Refinishing A Hardwood Floor
Q. Thank you so much for your article regarding “Do It Yourself Hardwood Floor Refinishing”. I became aware of it when one of your readers tried doing it himself at your suggestion and ended up in frustration. I get a call about once a week from people who have tried doing it themselves. They waste several days and several hundred dollars, and then have to call me in to finish the job. I think your article is misleading. You don’t tell your readers that the right kind of equipment can’t be rented. And, that the work is backbreaking even for the most skilled. You also forgot to tell the folks about the ripples, chips, chatters, troughs, digs and other maladies, which are inevitable from an inexperienced assault on a hardwood floor. I have spent over 20 years perfecting my sanding technique, and have never seen a do-it-yourself job that looked professional. – Henry H., Los Angeles, CA.
A. Based on your description of yourself (as a hardwood floor finisher), we have to admit that we are glad that our frustrated hardwood floor refinishing do-it-yourselfer called upon you to solve his problem. Even though he found the job to be more than what he expected, apparently he found someone who is capable of doing a good job. Unfortunately, we don’t agree with your attitude about our do-it-yourself readers. We would rather consider giving them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to learning ability and physical prowess. We can’t attest to why your customer was unable to succeed, but our hat is off to him for giving it his best. By the way, Bob Villa has a great VHS tape out on do-it-yourself hardwood floor refinishing. And one of America’s largest hardwood floor mills also offers a do-it-yourself video. But what do they know – when it comes to floor refinishing – they’re probably all a bunch of incapable, blithering idiots too — huh?
Well, that was then and this is now. And, as far as believing in our readers is concerned – nothing’s changed. We agree that refinishing a hardwood floor is not for the weak of heart. But, our biggest critic would have you believe that sanding is the hardest work known to man. We disagree!
First, we want to say that we both absolutely love hardwood flooring. Its rich look and low maintenance make it one of the most preferred of floor finishes. Having said that we also want to say that wood and water don’t mix. So, where would we suggest that you NOT use hardwood? You got it – bathrooms, the laundry and the kitchen. Even the finest finished-in-place hardwood will eventually fail in a wet area. Having said that – let’s get to the task.
Wood floor refinishing is without a doubt one of the most interesting processes we have ever witnessed. Sure, all it is is sanding and painting, but this is one process that can really be messed up if you aren’t careful.
The first step is to empty the room. Not just the furniture – everything. Remove knick-knacks, pictures, mirrors – everything. What you don’t remove will have to be cleaned inside and out. The dust created during the initial sandings is unbelievable. Whether you do it yourself or have it done by a contractor you will have to dust the entire house once the job is complete. After the room is emptied tape all cabinet doors shut. Also, tape shut all doorways and openings to other parts of the house. And, if you have central heating, don’t forget the return air registers.
There are two levels of refinishing: going down to bare wood and cutting away all imperfections or lightly screening the finish and adding a couple of touch-up coats. Since doing the former will prepare you for both that’s the process we will tackle here.
You will need a drum sander, an edge sander and a buffer. Expendable supplies such as sandpaper, finish coat, applicators, thinner, etc., can be purchased at a hardwood flooring supply center. What you probably won’t be able to rent is a toe-kick sander. A toe-kick sander is nothing more than an edge sander that fits under the cabinet toe kick. If there are cabinets make sure to get a good paint scraper and a sanding block. The last inch or so under the toe kick will have to be done by hand or with a small disk sander.
Normally, a drum sander is used with a 60-grit paper to cut through the existing finish and down into a fresh layer of wood. When deep imperfections exist in the floor a 30-grit paper becomes the first step — then the 60-grit. What we learned last go round was that the sanding process is everything. 30- or 36-grit are used to rough sand, 60- and 80-grit are used for medium sanding and 100-grit (and 120-grit on parquet) is used for fine sanding. As a novice you may wish to start with medium grit. It may take longer, but will reduce the chance of gouges. The grit used will depend on the condition of the floor. For each phase of sanding the sander is run in one direction with a second pass in a direction perpendicular to the first one. This is accomplished by pulling the sander into the center of the room from its perimeter. First, sand from one side to the other and then from one end to the other. To eliminate cupping the first pass is done at a 45 degree angle followed by the perpendicular passes.
It should be kept in mind that sanding at a 45-degree angle is somewhat more difficult than doing it in the conventional directions. However, sanding in different directions reduces the chance of unevenness. Additionally, the drum sander is held so that only a small amount of wood is removed with each pass. This takes a sensitive but strong grip, patience and a little practice. An edge sanding should follow each phase of drum sanding.
Precaution: Each sanding phase is followed by a thorough – and we do mean thorough – vacuuming. The sanding-vacuuming process is repeated until the 100 grit step is complete. Immediately after the rough sanding use a hammer and punch to set any nails that have surfaced (shiners).
Next, a thin coat of filler putty is evenly troweled onto the entire surface of the floor filling all gaps, joints and indentations. Actually, two coats of filler are applied during the refinishing process – one after the rough sanding and a second coat after the medium sanding. Some floors can be spot filled, however we like the idea of troweling the best. The motion of the trowel as it is used to spread the filler reminds us of a concrete mason finishing a new patio – amazing. The filler can be water or lacquer based, but we like water base. It is safer and dries more quickly. Once the filler has completely dried you can begin the fine sanding. Here, the drum sander is again used to perform a 100 grit fine sanding. With the fine sanding complete, the drum and edge sanders can be returned to the rental company.
Finally, stain or clear finish can be applied. By the way, selective staining can be quite beautiful. For example: you can elect to stain the perimeter and leave the center area natural. The choices are limitless. Once the stain has dried the area is again vacuumed. Be careful here. Don’t tack the stain coat. Doing so will draw the stain out of the wood. The first coat of finish, which is applied with a cloth applicator, immediately follows staining. When the first coat is dry it is screened (mesh sanding) with an extra fine 180 mesh or 00 steel wool. Don’t use steel wool if the finish coat is water – rust can occur. Then the floor is vacuumed and tacked (a tack cloth is used to get the surface extra clean). Normally, at least 3 coats are applied. We did 6 coats. The more coats, the thicker the finish, the better the protection. Screening continues between each and every coat. Also, spot puttying is done between each coat to eliminate any remaining flaws.
Three-quarter inch thick wood floors can be refinished several times, thinner hardwoods and parquet can be done a couple of times. Veneered floors can be screened but sanding is out. Doing so will almost always result in a ruined floor. Even 100-grit sandpaper will cut right through most veneers.
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