RENOVATIONS – Refinish Old Wood Floor

Renovations 1 Refinish Old Wood Floor

RENOVATIONS – Refinish Old Wood Floor

HISTORY – Refinish Old Wood Floor

Hardwood is the most popular flooring option in the United States. While most early colonial houses had softwood floors, it wasn’t until the 1900’s that hardwood flooring became readily available (ref. The History of Wood Flooring). Chances are if you plan on buying a house older than 1970 it will have hardwood floors and this renovations blog is about how to refinish an old wood floor and make it beautiful again. 

BACKGROUND – Refinish Old Wood Floor

I was contracted to refinish 2 hardwood floors in a 1905 tenant building in downtown Southbridge, MA. These floors had over 100 years of wear and tear and varnish buildup on them but they were hardwood and that’s a solid start. It’s funny, I’ve seen a lot of these old hardwood floors and most of them are two-toned. It was common to only finish a foot or two off the wall and leave the center square of the room unfinished. I guess this was to save money since a carpet was typically put in the middle of the floor and they must have figured, if you can’t see the floor, then why finish it. You can clearly see the difference in wood color in these survey photos.

FIRST PASS  – Refinish Old Wood Floor

Heavy varnish takes a rough grit to chew through it and as it heats up it turns rubbery. This quickly gunk up a sanding pad, so I started with 36 grit sandpaper to quickly get through the layers of varnish.

Belt sander

36 Grit sandpaper

1st pass with 36 grit

Offsetting overlap so you don't see a defined line

1st pass 1/2 room done

Closeup of belt sander gunked up

1st pass done

Close up of 1st pass and cupping

EDGE SANDING  – Refinish Old Wood Floor

The floor sander can only get so close to the wall. Most rental shops will also have edge sander that are designed to get you right up to the moulding. Just like with the belt sander, I started with a 36 grit sandpaper to chew through the varnish. It took quite a few sanding pads to get around the room because once they get gunked, you have to replaced them.

Edge Sander

Simple dust collection system

36 Grit sandpaper

Closeup of the edge sander

Closeup 2nd pass edge sander

1st pass edge sander

Edge sanding done

Closeup of edge sander gunked up

CORNERS  – Refinish Old Wood Floor

The edge sander is round and doesn’t fit in the square corners or around obstacles, like heating pipes. In order to get into the hard to reach places, I used a Ryobi detail sander. This wand sander is great for getting into hard to reach places and made short work of the spots the big sanders couldn’t reach.

Edge sander can't get in the corners

Corner sanded

Sanding in the corner

SMOOTHING  – Refinish Old Wood Floor

Now that the varnish is off, the real work begins. Most old wood floors will cup over time creating peaks and valleys. I suggest getting yourself a selection of grit in order to work the boards down and smooth them out. I started with a 36 grit to take up the varnish and moved from that to a 60 grit for 2 passes with the sanders and then an 80 grit for another 2 passes. This got the boards ready for staining.

Always get an assortment of grit

60 Grit sandpaper

60 Grit sandpaper

2nd pass

Closeup of 2nd pass

Finished sanding

Finish sanding 2

DUSTY  – Refinish Old Wood Floor

The sanding process creates a lot of fine dust that likes to travel and get in everything. Dust mitigation is a borderline artform and I like to start by covering all the openings with plastic. Then I tape around door seams and even put little pieces of tape over the outlets. The fewer places you give dust to hide the easier the cleanup will be. And cleanup is important before you stain. You don’t want any lingering dust to get mixed in with the stain has it goes down.

Keep the dust contained

Always wear dust protection

Dust control

Dust on the walls

Cleanup before you stain

STAINING  – Refinish Old Wood Floor

Selecting the right stain is also important. A good oil based stain is what you need for deep penetration and the color needs to complement the room rather than compliment your tastes. I really like Varathane stains for their quality and color selection. It’s a soybean oil base stain that dries quickly without too much of a cleanup. It’s very important to plan out your applying path. You want to start in a far corner and work your way to an exit. Keeping a feathered edge is critical to maintaining an even coverage of stain. The technique I use is apply and remove. I put the stain on with a roller and then wipe it with a rag. Where it overlaps, I use a dry rag to draw out the stain till it’s thin.

Varathane Light Walnut

Always have plenty of rags handy

Dabbing into the corners

Rolling on the stain

Closeup of corner floor stained

1/2 the floor stained

Feather in the stain edge line

Always feather in the stain edge line

Closeup of finished floor stained

Finish floor stained

Finished floor stained 2

Finished bedroom floor stained

Closeup of floor stained 2

POLYURETHANE  – Refinish Old Wood Floor

After the stain dried, I applied Varathane Ultra Thick Floor Finish Polyurethane in a satin finish. This is applied with foam bristle applicator pad to limit bubbles. Bubbles are the downfall of good looking finish. Always read the application instruction on the can and make sure it’s warm enough to apply. It’s also important to follow a similar path that you use to apply the stain and keep a wet edge on the polyurethane. Once you start you can’t stop, so plan accordingly and make sure you have everything you need to keep going till it’s done.

Varthane Ultra Thick Polyurethane 2x

Stir DON'T shake Polyurethane

Closeup of Polyurethane application pad

Edging into the corners

FINISH SANDING  – Refinish Old Wood Floor

There is no end to the sanding. Once the polyurethane is dry, it’s time to work on smoothing out the floor. I use 400 grit sanding pads on a random orbital sander to smooth out the polyurethane finish. It’s going to take 2 coats of the Varathane Ultra Thick Floor Finish to get me the perfect finish. Sanding inbetween coats makes a huge difference in getting a perfect finish. And just like before, make sure you clean up the dust between coats.

400 Grit sandpaper

Finish sanding

Closeup of stained hardwood floor with polyurethane

After finish sanding 1st coat Polyurethane 2

After finish sanding 1st coat Polyurethane 3

Finish sanding the corners by hand

Dust on the floor

Make sure you clean up all the dust

Dust Control

FINAL COAT  – Refinish Old Wood Floor

The 2nd coat of polyurethane goes on a lot faster and smoother than the first. By now you should have worked out a fairly good application technique. This coat is the last one and putting it on quick and thin is the secret to having a consistent shine to the finish.

DONE  – Refinish Old Wood Floor

A nice light sanding and vacuum is all you need once the 2nd coat is dry. I like to give it the barefoot test when done to pick out any rough spots. This project took 3 days to complete, with a rental and materials budget of $400. Refinishing hardwood floors is a high impact renovations in a house and well worth the time and effort.

2nd coat of Polyurethane

2nd coat dry

Finished Bedroom Floor 1

Finished Bedroom floor 2

Thanks for tuning in,


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5 thoughts on “RENOVATIONS – Refinish Old Wood Floor

  1. Wow! nicely done. This may be one of the most in depth articles I’ve read on refinishing old hardwood floors. I especially love all the pictures included with the article, makes it easy to follow.

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