Your floors are too thin, how about buying some of our new hardwood floors instead??
March 10, 2010 8:49 AM   Subscribe

The contractor says my hardwood floors are "too thin" to sand.

Has anyone heard of this? I have two more contractors coming this Saturday to give me bids. The house is 100 years old so I'm sure it has had it's share of wear and tear, but I have to say I am skeptical of someone who claims the floors are "too thin" and that I should just replace the wood with new wood floors.

Any thoughts or ideas? Would buffering them give them a nice, clean finish? I don't know what alternatives are here.

The space is about 250 square feet, and the floors are oak. They aren't in terrible shape, just kind of dark and worn looking and I would love to give them that refinished glow.

posted by timpanogos to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
After a certain number of sandings, yes, the slats of your floor can become too thin to sand. Get the other estimates, and if they all say you need new flooring, you might need new flooring.
posted by Oktober at 8:51 AM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

So hardwood floors are usually solid slabs of wood, say, 3/4" thick, with a groove in one side and a tongue in the other, along the long edge. Those tongue and grooves fit together. The tongue is typically about 1/3 the thickness of the board, so on a 3/4" thick floor, you have about 1/4" between the top of the board and the top of the tongue. If you sand down 1/4", then you've reached the tongue, and the floor won't hold together any more (and I imagine it would look pretty awful too). So the life of a hardwood floor is measured in how many sandings it would take to take off 1/4". If there have been more than a few refinishings already, then it may be true that you couldn't take another one. I'd be interested in knowing how he arrived at this conclusion that they were too thin already though - possibly it's just a given based on the age of the floors.
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:52 AM on March 10, 2010

The floors are probably not solid oak all the way through. Most oak floors have pine or fir under thin oak covering planks. So it's possible the oak is too thin to sand with a big sander. You might be able to sand them using a small belt sander, which isn't so destructive as the big sanders are, but would obviously take longer.
posted by anadem at 8:55 AM on March 10, 2010

Or what RustyBrooks says
posted by anadem at 8:56 AM on March 10, 2010

I've lived in an apartment with 100-year-old wood floors that got too thin, and yes, this is really something that happens. As RustyBrooks says, the tongue and groove no long fit together, opening big gaps in the floor. It looks bad and it splinters. I'd get a second opinion, just in case, but it could really be true.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 9:00 AM on March 10, 2010

I'd look at the alternative of doing a fairly light sanding, where you don't grind right down to bare wood, but just remove whatever varnish is left. Then re-stain the floor and refinish. It won't look like brand-new natural-finish oak, but it will look good and be more appropriate for a 100-year-old house.
posted by beagle at 9:00 AM on March 10, 2010

RustyBrooks has it. And it's not a full 1/4" that you can sand off either, it's only about 1/2 to 2/3 of that. You still need some of the top layer to hold the tongue in place after all. On most floors, you can only sand down 1/8" to 3/16" before replacement. That can be as few as 2 or 3 refinishings, depending.
posted by bonehead at 9:03 AM on March 10, 2010

Some friends (who gave me the brilliant bit of advice to "always get 3 estimates") had 2 contractors tell them this. The third guy said he could do something called screening. Which is apparently a light sanding. It was a lot cheaper and they were very happy with the result.
posted by selfmedicating at 9:04 AM on March 10, 2010

As the above said re. yes, they can actually become "too thin." Worth considering: if the floors are worn enough, a nice coat of varnish, applied correctly, can give them a sheen and what's called the "rustic look." I just finished working on a flooring company catalog where they were actually faking the 100-year-old scuffed hardwood look on new wood because it was so in demand; this was the centerpiece of their catalog. So, from some perspectives, what you have right now might actually be worth preserving.

On preview, more or less what beagle has already told you.
posted by Shepherd at 9:05 AM on March 10, 2010

Believe him. We had this in our house, redid the living room anyway hoping it would be okay, and it wasn't. It really looks bad and is unsafe because the wood moves and splinters, crap accumulates in the big gaps, etc. We ended up installing new floors afterward.

One alternative that can look good in the right kind of house is to paint the floor with high gloss paint.
posted by HotToddy at 9:06 AM on March 10, 2010

Another issue with old floors is sanding down and exposing the head of the nails that are used to fasten the slats to the sub-floor. You don't want to do this.

I might try a vibrator sander, a hand one, to sand a place that is not going to get a lot of traffic, just to see if you can get a good surface without gaps opening up or metal exposed.

Then it would be a lot of work but you might be able to baby one more sanding out of the old thing.
posted by Danf at 9:09 AM on March 10, 2010

It's quite possibly true, but I question the jump from "too thin to sand" directly to "you need a new floor." There are lots of things besides sanding that you can do to a floor.

(I actually tend to think that people sand floors far too often, but that flooring people go along with this because they know it shortens the life of the floor and then, hey, you need a new floor. But I'm cynical like that.)

Anyway, there are things like stripping — just removing the old varnish chemically — or screening — basically light "sanding" with something that's not sandpaper, but is more like a potscrubber — that you can do, followed by refinishing with stain or poly. These can improve the look of the floor (particularly if the problems are mostly in the finish, like bubbling/cracking/discoloration) without damaging it quite so much.

I'd get a few different opinions and make it clear when you're getting them that a new floor is not an option. Otherwise, people will just jump to the new floor, because that's both the most straightforward and most expensive. But rule that out and I suspect you'll get a lot of other options to consider.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:13 AM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, definitely possible. I took the carpets up in my 1920s house and the hardwood floor has been oversanded. It's not terrible looking, but there are lots of gaps and some of the floorboards splinter around the edges. Screening won't remove all of the previous finish, but will rough it up enough to take a topcoat of poly. I have no idea how it'll turn out though. Standard floor refinishing usually involves taking all the finish off with 40 grit sandpaper, then progressively finer paper (up to 120, I think) sanding screens are usually used between coats to help subsequent coats adhere.
posted by electroboy at 9:17 AM on March 10, 2010

We recently ripped up wall-to-wall carpet in a bedroom and long a hallway - thought we should probably resand and start over with the floor. On some recommendations I tried "Pro Shot Industrial Re-Newing Floor Restorer And Finish" and lo' - we are done. Glad we didn't go through the cost, effort, or dust of sanding. The floors look great. It was ridiculously easy to put on.
posted by cairnish at 9:18 AM on March 10, 2010 [7 favorites]

You may want to get a second opinion--maybe you can find a different contractor who thinks he can do it--but as has been said, yes, this is something that actually happens. You can only refinish wood so many times before there isn't enough left to do it again.
posted by valkyryn at 9:53 AM on March 10, 2010

As someone who's refinished floors, I'd do a test spot with the product that carinish recommends. I have floors that are actually splintery which will require sanding, but in other areas where the wood is just old and dull I am going to try this stuff. Worst case scenario you wasted eighteen bucks.
posted by 8dot3 at 10:57 AM on March 10, 2010

As selfmedicated suggests above, you can probably get away with just screening them. This will take off the existing finish but leave the wood intact. Based on your description of the wood, this is what I would recommend anyway. Also, I personally wouldn't replace 100 year old wood floors with modern wood floors unless the old wood was visibly rotting out from underneath my feet. Screen 'em, refinish 'em, and they will look great. This will add value to your house. Modern wood floors just aren't the same.
posted by spilon at 12:12 PM on March 10, 2010

Modern wood floors just aren't the same.

It's true. The factory finish on pre-finished modern wood floors is a lot more durable than field applied poly.

If refinishing or recoating doesn't work out, you can put new floors right over the old ones, usually.
posted by electroboy at 12:19 PM on March 10, 2010

I don't understand how sanding can open up gaps in the wood. It might be thinner, but the planks are still the same length and width.

I know it is possible, but you'd have to sand off something like 1/4 to 3/4 of an inch of wood to get down to a trouble-thickness. Are the dudes with the sanding machines really that reckless?

Wait, never mind. If the finish is dark and you want to lighten it, that *is* a lot of wood to remove to get it back to neutral.

See if they can strip the varnish off and then apply a wood bleaching agent to lighten the finish, and then apply a stain to bring the color back to what you want?

(Modern wood floors may not be the same, but it's usually the crap-poor workmanship or cheaping out on material. The same material, or at least similar, and a carefully done job of finishing, will look and feel just fine.)
posted by gjc at 5:30 PM on March 10, 2010

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