A Not Quite Fix for My Poor Hardwood Floors
August 25, 2009 2:30 PM   Subscribe

How can I limit damage to my virtually-unfinished hardwood floors without the trouble/expense of refinishing?

I have an 1800 sq foot ranch-style home built in 1994 (in Missouri, USA). All of the flooring is hardwood, with the exception of a small utility room and the two bathrooms. This is a slab home, and the wood is directly on top of the concrete. I cannot be very specific about the type of wood it is- possibly oak? It's very standard early-90s suburban house wood flooring.

When I bought this house in 2006 (at the top of the market, of course), the floors were not in great shape. I didn't care because I own a dog and do not want to live a lifestyle where I have to place a lot of emphasis on keeping my floors scratch-free. My house is not worth what I paid for it, and I've had to put some very expensive work into it (roof, foundation repairs, new a/c, just to start). This is not a house I wanted to own forever. I will likely sell or rent the place out in 5 years.
In addition, refinishing of any part of the house would require refinishing of all the floors of the house, because the wood flows through all the rooms. I have had a casual estimate of $4000 to refinish the floors of the house. This is not chump change for me, and that new a/c unit was installed just two weeks ago, so I am not exactly rolling in it right now.

Until this past weekend, I didn't worry too much about the floors, but they were not in great shape. I cleaned them regularly by sweeping or vacuuming. Maybe once a year I tried to clean them with Murphy's Oil, whereupon it became obvious that they had almost no finish left. The water soaked in and there was a smell of wet wood.

This past weekend, I had the excitement of coming home to find that a washing machine hose had burst (the washing machine was not even in use at the time) and flooded about a third of the house with an inch of water in just forty-five minutes. (Fantastic entertainment for a Saturday night!)

After the immediate cleanup, I am happy to see that there was very little long-term damage to my house. The floorboards have dried out without buckling. We've had very low humidity this week (totally unusual for Missouri in summer) but the new a/c has been very helpful, and I think I removed the water fast enough that there may not be mold damage. Furniture and other possessions were largely untouched. Rugs are all cotton and can be washed. I was remarkably fortunate.

The only thing that was ruined was [whatever was left of] the finish of the hardwood in that part of the house. In the living room, I can see where the water was and where it stopped. It's not a bad stain and it would likely come out with sanding, but the floors are clearly in even worse shape than they were. Refinishing them would fix them perfectly, I'm sure.

I don't want to refinish. See paragraph #2.
What can I do with these floors? My priority is to decrease the amount of damage that my dog and I could incur if we live on pretty-much-unfinished wood floors. Making them pretty is not really my priority. I just want to limit the damage. (I can't put rugs everywhere.)
Google lists different products on the market that swear they will help me, but I don't know enough to tell the useless & destructive from the magic miracle tonic.
Things that involve sanding seem to be a little beyond my comfort zone as far as things I can do myself (and I don't want to hire someone else).
What options beyond refinishing do I have? How should I be cleaning this floor?
posted by aabbbiee to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Varathane sells a no-sanding kit for floor refinishing that you can do yourself in a weekend. The product. Unfortunately I've never seen it for sale anywhere although they claim Lowes sells it.

At this point there isn't much you can do really, the floor needs to get finished properly. You could and it yourself and varnish it yourself for a lot less than $4000 by renting a machine and DIY. Or if you find Renewal for sale, DIY without sanding. But every commercial floor care product I've ever seen is designed for sealed wood.
posted by GuyZero at 2:48 PM on August 25, 2009

Anything you do other than an actual proper refinish (sanding and sealing), in both the short and longer term, will be bad for your floors.

I know you said you don't want to refinish, but you make some assumptions about refinishing that I believe you might want to re-examine:

A) Unless you have a *massive* house, $4,000 sounds like a lot to me. I've refinished a 4 room apartment with a front hall and stairwell (granted, it was pine, a pretty easy one to work with when it comes to wood floors), and our materials cost (on top of the tools we already had) - mainly sand-papers and polyurethane, couldn't have topped $500. And we did not put in $3500 worth of man hours to do it (granted it was long hard work, like 3 hours an evening for a couple weeks maybe?). I'd get a proper (i.e. not casual) quotation if I were you.

B) refinishing of any part of the house would require refinishing of all the floors of the house, because the wood flows through all the rooms.

Not sure that's true. I'm pretty sure you could do it room-by-room, its just that depending on the seams of your flooring, you might have a noticeable line between rooms certainly while you're working them and probably less so after you finish. That is to say - if your wood is laid in lines that are in agreement with the line your doors are on, you can stop at the line in the middle of the door-frame and do the next room when you've finished the first. If however your wood is laid in perpendicular lines to the door frames, you'll have a more noticeable line. It would be of course *preferable* to re-finish all at once, but I don't think its necessarily a make-or-break scenario.

Just some things to think about. Flooring was something I really wanted to learn and not only did I get beautiful floors to live on out of the deal, I learned how to completely refinish wood floors properly, and now I have the skill in my set as well. Food for thought.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:21 PM on August 25, 2009

Your floor is probably not dry yet. Proceed with caution.

Buy, borrow, or rent a dehumidifier. Floor heaters might work good if you can close up the parts of the house that were flooded. Super heat the joint (for at least 2 days) and then air it out.

Re-check the floors and then decide how/if you want to treat them.
posted by jbenben at 3:25 PM on August 25, 2009

2 years ago, I had dining room & living room floors sanded and finished for 600 altogether. Rugs protect floors quite well.
posted by theora55 at 3:39 PM on August 25, 2009

Another option is just to lay down wall-to-wall carpet. I doubt it's much cheaper than refinishing though.
posted by GuyZero at 3:40 PM on August 25, 2009

I was coming in to recommend the Pro Shot stuff too. In the white bottle with red writing. The previous owner of our house used it instead of refinishing (she had a dog who tore up the floors pretty good, so I can see why she didn't want to refinish). She told me she would apply it every 6 months or so, I think with a rag mop. It looks very nice, though I don't really have evidence one way or another for its practical benefits as far as "protecting" or waterproofing the floor.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:56 PM on August 25, 2009

ummm... you might be able to get a better price on the refinishing but basically, refinishing is part of the maintenance of hardwood floors. $2-3 a square foot is cheaper than any decent carpet you could put down over it and that's where you are heading here.

bottom-line: the longer you wait the more damaged the floor is going to get. see if you can get a better price but get it done.
posted by geos at 4:04 PM on August 25, 2009

You've got options for finishing. You can wax the floors, which will need re-doing every so often (6 months or a year, I imagine), looks good, and is cheap.

You can also apply a polyurethane finish yourself. I've done this on a screened-in porch, and the results are good. It's arduous enough that you might feel like $4000 would be a bargain, but you can do it. You would want to rent a finish floor sander, take off the existing finish, sand lightly and wipe down between coats. I know that professional floor guys use long-handled squeegees to apply the finish, but you can do it with a brush if you're verrrrrry careful. If you've got thresholds between the rooms, you can do this one room at a time. You want to do contiguous areas all at once.
posted by adamrice at 4:26 PM on August 25, 2009

You only need to sand if you want a nice smooth and shiny finish on your floor. Polyurethane just needs a clean enough surface to stick to (though it needs to be free of wax).

If it was me and I elected not to strip, sand and refinish (it is a swack lot of work to do properly) while not really caring what the floor looked like as long as the floor was protected I'd use boiled linseed oil. It's a lot cheaper than polyurethane and it's easier to work with. All you'd have to do is pour it on a well vacuumed floor and then mop it around with a lint free mop of some sort. The lambs wool heads they sell for poly is a good choice. A little goes a long way and you want to do a few thin coats. It'll mostly self level but not to a mirror finish. And it'll seep into any cracks, gouges, or grooves. It isn't anywhere as durable as a poly but a good commercial wax and throw rugs in high traffic areas can mitigate the softness of it mostly.

The only draw back is you might need to use a solvent rather than water based poly when you do refinish the floor and the wood will yellow over time. The flip side is scratches and other localized damaged can easily be repaired with a bottle of BLO and a cloth.
posted by Mitheral at 5:26 PM on August 25, 2009

You can put a coat of polyurethane over the floor yourself without doing any sanding. Test it in an inconspicuous spot over any remaining ¨stuff¨ covering the bare wood of the floor to make sure it doesn´t bubble up, but if you don´t care what the floor looks like even that shouldn´t be a big deal.

Yes, it´s a ¨finish¨, but it´s about $20 or $30 per gallon and you can easily apply it yourself. Clean the floors well first with a damp mop and make sure they are dry. You don´t have to do the entire house. Later on, if you want to have sanding done, the polyurethane will get sanded off.
posted by yohko at 7:24 PM on August 25, 2009

Your upfront payment to do it properly might seem like a lot now, but when you try to sell your house and potential buyers look at your floors and think "the wood floor is destroyed, what else in this place didn't he take care of?" and demand that you either fix it, knock of an excessive amount of money, or walk away. The longer you put it off, the worse they will get.
posted by comatose at 8:35 PM on August 25, 2009

Having previously worked for several years with hardwood floors, I don't have the kind of advice you're looking for. $2-3/sq. ft. is standard for refinishing, especially for a damaged floor that has spent any amount of time unfinished, especially where Murphy's Oil Soap has been used, as it is a wax, and requires much more sandpaper to remove than bare wood or polyurethane. You may be able to get closer to the $2/sq.ft. price by finding someone who works for themselves rather paying a company to pay employees.

Linseed oil is no match for dog claws. Damage will continue until the floors have to be replaced, which will cost $8-10/sq.ft. ($6-7/sq.ft. if you do everything yourself) The sooner, the cheaper... there just isn't any true avoidance of the issue to be had.

Once your floors are sealed, you can maintain them very well, cleaning them with vinegar and water and every 3 years or so (or 5 years without a dog) buffing them and applying a fresh coat of polyurethane. If you maintain them, you'll never have to worry about sanding again.

Make it a priority as soon as you can. Sorry.
posted by droomoord at 3:03 AM on August 27, 2009

If you use boiled linseed oil, be sure to follow the directions very carefully. It can turn into a sticky mess that will never dry otherwise.
posted by jewzilla at 11:28 PM on September 1, 2009

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