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How to Refinish Hardwood Floors

How to refinish hardwood floorsIf you are lucky enough to have hardwood floors in your house or apartment, you’ve probably noticed they need a little TLC from time to time. Even if you keep on top of spills, sweep, vacuum, and wash them on a regular basis, floors take a beating. You walk on them and kids run over them. You have that long scratch from when you rearranged the living room and dragged the sofa to its new spot. Or maybe you just notice they look a bit dull. If that’s the case, it may be time to refinish your hardwood floors.

This may come as a surprise, but ideally, hardwood floors should be refinished every 3-5 years. To most of us, this sounds like a huge job – one that we have to hire a contractor for. But refinishing hardwood floors is easier than you may think. With a little research and time, it’s definitely something you can tackle yourself. Want to know how to refinish hardwood floors on your own? Read on and you’ll have those floors back to their original shine in no time!

Before You Start Refinishing

For this project, we won’t be sanding the floor down to the bare wood. Our goal here is to refresh the look by scuff-sanding the floor and then applying several coats of finish. Doing this dramatically reduces both the cost and time it takes to complete the job. If you find you have a lot of gouges, warping, or cracks, your floors might actually need to be resurfaced. That is best left to a professional.

Things You’ll Need to Refinish Hardwood Floors

Here is a list of items you’ll need:

  • Broom and vacuum cleaner (preferably a Shop Vac or similar)
  • Hardwood floor cleaner
  • Clean terry cloth towels
  • Microfiber flat mop (similar to this)
  • 180-grit sandpaper
  • Buffer (you can usually rent these from your local hardware box store)
  • Maroon buffing pads (more on this later)
  • Paint brush
  • Paint roller with extension
  • ¼-nap covers for roller
  • Water or oil based polyurethane

Preparing Your Hardwood Floors

You’ll want easy access to the entire floor, so it’s best to remove all furniture from the room. Sweep and then vacuum the area thoroughly. Wash the wood floorboards using any cleaner that is formulated specifically for hardwood floors, being careful to follow the directions on the bottle. If you don’t have a hardwood cleaner, you can make your own using 1 part white vinegar to 10 parts warm water. Dry the floors with a soft terry cloth towel. You want the floors to be as clean as possible before you start the sanding process.

Get Ready for Some Sanding

Now that your floor is spotless, you are ready to smooth it out! Before you start, close the doors and windows and seal off any air ducts to keep dust out of your ventilation system.

You want to use the 180-grit sandpaper around the edges and the buffer for the main part of the floor. To begin, sand with the grain around the edges of the room and anywhere you don’t think the buffer will get to easily. Make sure to go about 6 inches out from the edge. As you go, you’ll see the existing finish turn dull and a fine powder will develop. It’s best to do this by hand so you can feel any surfaces that may be a bit uneven.

Make the Process Easier with a Floor Buffer

Once you’re done with the edges, nooks and crannies, use the buffer for the middle of the room. BeHardwood floor and floor brush sure to choose the right pad for the buffer. Floor pads follow an industry-standard color system, so you want to choose the right one – in this case, red or maroon. All floor pads have different levels of abrasives. If you use one that is too rough, you’ll take too much off the top.

If you have never used a buffer before, it’s a good idea to get the feel of it before you get too close to the edge of the room. They swing back and forth, depending on how you point the handle. Start in the middle of the floor and find your rhythm. You’ll easily keep track of where you’ve sanded because of that fine powder left behind as you move from section to section. You want to overlap each line you create with the buffer by about 6 inches, similar to how you would mow your lawn. Never let the buffer stay in one place, it should be moving at all times. The pad may need to be vacuumed off once in a while to keep it free from excess powder. Continue until the entire surface is sanded.  

Prepping the room and sanding as outlined above are the two most important steps to refinish hardwood floors. The sanding process may seem tedious, but it is worth its weight in gold when it comes to how the finished product will look.

Time to Clean Your Floors

Once sanding is complete, it’s vitally important to clean up all that dust before you apply the finish. When you’re done sanding, you’ll probably be ready for a cold drink! It’s actually a great time to get one, because it’s best to leave the room for 15 to 20 minutes. This gives the powder time to settle back onto the floor.

Now that you’re rested, it’s time to vacuum the floor surface to remove the majority of the dust. You may want to put a clean filter in the vacuum first, so it doesn’t get clogged. Vacuum with the grain first, but then also go across the floorboards to dislodge any dust that settled between the cracks.
After you vacuum, tack the floor with a clean, damp towel or a microfiber dust mop. Tacking the floor basically means wiping it down to remove any leftover dust particles. If you don’t have a microfiber mop, you can use a push broom with a damp bath towel wrapped around the broom head. As you go back and forth around the room, adjust the towel to clean spots so you aren’t simply moving the dusty powder around. Let the floor dry thoroughly.

Lay the Finish

Now onto the exciting part! Because we didn’t go down to the bare wood, you shouldn’t have to apply any additional wood stain to the floor. You do need apply a polyurethane wood finish to seal the floor and give it that beautiful shine. You can choose between a water-based or oil-based polyurethane. They are both good options, but each has its advantages and disadvantages.

Water-Based Polyurethane

Probably the more popular of the two options for do-it-yourselfers, water-based polyurethane is water-soluble, so clean up is easy. It dries very quickly, which can both a blessing and a curse. It’s good because you can do two coats in a few hours and then walk on it (socks only!) after 7-8 hours of dry time. However, because it dries so fast, you run the risk of losing what’s called your “wet edge”. When you apply finish, it’s imperative to keep your edges wet to avoid lap marks on the floor after it dries. This is more challenging with water-based poly. Another advantage is that water-based poly remains clear even as it ages, it doesn’t get richer or turn yellow. However, it is not as durable as an oil-based poly, lasting 2-3 years before you may want to refinish again.

Oil-Based Polyurethane

When you use oil-based polyurethane, you will need some protection against the fumes. A respirator with an organic vapor cartridge is necessary to protect yourself from the toxic fumes as you lay it down. Oil-based poly is great for high-traffic areas, such as hallways and entryways. It’s a stronger finish, and will often last 3-5 years between treatments. It does turn a light amber color as it ages, so keep that in mind if your floors are lighter in color. Oil-based poly takes much longer to dry – you can’t walk on it for 24 hours or more after coating. It makes it easier to work with though, because you don’t have to worry about streaking as much. This type of polyurethane is also much cheaper than its water-based counterpart. There is no right or wrong answer here…just pick the option that ticks the most boxes for you!

Applying the Wood Stain

Hardwood floors and metal chairStarting near the wall furthest from your exit, cut in a 3” wide strip using a brush. You want to switch back and forth between cutting in and rolling the polyurethane, because you don’t want that edge to dry. Cut in one area and then fill in by rolling the poly across the open part of the floor. An easy way to do this is to pour out a 1” wide stripe of finish in the direction of the wood grain, and then roll it out with a long-handled roller. Roll first with the grain, and then roll across the grain to smooth it out further. Always make sure you are working with areas that are still wet to avoid those pesky lap marks. Continue in this manner until the coat is complete.

Follow the directions for your particular brand regarding dry time between coats. When all is said and done, it’s a good idea to let the floor sit for a week before putting furniture back into the room.

Enjoy Your New Refinished Hardwood Floors

There you have it – your floors look almost good-as-new! Time to sit back and be proud of the work you’ve done. Hardwood floor refinishing is a big undertaking, but a rewarding do-it-yourself project that pays back tenfold once it’s completed. It goes a long way to keeping your hardwood floors in tip-top shape for years to come. 

If you’re a fan of DIY projects, we also have a blog post on refinishing solid wood furniture. Once you refinish your hardwood floors, get started on sprucing up your old furniture!

If you’re in the market for new furniture instead, Amish Outlet Store has you covered!

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