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With Ray Ladouceur



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How to refinish hardwood floors

Are you thinking about refinishing your own hardwood floors? If you are up for the task it is a great way to save money and take pride in your own home. However, great results also require the proper amount of knowledge, skill and preparation. Refinishing a wood floor is a very labor intensive process and there is a process that one must follow in order to get desirable results. One needs to be prepared for the task before committing to the cost of refinishing hardwood floors. Are you up for it? If so, let’s review some of the basics about how to refinish a hardwood floor.

The Refinishing Process

The process I follow to refinish a floor is to strip off the old finish with a drum sander and an edger using the highest grit sand paper that will do the job effectively and efficiently. Most often I have to start with a 24 grit sand paper anyway, but this results in removing a little more wood and require more steps in sanding to get to a nice, smooth finish on the hardwood floor. However, if a 36 grit sand paper will do the initial job of stripping off the old finish just as well, I'm going to start with that. Doing so will save time, money, and serve to preserve the floors a little longer as 24 grit is very aggressive and every little bit of wood that is not lost to the sanding process is a little more wood left for future refinishing.

Then I sand as necessary using orbital and random orbit sanders to get to a nice looking surface on the now bare wood floor. Typically sanding to 100 grit is sufficient for a natural, clear finish. If a stain is desired if necessary I will sand to 120 grit to get the best surface for a great looking stained finish. Before applying the stain the floor must be carefully examined for irregular sanding marks. These marks are more easily concealed under a clear finish, but a stain will highlight the heck out them. I mark all of the erratic sanding scratches I find with white chalk and then go back and sand them out. If I still happen to miss one and find one while I'm applying the stain, then I fan out the staining line so that there isn't a distinct stop/start line, and I get out my hand held random orbital sander and sand it out immediately and quickly. Then back to staining fanning into the stain where I left off. Lastly, a custom stain will add at least a day to the entire refinishing job because there is a process to follow that cannot be rushed.

Applying A Clear Coat Finish

There are two basic choices in clear coat finishes. An oil based polyurethane or a water based poly. Both are great looking, durable finishes with some differences in personal preference and in the application process.

Water based poly is chemically different than polyurethane, but performs the same function in providing a clear coat, protective finish. The advantages of using it is that it is low odor, cures faster and can handle light foot traffic sooner after the last coat than a polyurethane finish. The trade off is that it does not impart any color to the hardwood floor - such as the common amber tone that results from using the oil based polyurethane. Therefore, to impart that amber tone to the floor I apply a coat of de-waxed shellac. Shellac not only imparts the nice amber tone to the hardwood floor, but it is also a great medium that can actually improve the bond between the bare wood and the clear coat finish. Most seal coats at the home centers are made of 100% de-waxed shellac - look at the ingredients, or look up the MSDS sheet.

Polyurethane is an oil based finish that will impart an amber tone to the hardwood floor with the first coat and without the need for shellac. In my personal opinion it does look a little better than the shellac and water based poly finish and, of course, your opinion may differ. The trade off is that it is very high in a petroleum odor that lingers for up to two weeks as the finish cures (dries - so to speak). Current requirements have the VOC in these polyurethanes for floors down to 350 and even 250. It's high in viscosity and I find that comparatively difficult to apply.

Additionally, as oil based product it requires a little more time before it can handle light foot traffic. Some argue that an oil based polyurethane finish is more durable. However, from my research and in my experience I have found that the difference between using oil based and water based clear coats on floors is negligible - if there is any real difference at all. Another difference is that while most water based finishes will fully cure in about a week, an oil based finish can take 2-4 weeks to fully cure. Lastly, even at the low VOC levels it still stinks pretty awful - in my opinion.

For a clear, natural finish on a hardwood floor, a polyurethane finish can be applied right away. The first coat will seal the wood and dry enough in about 4 hours that a second coat can be applied. Typically a third coat should not be applied until the following day. Before applying a third coat the floor needs to be lightly sanded to smooth out any nibs from the first two coats and provide for improved bonding between the second and third coats. Polyurethane is very high in odor and requires using a charcoal filtered face mask throughout the entire finishing process. Additionally a polyurethane floor should be left undisturbed for up to 24 hours after the last coat of finish. A high quality, water based finish will cost more per gallon, but most only require two coats and both can be applied in the same day - saving time, if not money too, over all.

Whether you choose a water based or an oil based poly finish the furniture should have some padding under the feet for the first two weeks. Throw rugs should not be placed back over the refinished hardwood floor for 2-3 weeks following a water based poly finish and up to 3-4 weeks following an oil based polyurethane finish. The reason for this is because these finishes do not actually dry, they cure. Curing is a process by which the solvents and chemicals evaporate from the finish over time leaving behind the hard, clear coat finish. If a throw rug is placed over it it could retard this curing process and have undesirable results. Some may argue that the floors should be ready for carpets sooner. Perhaps one may get lucky and a throw rug might not affect the curing process. However, after going through time and expense of refinishing your hardwood floors why take the chance for the sake of a few weeks with a throw rug? Lastly, wearing shoes while walking on the newly refinished, hardwood floor during this curing process is strongly discouraged.


Floor Refinishing Process

And Expectations




So, which to use? An oil based or water based finish? Of course as the customer you are the boss. You tell me which one you want on your floors. However, when it comes to refinishing a hardwood floor I prefer to use the water based finish as it is low odor, the finishing process is a little faster, and the finish can handle light foot traffic within 12 hours of the last coat. Alternatively you may opt for an oil based polyurethane finish. This is also a great looking and durable finish for a floor. However, I won't use it in a multi-unit building, or if the customer is planning on staying in the house during the refinishing process. The odor will travel throughout the structure and can cause personal discomfort to the occupants.

Skim and Recoat

A hardwood floor does not always need to be stripped down to bare wood to get a nice looking finish. In fact, unless the older finish is severely damaged or there is some other mitigating reason, stripping off the old finish not only may be unnecessary, but will shorten the life of the hardwood floor! This is because every time the hardwood floor is completely stripped of the old finish a little more wood is removed. Eventually the hardwood floor planks are too thin and will need to be replaced. Therefore it may be more desirable to do a skim and recoat. Depending on the condition of the old clear coat, this may not be possible with a stained floor as the process may affect the original stain. A skim and recoat is simply sanding the old finish with a random orbit sander to 120 grit. Then a coat of shellac is applied because it is a good medium that improves adhesion between what is left of the old finish and the new finish that will be applied. After the coat of shellac is applied the application of the new clear coat is the same as when doing a complete strip of the old finish. The result is a great looking floor.

To remove toe mold or to not remove?

Removing the toe mold before sanding the floor is an optional process. The advantage is that the floor is sanded and refinished all the way to the base trim or to the wall if there is no base trim. The disadvantage is that this is extra labor and thus incurs additional charges. It may also necessitate repainting, repairing or even replacing the toe mold. In either case, even with due diligence to protect the base mold and toe mold, the process of floor refinishing sometimes nicks the paint on the base trim and so you should be prepared to touch up the base trim afterwards.

Your home may be the greatest asset you own, so the appearance and protection that a hardwood floor finish provides is important to you.

I understand that my customers need reliable, timely and affordable floor refinishing services of various types and I embrace the opportunity to offer you hardwood floor refinishing services within the greater Cincinnati area at competitive prices.

Refinishing floors is a labor intensive process and needs to be done right for the best looking results. There is a lot of buzz out there about being green and using low VOC compliant polyurethanes. These are good things, but I'm willing to take the time to inform you what these really mean.

Foor Refinishing by Dogwood Tales