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Wood Floor Refinishing

Updated on August 28, 2012

Refinishing those vintage, slatted wood floors.

Hello fellow “DIY” home renovators.

This particular episode concerns refinishing vintage, slatted, real wood floors. This is a fairly difficult task and some portions of the project are best contracted out to a professional. However, you can save a lot of money by doing a lot of it yourself, but some steps are not for the inexperienced.

First, let me show a list of basic steps to consider which may keep you from wasting time or making initial mistakes. Remember, issues can arise or be found that were not apparent from the beginning.

1. Make sure there is a solid, real wood floor to work with. (No noticeable holes, huge cracks, buckled or extreme rolling surfaces. These are usually easy to notice even underneath carpeting. You may incur a place that had been patched with plywood some time in the past, but, if the patch was done correctly, you would not have found it unless the carpet was removed anyway!) Also, be sure you will be satisfied with finished look of the type of wood you have.

2. Decide if the overall condition of the floors to be refinished is worth doing. (You might consider paying for a professional to evaluate what you have, or you can take pictures of the entire floors, and detailed photos of any questionable particular places, and take them to a few pro’s for opinions. They usually don’t charge for evaluating photos, but they might charge a minimum fee to do an on site visual. If you are confident that your floors are worth refinishing, begin prepping them yourself with removing and coverings, carpet, linoleum, tile, etc. And remove any nails, staples, glue residues, and etc.

3. Unless you are experienced with sanding large surfaces, sanding can be somewhat complicated, so you may want to consider contracting a pro for serious repairs and serious sanding. *Note – These sanding machines can be brutes. You have to be able to control them or you could get hurt or damage your floor.

4. Staining and varnishing large areas is also somewhat complicated and you may want to consider contracting a pro to do the staining and or varnishing. *Note – Stain and varnish should never come in direct contact with your skin. These products can also instantly ruin any porous material they come in contact with, such as clothing, cloth, walls, and tools – or anything they come in contact with.*Note – stains and varnishes are chemicals. Do not breathe these chemicals! You need to ventilate the rooms or even the entire structure while using these products. You may also need to wear some type of breathing apparatus if the ventilation is not sufficient for working without some type of personal ventilation apparatus.

1. Find out exactly what you have below your feet.

Make sure you in fact are working with real wood and not laminate flooring. Laminate flooring is plastic and can not be refinished, well, not as is done with real wood. Some laminate flooring does have a thin layer of real wood veneer glued to the surface – but it is usually not thick enough for refinishing. Plus, it would be much easier to simply replace the laminate. (We had old, outdated carpet on our floors to begin with and had decided to pull up the carpet and put down laminate flooring. Well, we were pleasantly surprised to find out that there was vintage, slatted, red oak, flooring underneath the carpet. We were ecstatic, to say the least!)

(I suggest knowing what type of wood you currently have and knowing what variations of visual end result will be available with your particular type of wood, before you begin this type of project. You may not be satisfied with the visual end results available for your particular type of wood and you may decide to go another route for your desired floor appearance. I strongly suggest knowing what you have and what can be done with it – before you begin any serious work! However, any flooring that is vintage real wood and is in good shape – is worth refinishing, even if it is not exactly what you envision your floors to look like.)

2. Decide how you want it to look upon completion.

Once you know what type of wood you are working with, (Oak, Mahogany, Cherry, Etc.) and are satisfied with what it will look like upon completion, you can then begin preparing to refinish. You will need to decide what type of finished look you want. Remember, different types of wood will look differently when stained, so make sure you have seen samples of YOUR particular type of wood with the color of stain you desire. In other words, Oak will look differently than Mahogany when stained the same color. Yes, every different type of wood will react differently with stain in a visual (and physical) way. So, once you discover the exact type of wood flooring you have, you will need to know how your particular type of wood will look when stained and varnished. (We opted to not use stain and leave our Red Oak floor its natural color under the clear coat of varnish.)

Once you have seen samples, and are satisfied with what your particular type of wood floor will look like when finished – it’s time to begin preparing for this project.

3. Expose, clean and prepare the existing floor.

First is to remove carpet or any other material that might be on the surfaces to be refinished. (We opted to also remove the shoe molding and the baseboards along every wall. These do not have to be removed to refinish the floor – but for a real pro result, I highly recommend it. Plus, we refinished / panted the shoe moldings and baseboards separately for a real detailed overall end result. These can be left in place and later refinished / painted, but is just as difficult either way.)

Tools needed for removing carpet, shoe molding, baseboards, nails and staples are as follows. First, I recommend using thick gloves. You will need a claw hammer, a small pry bar and / or crowbar, a pair of large pliers, a pair of needle nose pliers, a sturdy -sharp utility/razor knife, sturdy putty knife and a heavy duty surface scraper.

You may have to dig out any nails or staples that have broken off at / or below the surface of the floor. (If any broken off nails or staples are left in the floor, it can cause serious problems and possibly cost more in time and money for the sanding operation.) A small, sharp screwdriver or even an ice pick can be used to dig a small space out around the illusive nail or staple. Remember, depending on where these may be located, you don’t want to dig out too large of a hole, or it will have to be filled with wood putty and will be more visible when the floor is completed. Dig out just enough so you can get a hold on the stubborn nail or staple with needle nose pliers. You may have to spend a little time working it back and forth before it will come out. In some instances, a larger hole will have to be dug out for the real stubborn ones, and a pair of larger pliers will have to be used to do the job.

You must remove all nails, staples or any foreign matter or object. This mainly includes metal objects. If there is old, dried glue from carpeting or some other previously installed material, you should scrape away as much as possible with a heavy duty scraper to make the sanding operation as smooth and simple as possible.

Carpet is installed with small tack strips of wood with small, sharp nails protruding upward to hold the carpet in place. *NOTE – Be careful! These small nails are sharp and can cut or stab your skin very easily while you remove the carpet AND when removing the strips themselves!* these strips must be removed and any nails or staples that held these strips in place must also be removed.

Once the entire surface that is to be sanded has been cleared of any and all obstructions, the sanding operation can begin.

D. Sanding

There are three basic types, or stages of sanding.

1. The deepest is done with a drum, upright sanding machine. This sander looks like a heavy duty vacuum cleaner but has a round drum of rough sandpaper that sands deep and fast, as it is used. The drum looks kind of like the beater bar on an upright vacuum cleaner, except it is wrapped with rough sandpaper and looks a whole lot more intimidating. This machine takes a lot of experience to master and can easily grind, or sand, dips and gouges in the floor if not operated with vigilant care. I highly recommend contracting a pro if your floor needs to be drum sanded. These machines can be rented, but I would not do so without professional assistance while learning how to use one.

2. The second is rough sanding with a vibrating sanding machine. This is also an upright machine but the bottom is a large square plate with an electric motor mounted on top in the center, which powers this machine. This vibrating sander has flat, square sheets of changeable sandpaper mounted to the bottom side of the square plate. As the machine vibrates, its own weight causes the sandpaper to sand as the machine is moved across the surface of the floor. These are also readily available to rent and are somewhat heavy and bulky, but can be done in a DIY operation.

3. The third is finish sanding. This operation uses the same machine as described in rough sanding, except using a finer sandpaper to smooth out the floor in preparation for stain and/or varnish.

Most floors need more than a simple light sanding before staining and varnishing. Older floors will have dips, cracks, chips and places that will require more than a simple finish sanding, so, unless you are prepared to become educated on this potential stage, I recommend contracting a pro.

If the floor has small holes from pulled nails and staples, you can do this yourself with a simple fix consisting of wood putty and a putty knife. Just buy a container of the appropriate colored wood putty, fill the holes, scrape off any excess and let dry. Even if you contract a pro to do the sanding, staining and varnishing, you can save money by performing all of these easy, small tasks yourself.

However, chips or larger cracks in the floor slats are much more complicated to repair and you may want to have a pro repair any larger defects or problems with the floor slats.

More than likely, your floor is like most all older wood floors, it will need to be sanded with a drum sanding machine to even it out and remove the deeper imperfections. I recommend contracting a pro do the sanding, especially if the floor needs to be sanded fairly deep. (Older floors will most likely need sanded with a drum sander, but if it is in excellent condition, except for small nail or staple holes or even slight blemishes, you can rent a rough / finish sanding machine and do it yourself.)

Also, dark or deep contaminant stains (such as motor or cooking oil or large spots of something spilled, such as coffee or etc. that have been soaked in sometime in the past) may not come completely out with a deep sanding anyway. So if the rest of the floor has minor holes and/or blemishes and only needs a moderate sanding, I would make it a DIY step, and do a rough sanding and get out as much of the unwanted stain as possible without going too deep.

Between sanding steps, (drum, rough and finish sanding,) it is wise to vacuum or sweep up the lose sand or saw dust for two reasons. First is to keep the new or lighter fresh grit of sandpaper from becoming prematurely plugged with lose debris. Yes, you can actually save time and money by sweeping the floor after each sanding of different coarseness of sandpaper. The second reason is so you can see as you sand and you don’t over sand any particular area, especially when finish sanding. Yes, that’s right. You do not want to over sand with the finish grit sandpaper. This can result in plugging up the pores in the wood and this causes the stain or varnish to actually cover over the natural grains in the wood. When finish sanding, you want the wood to become smooth but not as slick as glass. It must be able to breathe, or absorb the stain and/or varnish.

Once the finish sanding is complete, the floor must be swept or vacuumed clean. Then the entire surface needs to be wiped down with a water dampened soft rag or wet flat type of mop. The rag / mop only need be damp enough to pick up any residual sanding dust. Then let the clean floor completely dry.

*Remember to ventilate and not breathe these chemicals! Also, wear old clothing and old shoes! *Remember to start in a corner or far wall of each room and work your way backwards toward the exit door and be sure to do any closed in closets in the room you’re working in first!

Staining and varnishing.

Unless you are prepared to stain and/or varnish a large area, you may want to contract a pro to do these steps. *Note – Staining to thick or too deep can cause the wood to be permanently colored and once it has been stained too deep – you can not go back to a lighter color. Yes, that’s right! Once too much stain has been applied, or unevenly applied, it will darken the wood permanently where ever there was too much stain applied! Staining must be done with much care or you will end up with too dark of a color or you will have a splotchy, uneven color.

Stain is usually applied while wearing latex gloves to keep your skin from getting, well stained! The applicator should be soft and absorbent, such as a soft rag or sponge. You will apply enough stain to the applicator as to allow it to evenly spread the stain onto the wood flooring. You do not want too much, or the wood will soak in too much and become too dark. The best way is too drench the applicator and then wring it out so there is a controllable amount to distribute to the flooring by wiping it on. You want to wipe it on the floor almost as if you were actually wiping something off the floor, but always moving with the grain of the wood. It sounds easy, and it is – but just be careful not to get the applicator too wet with stain or it can cause a dark spot in an instant. *Remember to start in a corner or far wall of each room and work your way backwards toward the exit door. As a matter of fact, make sure you start in rooms that will leave you a hallway or additional room to then work your way toward an exit door at the end of the staining process. You can walk across the still somewhat wet stained floor to fix light spots – I don’t recommend it if it is preventable.

Once an evenly, desired color has been applied to the floor, just let it dry for at least 24 hours.

Once the stain has dried, check the floor and make sure it is smooth. To do this, carefully rub the surface with the flat, palm of your hand. If there are rough spots or any bumps, you may have to do a light hand sanding to smooth it out. If you need to sand out some rough spots, just attach a sheet of finish, or fine grit sandpaper to a sanding block and ever so gently go over the floor where necessary. *Remember, just because the entire surface looks even and smooth – that does not mean it will feel that way! You don’t want any blemishes to disrupt this completely smooth surface – as this will also be present during and after the varnish is applied. Yes, any bumps or grit will be there forever – once the varnish has been applied! Now is the time to get that surface smooth and even. If you do have to sand any areas, be sure to use a slightly damp cloth to clean up any lose sanding grit left behind.

*Remember to ventilate and not breathe these chemicals! Also, wear old clothing and old shoes. *Remember to start in a corner or far wall of each room and work your way backwards toward the exit door and be sure to do any closed in closets in the room you’re working in first!

Varnishing or clear coating is not nearly as potentially damaging to your floor as staining, but it must be done evenly and there is a time frame in which it must be done. As with staining, you want to begin at a corner or far wall inside any room and work your way backwards toward the exit door. You also want to begin in rooms that allow you to work your way out to a hallway or adjoining room so that you can then work your way to an exit door.

Varnish can be applied in a couple of ways, but no matter how it is applied – you want an even layer, or coat, applied. You will also need to apply 2 or 3 (or possibly even additional) coats of varnish for a good, thick protective finished coat that completely seals the wood. Each coat has to be applied on the entire surface and then let dry for 24 hours – and then inspected. After each coat has dried for the 24 hours, you need to do a visual as well as feeling inspection with your palm to make sure the coat has dried smooth and has no rough places or bumps or lumps. If there are imperfections found, simply do as was described for staining – apply a sheet of finishing grit sandpaper to a sanding block and gently sand out the blemish or blemished area before applying the next coat of varnish. Be sure to use a damp rag thoroughly clean up and debris or sanding grit left after sanding.

You can use soft bristled paint brushes or you can use a rubber bladed squeegee to apply the varnish.

To apply with paint a brush – you simply paint it on similar to painting a wall, but you are painting a floor instead, and you want a thicker coat than you would want on a wall. Since the floor is horizontal and flat, the varnish will not “run” as paint does down a wall. However, you must still keep it even and not allow it to glob up or leave thick beads or streaks as you apply it. You want a good, thick coat, but not too much as to where it is uneven. You will paint on this thick coat and work your way backwards toward the exit door of the room. *Note – make sure you keep the coat as even and smooth as you can as you go – because you can not fix any uneven spots that are out of your immediate reach! Unlike the staining process – you can NOT go back and walk across the freshly varnished floor and fix bad spots that are out of your immediate reach without causing major issues while the varnish is even slightly still wet. You must wait a minimum of 24 hours before allowing anything to touch the freshly coated surface. Also, within any room you are working, varnish any closed in closets first. **Note – If you are leaving windows open for ventilation – you want to close them as you varnish past them. This is to keep dust, bugs and etc, from getting on the varnish as it dries. You also might want to turn the furnace or air conditioner and any fans off to keep dust form moving and settling on the fresh wet varnished surface. After 24 hours, and the initial coat has dried, do the visual and feeling inspection and sand out any imperfections. If you do have to sand any areas, be sure to use a slightly damp cloth to clean up any lose grit left behind.

Applying varnish with a squeegee or spreader is faster, but it also makes each coat thinner due to the nature of this type of application. If the floor is remotely uneven or the slats are not perfectly flat with each other – I strongly suggest NOT using the squeegee technique, as this can cause an uneven finish! This technique is somewhat more difficult to keep an even coat, but when executed correctly, it is faster. You work from the far corner or wall of the room as with paint brushing. You would pour some varnish on the floor near the corner, not in the corner, but near it. Then use the squeegee to gently push the puddle of varnish to the walls and then lift the squeegee up and set it back down against the wall and then pull the remaining puddle back toward you. This will spread the varnish evenly, but it will leave a thinner coat than a paint brush would. You must keep enough varnish poured on the floor for you to continually push and pull it around, while keeping it as smooth as possible. You work the puddle(s) along the wall and across the floor backwards toward the exit door. Just keep the coat even and as smooth as possible.

The same applies for each coat applied with a squeegee as with a paintbrush – let dry for 24 hours, inspect visually and also feeling with your palm, sand out any imperfections, clean up any sanding debris and then apply the next coat.

For any style of applying the varnish – the number of coats depends on the luster and shine you desire. I recommend a minimum of 2 coats for brushing, and minimum of 2 coats when using the squeegee technique.

That’s it.


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