How to Refinish Hardwood Floors

With hardwood back in style, it might be worthwhile to check your floors. If your floor was among those treasures that were buried, we can help put it back on display with these tips to refinish hardwood.

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From

Anissa Swanzy

ANISSA SWANZY, SKD STUDIOS

Ever think you'd find buried treasure in your own home? Years ago, homeowners decided to go for a more "modern" look and covered their hardwood floors with vinyl or carpet. These days, with hardwood back in style, it might be worthwhile to check your floors. If it turns out that your floor was among those treasures that were buried, we can help you put it back on display. Be warned, though: this project takes a lot of time, patience and elbow grease.

Before You Start:

  1. Check the gaps between the floor planks. If they're widening and you can see the nails that hold the floor down, don't bother trying to refinish the floor.
  2. Some newer hardwood floors are only 1/4 inch thick with a laminate coating on top. These floors can't be sanded and refinished. If you try, you're likely to wear away the entire floor!
  3. Some floors are easier to refinish than others. Pine and oak, the most common, are fairly easy to work with. Harder woods such as maple, mahogany and walnut take more time.

Materials:

pry bar
pliers
stiff, wide-blade putty knife
utility knife
hammer
nail set
flat-head screwdriver
power floor sander
edge sander
power floor buffer
industrial-grade vacuum cleaner
box fan
plastic sheeting
painter's tape
box fan
4" Chinese bristle brush
large lamb's-wool paint/stain applicator
polyurethane floor sealant
safety glasses
work gloves
breathing protection
hearing protection

Warning: Some older vinyl floors contain asbestos, either in the backing or in the adhesive. Before you begin removing a vinyl floor, check with a licensed asbestos contractor to make sure your floor is safe for you to remove.

Preparation:

1. First, you'll need to remove the existing floor. Don't worry about keeping it all in one piece unless you plan on using it again. In fact, you might find it easier to cut the flooring into sections so it will be easier to handle.

Tip: If an adhesive was used on the previous floor, spread some adhesive remover over the remaining adhesive; then scrape it up. This will save you a lot of time in the long run.

2. Use a wide-blade putty knife and a pry bar to remove the molding and trim from the walls. Be careful when removing these; if they're still in good shape, you can reuse them. You may need to use a utility knife to cut a line in the paint between the trim and the wall.

3. Remove as much dirt and debris from the floor as possible. Then check it for protruding nail heads, which could tear your sandpaper. Use a nail set to countersink the nail heads about 1/4 inch below the surface of the floor.

4. It probably won't come as any surprise that sanding generates a lot of dust. You can minimize cleanup time by isolating the room you're working on from the rest of the house. Close as many doors as possible (except for the one leading outside) and cover them with plastic sheeting. Also cover open door frames, heating ducts, windows, cabinets and shelves. Use painter's tape to hold the sheeting in place--that way it will be fairly easy to remove. Cover all the wall outlets and switches with painter's tape as well. If you have a suspended light fixture, wrap it with a plastic bag before you begin sanding.

Tip: You'll need good ventilation, both when sanding and when applying the new finish. Use a box fan to help draw fresh air into the room. 

Tip: Try practicing on a large piece of plywood until you're comfortable using the sander.

1. When you're finished with your preparations, attach a 20-grit sandpaper pad to your sander. Then begin sanding.

  • Work in 2" x 4" sections.
  • Move in a straight path along the same direction as the boards.
  • Keep the sander in motion at all times to avoid wearing dents or grooves in the wood.
  • When you're ready to start sanding another row, overlap the previous row by one plank.
  • Frequently check the sandpaper to make sure it's not clogged or worn out.
  • If your sander has a dust collecting system, keep the bag emptied regularly.
  • Don't try to push the sander; let it do the work. All you really need to do is steer it as it pushes itself along.

2. After you've finished sanding the main portion of the room, it's time to bring out the edge sander. To avoid gouging the wood, use a semicircular motion rather than moving the edge sander back and forth along the wall. Allow the edge sander to overlap the area you've already sanded so it will blend in.

3. In hard-to-reach areas such as corners, use a razor-sharp wood scraper and sandpaper to sand all the way to the bare wood.

4. Your first sanding will actually raise the grain of the wood. Repeat the sanding procedure using 60-grit to remove blemishes and scratches. Start at the opposite side of the room from where you started sanding the first time.

5. For your third (and final) sanding, you'll need a power buffer. Attach a 120-grit sanding pad to the buffer, and work it in an irregular sweeping motion across the grain. Start at the opposite end of the room from where you began the second sanding, and cover the entire floor. For proper coverage, overlap areas that you've just sanded. Be careful to avoid oversanding.

6. Spot-check your floor to make sure there aren't any areas you missed. If you find any, hand-sand them with fine-grit sandpaper until they match the rest of the floor.

7. Now that the sanding is done, it's time to clean up. Use an industrial-grade vacuum (a backpack-mounted cleaner works well) to remove fine dust particles from the floor. Most industrial vacuums will have a soft-bristle hardwood floor attachment; if yours doesn't, apply some painters tape to the edges of the floor attachment so that it doesn't scratch up your floor.

Tip: For best performance, frequently check and change the filter on your vacuum cleaner.

8. After you've vacuumed the floor, remove all the plastic sheeting and tape from around the room, and vacuum everything else (cabinets, windows, outlets, walls, etc.). Be as thorough as you can because dust will cause rough spots if it gets into your sealant. Finish by wiping everything with a wet cloth and vacuuming the floor a final time.

The Big Finish

1. Now that you've finished sanding and cleaning, it's time to bring out the beauty in the floor. To start applying your sealant, use a four-inch Chinese bristle brush to cut in the areas around the perimeter of the room. Work in the direction of the wood grain, covering an area about 12 inches from the wall toward the center of the room.

2. When you've finished the perimeter, you can begin covering the rest of the floor. Use a lambs-wool applicator to apply your sealant. For proper coverage, be sure to overlap the areas where you cut in earlier.

3. Allow the sealant to dry for 24 hours; then buff it with a power buffer. Vacuum the residue, and apply a second coat using the same procedure as before.

Tip: You can stain the floor using the same procedure for applying sealant. Keep in mind, though, that it will extend your project by about one day.

Tip: Trying to decide whether to use an oil-based or water-based sealant? Check with a professional; it's usually just a matter of personal preference. If you decide to use an oil-based product, you'll need to use a respirator when applying it. 

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