Refinishing a wood floor can be challenging


The New York Times

I finally understand how pregnant women feel when others bombard them with birthing horror stories, because I recently attempted the home-improvement equivalent of childbirth: refinishing wood floors.

I heard a story of a drum sander running off a second-story deck, a runaway buffer destroying a wall and, of course, many ruined floors.

“Never again,” was the most common refrain.

It’s hard to square such reactions with online tutorials produced in the can-do spirit of home improvement salesmanship. In one such video, a woman strips her moribund kitchen floor without so much as a hint of sweat or effort.

My floor project scored a solid 85 on the torture scale, and I had help from three specialists: James Toal, owner of Floors of Distinction in Connecticut; Phil Sanchez, national account manager for Bona, a manufacturer of cleaners and finishes for wood floors; and Charles Peterson, a floor builder and author of “A Complete Guide to Layout, Installation & Finishing Wood Flooring” (Taunton, 2010).

You can save thousands of dollars by doing the job yourself, they said, but not everyone can, or should.

The project involves heavy machinery and power tools with vast destructive potential and procedural land mines that can mar the final product. And even when rookies navigate those obstacles, they seldom achieve professional results.

So if your preholiday ambitions include taking a flyer on floor refinishing, burn your plans. Then, when you have a few days off from work and no party-organizing pressure, start by dialing down your expectations.

“You won’t do a good job with this,” Peterson said. “Forgive me, but not a chance.”

While it’s easy to do a good job of coating a floor with a new finish, taking the old finish off is mercilessly hard. Toal pointed out that many builders employ in-house specialists for electrical work, plumbing and other arcane functions.

“But not sanding floors,” he said. “They don’t want anything to do with it.”

Neither did I, but I lacked the budget to hire professionals for my entire floor, and I couldn’t leave it as it was. A last-minute holiday refreshing a few years ago did not last long, and the floors had reached a new level of nastiness since.

Where to begin? On your knees, my panelists said.

Remove a heating register or even a short strip of wood to make sure the floor is thick enough to sand. You need a minimum of one-eighth of an inch of wood above the tongue of the board, Peterson said.

Even if you end up doing the floors yourself, this might be a good time to call for a professional consultation. Toal said that some wood floor specialists will visit a home or offer phone-based guidance to people who are planning a do-it-yourself refinish. That counsel, he said, can extend to weekend or evening phone calls.

It may take several phone calls to find such a contractor, but for $50 or $75, this sort of help can be a godsend.

Seek an estimate while you’re at it, and compare it with your list of supplies and rental needs. Mine included a drum sander ($45 daily), orbit sander ($65 daily), buffer/grinder ($40 daily) and a van to haul equipment ($30 daily).

I also bought a Shop-Vac ($70), a small hand sander ($30), a scraper, good kneepads, plastic sheeting, painter’s tape, a pry bar, wood filler and putty knife, a nail set for burying nails, tack cloth and paint pads.

Finally, I invested in a half-face respirator ($30 from 3M), because cheaper masks offer poor protection against toxic wood dust. Total spent on supplies, rental fees excluded: $425.

By comparison, Peterson said, reputable contractors will charge roughly $3 per square foot.

Working solo, I cleared the 215-square-foot fireplace room, and a 425-square-foot area we use as a living room and dining area.

The next day I dragged my aching body from bed and got on my hands and knees, where I spent the better part of a day removing and labeling heating registers and quarter-round moldings, and clearing every nail, staple or metal obstruction from the floor. (If your floor is waxed, unlike mine, you’ll also need to buy double the amount of sandpaper.) Next I vacuumed the floors, walls and ceilings, and sealed the rooms with plastic and tape to confine dust.

Whenever I paused, I studied written and video tutorials on how to operate power sanders. Peterson’s book was good, and the best set of videos I found was on the Clarke American Sanders channel on YouTube.

Even with these videos, proceed carefully. The drum sander, for instance, overloaded an electrical circuit in my house. When I went to reset the circuit breaker, I barely remembered to switch off the sander. Had I not, it would have rolled into a wall and left a big divot in the floor as soon as I switched on the circuit.

Likewise, no tutorial I found prepared me for the buffer machine. Toal said that when training employees, he stands at the wall socket with his hand ready to unplug, because the machine can fly out of control. I should have done the same.

As for the orbit sander: It is an evil, backbreaking troll that you must keep moving or it will burn your floors. You will hate it. Period.

After studying up, I fetched equipment. Rental companies also sell sandpaper, and my panelists said most consumers can start with 36-grit paper, then move up to 60-grit for the second pass and finish with 100-grit.

Some online sources recommended the U-Sand sander, which theoretically eliminates the need for a drum sander and a buffer. The manager of my local rental agency tried to talk me out of it, saying seven out of 10 people trade it in for a more powerful drum sander.

As did I.

I spent roughly four hours sanding the big room — first with 36-grit, then with 20-grit — and the machine cleared 90 percent of the finish but failed to reach many shallow valleys.

It is possible that my particular U-Sand had seen one floor too many. Peterson said some contractors swear by it. I swore at it.

The drum sander, which features a belt roughly 8 inches wide, sands with blessed aggressiveness, but it can dig divots into the wood, leaving dark stripes when the finish dries.

To avoid this, Toal said that on the first pass he tracks a single strip of flooring for the length of the room before moving laterally to the next strip, always moving with the grain of the wood. On the second and third pass through a room, he’ll move the machine two strips at a time.

To further guard against divots, Sanchez suggested starting a section by easing the machine down as it rolls forward, and finishing a section by easing it up. Never change directions with the sander in contact with the floor, as I did, because it can leave divots.

Between the first and second passes with the drum sander, I ran the orbit sander around the room’s edge, where the drum sander missed. I did this twice, with 36-grit paper on the first pass and 60-grit on the second. I left only a few less-than-catastrophic burn marks.

I then ran the belt sander twice more, with 60-grit paper and 100-grit paper, and finished by using a hand sander to blend the seams between the drum sander and the orbit.

Vacuum thoroughly between sandings and dump sawdust into a dedicated, thick trash bag, my panelists said. Then leave that bag open and on pavement, they cautioned, as wood dust can otherwise pose a fire risk, even if left in vacuums. Finally, keep a dedicated trash bag for sandpaper and another for floor-finish containers.

The final step was 120-grit sanding with the buffer. To move this beast toward the right, you push down on the handle, and to move left you lift up.

Next, hunt for divots and do touch-up sanding with fine-grit sandpaper, then vacuum again and wipe the floor repeatedly with microfiber pads or tack cloth to remove all traces of dust.

I collapsed, exhausted from a two-day battle with “the big room,” as it had come to be known.

Knowing that I could not complete the smaller room in my allotted time, I called on Toal to sand it, which he did with insulting speed, and for a price that was right in line with Peterson’s industry estimates.

Applying the finish is an absolute breeze compared with sanding, but read the label carefully before starting. Toal suggested using a paint pad, which allowed good control. The biggest trick was working in small, identifiable chunks so I could eliminate puddles and blend each section with the next before it dried.

I waited overnight after the first coat, then buffed the floor with a 320-grit pad to help the second coat bond with the first. A few hours later, I applied the final coat.

The finish in the smaller room looked great, of course, because of the professional sanding job. The bigger room looked good but not great, thanks to the lines where I’d changed directions with the drum sander.

Toal was generous.

“When it’s empty, you’ll notice all the imperfections,” he said. “But as soon as you put the furniture back, that floor will become part of the background, and it’ll look great.”

Would I do it again? Strangely enough, I would. It’s a snarling bear of a job, but it ain’t childbirth.


Last modified: November 22, 2013
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