided to do the wrong thing again and reward ourselves with a trip to the lake.

But first, we poured some bleach on the stain that was still noticeable, a tip I'd learned from the Internet. We abandoned our floor for the evening while we hooked up the boat and spent a few hours fishing. The bleach dried while we were gone.

The bleach hadn't taken out the dark spot, but it did fade it slightly. We did not know the source of the stain, which might have helped in removing it, and didn't want to take off as much wood as it would have required, so it was one of the "we'll have to live with it" moments. (I'd recommend calling in an expert to remove stains if they are deep rather than trying to do it yourself, but here are some resources to try if you've got some stains you'd like to remove - even if you're not refinishing a floor right now.)

The next day, we swept the room and hallway carefully, and followed up with a wet mop using nothing more than plain water. We let it dry, then mopped it once more for good measure.

We did not want to stain our floors because we prefer the natural look of light-toned wood, but we did look at our choices. We could have given our oak floors a cherry or mahogany finish if we'd wanted to, but we decided to go straight to coating the natural wood floors.

A few hours later, once it was dry, we poured the polyurethane floor finish into a paint pan and used a sponge mop to apply it. We used the Minwax product shown here. After each coat, my husband buffed it to avoid bubbles and applied a new coat. He put a total of four coats of polyurethane finish on the floors. The Minwax dried faster than we expected. The floors looked dry after about thirty minutes, though we left them for a couple of hours between coats.

Eliminate Shortcuts: Squeaky Floor Repairs

We kept our squeaks because they give our house character. Plus, they make it easy to "prove" that we have a ghost here! But eliminating squeaky floors isn't too difficult, either.

There are two main things that can cause floors to squeak:

  • The subfloor separates from the hardwoods.
  • The hardwoods become dry and shrink, causing the boards to rub.

When nails connect the hardwoods to the subfloor, they can come loose over time as the hard wood dries or humidity decreases. Repair kits are available like the one shown here, or it may be possible to access and shim the areas that have warped.

Another option I've seen is to use a plastic squeeze ketchup container, like the ones sold by Tupperware, to force talcum powder into the cracks if it's simply a problem of the wood planks rubbing.

However, I have no personal experience with such repairs, and the makers of the television show "This Old House" have seen the problem frequently. Their five part article will help you address noisy floors with simple solutions.

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Comments 2 comments

teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 4 years ago

Wow, this is very detailed information and I'm sure it will help those who are seeking to refinish floors in the near future. We do have wood floors and enjoy the beauty and easy-to-clean benefits.


jellygator profile image

jellygator 4 years ago from USA Author

That's what I like about them, too! We're excited to have the floors done and will be working on paneling and other stuff over the next week or two. Thanks for stopping, teaches!

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