So, you want to refinish your hardwood floors? Maybe you’ve just bought a home that could use a bit of a rehab or you just want to make what you have better? You’ve probably read a ton of blog posts about how to do it and how easy it is, but you’re still hesitant (or scared!) to get started. Well, I’ve actually done the work and lived to tell about it AND I’ve had the opportunity to see how the finish and stain has aged, so lets dig in and learn from my mistakes!!
EXAMINE & DECIDE:
First thing, you have to make sure that your floor is in good enough shape structurally that it can be saved and sanded down. If you have large sections of the floor that have water damage or are missing for whatever reason, if the subfloor is damaged, if there are issues that will require you to level the floor, it may be in your best interest to replace. Also, if the floors have been refinished several times, the boards may be too thin to sand down again. If, however, you have evaluated and deemed them to be in good enough shape for a cosmetic rehab, the next thing you need to do is decide what color you want your stain to be! I think it is best to pick this first so that you can visualize what the end goal is to help motivate you through the not-so-super-fun work that comes next. You have two options when it comes to stain, oil or water based (unless you’re going with a natural oil, but I’m choosing to leave this out of this discussion). Conventional wisdom says that oil lasts longer and wears better; however, you have to deal with very smelly fumes and long drying times in between coats. However, it does stay wetter for longer, so you have the opportunity to repair mistakes that you may make. If you are using a very light stain, you may want to factor this in when considering which stain type is best for you. With water based stains, you can expect, depending on what time of year that you are applying, for it to dry in 2 to 4 hours, which means you can apply more than one coat per day, depending on your motivation and abilities. In theory, you can do 3 coats of stain in one day and then apply the top coat/sealer the next day and have a totally refinished floor in a long weekend. Water based stains are quite a bit more expensive than oil stains, but they don’t smell as bad as their oil counterparts and are better for you, your family and the environment. You do have to be very careful about the application of water based stains though—it starts drying the moment it is put down, so if you make a mistake, like lingering too long in one place and too much stain accumulating under your brush, you’re going to have a much harder time trying to repair. And you will always look at that one spot on your floor and rue the day you stood there trying to figure out how to turn a corner while applying stain on a floor that you wish you hadn’t started refinishing! We decided to stain our floors black, which was a little unconventional at the time, but has become more popular since we did it. We chose General Finishes Black Satin Water Based Polyurethane Floor Stain and also used their water based top coat.
REMOVE & REPAIR:
Assuming that you have already removed the carpet that was covering up these floors that are in need of some love, you need to now remove all of the carpet staples or anything else that is stuck into the wood. These will catch the sandpaper on the floor sander and rip it and it will delay you and frustrate you to no end because you will have to stop what you’re doing, replace the sandpaper and get started again, so walk through and remove and then walk through and recheck. Do this a few times—you’ll be amazed at the things you find even on the 3rd walk through! This is also the time to make any necessary repairs to the floor. We had to replace a few boards in our living room around the fireplace due to termite damage, so we popped them out and had news ones put in. We hired a handyman to do this for us, but after watching him, I’m fairly certain we could have done this ourselves, as he bought regular 1” oak flooring and measured to fit and then slid it into place. Before you move on to the next step, you also need to pop off the quarter round on your baseboards, if you have them, so you can sand as close to your baseboards as possible without damaging them.
PICKING YOUR MACHINE:
Next, you need to find the sanders to remove whatever finish is on your floors currently. You can usually find these at whatever big box store near you that has a tool rental section. You can use a drum sander or an orbital sander, along with an edger. Most people recommend orbital sanders for first timers and if that is what you are most comfortable with, go for it! It will remove the finish, but it will take much longer, although there isn’t as much room for a really unfortunate error with an orbital sander like there is with a drum sander. With an orbital sander, you can move it freely about the room with little to no regard for the grain of the floor, as it will not make a groove in the wood as it is sanding. However, a drum sander is going to make much faster work of removing the finish, particularly with the first pass. When using one, you have to follow a few rules, the most important one being, be in motion before you lower the sanding mechanism to the floor and to remain in motion while you lift it up. If you are standing still when you lower or raise it, it will create an indentation in the floor that you will see forever and ever and ever. My father-in-law, while trying to help but refusing to listen to me, did this in my living room. Because the stain we used is so dark, you can only see it if the light hits it just so and you are staring directly at it, but I know it is there and it bugs me a lot. So don’t do that because it will drive you slowly crazy! Second rule of the drum sander is to go with the grain of the floor. This can present some issues with smaller rooms, so you’ll have to use your best judgement when it comes to which sander you want to use—both require normal adult strength and dexterity. I was intimidated by the drum sander prior to using it, but I really didn’t need to be as it wasn’t nearly as gnarly as I was anticipating! Unfortunately, these larger sanders aren’t going to get into the corners of your rooms, so you need to rent an edger. The day that we rented ours, they were out of edgers, so we had to make due with our regular hand sanders. I don’t recommend using these because they are so much smaller than edgers, but we managed to get the job done in one day with multiple people working on the edging while I sanded the middle of the rooms. You have to make sure to use the same grits in the same order and try to “feather” the edge in to where the drum sander line is because you are trying to prevent having a hard, obvious line a foot from your walls. This sounds hard and complicated and honestly, it kind of is, especially the very first time you do it. I recommend trying it out on a space that you know a piece of furniture is going to live in order to better hide any mistakes and to also take your time while doing this. You will catch on very quickly on how to best make this work for you!
GRITS & MORE GRITS:
Now that you’ve picked your sander, you need to get the sanding pads for it. They sell them wherever you’re renting the tools from and you’ll want to pick up more than you think that you need and return whatever you don’t use. You need to do at least three different grits, possibly four, depending on how you want the floor to feel. You can start with a 50 grit, do the entire floor, clean up all the dust, move on to the 80 grit, sand the entire floor (all the while, observing the rules of the drum sander! Going with the grain and only raising and lowering while in motion!), clean up all the dust again, then finish it off with 100 grit, then clean up all the dust for the final time. We did 50-80-100-150, which may have been overkill, but this was my first floor refinish and my first home, so I was determined to get it right! It is very important that you don’t skip these steps though as this really determines how your finish will look. It seems like, when you are in the thick of this, that all this sanding isn’t necessary because the finish was removed on the first pass. Trust me, it really is necessary. You want the floor to be smooth enough that the stain, when applied, looks good and you have to sand, sand, sand in order to get there. You also have to clean, clean, clean in between grits. The amount of dust that is kicked up during this process is truly unbelievable and it gets everywhere. It took months to finally get it out of every little crevice that it found its way into, but pay attention to cleaning up as much as you possibly can because if you still have it on your floors and you move on to another grit, it is going to have a negative effect on the sanding that you are doing with the higher grit. You can use any combo of brooms, air guns, vacuums and tack cloths that you have, although our shop vac and tack cloths were what we found most effective. You will need to dust yourself and all your clothing off as well. The cleaning up from each round of sanding was one of the worst bits of this job for me—it was nearly impossible to get it all up. Some of it was blown out my front door only to be blown back into the house with a strong gust of wind, so be mindful of things like that, as it makes this part of the job a little bit harder.
Best piece of advice for you and your helpers—make sure everyone is on the same page about what needs to happen and in what order. For some reason, the sanding down with a rough grit to a finer grit was something that flummoxed some of the people that were helping me, but I insisted that it be done the way that I wanted it to be done because I knew from reading other people’s stories that this was the correct way to do this. It is important that you don’t skip steps or try to rush through the sanding job as doing this the correct way will make applying the stain and sealer much easier and it will ultimately look its best and wear well.
REMOVING PET URINE STAINS:
After the sanding is all finished, you will really want this job to be over, but you are only half way there—you get to move on to applying the stain! Unless you have stains that the sanding didn’t remove. Yes, that is possible, particularly if they are pet urine stains. We discovered several of them throughout our house after we removed the carpet. They were very large and had eaten through the original finish and discolored the wood pretty badly. After sanding, they were still very noticeable and really helped solidify our stain color choice, as there was no way that a lighter stain would have covered up these spots—and there was no denying what they were! However, I wanted to see if I could remove the stain anyway, so after some internet sleuthing, I used hydrogen peroxide to lift the stain. I applied the peroxide to a rag and then blotted it on to the floor. It lifted incrementally and after doing this a few times on the worst stain, I decided to just pour the peroxide directly on the stain, being mindful of the edges. It did remove a lot of the discoloration but it also turned the area of the urine stain slightly green, which was something that I was warned about. However, on other less terrible stains, it actually removed it completely, so if you have pet stains and are ultimately using a stain that is not black, you might be able to remove them using this method.
After you are finished sanding and perhaps while you are in the process of removing any other stains on the floor, you need to tape off the baseboards (that no longer includes your quarter round, remember?!). You need to do this prior to applying the stain as it tends to get a little sloppy when you are close to the room edges. This is not fun, but it is necessary. I used regular blue painters tape and it really did save a lot of clean up!
POP THAT WOOD:
Moving on! The very last thing that I did just before applying the stain was to “pop” the wood so that the grain would be more obvious and to help attain that elusive nice finish. Basically, after you do the very
last grit with your sanders, the floor should be very smooth to the touch. Once you clean up all the dust, you then wet the floor down with water in order to add moisture back into the cellular structure of the wood, thusly raising the grain. There are a few methods that you can use to do this—professionals usually use a T bar and a bucket. We used a garden variety sprayer on the finest mist setting (same sprayer from this post) and used just enough water to saturate the wood without allowing it to pool. We did this on all of the wood that we were refinishing and as soon as we did, I was astonished by the results! The wood turned a beautiful reddish color and the grain was very prominent and really made me feel good about the sanding job that we had done! Other than the aforementioned drum sander rut, we hadn’t really made any other mistakes, which was validating! And after seeing the finished product, I really recommend this step because even with our very dark floors, the wood grain is very prominent and beautiful.
STAIN AND TOP COAT:
We allowed the wood to dry out for several hours and then set out to apply the stain. For some reason, when I was doing all of my research on water versus oil polyurethane stain, it never really mentioned
what kind of applicator was required. I had read on one article that a sheepswool applicator was necessary, but then it was never mentioned again. Spraying seems to be a popular option, but I was doing the application work mostly by myself and since I had no experience using a sprayer, I decided that I wanted to apply it by hand. I considered using some sort of sponge brush attached to a long handle, but decided to use a regular rolling brush, like you do for wall paint. This was a terrible, terrible choice. The first coat in our bedroom went down and looked horrible! It was kind of devastating to look at all the marks that it left and think about how much time and effort had gone into getting them to a place to stain only to have them look so horrible whenever you saw them in light. I ran to Lowe’s and searched for this mythical sheepswool applicator and after asking several people who didn’t seem to understand what it was that I wanted, was able to locate the tiny little section (in the floor stain section, who would’ve thunk it??!) that had these applicators. There were three total in stock and I snatched them all. They are ridiculous in their simplicity and absolutely necessary if you are going to apply water based poly on your floors by hand. By using this applicator, I was able to get a consistent color application, unlike with the paint roller. Thank goodness!
When applying water based stain, you want to make sure that you stir up the paint with a paint stir stick before pouring just as much as you need into your paint tray. The colors need a chance to mix if they’ve settled and you only want to pour out as much as you will use in the section you are working on because the paint will start to dry out. Also, use a plastic sheet underneath your paint tray. It will help with drips and you can drag it to wherever you are in the room. Before you start the application, figure out how you will get yourself out of the room and formulate a plan for any weird areas, like closets. You always want to back out of the room, so don’t paint yourself into a corner! (har, har!) When applying, use long, even, very straight strokes. Go with the grain of the wood and use even pressure on the handle of the applicator. I found that when applying this stain, you want to get as close to the section you just completed as possible with very little overlap, if possible. This makes getting those lines as straight as you can important. Again, I had an advantage because we were using black, so if the lines were smudged or it was applying in a very wonky way, it wasn’t as much of a disaster as it would be if I had been using a lighter stain. (if you are using a lighter stain, you need to work very fast as your line will start to dry and if you try to “cut” into it with the new strip of stain, you may produce a stripe, which isn’t what you want). I had planned on doing three layers of color and then three layers of clear coat but I ran into a real interesting problem when I applied the third layer on top of the second: it hadn’t dried enough and smudged very badly. This created a white “cloud” that caused me
great consternation! I was very upset about this, but after much googling, I decided to put yet another layer of stain on top of this one to see if it would (somehow? magically?) smooth itself out. I have to admit, after all of this work, which is definitely not insignificant, thinking about applying another layer of stain on the entire floor and it maybe still being totally messed up? That was not my finest moment in the house renovation saga! However, I decided to proceed and surprisingly, it worked!! I let it dry for a bit longer than what it is recommended by the manufacturer because I didn’t want it to happen again! Finally, FINALLY, it was time to seal it with a top coat. This clear coat functions as a protectant and hardener and helps waterproof. It was very important for me to get as much of this on there as I could, but we were running out of time to get moved into the house, so we settled on three coats. You still need to use long, even, straight strokes with a clean sheepswool applicator and you really need to pay attention about getting it on every bit of wood that you have stained. It is a lot harder to see what you are doing on wood that already has color on it, so pay close attention. This hard work will pay off later, as your floor will be able to stand up to the daily abuse of people walking on it and dragging things over it for much longer!
THE FINISH LINE:
After letting the floor cure without interruption for as long as I could, which was several days, we finally moved all of our furniture in—with pads on the bottoms of everything! So far, they have worn really well. I sort of assumed that because I applied the stain myself that maybe it wouldn’t endure the daily abuse as well as if a professional had done it, but it has. We have recently had a few scuffing issues, which is something that I read that could potentially be a problem, so I have to figure out how to lift those, but otherwise, they look really, really amazing! Because we live in Southern California, we don’t have to deal with muddy feet very often, but when we do have dirt, it definitely shows, so that is the one drawback to having black floors, but the rest of the time the beauty makes up for it! I’m very pleased with the way that they turned out.
Would I do it again? Yes, probably, although it took me about a year to feel that way and actually mean it. It was a healthy, hefty amount of work that at certain points, seemed like it was never going to end. Because we also removed all of the popcorn that was on the ceilings just before this, it was really a lot of repair work in a very short amount of time. I needed a nice long break before I could even consider tackling another home repair job! My best advice with this project is to really plan what you are doing and familiarize yourself with the process as much as possible before you start. Check multiple sources! Also, make sure that any and all helpers are very familiar with how you want to proceed with this job and then give yourself enough time to get it all done—this is, at the very least, a weekend long process. Have all of your tools before you start—the endless back and forth to hardware stores really makes it harder than it has to be! Also know that if you really mess up, you can probably resand by hand and repair it, so never despair, there is (usually!) always a solution.
Tell me about your experiences with floor refinishing in the comments! If you follow my advice and refinish your floor, please leave us the photo in the comments or tag us on Instagram! We would love to see!