Hardwood floors
December 13, 2003 10:49 PM   Subscribe

Anyone know anything about refinishing hardwood floors? I discovered really nice hardwood under the ugly tile that covers the floors of my house, but there's a few areas where spills seeped through, and the wood has bleached out. [more inside]

The tile floors were glued to a plywood subfloor which in turn had been nailed to the hardwood floors underneath. The bleached-out areas have black splotches where the a few nails leached iron into the wood, which I imagine I'm gonna have to just live with.

At any rate, I'd like to blend the bleached areas back in with the rest of the floor. I've also heard people talk about polyurethane and seen it in the stores, but wondered if there are any tricks.

I have plenty of time, am reasonably handy, and am bloke, else I'd hire someone to do it. Thanks!
posted by notsnot to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What you'll want to do is to sand it down, typically with a tool that's made to do it (big drum sander called, interestingly enough, a floor sander), and then re-stain it a darker color probably to help blend/match the iron stains, and then polyurethane it.
posted by SpecialK at 12:03 AM on December 14, 2003

There are some new floor sanders out that use 4 orbital sanders instead of the old fashioned giant belt. I hear the typical belt floor sanders are kind of a pain to use because you have to be careful not to leave it in any one place too long, and you have to cover the entire floor as evenly as possible. Also, you can't quite get to the edges.

The orbitals can go very close to edges and leave a lot more room for error. Oh and putting new sanding pads on is easy, since they use standard velcro orbit sander discs.
posted by mathowie at 12:10 AM on December 14, 2003

I'd through in my $.02 but see that I would have nothing to add — so far. Have any photos? (If you've no place to post photos, just email them to me.)
posted by Dick Paris at 3:58 AM on December 14, 2003

Like others have said, your likely going darker with your finish. Depending on how deeply the discoloration has penetrated it's unlikely your going to be able to entirely sand it out. There are some lightening products similar to bleach that may lighten the entire surface allowing you to go a few shades lighter with your finish color, but these aren't the most consistent products around. Do not use regular bleach, it raises the grain on the wood and breaks down the cellulose making your final sanding much more difficult.

Also, before taking a sander to the floor you'll want to get a look at a cross-section -- this will give you an idea of how much you can safely take off. You don't know how many times these floors have been sanded in the past and eventually you run out of wood. A common problem is people trying to do too much at one time, you'll be sanding the floors several (exactly how many depends on what you intend to finish them with) times with successively finer grits of paper. Make sure to get the edger too, you wouldn't be the first person to figure it's just the edge and you can save a few bucks doing it by hand -- believe me, you won't save enough to justify the damage to your knees and it takes about twenty times longer than you would anticipate.

Floor sanding, though not exactly rocket science, takes a little bit of practice to get the hang of. If your doing the whole house start in the guest bedroom and don't 'practice' smack in the middle of the living room. Wear a real respirator too, depending on the age there is no way of knowing what kind of crap is in/on that flooring -- you may look a little silly but your lungs will thank you.

As far as poly goes the only advice I would give is to follow the manufacturers instructions explicitly. There are many different kinds and they all have different requirements -- generally speaking more is better but only applied in sucessive thin coats. Drying time between coats is essential. There are several non-toxic varieties available if anyone in the area is overly sensitive to chemicals and odor -- however, when it comes to paint related products I'm old school and you can't convince me it's any good if it doesn't stink.

If your doing the entire house this is a major project that your going to live with for many years that can reap real benefits if you decide to sell, don't skimp on it. There isn't much more visible in your home than the floors. Refinishing the floors in an entire house is not something you, a case of beer and a few buddies are going to do in a weekend. Get some professional advice, it's not entirely ethical but you can learn a great deal soliciting estimates from contractors and asking the right questions. As far as finish products go, a knowledgeable clerk in a real store (not Home Depot) can do wonders.
posted by cedar at 6:16 AM on December 14, 2003

What SpecialK and matt said, but it is quite a job. My husband and I did a really small apartment this way, and were totally exhausted by the effort. Having done that, I would always hire a professional if I could afford it, but failing this you may want to do it in stages if you have a biggish place. The hardest thing for me was getting rid of all dust and tiny debris (hairs, etc.) in order to get the smoothest possible finish at the polyurethane point. And corners. Corners suck.
posted by taz at 6:25 AM on December 14, 2003

Oh, I might add that in this same apartment we took down an entire wall by hand, and the physical effort involved in this, the amount of stuff you have to drag out, and the astonishing amount of dust (pounds and pounds of it) was overwhelming. In addition to this, my husband hand-pieced the part of the zig-zaggy wood parquet floor that was denuded by taking down the wall, and since the floor had been installed so much earlier, the size of the pieces we needed were no longer even available, so he had to modify every single parquet piece he used to create the patch.

After all this, it still seems to both of us that the refinishing the floors part was the worst!
posted by taz at 6:46 AM on December 14, 2003

um - also what cedar said. Missed it before...
posted by taz at 6:47 AM on December 14, 2003

Response by poster: May I just say that Ask Metafilter kicks ass?
Let's see, what I've learned: I'll need a darker stain for the bleached part, corners suck, use an orbital sander, buy some kneepads and dig out the gas mask.

I've got about 600 square feet to do in the first stage (the parts of the house that were under tile--the rest is under carpet which I'm leaving down until I get the walls redone). I'm not too concerned about corners, because I can pull up the baseboards (I'd just installed the baseboards when I decided to see what was under the tile). Is it considered gauche (or dumb) to just do the corners by hand with sandpaper? I don't think the floor has been refinished much - the tile had been down at the latest since the 60's, and the house is from '31.

Thanks so much for all your advice!
posted by notsnot at 8:30 AM on December 14, 2003

having done this myself (although it was pine, not, hardwood), i'd say that the big orbital sanders matt mentions sound good (the belt sander is pretty easy to use, but you're going to take a few "valleys" out of your floor before you're used to it, and they don't get clse to the edges, which means a lot of hard work with a hand-held orbital sander) (by hand will take you forever, especially if you're trying to remove old grime and varnish).

i'm not sure why people are advocating staining the floor, though. we had old pine and it had gone golden with age - a standard polyurethane varnish looked great. yes, there was lots of variation (including some almost-green new boards that i put down to replace the worst of the woodworm damage), but that's wood. what's the point of making it look like a uniform piece of woodgrain-printed plastic?

the only thing i'd do differently, if i did things again, is replacing a bit more of the damaged wood. in some places i used filler, and that doesn't look very good.

also, put lots of coats of varnish on, sanding between applications. and wear gloves - i ended up with blistered hands from too much contact with the varnish.

oh, and check what your skirting boards do. they might have been added on top of whatever flooring you're removing, so you'll have a gap between floor and skirting board. you might want to move the skirting board down; i suspect there's a risk of damaging the plaster on the walls.
posted by andrew cooke at 9:17 AM on December 14, 2003

Response by poster: Andrew, the talk about stain stems from the parts of my floor that got bleached. I practiced using some "natural" stain on a closet, and it really brings out the grain beautifully. I think I'm gonna go try one or two shades darker on the bleached part, and see how well it blends.

My baseboards (I have a 1x4 with a 1/4-round cutout against the wall, and a 3/4" quarter round in front of that) *do* cover up gaps - gaps from both construction and settling.

Ok, here's another question: flooring is made of tongue-and groove, right? Right. How does one remove/replace just one board? Along one wall there's a thick block of wood filler where a board apparently rotted out. How the *hell* would I get another board in there? (it's mostly covered by the baseboards, so I may leave it alone right now.)
posted by notsnot at 12:06 PM on December 14, 2003

"Ok, here's another question: flooring is made of tongue-and groove, right? Right. How does one remove/replace just one board?"

If it's tongue and groove (likely) you'll have to plunge cut the bad section to isolate it and then pry it out. Try and cut it centered on the joists for support -- if you can hit the joists you'll be able to nail the ends of your replacement board (sink the nails so they are recessed, and fill them with some putty mixed with your stain to hide them).

Then remove the bottom part of the groove from your replacement board (a chisel or utility knife should do fine, it splits easily and will be hidden) and you should be able to wedge the tongue into the adjoining board and beat it into place.

Some adhesive in addition to the nails may help prevent squeaks in the future.
posted by cedar at 12:18 PM on December 14, 2003

Response by poster: Cedar - Thanks, I knew there had to be a trick (kcocking off the bottom of the groove).

Ok, so I've started sanding, using my trusty 5" orbital and 100-grit paper. I plan on applying a "natural" finish - with a slightly darker finish in the bleached part. After the finish, I'm gonna slap a couple coats of polyurethane as a protection. Unfortunately, some of the high spots (the house has shifted over the years, enough that the first thing I did when I bought the place was foundation piering) sanded down a *lot* lighter than the surrounding. Not as light as the bleached area, but...Should I just plan to put an extra coat of finish to darken it up, or is this likely something only *I* will notice once it's done?
posted by notsnot at 2:16 PM on December 14, 2003

I'm not liking this plan.

You want your finish coat to be uniform, wood has grain so is going to bleed into adjacent areas and your probably not going to like the results. I would try and stain to be consistent or leave the darker places alone and call it 'distressed'.

Part of the problem is using a small orbital sander. Floor sanders are intended to cover larger areas and will knock off the high spots fairing the floor as you go. With a five inch sander all your doing is making the lows lower. You cannot spot sand a floor -- it's an all or nothing proposition.
posted by cedar at 2:54 PM on December 14, 2003

The orbital floor sanders are new, I just saw them for the first time a couple months ago, but the shows (This Old House, etc) seem to be raving about them.

Here's a review of them on a site dedicated to this stuff.
posted by mathowie at 3:16 PM on December 14, 2003

cedar is spot-on with regard to using an orbital sander - you will make the situation worse rather than better and will end up spending way more on sandpaper than the cost of hiring a proper sander. Refinishing your floors is a major exercise and the #1 rule is that you must have the proper equipment to do the job. With an old floor, you most likely have two choices in finish - either sand enough to make it smooth and learn to like the "distressed" look or stain the whole thing dark enough to cover the worst of the dark patches. Be warned though - the stain will also darken the dark areas and it is almost impossible to get a consistent colour with stain as it changes the existing wood colour the same amount everywhere. Trying to spot stain to even out the colour is an unbelievably tricky job that is best left to professionals.

If you want a nice finish, a drum sander is the way to go (either a proper floor sander or a hand-held one) as orbital sanders with coarse paper (anything lower than about 120) will leave circular marks that are impossible to get rid of and, should you stain the floor, will show up like dog's balls after you apply the finish.

If you use a drum sander, try attaching a vacuum cleaner to the dust collection outlet instead of using the bag (duct tape rules!). This will cut down the amount of dust you need to clean up manually by a huge amount.
posted by dg at 3:32 PM on December 14, 2003

you can get special (hand) saws for cutting through floorboards. they are stubby, with a curved nose that has teeth. the curved nose lets you start cutting by "scratching" the board. the short length stops you bashing through into the ceiling below.

also, of course, if you're replacing a rotten board, then a hammer-blow in the right place can provide an entry point.

my house was so old (or cheap?!) that it wasn't tounge and grooved, but i don't think that causes any additional problems (apart from more sawing). you'd have to remove the tongue from any replacement boards, of course.

ditto dg's comments on stains and circular sanders. i've had problems with stains and hand-held orbital sanders, when the finish looked (and felt) very good before staining (luckily, it didn't matter - i ended up with a rather industrial looking frame for a rather industrial looking painting!).
posted by andrew cooke at 2:48 AM on December 15, 2003

cedar is spot-on with regard to using an orbital sander - you will make the situation worse rather than better and will end up spending way more on sandpaper than the cost of hiring a proper sander.

Actually, that is not entirely true. With the right size room and the right sander, it can be done. I did it myself and, while I lacked the power of what a large belt sander gives with regard to a flatter surface, I "saved" the wood in many areas by not being so aggressive.

The right sander, in this case was a very well made and powerful Rotex by Festool.

I did four small rooms -- the entire surface twice. I do not remember the total time for the job but it was fairly speedy (especially with tunes under my hearing protection muffs) and allowed us to keep using the adjacent rooms without renting a sander each time or keeping it over a long period.

The Rotex with a vacuum has the additional advantage of being 99.9% dust free. (I sound like a commercial.)

Being an architect, I still would have liked to see pictures before giving any advice. But that's just me. Good work people!
posted by Dick Paris at 9:13 AM on December 15, 2003

« Older Can you help me find an online writer's group for...   |   I ran to Iran, should my boyfriend be my cousin? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.