Refinish Your Wood Floors
Uncover the beauty in old hardwood flooring with a little patience and some great professional advice.
Synopsis: The ingredients needed to refinish a hardwood floor are straightforward: just a single coat of stain over a carefully sanded surface, a coat of sealer to lock in the stain, and two coats of polyurethane to provide the wear layer. But the job also requires the right tools used in the right sequence, and it demands as much patience as it does skill. Author Brent Kelosky explains his process for refinishing a wood floor, including how to handle damaged areas.
Although my company does all types of flooring installations, our bread and butter has always been refinishing worn hardwood. Our goal is to uncover the beauty under the decrepit surface of the floor, which involves no small amount of labor. When we arrived on-site for the job shown here, the wall-to-wall carpeting had already been removed, revealing 750 sq. ft. of severely worn red-oak flooring that appeared original to this old Pennsylvania farmhouse. Although we got back down to bare wood quickly, that’s just the beginning of a job like this.
The job took a two-person crew just under five days to complete and cost about $4.50 per sq. ft. in labor and materials. Refinishing a hardwood floor is an admittedly disruptive process, but you realize it’s worth it when you first set eyes on the results.
The materials are straightforward — just a single coat of stain, a coat of sealer to lock in the stain, and two coats of polyurethane to provide the wear layer — but breathing new life into an old wood floor takes a lot of patience. It all starts with sanding.
Sanding will make or break your job
Without question, the critical difference between a professional-looking finished floor and a poor attempt is how much care is taken during the sanding stage. Although you’re only removing 1⁄16in. or so of actual wood, the sanding process takes multiple days — that is, if it’s done correctly.
In addition to some common hand and power tools, there are three specialized tools we use on our jobs: a belt floor sander, an orbital edger, and a buffer.
The bulk of the sanding work is handled by the large, very aggressive, 220v belt sander. Run back and forth through the room, working in the same direction as the floor’s wood grain, the belt sander is used to take slow, overlapping passes.
Although an upright orbital sander is the most common tool available at rental yards, we prefer to use a belt sander. (A drum sander is also an improvement over the orbital.) An orbital sander is a fairly gentle and forgiving tool, which may seem appealing if you’re unsure of your abilities, but it also requires much more time to do the job. On badly damaged floors, you’ll likely give up long before you get the blemishes sanded out.
A belt sander runs on wheels and uses a lever to lower the machine — which puts the sanding belt in contact with the floor surface — and then to lift it away. Because the machine is so aggressive, you can’t allow it to sit in one spot for even a couple of seconds or you will end up with significant gouges. It should be lowered to the floor as it’s being moved forward to start a pass, then lifted back off at the end of each pass.
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