Hardwood floors: can an amateur do a decent job refinishing?
October 10, 2012 10:59 AM   Subscribe

I need some advice about refinishing hardwood floors. Is this something I can do on my own? I've done plenty of research but I want to try and collect input from DIYers with actual experience.

I recently bought a house. It was kind of a surprise opportunity, but now I find myself with a nice little place (1940's construction in good repair, double-layer brick, Florida) that I need to put some work into before my girlfriend and I can move in.

The house has oak hardwood floors that were covered in carpet for at least 15-20 years. We thought they looked to be in pretty good repair. Upon pulling up all the old carpet, they were revealed to need more work than we thought. Some termite damage that will need to be filled, some dark staining, etc.

I got a couple quotes for having them refinished. One guy was a high-level craftsman who gave me a lot of noise about working on multi-million dollar homes and being so busy that he can barely fit me in next week, or failing that next year. He wanted $5000 for the job, which given the sq. footage of the house seems exorbitant. The other guy seemed like he knew what he was talking about, but I don't know who he'll actually have crewing on the job and I haven't seen any examples of his work. He wanted $2250.

We had considered trying to refinish them ourselves before we saw the extent of the job we had ahead of us, but being unimpressed with the professionals I've spoken to has put that option back on the table. I have a lot of DIY experience (minor construction projects and plumbing, minor woodworking, etc.) but this is the first house I've owned and while I've worked with wood and sanders a lot, these would be the first floors I worked on. The question is half about saving money but half about assuring that we can have nice-looking floors after this.

We're not moved into the house yet. Is it realistic for me (with help) to try to refinish these floors myself? How difficult is it, really? Sanding, filling small holes, staining, sealing, refinishing? Can an amateur actually do fairly good work at a job like this? And if so: does anybody have advice on how I should go about it? Or a set of full, precise instructions they can direct me to?

Assume I've done enough basic reading to know the major steps involved. And please feel free to ask me any questions if more information is needed. I've read this thread, and if responding to the questions in the first answer would help, I'd be happy to do it.
posted by penduluum to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This is a LOT of work, a ton actually and it requires special tools.

Moving is enough of a stress, you really don't want to add this level of a DIY project to it.

I had a handyman do some planks in my closet and it took forever and was frustrating to watch as he didn't really know much more than you do, he was game to try though. (I'll rue that day for quite some time.)

I'd get some more quotes and go with the one you're comfortable with.

Also, you'll need a few days to dry the multiple coats of stain and poly, so be sure to account for that. The sanding will take a day, and they may get the stain down on the same day. Then a day for each coat of poly after that.

You don't want undocumented workers in your house if you can avoid it because you're liable if anything happens to them on your property. Ask for proof of insurance.

Ask for references and get EVERYTHING in writing. These are the kinds of people you want working on your house, not the loosy-goosy "verbal agreement".

Wood floors in Florida are tricky, the humidity is a bitch and a true professional will know how to deal with it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:16 AM on October 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

I am usually an enthusiastic DIYer, but this is one of the jobs I'd leave for the pros. At least the sanding part. The potential of having ruining a floor by letting the sander sit to long and having dust everywhere is enough for me. I'm willing to give most thing a try, but defects in a floor and noticeable and often hard to fix. Plus a nice floor looks great.
posted by burlsube at 11:16 AM on October 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

I have to say, "No". Don't do this yourself.

You should shop around a bit. My experience was that there was a range of prices offered. The guy I did not pick, because he was too much, bragged about how smooth and even the floors would be when he was done. The guy I chose was available that week. In retrospect, and having lived with these floors for 15 years, I perhaps should have gone with the more expensive guy. Don't rush the job.

Experience counts for a lot in this task, I believe. Get references, and ask if you can see a job that they have recently finished. Talk to a few of their clients to see what kind of job they did.

See about getting used flooring to patch the bad spots, rather than filling the holes. A good flooring job is a pleasure to live with for years. If you do this job yourself, you may find that your eyes are drawn to that spot where you could have done a better job.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 11:24 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I refinished all of my wood floors myself with a Varathane rotary head sander. I rented it from Lowes. My floors were in very bad shape and turned out really nice. There's tons of reference material online on how to do this properly. It was pretty easy. Don't use a drum sander, those can be pretty difficult to control, from what I have heard, and can produce some pretty bad grooves. It took me quite a while to do it, like 6 hours per room, as I went over and over and over it to get super nice results.
posted by waving at 11:30 AM on October 10, 2012 [6 favorites]

Yes, you can do it.

I'm not DIY inclined, but sanding is not really that difficult.

We purchased a house back in March and over the summer we found some finished hardwood floors under the kitchen tiles. They had black carpet glue all over them (indicating to us that there was carpet in the kitchen before there were tiles), and the glue would not come off easily. Just like you, we didn't want to pay several thousand dollars for just a 10x10 sq ft area of space. So, we rented a floor sander from Home Depot for about $90 for 24 hours, purchased 3 different grains of sand paper for the sander, then went home and sanded.

I'm assuming the people who posted above haven't sanded floors before because it was very easy to sand. All we had to do was keep the sander moving, and little by little, the top layer of the floor scraped away, leaving unfinished wood behind. We started with the courser sand paper and made a couple of run throughs, and gradually made our way to the finer sand paper.

It's very difficult to mess up sanding floors. I mean, you would literally have to keep the sander engaged on the floor and turned on, and leave it on a single spot for 5 minutes. This would essentially make a groove on your floors.

I highly suggest watching some youtube videos on floor sanding. They are very informative!

There are a couple of things to watch out for:
1) Don't keep the sander in the same spot for too long when it's on.
2) Nail in any nails that are protruding above the surface level. Even the tinyist pin sticking out of the floor will mess up the sand paper on the sander. We had to inspect the floor for protruding nails after every passthrough with the sander.
3) Wear clean shoes when sanding! Unfinished wood is highly susceptible to staining, so do your best to keep the work area clean.

We haven't started adding the wood finish yet, but we want the finish to match the rest of the hardwood floors in the house, so we plan to do test spots first.

Good luck!
posted by nikkorizz at 11:32 AM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yes an amateur with some good solid DIY skills can do it. Study lots of information before you start, read up on all that can go wrong, and start in an area no one will see until you get the hang of it.

You can hire all the equipment you need. It is boring and physically hard work but very satisfying. I've had family do it, my brother is very DIY competent though. He built his own bed (with carved/turned posts) and dining room table and pergola. he also makes made to measure reptile houses as a hobby that are beautifully finished pieces of furniture and sell for big bucks, to give you an idea of his skill level.

The part they bitched about the most was getting the nail heads all down so you don't rip the sanding belts as they are expensive and staining/sealing the floor in a house with 2 kids and 3 large hairy dogs. Keep the sander moving and get one with a vac attachment to try and control some of the dust. It's not really hard just physical, dusty and can go wrong quickly. You will not get a super professional finish, but you can get a very nice one so I guess it depends on what you can live with and you know your skill levels better than we do.
posted by wwax at 11:34 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've done this, and so can you, especially if you aren't living there yet. Rent the sander. Lowes or Home Depot or your local lumber yard.

Have you had the house tented? Do that before you do anything else!
posted by mareli at 11:36 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

FYI, the sander that we rented at Home Depot had a bagger to catch all the sand dust. Sure, some dust escaped, but for the most part it was contained in the bagger.
posted by nikkorizz at 11:37 AM on October 10, 2012

I've done this too - it is a big, time-consuming, messy (saw-dusty) job, but it is totally feasible. If you have the time to put into it, there's no reason not to go for it.

We rented an orbital sander, which has 4 disks on the bottom. It is much more manageable than the older 1-giant-disk-style sanders: you don't run the same risk of gouging the floor or losing control.

Also, we used a whey-based polyurethane (Vermont Natural Coatings Polywhey) instead of an oil-based one. It is a bit more expensive, but just as durable, plus it radically diminishes drying time and is virtually odorless. Each coat was dry to the touch in an hour, and we could move our furniture in two days later (probably could have moved in the next day actually, but we were being cautious).
posted by marlys at 11:51 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

My intrepid business partner tried this as a newlywed, and somehow during the stripping phase managed to set her floors on fire!

The damage was extensive but superficial, and the very experienced (and paternal) floor man she hired came in, flipped them over, and they came out beautiful anyway.

I think you should hire the best person you can get who specializes in non-toxic, water-based, low VOC finishes, because I know three people who had their floors refinished and were never able to live in their houses again.
posted by jamjam at 11:52 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Moving is stressful enough without being under the gun to have the floors done by yourself.

I would hire someone, and I'd also avoid anyone who is hassling you to make a commitment RIGHT NOW (i.e. person #1).
posted by carter at 12:13 PM on October 10, 2012

I'll chime in with a contrary opinion. Our 1940s bungalow has oak hardwoods as well which needed a sand and re-finish job before we could move in. Rented the large and detail floor sanders, did the sanding ourselves - not too hard at all.

LOTS of dust and clean up.

Then applied a water based sealant that has withstood the dogs claws for years now.
Total cost under $1k for 800 sq ft of floors
Go for it.
posted by BrooksCooper at 12:32 PM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I refinished my hardwoods myself and its time consuming. I too used an orbital sander and edger and then used polyurethane with stain. If I was ever to do it again I'd contract it out, it usually costs about $1.25-1.50/ sq ft if you hire someone. Totally worth it if simply for the fact that they clean up the horrid amounts of dust.
posted by julie_of_the_jungle at 1:00 PM on October 10, 2012

I installed and refinished hardwood floors for over a year after college. This is a job I would contract out if I were you. There is a lot of heavy equipment involved, a lot of hard labor, a huge mess to control, and a lot of potential for making very visible errors.

First, there is an insane amount of prep work even before you start sanding. The dust you will create is incredibly invasive. If there is any trim along the baseboard then this needs to go, because it *will* get massively abused. Every single opening has to be sealed with plastic sheeting / painter's tape - vents, light sockets, you name it. Every sander I used had a bagger, and the dust still somehow winds up invading everything.

Then comes the sanding. You attack the wide open spaces with a ginormous belt sander (which will take two people to move and which will have to be plugged in to a 220V outlet). You will make a least three passes, using different grades of sandpaper, praying that you don't linger too long in any one area and leave gouges in the floor. Then comes the edge sanding, another machine you will need to rent. Floor sanding edgers are tough to operate - they want to jump out of your grasp, you are working in an uncomfortable bent-over position, and they can very easily leave ugly swirl marks that don't look like much when you're sanding but that really stand out once you apply finish. I've never used the 4-disc orbitals referred to above; maybe that's an easier route. For the corners where neither belt sander nor edge sander can reach, you're working on your hands and knees with a hand scraper to conform the corners to the rest of the room. If you are doing rooms with irregular shapes, hallways, closets, etc., then the headache/backache is amplified.

Then comes the finish. Again, a very easy way to make highly visible errors, in that its easy to inadvertently leave streaks or pools of finish. Applying even finish is one of those things like making meringue - it really, really helps to have abundant experience to get the feel of the product and how it behaves, how quickly it dries, etc.

I started the job with a lot of experience handling tools but I felt that the skillset for doing floors took a while to acquire. YMMV.
posted by chicxulub at 1:58 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can do it, sure, it's not rocket science. You have to get a feel for the equipment and be careful, as has been stated above, to keep the sander moving. I agree with chicxulub that the biggest gouging risk comes with the edger, which is a beast that requires manhandling into submission. With oak you'll have a lesser risk of gouging than with a softer floor like pine.

Having sanded and helped DIYer friends sand more floors than I care to think about, I'd say the biggest reason to get a professional is to avoid some seriously time-consuming, filthy, sweaty work. Unless you're a perfectionist, you should be able to get a satisfactory result doing it yourself; it's just that it is a labor-intensive project. You mention that you would have help, and I think that's really important. Sanding and refinishing all by yourself is demoralizingly tough.

If you decide to go ahead and do it yourself, don't sweat the imperfections in your work. The finished product is really rewarding, and generally once you get rugs and furniture in there, inconsistencies here and there in the floor are not noticeable.
posted by torticat at 5:43 AM on October 11, 2012

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