Wood floor refinishing woes
February 11, 2008 12:41 PM   Subscribe

Any wood floor refinishing experts in the house? I am in the midst of having the floors of a studio apartment refinished. And right now? I am not happy. Does the guy I hired know what he's doing?

The wood flooring area is small, about 162 sq ft. It's 4" plank white pine, probably original to this building which was built in the 20's. The floor was a light yellowish color (just poly over the wood), and that's what I wanted to keep. But there were large areas where the finish had been scraped off by a desk chair, and lots of paint and scratches from renovations. This is a rental, and the I am doing this at my own expense with the landlords' okay. The guy I hired has been in the biz for 20 years, and was recommended by a co-worker. Friday he sanded, and Saturday he put on a coat of poly.

But... it looks horrible. He told me over the phone that it had dried darker in some places because of the moisture content in the wood (my apartment is on the ground floor and directly over the basement). When I went to check it out today, it was worse than I expected. The floor is much darker and reddish in tone in the middle of the floor, and gets lighter toward the edges. And very uneven throughout. After discussing the options, the floor suggested that he try to darken the lighter areas with diluted stain, to at least get a more even coloration. I asked him about just going with a darker stain throughout, but he thinks that it will still be uneven.

So, at present, I am really bummed and not sure what to do. Does this guy really know what he's doing? Should I be calling someone else? Suggestions?
posted by kimdog to Home & Garden (29 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
odinsdream, according to the post there was no stain applied, just poly.
posted by loiseau at 12:59 PM on February 11, 2008

Response by poster: Right now there is no stain involved at all. He says he simply sanded and put down a coat of clear poly. You know how an old wood floor looks when you mop it... darker in the wet places and lighter where it's dry? That's what this looks like.

I haven't been there for any of the work. The apartment is empty and I'm moving in next week.
posted by kimdog at 1:02 PM on February 11, 2008

Response by poster: Oh... and certainly the floor didn't suggest anything... it was the floor guy who suggested trying to darken the lighter areas.
posted by kimdog at 1:05 PM on February 11, 2008

Well I am not an expert, sorry. But having done it a few times, there is not much he could be doing wrong unless he actually wetted down part of your floor. Or maybe did not remove all the old poly. It isn't a sharp demarcation, is it? One thing that *might* work would be to sand all the poly off and heat the apt, ideally with a dehumidifier going for a few days. I worry about staining some parts and not others as I would not think you could get a very smooth transition, but staining the whole thing will surely darken the whole thing and then you would have the same problem.
posted by d4nj450n at 1:20 PM on February 11, 2008

Response by poster: There isn't sharp demarcation... it just sort of mottled everywhere, with large areas being darker and the edges being lighter. Sigh.
posted by kimdog at 1:31 PM on February 11, 2008

What kind of time frame has this taken place in? I'd give it at least a week to thoroughly dry and harden completely. Maybe after then the darkened areas will lighten up.
posted by JJ86 at 1:34 PM on February 11, 2008

Response by poster: The poly was put on Saturday morning. I saw the floor today at 2:30.
posted by kimdog at 1:40 PM on February 11, 2008

I think that trying to fix it with stain is a total disaster waiting to happen. It's going to be impossible to get the color even. If the result of one coat of clear poly was mottled, how on earth would he get the stain to absorb evenly?

That said, we sanded and poly'd our soft-wood subfloors and didn't get an effect like you describe, so I don't know what on earth happened. The only room we have that has uneven coloration is the room where multiple kinds of wood were used.
posted by desuetude at 1:51 PM on February 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

It could also be due to uneven sanding, but I would think that someone who has been doing floors for this long would not do that. Did he have an inexperienced assistant doing the sanding?

I would think that if there were enough moisture to affect the finish that you might see cupping or other bowing of the boards, although that is just my guess from a general knowledge of woods, not from a specific knowledge of flooring.
posted by caddis at 2:32 PM on February 11, 2008

Best answer: oil based seal will soak into the wood and appear darker than an acrylic based seal. You might have had the acrylic (lighter) and he is using the oil based, which soaks into the wood more and makes it darker. Soaking in will also call out the imperfections more than an acrylic, which kind of lays on top. Since it already has a seal on it, putting a stain on top of that isn't going to do much and will probably make the floor look worse because the stain isn't going to be penetrating the wood, only laying on top of the existing layer of sealant.
posted by 45moore45 at 2:35 PM on February 11, 2008

In my experience, pine can absorb stain and poly unevenly. There's a type of preparation you can get that prepares pine so it's better behaved & more consistent (sorry, can't think of the name of it). It's something you put on after sanding and before the finish.

If the floor guy is suggesting stain, he must be suggesting sanding off the poly and then staining. I don't see how a stain (at least a normal wood stain) would get through the poly.
posted by PatoPata at 2:58 PM on February 11, 2008

Response by poster: He's done all the work himself. I was there when he started the sanding... he wanted to show me what the raw wood looked like, because at the time I was still deciding if I wanted a stain or not. And yes... he is sanding the lighter areas to apply the stain.

I think I've decided that if it still looks horrible tomorrow (and I can't imagine it will look that much better no matter what he's doing), I will ask him to sand it back down to the wood, and go with another better known company.
posted by kimdog at 3:08 PM on February 11, 2008

Did he use a water-based polyurethane? Even though you wanted a natural color, did he use a wood sealer before putting the poly down? Norm on New Yankee Workshop very often puts something like this down.

What color was the floor after the sanding? How dark is the floor now in comparison?

I am guessing that the previous finish either wasn't completely removed, and/or that there was an oil based finish down there before, and because of that the poly (especially if it's water based) didn't soak in properly.

Something like this is probably a necessity in old wood.
posted by gjc at 3:44 PM on February 11, 2008

Could be that the floor was sun bleached, he sanded more on the interior cutting through to "clean" pine, less on the edges, leaving still "bleached" wood which is lighter, even if stained.
posted by Max Power at 4:02 PM on February 11, 2008

posted by notyou at 4:36 PM on February 11, 2008

can't say for certain because my floors are maple, but i had that sort of "uneven" look, whereas the center of the floor was noticeably darker than around the edges. i was told this was unavoidable, because of the age (circa 1913) and condition of the floor. the contractor was super good about telling me this upfront, to avoid the heartache/buyer's remorse that would surely follow. in the end, it wasn't as bad as predicted, but still rather noticeable. once a nice vintage rug and furniture were placed in the room, the uneven color wasn't an issue.

i'd say unless the contractor is a complete and utter idiot, don't switch "midstream" as often other contractors don't like to come in and have to deal with someone else's work. he should have perhaps been a little more direct about what it would look like (pine is a soft wood) and could have been more persuasive about how light stain would have helped.

good luck and hope it turns out so that you can enjoy nice looking floors!
posted by kuppajava at 4:46 PM on February 11, 2008

Response by poster: gjc- I have no idea what type of poly he used. I'll ask tomorrow. The floor after sanding (or at least the swath that he showed me) was nearly white, maybe a light off white grey. That's when we told me that the original finish was just poly over the wood... no stain involved, and that's what I decided to stick with. After he put the poly on, the lightest areas of the floor are a shade or two darker than it was originally, and the middle of the floor is several shades darker than that... comparable to red oak.

not you- I'll take pics tomorrow

kuppajava- he seemed pretty surprised by this as well... he never mentioned the age as an issue. My boyfriend (who lived in the apartment before me) had the floor refinished 10 years ago, with a perfectly acceptable outcome. In that refinish, grey boat paint was sanded off the floors, and the poly added.

Thanks for the advice everyone. I am taking my boyfriend with me tomorrow for moral support and a second opinion. I'll update with pics and any new info.
posted by kimdog at 6:12 PM on February 11, 2008

Pine is like a sponge and obviously is very soft. Too much sanding to even out the rough spots may leave you with some areas where some wood is fresher than others. Those areas will absorb more poly. Areas along the edges where he didn't sand as deep will not absorb the poly as much. PatoPata mentioned using a Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner such as that made by Minwax is a great idea and should prevent this problem.
posted by JJ86 at 7:09 AM on February 12, 2008

Response by poster: Update with pictures:

Comparison between what it looked liked to start with (although in worse shape) and what it looks like now:

Pic 2
pic 3 (this is the doorway as you come in)

These pictures are after he has tried to even out the lighter areas with stain. Just to reiterate, the darkest areas have no stain, only a coat of poly. It looks horrible, and he managed to get stain on my newly painted walls. At this point, I've asked him to sand it back down to the wood, which he wasn't happy about, but is going to do tomorrow morning.

So what to do next? Dare I try to find someone else? I called one of the big companies in NYC, who said real professionals wouldn't do the job for less than $1500. Which is way the fuck out of my price range. Can anyone recommend someone else who might be able to handle this job for ~$500?

How crazy is it to try to do this myself... sealing with the Minwax product and applying an acrylic based poly? My boyfriend says I'm insane, but I am really running out of options. I would try a sample area first.
posted by kimdog at 1:40 PM on February 12, 2008

Just so you are clear, the Minwax sealer is applied to bare wood, thus you would need to resand the floors prior to application.
posted by caddis at 2:03 PM on February 12, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks caddis... I just figured this out myself as I was reading up on the product. Man. This sucks.
posted by kimdog at 2:15 PM on February 12, 2008

That guy did a TERRIBLE job of sanding. That white around the edges is where the original finish didn't come up. And that's really dark. I would be shocked if the poly he used was really clear. It really looks like he used something more like this. You can see where there a couple of splashes up against the baseboard in newfloor08. Clear poly wouldn't do that. Looks like "Natural Cherry".

Hopefully you can get him to redo it. Good luck!
posted by gjc at 2:37 PM on February 12, 2008

Response by poster: gjc... the splashes that you are seeing are the diluted stain that he used to tried to even out the light places on the floor.

I've given him the option of just walking away from this mess, and not getting the balance of the what I owe him, or sanding it back down to the wood, and I'll find someone else to finish. Although I am nervous about letting him do anything else.
posted by kimdog at 3:35 PM on February 12, 2008

That guy did a TERRIBLE job of sanding. That white around the edges is where the original finish didn't come up. And that's really dark. I would be shocked if the poly he used was really clear. It really looks like he used something more like this. You can see where there a couple of splashes up against the baseboard in newfloor08. Clear poly wouldn't do that. Looks like "Natural Cherry".

All this, seconded. Possibly a former inhabitant used some sort of more penetrating sealant at some point that would've taken more sanding to get through (but was worn off in the higher-traffic middle of the floor.)

The poly when wet does look darker...but not THAT much darker and a completely different color.

Bizarre. This guy is crazy. Sorry.
posted by desuetude at 8:20 PM on February 12, 2008

Agreeing with previous posters who suspect he used a stain, not clear poly. I think he must have used a mixed stain/poly product like the one gjc linked to, or he wouldn't have been able to apply another coat on the lighter areas. Are you sure he understood that you originally wanted no stain, just clear poly? Did he give you a written bid that specified the type of finish? Will he show you the can he used?

If he completely ignored your wishes, you should be able to get at least some money back. I don't think I would have him re-sand because his original sanding job seems uneven. I would try to get money back and get him out of there. There must be a consumer protection-type agency you can talk to about problems with contractors. Since you have to completely re-sand, you should be able to get a good chunk of your money back if there's some sort of written proof that you said "clear" and he screwed up.

If it helps any, I'm a woman and I refinished my own kitchen floor. It was maple and was probably a little less risky to sand than a softwood like pine, but I still would consider doing a pine floor myself. It wasn't physically hard. The hardest part was getting the belt sander in the building (the thing weighed a lot). I've heard the newer machines are easier to wrestle into the house.

I had no trouble controlling the sander and was happy with the finish I got from a water-based poly. I'm a handy type, however, and I was working on my own house.
posted by PatoPata at 8:58 PM on February 12, 2008

At this point you may want to consider cutting your losses and painting the floor.
posted by JJ86 at 5:48 AM on February 13, 2008

Oh, for pete's sake, don't paint the floor (and hey, with uneven leftover poly, that would also look like crap. You have to sand before you paint.)

We sanded our pine floors with a sander rented from Home Depot and poly'd them ourselves too. It'll be a little nerve-wracking, but seriously, it's not rocket science. My SO did the sanding, I was really nervous that it was something that should be done by a pro, but aside from the pain-in-the-ass factor (sawdust!) it was really not as big of a production as I thought it would be.

Get as much of your money back from this guy as you can.
posted by desuetude at 6:57 AM on February 13, 2008

Response by poster: PatoPata- I was very clear about what I wanted, and I am certain he understood. There was no language barrier. He's the one that told me there was no stain on the floor, and that the clear poly would give me the same finish/color as we started with.

Happily, I only gave him a deposit of $200 to start the job, so I'm not out all that much. I've left a couple of messages, but haven't heard from him, so I think that's the last I'll see of him.

I've got a highly recommended guy coming out today or tomorrow to see what can be done.

Thanks, all for the advice! I'll let you know how it turns out.
posted by kimdog at 10:43 AM on February 13, 2008

Response by poster: Update: The floors have been rescued! All thanks to Vincent Devaney who I found through Apartment Therapy. The floors look great, just as I had originally envisioned. And the price was less that I thought it would be. He confirmed that the first guy used oil-based poly instead of water, which probably caused most of the problem. Thanks for the moral support, everyone.
posted by kimdog at 5:23 AM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

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