Are you looking for do-it-yourself ways to revitalize the former beauty of your worn-out hardwood floors? Are you wondering how pros restore wooden floors and make them shiny and immaculate? A wooden floor that is blunt, splintering or falling apart is neither appealing nor inviting. Do not worry, though: these 4 clear and practical steps explain to you how to refinish hardwood floors yourself, so that old wooden floors look new again.
In a Nutshell: How to Sand and Refinish Hardwood Floors (Step-by-Step)
Get a good overview in less than 5 minutes.
Overview: How to Refinish Wooden Floors in 4 Easy Steps
These are the 4 steps to refinish hardwood floors:
- Prepare your floor, your equipment and yourself for the sanding and refinishing of your wooden floor.
- Sand your floor in at least three rounds, using a finer grit in each new round. Use proper tools and sand the edges by hand, if necessary.
- Stain or seal your floor and use a colored stain if desired. Remove any excess and let the stain dry overnight (or longer, if necessary).
- Apply the Top Coat Poly (Polyurethane) and let it dry for at least 12-24 hours.
1) Preparing the Sanding and Refinishing
How Do You Know If Your Hardwood Floors Need Sanding?
When you find marks or deep scratches on the hardwood floor and when it is getting blunt, you need to either screen it or sand it as a first step to make it look like new again. Sanding means rubbing the wooden surface with an abrasive object, usually a sander and sandpaper. If the floor is only damaged on the surface, a light sanding of the existing finish and the application of a new coat of poly (also known as “screening”) can be sufficient. If the marks go deeper into the wood, a proper sanding with several rounds will be the first step to refinish your floor (followed by staining, poly’ing, etc.).
What You Need to Prepare
First of all, free the space of the room. You must inspect the entire floor in search of nails, splinters, or imperfections to remove them or take them into account when sanding. Depending on the size and goal of your project, you will need the following equipment:
- Sanding Machine (for the large areas and the rough-to-fine sanding processes): Such machines are available in multiple variants and Size. For sanding, an orbital or a drum sander are recommended, supplemented by an edge or palm sander. Check out our dedicated article on orbital and palm sanders.
- Sandpaper (for the edges and small areas and manual sanding): Sandpapers for manual sanding are usually made of paper and in some cases of cloth, the latter being better if you need more stability.
In addition, make sure that you are ready yourself: You should have enough time to do the process from the beginning to the end over a couple of days and you should follow the principles of safe DIY working.
2) Sanding Your Floor
How to Sand Hardwood Floors Yourself (with a Sanding Machine)
If you need to sand the entire floor surface, you better use a machine rather than doing it by hand.
To sand the floor, you need an orbital or drum sander and an edger or palm sander for the corners. In case you do not have a drum sander you can rent one – orbital and palm sander are rather inexpensive, so you can consider buying them yourself. It is essential that you sand the room by equally sized sections to maintain the consistency and quality of the abrasion and achieve an even result. You should do this following the wood grain.
It is important, that you perform at least three rounds of sanding on the wooden surface. You should start the process with coarse sanding and eventually proceed to the finest grit in the last step. Use an edge or palm sander for corners and sandpaper for areas inaccessible for the power tools.
Sanding the Corners (by Hand)
When sanding your floor with a machine, you will likely have corners that you need to work on by hand.
To do so, you should first remove all the dust with a vacuum cleaner. Use sandpaper of the same grits and the same number of rounds as you have done with the machine. Thus, you make sure that the surface is even.
What Are the 5 Important Things to Keep in Mind for Sanding?
For sanding floors, you should follow these 5 considerations:
- Clean the room first and remove nails etc. from the wooden floor.
- It is important to use quality tools and materials (see details below).
- You must use the roughest sandpaper first, then proceed incrementally to the finest.
- Carefully sand each area of the floor, including corners.
- Make sure the surface is even after the sanding.
- Clean up before proceeding with the refinish – the room has to be completely dust-free.
3) Staining or Sealing
How to Prepare the Staining or Sealing
After sanding, you should thoroughly vacuum and clean the room to make sure it is entirely dust-free before you start staining or sealing. You should consider opening windows and doors to have an air circulation. Get your equipment (i.e. stain or sealant, applicator, mask) ready and make sure nobody is entering the room during the application and drying of the stain or sealant.
How to Apply the Stain or Sealing?
Use a rag, a paint roller, a lambswool or a lamb skin applicator to apply the stain or sealant. Consider using an extension pole. You should apply the stain by dragging the applicator towards yourself. Avoid random or circular movements. Let it dry for a couple of minutes and remove any excess.
How Long Does It Take Stain to Dry
The drying time depends on a couple of conditions, e.g. the type of wood, the type of stain or sealant, the temperature, the humidity and the air circulation. As a rule of thumb, it should be drying overnight. However, you should consider the instructions on the can and take the particular circumstances of your project into account. Depending on the result, you might have to go for a second round of staining (e. g. if you use color stain and aim to achieve a certain color shade).
Which Poly Should You Be Using for Your Floor?
For the top coat of your floor, you will have to apply Polyurethane. You can choose between water- and oil-based Poly. We have summarized the advantages and disadvantages of either type in our post
How Long Does It Take Poly to Dry
Usually 12 to 24 hours but it depends on the poly, the wood, the stain, the temperature, the humidity, the air circulation etc. Check the producer’s instructions and take the external factors of your project into account.
How to Start Your Project
Read the full article and become familiar with the process and the details. Fix a time slot of a couple of hours of work over a couple of days (also consider drying and the risk of having to do an additional round of sanding, staining or poly’ing). Get all the tools and equipment that you need for refinishing your floor – follow our bucket list for the things you need.
Why You Should Refinish Your Floor
We all like both the look, the warmth and also the durability of hardwood as flooring material. However, nothing lasts forever: These floors are exposed to the wear and tear over time that eventually and almost inevitably makes them look dull, bruised, scarred and, in some cases, even stained with paint splatters or water-damaged. Your kids are playing on your wooden floor, your dog is running around and scratching the surface, water and drinks are spilled accidentally and, last but not least, furniture and removal boxes leave their marks. Nevertheless, a properly installed and maintained wooden floor can last almost as long as a house:
Are you like us, who cannot stand the shabbiness of a worn-down wood floors, who like do-it-yourself work and who prefer not to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars to hire a contractor? If yes, then continue reading as we are going to share our experience and DIY best practices with you in this blog. You will get practical guidance how to make that splintered and dull wooden floor look neat and shiny like on Day One.
What are you waiting for? A well maintained and regularly oiled wooden floor is not only inviting but also adds warmth to your home. Read our guidance, slip on your old pair of jeans and prepare yourself for a couple of hours of hard but rewarding work.
How to Facelift Your Hardwood Floor
To save time and increase your floor’s durability, you should consider cleaning and polishing as a first step to brush up on a less worn-down floor. If this is not sufficient to refresh the wooden surface, screening/buffing should be considered as a second step.
If you cannot yet tell whether your floor actually needs sanding or just a good cleaning, polishing or screening, this is how to find it out: Spill a few drops of water on the floor and observe whether it is dispersing or soaking. If it takes some time until it is soaking, the floor is still in a substantially good condition, and polishing only could be sufficient. Screening means lightly sanding the existing finish with sandpaper or sanding screens and recoating it by applying polyurethane over the roughened old finish (Instructions on Wikihow).
However, if you have got a hardwood floor that is too damaged for a simple floor cleaning/polishing or a screening project you will need to revitalize the floor with sanding, staining and coating the wooden panels. This is usually the way to go in cases of hardwood floors that are covered with nasty scratches and nicks that go all the way through to the wood: You will not have any other option but sanding. Just make sure that the wood is not too thin at this point as you would eventually destroy your floor otherwise. As a rule of thumb, you can sand a quality hardwood floor with regular thickness (6/8 to 7/8in) up to ten times before you will finally have to replace it.
To sand and refinish a wooden floor, you will need some tools and equipment (you can either rent it or buy it) and a couple of days to perform the work. If you are unsure whether it is worth the time and efforts or not, keep in mind that replacing is usually more expensive than repairing your hardwood floors – in particular if you are able to do the floor facelift yourself. With a proper refinish, you can fix the wooden surface now and enjoy a floor that can be as good as new for the next 20 years – unless things go south (do not forget to win your kids and your dog over, though).
The Tools and Equipment for Your Hardwood Floor Refinish
For your project, you will need the following tools and equipment:
- Orbital or drum sander (check prices on Amazon)
Read our review of orbital sanders and how to pick the right one
- Edge sander or palm sander (check prices on Amazon)
Read our comparison of orbital sander and palm sander
- Vacuum cleaner
- Disposal plastic gloves, safety glasses, ear protection, knee pads and a mask (check prices on Amazon)
Read our tips on DIY safety
- Rags or foam brushes for stain
- Lambswool or Lambskin applicator
- Tack Cloths
- Stain (check prices on Amazon)
- Polyurethane Top Coat (check prices on Amazon)
Learn more about the difference between water- and oil-based poly in our blog and use this calculator to determine the amount of Polyurethane needed for your project
The In-Depth Instruction: 4 Steps to Refinish Your Hardwood Floors
Get Yourself Ready
First of all, free up your time and make sure you can dedicate the hours and days of work that it will take to perform and complete the work. Before you begin the sanding, check your floor for staples or nails and remove them or hammer them down. Check whether the wood is too thin or has been sanded too many times so it cannot handle another sanding, as described above. If that is the case, you might consider using a different method, e. g. using a chemical stripper, limiting the refurbishment to screening or, if worst comes to worst, replacing the old wooden floor. However, specialized professional wood recovery companies might be able to restore damaged or even valuable or historic hardwood floors.
Remove Carpets and Prepare the Room
Firstly, you should strap on a dust mask before you pull out the carpet, particularly if you are allergic to dust. Slip on a pair of gloves and start detaching the carpet from the tack strip along the walls. Start from the corner, grab the carpet with pliers and pull it in your direction. To ease the removal process, fold the carpet in the center of the room into thirds.
After removing the carpet and anything else that had been on the floor, hammer any nails that stick out carefully further into the wood (you do not want to leave any hammer marks while doing this) so that the sander will not get damaged by these nails.
The next step is to remove the baseboards. You can simply do that with a small pry bar. Make sure you put a shim behind the pry bar to avoid damaging the walls. There is actually a debate among handymen whether it is really necessary to remove the baseboards or whether you can leave them as they are. However, we believe that removing the baseboards before floor refinishing is a comparatively small effort that will make it easier for you to level the finish and helps you avoid accidental damage to the baseboards.
When you are sanding your floor, you will likely cover everything inside your home with a thin layer of fine dust of wood even though most sanders are equipped with dust collecting mechanisms these days. Make sure your family is outside the house or wearing masks to avoid accidental inhaling of wood particles which in fact have been identified as carcinogens. Therefore, you should protect yourself and anything else in the room from the dust that you will be producing. Use a mask, pack all your things in plastic film, close the doors and temporarily seal any remaining gaps around your door with paper or tape, and you will be ready to sand.
Is Your Floor Thick Enough for Sanding?
Sanding requires a minimum thickness of your floor of at least 1/8 inches (3.2 mm) if you are sanding cautiously. A hardwood floor is usually 3/4 - 7/8 inches (19-22 mm) thick. Considering these numbers and doing the maths, you will note that you can sand and refinish your wooden floor up to 4 - 8 times (according to Forbes), depending on the grit that you use for sanding and the amount of wood that you are removing. As a rule of thumb, a hardwood floor only needs to be refinished once every 8-10 years depending on the use and care as well as your aspiration with respect to the look of your floor.
These statistics can give you a first idea of the condition of your floor. However, some floors may be thinner and previous house owners or tenants might have sanded the floor a couple of times already. So better do not rely on theoretical considerations but check yourself whether your floor is ready for another sanding treatment.
Once your floor has passed the depth test, it is the time to fill the empty spaces between the boards or panels. These gaps usually occur due to long-term expansion and contraction of the wooden strips that are butted together – a natural process when it comes to wood.
Filling the Holes and Gaps
Gaps that are normal for your kind of floor do not need to be repaired. However, you will want to fix irregular and large gaps between the boards before refinishing the floor. These gaps do not only look ugly, they will also attract dust and dirt over the years and they can cause drafts and energy inefficiencies. You will want to fill deep notches and old drill holes in the wooden surface as well.
If the gaps are less than 5 mm you can use wood dust and resin fillers / wood fillers. However, for larger gaps you may consider using a color-matching acrylic filler. After buying these fillers, test on a hidden place whether the color matches your floors’ color under real life conditions, and follow the instructions for the fillers.
2) Sanding the Hardwood Floor
For sanding, you can choose to rent or buy either an orbital sander or a drum sander. If you do not already know which type of sander you should choose, here is a thumb rule:
When to Use an Orbital Sander
The orbital sander is a light sander that is not expensive (check current deals on Amazon), easier to use for beginners and a good choice if you do not want to take a chance of ruining your floor. If you decide to go for an orbital sander, this comes with two disadvantages, though: One potential issue is the slow speed of working with this handheld sander while the other one is the dust production – the orbital sander generates in general more of it than a drum sander.
All in all, an orbital sander will likely be the right choice for you if you are a not too experienced and plan to sanding rather small areas.
Read our post on orbital sanders and how to find the perfect one.
When to Use a Drum Sander
Drum sanders, on the other hand, are rather rough machines. Drum sanders can remove thick layers of wood and they can also be used to re-level uneven floors. These machines let you finish the job much quicker thanks to their size and their fast-rotating belt. They also collect the dust and fill it into a dust bag which makes this a healthier and cleaner solution than using an orbit sander.
Buying a drum sander requires some investment, so you might want to check out options to rent it for a day or two when working on a smaller project. If you own a big house or several properties with lots of wooden floors you should consider buying one, though, given its frequent use and the otherwise accumulated costs of renting a sander multiple times.
However, you should be very careful in putting your hands on this type of sander as you could ruin your floor and even your DIY home improvement aspirations within a few seconds.
Whichever equipment you are using, you should sand your hardwood floors in at least three steps with progressively finer sandpaper. Start with a coarser sandpaper (30 to 46 grit) and work yourself to a light grit sandpaper of 100-120 grit in the last step. If you are unsure how to start, test with a higher-grit sandpaper first check the results and move on to testing sandpaper with lower grit until you have found the right size for the first step.
Make sure you have got your eyes protected with proper protection glasses and wear a dust mask to protect your lungs. If you are using a drum sander, check that the dust bag is installed to capture the dust.
The best place to start is actually a low visibility area or the farthest corner from the door where one would not spot it immediately if things went south. After starting, immediately begin moving along the grain row by row. Avoid staying in one particular spot too long as you could produce an uneven surface or swirl marks otherwise.
After reaching one end of the room, turn and pull back with a slight overlap with the first pass. Continue this sanding procedure and cover the edges as close as possible.
Use an edge sander around the hard-to-reach spots like wall edges and corners that a drum sander cannot reach. If you use an edger, you might still have some white spots in the sharp corners. The edge sander is circular and thus cannot fully cover the squared-off spaces. For such sharp corners and places like door jams, you should consider using a palm sander to finish off the corners.
After completing the first pass of sanding, vacuum thoroughly every inch of your room to make sure that your floor is entirely clear of dirt and dust. Examine your wood floor for any notches or holes. If there are any you can fill them with a matching wood filler/putty or even re-use the wooden dust that you produced earlier.
If you do not perform the work in a single pass you will want to keep track of the areas where you have sanded, so you will know later where to continue your work. You can use a light pencil to mark the edges and once you’ll sand that area, the pencil lines will be gone.
After the rough sanding, you will have to use 50-60 medium grit sandpaper for the second run. Put this sandpaper on the sander and work yourself through the room exactly in the same way as during the previous coarse sanding. Repeat the vacuuming and filling exercise once the “dancing” is done.
For the final sanding, load the sander with a fine grit of 100-120 and finish off all areas of the floor. After you have done the sanding, thoroughly vacuum the room and wipe it so that no dust is left anywhere on the floor or in the room.
3) Staining the Floor
After finishing the sanding and cleaning, you will have to apply a stain or a sealant to your sanded hardwood floor. You can choose either a water-based or an oil-based stain, depending on your needs. You can go for a color stain if you like to change or bring out the color of the wood.
Before applying the stain, make sure that the windows are open to let fresh air come in and ventilate while you are working with the stain. Do not forget to plastic disposable gloves to avoid stains on your hands.
In order to apply the stain, you can use a rag, a paint roller, a lambswool or a lamb skin applicator. An extension pole will make the work more convenient as you can walk upright instead of crawling. Slightly dab the applicator into the stain, move it down to the floor and drag it back towards yourself while pressing it down. Do not go for circular motions nor move it back and forth as this would result in an uneven coloring of your floor.
Once you have finished the first coat, allow it to slightly dry for a couple of minutes, come back and wipe the excess stain. In most cases, a single staining run is enough but if you aim to have a dark render you will want to apply a second coat. However, do your best to avoid a blemished finish as a result of excess or unevenly applied coat.
Allow the stain to dry overnight and make sure no one is going near that area, as you will want to avoid having a permanent footprint on your freshly stained floor.
4) Applying the clear Top Coat Polyurethane (“Poly”)
Before going for a poly, make sure your room is well ventilated and well lit (otherwise, you’d have to guess on which areas you already applied the poly). Poly has a strong smell, so be prepared for it and better wear your mask. Close the heaters of all the rooms in the house and make sure your kids and pets are not around for a dry time of 12-24 hours.
Polys are available as oil-based or water-based polys in the market:
Water-based poly is usually less smelly and less toxic while it also does not add a color shading to the surface. On the other side, it is less durable, however, some handymen claim that premium water-based polys - when applied properly - are as durable as the oil-based ones.
Oil-based poly tends to add an amber hue or shading to the surface, while the water-based ones are crystal. While it is deemed more durable and heat-resistant than water-based poly, it will need much more time to dry.
Read more details about the pro’s and con’s of oil- and water-based poly in our blog.
Regardless of which poly type you have chosen, you will have to be aware of the drying time. You can walk on a water-based poly with your socks on after a few hours but each coat of poly requires around 12 to 24 hours of dry time. Refer to the drying time specified on the can and spend attention whether your circumstances meet the conditions of the ideal drying time (e.g. temperature and humidity).
Whatever type of poly you choose, the process of its application is similar to that for the application of stain: You can use a lambswool applicator, rags, paint rolls or even a brush. Depending on the results that you want to achieve, you can go for 3-4 coats of the poly.
Refinish Your Wooden Floor Now
Even if your floor looks worn-out, there are several ways to restore its original beauty without spending thousands of dollars for a contractor.
If your hardwood floor needs only a minor treatment to be shiny again you can go for cleaning, polishing or screening. A more damaged floor, on the other hand, requires proper sanding before the final refinish.
Whichever technique you choose, it will be hard but rewarding work: you will be enjoying your shiny floor every single day and remember the hard work it took to get there.
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