How to Refinish Your Hardwood Floor

Beautiful hardwood floors are not only a joy for homeowners but can be a major asset when selling your home. Refinishing hardwood floors hidden under carpets or older floors in need of a facelift may seem a daunting task but it’s a home improvement project well within the reach of most homeowners and DIYers.

1. Prep Work: You’ll have two types of prep work to tackle: research into the actual process and getting your house and floors ready for the work. This article is a good general guide to refinishing hardwood floors but there are also books and other Web resources that go into greater detail. If you have any friends who’ve refinished hardwood floors before, pick their brains as far as tips and suggestions.

It doesn’t take a lot of skill to refinish hardwood floors, but it’s a lot of hard, repetitive work, and you’ll have to be pretty careful and meticulous and do the same basic task over and over and over. If that doesn’t sound like you at all and you’re the type who gets impatient and rushes through projects to get done, then maybe this is a project better left to the professionals.

As far as actually prepping your floors, you’ll need to clear furniture and rugs and anything else out of the rooms. Get plastic sheeting to tape over doorways of rooms you’re refinishing, otherwise, you’ll end up with sawdust in every nook and cranny of your home.

Carefully remove any shoe molding from your baseboard trim; mark it in detail so you know where each piece should go back to when you are ready. Make sure no nail heads are sticking up above the surface of the wood floors; either remove them if they are or use a nail set to drive them deeper into the wood.

2.  Equipment: Refinishing hardwood floors requires a heavy drum sander or a large orbital sander just for refinishing floors, so this isn’t a job you can do with a belt sander or palm sander. You can rent all the equipment you need at most equipment rental stores or home improvement stores, but be sure to reserve it ahead of time, as they typically don’t stock a lot of these sanders. You’ll need a drum sander and an edge sander for the bulk of the sanding. (Some people also rent a buffer with sanding screens after the work with the drum sander and edger is completed, but you won’t need a buffer initially).

You’ll get sandpaper at the same place you rent the equipment, as it requires special sandpaper. Commonly used grits of sandpaper are 36, 60, 80, and 100, but it depends on your particular job. You usually use three grits, and the roughest grit depends on how damaged the floors are that you’re refinishing. For floors with a lot of wear and old finish on them, you’ll typically use 36, 80, and 100 grit sandpaper. If your floors aren’t in terrible shape you’ll use 60, 80, and 100. Get more sandpaper than you think you’ll need, as the store will almost always buy back any unused sandpaper you don’t need.

Make sure they show you how to work the equipment, especially as far as attaching and removing the sandpaper. Try it yourself in the store and make sure you’re doing it correctly, as getting the paper on and off can be the trickiest part of the job.

The drum sander is very heavy (some upwards of 100 pounds) and awkward to carry, so you’ll likely need help loading and unloading it. Don’t roll it into your house, as the rubber wheel on the bottom can easily be damaged and you may get charged for it after.

3. Sanding: Now it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty (with an emphasis on gritty). Start sanding in an area that’s reasonably out of sight; a back bedroom is better to get the hang of it than starting in your entryway right by the front door.

Start with the drum sander and the roughest grit sandpaper you got. Turn on the sander, lower the wheel, and hold tight. The sander is very powerful so your main role is to hold it in check, as it will want to jump forward as it starts sanding down the wood. Don’t ever let the sander stop and sit in one spot, as it will quickly eat huge gouges into your wooden floors.

You’ll quickly work out a routine that works for you, as far as where to start in a room, when to raise and lower the drum as you near walls, and so on. Your primary concern is avoiding lap marks and evenly sanding the whole floor in each room. Alternate which side of the room you start on for your long passes, as that will minimize lap marks.

Be aware that the roughest grit of sandpaper will do 90% of the really visible work, with the later grits really just smoothing things out. If you’ve done your pass with the roughest grit and there’s still finish and old worn spots in the wood, you’ll need to do a second pass with the roughest grit, as the medium and fine grit passes won’t really remove much material from the wood at all.

Do all of the floors in all of your rooms with the roughest grit, then do the edges with the edger. The drum sander will bump against the wall and not sand all the way to your floorboards, so the edger is necessary to get those last few inches. With the edger, it’s usually safer to start with one grit higher than what you used with the drum sander. If you started with 36 grit on the drum sander, use 60 grit or 80 grit in the edger to start. The edger is tricky to use, as it can easily scoop out too much wood, so it’s safer for most people to use a higher grit to begin with, as it saves you from removing too much wood too quickly when edging.

Sand all your floor with your roughest grit with the drum sander, then do the edging. When that’s done, repeat with your medium grit. When that’s done, do it one last time with your finest grit. Don’t focus on getting one room completely done, but instead do the entire area you’re sanding and methodically move through your sandpaper grits.

4. Staining and Finishing: Once you’re done sanding, you’ll need to get all of the sawdust out of your house. Not just off the floors, but off the ceilings, walls, windows, and everywhere else it will have collected. This is really important for your staining and finishing, so don’t sweep a bit and call it good.

Before you start staining, test it first in an inconspicuous area and let it dry overnight. If you like the result, you’re ready to stain. Keep in mind, though, that once you start staining and finishing you’ll need to stay off the floors for quite awhile, so plan accordingly.

Stain can be applied with a brush, rag, or roller, and you’ll find what works best for you by trial and error, as it depends on the wood, the darkness of the stain, and other variables that are different from job to job. Get your first coat of stain down and let it dry overnight. If you like the color and finish, you’re ready to start sealing. If you want the stain to be darker, apply a second coat.

If you’re applying polyurethane for your sealer/topcoat, make sure the stain is completely dry and go over the entire floor with a tack cloth to get any stray dust. Once you apply the topcoat, anything on your floor will be there for forever, so be sure you get up all dust, paintbrush bristles, etc. Apply the first coat of polyurethane with a brush or roller and let it dry completely. If you have to walk on it, do so only in socks.

Repeat the process with a second and third coat of polyurethane, allowing time for each coat to dry completely. If you’re happy with the results after the third coat, congratulations, you’re finally done! Give your floors at least two days to dry and completely harden before any heavy foot traffic or moving furniture back into your rooms.

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