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Wood Floor Finishing

Updated on April 1, 2011

New Wood Floors

All wood floors should be given some kind of finish. The correct surfacing of a floor will protect the fiber of the wood, improve the appearance, and make it easier to clean. To be satisfactory, the finish must insure economy of maintenance, so that resanding and complete refinishing will not be necessary within a reasonable time. Unless a home owner has the proper equipment and has had some refinishing experience, he will probably find it more satisfactory and economical to have his floors sanded and polished by experienced workmen than to attempt to do the work himself.

In applying finish to a floor, it is important to follow instructions on labels of products being used. These instructions usually explain when a floor needs refinishing and how it should be maintained. They may also describe: how to prepare a floor for finishing, how finish should be applied, number of coats needed, drying time for each, and how to obtain a stained effect.

New wood floors or those from which the original surface has been removed are usually finished by one of two general methods: the first consists of treatment with filler, sealer, and floor wax; the second, with filler, sealer, and shellac or varnish. The advantage of the first method is that worn spots can be rewaxed without refinishing the whole floor; the second produces a bright, clean luster when first applied, but cannot be refinished at points of wear without "doing over" the entire floor.

The following tools and materials are needed: Electric or hand machines for sanding or scraping, waxing, and polishing; No. 00, 0, 1, 2, and 2 1/2 grade sandpaper; steel wool pads; paste wood filler, sealer, and wax or shellac or varnish, depending upon the finish.

Electric floor-finishing machines may be rented by the day for a nominal charge and are much more satisfactory than hand scrapers or polishers, especially for initial finishing. An electric waxer and polisher will work the wax well into the wood and smoother floors will result. Afterward, the floor can easily be maintained either with paste waxes that need buffing or with water-emulsion waxes that are self-polishing.

To obtain a good finish, it is essential that scratches or uneven portions of a floor surface be smoothed out by scraping or sanding. The floors should be scraped or sanded lengthwise of the grain, first with No. 2 or 2 1/2 grade sandpaper to cut off the high spots and smooth over the joints; next, with No. 1 sandpaper for the second cut; and lastly, for the final sanding, which is most important of all, with No. 0 or 00, or both, if necessary.

When using electric floor sanders, NEVER LET THE SANDER RUN WHILE HOLDING IT IN THE STANDING POSITION. Always be sure that you release the trigger so that the machine will stop of its own accord. A sander that is allowed to run in a stationary position will dig depressions in the wood.

For both types of finish, after a floor has been sanded to a smooth, even surface and thoroughly cleaned of dust, all open-grained wood should be filled with paste wood filler colored to match the floor. As soon as the wood filler is dry and the surface has been buffed smooth again, the sealer should be applied in a very thin coat, allowed to dry, and buffed in. This will seal the pores of the wood, help to keep out dirt, and resist stains.

After floors have been filled and sealed, wax should be applied. A number of thin coats will be more satisfactory than one thick coat, because a heavy coat makes the floor slippery. Each layer of wax should be allowed to dry thoroughly and should be polished before adding the next layer. Finishing a floor in this manner will give an attractive, satin-like sheen to the wood and a finish that will not be slippery, will not mar, scratch, or flake off—one that can be touched up at worn spots or in heavy traffic lanes without completely refinishing the entire floor.

After filler and sealer have been applied, either clear or orange shellac may be brushed in, with the grain of the wood, and allowed to dry thoroughly. Should other than the natural wood color be desired, the floor can be stained before applying the shellac. The shellacked floor may also be waxed in a very thin coat, but if this is done, the wax should be the self-polishing type because buffing the other type with a machine might cause the shellac to mar, scratch, or flake off. Varnish may be applied in the same manner as shellac.

Old Wood Floors

In refinishing a wood floor, it is necessary first to remove the old finish. Varnish or paint may be taken off by machine sanding, scraping, and planning, or with the aid of a paint remover.

Commercial, nonflammable, and organic-solvent type removers have instructions on the labels which should be carefully followed. The removers are usually applied to the floor with a brush and allowed to stand for a few minutes. In brushing, care should be taken not to damage the finish on baseboards and moldings. After the remover has been allowed to stand for the required time, the varnish or paint will soften so that it can be scraped off with a putty knife or rubbed off with excelsior or steel wool. If a putty knife is used, it should be held in a vertical position, scraping toward the operator across the grain of the wood so as not to splinter the flooring. The floor can then be washed several rimes with clear water and, when thoroughly dry, may be sanded, dusted, and re-finished the same as a new floor.

Spots or Stains on Wood Floors

Wood floors that are spotted or discolored may be bleached with a solution prepared by dissolving 1 teaspoon of oxalic acid in half a pint of hot water. The solution should be applied to the floor, allowed to stand overnight, and removed by rinsing with clear water, after which the floor should be allowed to dry. When dry, the floor can be refinished by filling the cracks and holes with a commercial crack filler colored to match the wood, applying sealer, and covering with wax, shellac, or varnish.

Painted Floors

For floors that are discolored and in poor condition, it may be more practical to cover the imperfections with two or three coats of porch and deck enamel than to refinish by other methods. The enamel may be applied to a floor from which all dirt, grease, and wax have been removed to produce an attractive, abrasive-resistant finish. The enamels are obtainable in many colors and may be applied as a solid color or to give a splatter-dash effect by using several colors. The manufacturer's directions should be followed concerning the thinning and the time allowed for drying between coats. After the last coat has thoroughly dried, it should be given two coats of solvent-thinned wax and buffed. A floor finished in this manner should be cleaned with a dry mop and the wax coating renewed frequently in the traffic area.

Maintenance of Wood Floors

Waxed floors should be maintained by cleaning with a soft brush or mop free from oil, since oil softens the wax. Volatile-solvent type floor waxes, as well as the dirt embedded therein, can be removed from wood floors by rubbing the surface first with 00 steel wool dipped in turpentine or mineral spirits and then with a soft cloth, after which the floor may be refinished with several thin coats of wax, being sure that each coat is thoroughly dried and polished before applying the next coat.

Wax coatings of the water-emulsion type may be removed by scrubbing the surface with a warm solution of soap and water (about 120° to 130° F.), using a soft bristle brush or cloth. When the floor is clean, a thin coat of water-emulsion wax may again be applied, allowed to dry thoroughly, and buffed lightly.

Varnished and shellacked floors which are unwaxed should be dusted clean with a soft brush or dry mop and then rubbed with an oiled mop or a cloth slightly moistened with floor oil or furniture polish. In general, varnished and shellacked surfaces should not be treated with water. The appearance of badly worn varnished wood may be improved by coating with self-polishing floor wax.

Painted floors may be maintained by sweeping them with a soft brush and then rubbing them with an oiled mop or cloth. Occasionally they may be washed with slightly soapy water, rinsed with a wet cloth or mop, wiped dry, and then polished with an oiled mop or cloth.


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