Refinishing Hardwoods: Wood that Look its Age

Posted in Monthly, This Old House at 12:44 pm by Pasha

By Pasha Holiday

Who needs brand spanking new hardwoods anyway? For us, the bright-eyed, first-time homeowners, the hardwoods that already laid over our living room and dining room were gems to be sanded, more than 100 years of love and goodness. And warping and wax and gunk and funk. Sanding and refinishing floors has to be pretty easy, right? They redo hardwoods on HGTV all the time; how badly could we really mess them up?

Refinishing hardwoods, especially ones as old and covered in muck as ours were, is not fun nor is it easy. It is messy and backbreaking, harrowing and unapologetic. And yes, they are so easy to royally screw up. Here are the clear concise ways to (and not to) refinish (and refinish again) effed-up hardwoods.

Take everything out of the room and follow Home Depot/everyone on the webs DIY info to the letter. Do not skip a step, do not pass go and definitely do not collect $200 (rather dole out at least $500 to your budget for the project.) This is going to take you at least a week, including two days with the machines. So suck it up, deal with it and take your time (all of these things we did not do in our own refinishing adventure.)

Now your room is bare. First things first, scrub the crap out the the floors with mineral spirits. Do not rent your machines and then do it, that just wastes precious rental time. We didn’t do that and as a result we went through mounds of 24 and 36 grit sandpaper–the coarsest grade, meant to take off the existing stain and polyurethane and return the planks to fresh hardwoods. We would only maybe one pass with the sander when already the wax and muck from 100 years of living on the hardwoods made the $10 per sheet sand paper nearly unusable. We cleaned the buildup off of many sheets of paper, which was frustrating and time consuming. So do yourself a big favor and get on your hands and knees and scrub the heck out of those floors with mineral spirits. You will thank me later.

When your floors are fresh and the room is closed off to the rest of the house (dust will go everywhere,) then go rent the sanders. Home Depot in Chicago rents the drum sander for about $50 a day and the orbital hand sander for about $30 a day. You need both machines, the drum for the middle of the floor and the orbital for the edges. Get a TON of varying grits of sandpaper for both. The store takes what you don’t use back anyway, so why not get way more than you need? For about 600 square feet of untreated wood we used at least a dozen sheets of both 36 and 24 grit (but like I said, ours had not been de-nastified with mineral spirits … idiots!) Get at least a dozen pieces of 60, 80 and 120-grit sandpaper as well.

Lug the big drum sander into the trunk and throw the orbital in the backseat. This is definitely a two-person job. Once you get them in the room and put on your respirator mask, load the drum sander and fire that bad boy up. I read everywhere that the drum sander was hard to control and finicky, but for me (a petite female) it was the easiest to control and make work properly. Load the 36-grit on the side over the drum, start in a corner and turn it on. Lower the lever to touch the sandpaper to the floor. You will find it pulling you forward in a straight line. Go with it! Keep in moving, never idling on the same spot, and the machine does all the work. Just use your arm muscles so you control it and it does not get away from you. When you reach the other side of the room pull the lever/sandpaper up off the floor before you turn it (otherwise swirly city gouged into the floor.) Work the machine back and forth over the floors until you have covered it.

Meanwhile have your partner start the edges with the orbital sander … the machine of back-break and near-death. The machine works via one circular piece of sandpaper swirling around. So logically (where was my logic when I did this?!) if you keep it in one place then you get circles gauged into the floor. Definitely do not turn the sander on its edges to remove more of the varnish from the floor. You will be tempted if it seems like that is the only way to remove all of the stained color. REFRAIN, DON’T DO IT!!! You can’t tell immediately because the light color of the exposed wood, but it is gauging the floors deeply. Instead run the hunkering machine along the walls back and forth, never stopping. Yes, your muscles will ache, your arms might fall off and your ass will burn from prolonged period of time in the catcher stance. But hey, your rear view and the floors perimeter will love it.

I also never read information about what to do when all of the stain and color won’t come off the floor. We assumed that getting the entire floor to be exposed wood was the number one priority and so we really really gauged into the floors to achieve this. Looking back we should have left those small spots that still had old stain en-grained into the wood alone. The hardwoods that we have are really warped and will never, ever be easily sanded. Some parts are higher and others lower, of course we would have never gotten all the stain off the low-lying wood.

The other GIGANTIC mistake we made was that we only used the low grit sandpaper. After eight hours of sanding we were exhausted and dirty, the machines were due back in the morning at it was after midnight. We figured we really didn’t need the high grit sandpaper, as the 36-grit (and crazy manipulation of the machines) took off most of the finish. You need it, trust us, you do.

We were eager beavers who really did not understand how soft the wood is. So once we applied the dark cherry stain to the floors (a super easy process: after you mineral spirit again to remove all the sawdust, simply rub it unto the wood, going with the grain) we saw the swirls and gauges magnified. Every where that the drum sander ran with 36-grit was now wood that ate up the stain, turning the wood almost black. The perimeter, where we used the orbital, was just swirls upon swirls and gauged everywhere. It was time to cry and give up. Except that we own this house and that was not an option.

I marched to home depot and rented another, smaller, handheld belt sander. The belt sander was much easier to control than the orbital; I will probably use it instead from now on. This time I went back over the perimeter with 60, 80 and 120-grit sandpaper. It took out about 80 percent of the gauges and made the wood very smooth (ding, ding! That is why you have to use high grit paper!) We re-stainted the perimeter, resulting in a border sort of a look. We tried to match the middle stain (where the swirls and gauges were not AS bad) with the perimeter by piling on the stain. Big mistake; stain will not dry if it is just plastered on, it needs to soak in.

We threw our hands up, paced the disastrous floor, and promptly rented the drum sander again to achieve the smooth finish from the high grit paper. In four hours we took most of the stain up and smoothed the floors as best as possible. We re-stained and then let that dry for a couple of days. We smoothed on the polyurethane according to the directions and let that dry for a few more days before even touching it. The staining and polying are really simple jobs.

The resulting hardwoods look more than 100-years-old. However, they are smooth, stained dark and a labor of love. They are not perfect; there are gauges and unevenness, an obvious novice job. So, okay, maybe new hardwoods should have been our choice … nah. These floors are perfectly us: they show their blemishes, never claim to be perfect, act their age and were made with hard work and more laughs and spats than we care to admit.