You thought you hit the housing jackpot when you pulled up the carpets in your home and discovered hardwood underneath. The thing is, now that the carpet’s gone, those hardwood floors don’t look so hot. Restoring hardwood floors can be a do-it-yourself project. Here’s everything you need to know about how to sand and refinish hardwood floors.

Before You Begin: Know Your Floor Type

Not all hardwood floors are the same. In fact, a variety of different types of wood are used to make flooring. Along with varying types of wood, floors differ regarding whether they are stained and finished on site or pre-finished before installation.

Also, some “hardwood” floors aren’t entirely made of wood. The varieties out there include:

  • Laminate. Laminate floors aren’t made of wood at all but are styled to look as though they are. You can’t sand or refinish them.
  • Engineered Wood. Engineered wood floors feature real hardwood attached to plywood. They’re often used in areas that see a lot of humidity but aren’t as durable as hardwood and can’t be refinished and sanded over and over.
  • Solid Hardwood. Solid hardwood floors are entirely made of wood. The boards usually range from 5/8 to 3/4 inch in thickness. You can sand and refinish them over and over, depending on the amount of wear and tear they get.

Solid and engineered wood floors also vary based on the type, or species, of wood they are made from. Some types of “hardwood” floors are made from species that aren’t particularly hard. Some aren’t even made of wood! Here are a few of the most common wood species:

  • Pine
  • Oak
  • Maple
  • Cherry
  • Walnut
  • Ash
  • Bamboo (not really wood)

Pine and oak floors tend to be on the softer side and might be easier to finish. Maple and walnut floors tend to be harder and might require more elbow grease when you’re restoring hardwood floors.

Should You Refinish and Restore Hardwood Floors?

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The million dollar question: Are you ready and able to restore your home’s hardwood floors? Refinishing and sanding wood floors is sometimes promoted as an easy enough DIY project.

But it’s not for everyone. If you don’t sand the floor just so and don’t apply the stain and finish correctly, you can end up with a real mess on your hands. A mess that ends up lowering the value of your house or that means you have to shell out more to hire a pro to fix up your mistakes.

One thing to consider is whether you’re strong enough to use the sander to polish the floor, removing stains and prepping it for the finish. Sanders can be pretty heavy — more than 100 pounds in some cases. If you don’t think you’d be able to control a 100-pound monster, refinishing hardwood floors might not be the task for you.

Another thing to consider is your experience with DIY projects. If you’ve never so much as picked up a hammer, starting with the floors might not be the way to go. Instead, choose smaller DIY projects first. As you gain more confidence in your abilities and more confidence using power tools, you can work your way up to refinishing your home’s floors.

Choose Your Sander

If you do feel confident enough to go ahead and are ready to learn how to sand a hardwood floor, the first step is choosing your sander.

Most likely, you’ll need two sanders — one for the edges of the floor (where it meets the walls) and one for the rest of the floors. The sander you’ll use for the floor edges is often, appropriately, known as an edger.

When it comes to main floor sanders, you have two choices for heavy-duty sanding jobs (meaning you’ll be removing the sealant, stain and a layer of wood from the floor). Option one is a drum sander.

Drum sanders are big and bulky but work quickly. When using a drum sander, you need to make sure to start moving before you switch it on, to avoid gouging the floor. You also want to be to keep moving while it’s on, or else it can sand too deeply.

Some, such as Bob Vila, recommend that DIY-ers use an orbital sander when refinishing their floors. Orbital sanders operate much more slowly than the heavy-duty drum sanders. That means it will take you longer to use them, but also drastically reduces the likelihood that you’ll sand away too much of your floor.

Cleaning the Floors

As you might guess, sanding a hardwood floor makes a mess. Before you move forward with your refinishing project, you’ll want to clean up any dust and debris created by the sanding process.

This Old House recommends that you leave the room for up to 15 minutes after sanding. Vacating the premises will give the dust time to settle down, making it a lot easier to clean up.

After 15 minutes, vacuum the floor. Run the vacuum over the floorboards parallel to the lines between them first. Then, run the vacuum perpendicular to the lines between the boards, so that you can get any dust that might have fallen between them.

Finish up by running a microfiber mop over the boards, collecting up any lingering dust.

Staining the Floors

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Staining a hardwood floor is optional, but you might want to do it if you aren’t happy with the current color of the wood. Before you begin, it’s important to understand that staining can be challenging and there’s a lot of room for error.

For example, you want to be careful not to apply too many coats of the stain or else you’ll end up with an uneven color, with some areas of the floor darker than others. Applying too much stain can cause tiny air bubbles to form. You also want to avoid using circular motions, for the same reason.

To get started, pour a bit of stain into a paint tray. Beginning in the furthest corner of the room (away from the door), dip a cloth rag or lambswool applicator designed just for floors into the stain.

Place the rag or lambswool on the floor, near the corner of the room, then glide it along the floor, following the grain of the wood. Work your way from the side of the room further from the door to the door, following the grain of the wood. As you work, run a towel or rag over the stained areas of the floor, to soak any excess stain.

You don’t want to go over areas you’ve already coated or let the rag or wool sit or rest on the floor in any one area for too long. Once you’ve coated the entire floor, let it dry for a few hours or overnight, as directed on the stain’s label.

When it’s dried, you can either move onto the next step or apply another coat, depending on how happy you are with the color.

Sealing the Floors

Once the floor is dried and you like the color, you can move on to sealing it with polyurethane. Before you seal the floor, it’s a good idea to run a vacuum or microfiber mop over its surface, to remove any lingering dust. You don’t want particles of dust to get trapped in between the floor and the sealant or else you’ll be stuck with a gritty floor.

Use the same technique to finish and seal the floors as you did to stain them. The only difference is that you don’t want to wipe away excess polyurethane. When finished, let the sealant dry overnight. You might want to wait a few days or even up to a week after sealing the floor before you move furniture into the room.

How to Refinish Your Floors Without Sanding

Since sanding is often the most challenging aspect of restoring a floor, you might wonder if you can refinish hardwood floors without sanding. The answer is yes, as long as the floors aren’t too far gone. If your floors are showing minor signs of wear and tear, you might be able to buff them back to “good as new “by merely polishing and cleaning them.

Tips for Success

  • Check the type of wood or flooring you have before you get started. You can sand prefinished wood floors, for example, but doing so can be a bit more tricky than sanding other types of wood.
  • Remember to protect yourself and to ventilate the room properly. Wear a mask so that you’re not inhaling the poly’s or stain’s fumes. Crack out a window, or several, if you can.
  • While you want windows open when staining and finishing, it’s best to have windows and doors closed when sanding. Sealing off the room will limit the amount of dust that gets everywhere and the amount of mess you have to clean up.
  • Work quickly, as you don’t want the stain or sealant to dry as you work. Dried stain or finish can leave a ridge or distinct mark.

By following these tips, you’ll ensure a job done right and hardwood floors you’ll be proud of!

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