So what do you do if you have the luxury of hardwood floors but… they just need some help? Do you need to hire someone to come and refinish them for you? Heck no! You can totally DIY this! It’s surprisingly simple and just involves a good solid weekend and some elbow grease. (Even if your floors are super old and un-level, like most of mine were.) In fact, I refinished approx. 500 sq.ft. for under $250.
The process of refinishing hardwood floors involves basically three steps: Sanding, Staining, and Sealing. They’re all just a bunch of grunt work that anybody can do. You’ll need to make a trip to Lowe’s to rent a floor sander and buy most of your supplies. If you have a second person to help you with all your refinishing it will go a ton faster, but it’s not absolutely necessary as long as you can lift the floor sander in and out of your car and get it into your house. Alright then my ambitious little readers, let’s begin.
As a heads up, I refinished three small/medium sized rooms with a tiny hallway/landing that total around 500 sq.ft., so all amounts are based on that. Please measure your soon-to-be refinished area before heading to the store. Also, a few tips for your shopping trip:
- Lowe’s has a great return policy so don’t be afraid to buy more than you need to avoid multiple trips, and then just returning the leftovers.
- Get a MyLowe’s card, it’s NOT a credit card. Basically the clerk scans it with your purchases and it keeps track of your receipts, which is awesome cause you’ll probably have returns.
- Measure your floor before you go to the store. Oh, did I already say that?
- Get your stain shaken by the paint department, to reduce hand mixing. Do not have them mix your sealant, it will get bubbles in it and we don’t want those to transfer to our beautiful floors, now do we?
Now then, the actual supplies list:
- Floor Sander – This is explained further below in the sanding section, but you’ll want to rent it from Lowe’s most likely (best price I could find) where it costs $39/day.
- Floor Sander Sand-Paper Discs – For the machine I used it comes in three grits, 36, 50, 80. The brochure or an associate can tell you how much to get, but I bought 4 of the 50-grit and 4 of the 80-grit. In retrospect I would have followed the guide and probably ended up getting something more along the lines of 4-6 of the 36-grit and 1 or 2 of each of the others.
- Palm Sander – You’ll need this for any edges the floor sander doesn’t reach (like edges) as well as places where it doesn’t sand it good enough, like uneven places in the floor.
- Palm Sander Clamp-On Sanding Sheets – You’ll probably want 80-grit or whatever the finest grit is that you finished the floor with using your floor sander.
- Rags – I bought this bag at Lowe’s with all my other stuff, but you could also just cut up some old towels or t-shirts.
- Gloves – Makes clean up so much easier!!!
- Paint Stir Sticks – Don’t forget to grab a couple of these when you get the stain and sealant!
- Stain – For my project I used one can of stain (maybe not quite all of it) and it was done in Red Mahogany.
- Stain-pad & Refill – These things are the bomb! When you buy the applicator it will come with one pad, but make sure you get a second one too for when you switch from stain to sealant.
- Sealant – I also used only one can of sealant, which was craaazy! I highly recommend this brand/formula, I was very impressed with it’s finish and easy of application, as well as value for the price because of how far I was able to stretch that one can.
- Painter’s Tape – You’ll probably want this to protect your base boards.
- Mineral Spirits – This is dependent on your stain. Mine was oil-based and mineral spirits are the best way to remove the stain, but in a pinch dawn and even some household degreasers can work.
- Paint Tray – Unless you have a random piece of abused, lidless Tupperware to use like I did…
Sanding & Prep
Floor Sanding: You will need to rent a floor sander. I rented Lowe’s floor sander. It’s the best deal I could find for a few reasons:
- It’s only $39/day
- The refill sandpaper is $6-7 per refill
- It’s three separate sanding circles that spin, as opposed to one large square, which I do not feel will handle an uneven floor as effectively. The three separate circles seem to allow it to adjust for the variances better.
- It’s super easy to change the sanding pads, they velcro on and off
- It has a vacuum bag attached to it to reduce the dust clean-up
With that being said, my only other option was to rent from a place called Action Rentals, which charged more per day, plus you had a buy a brand new $20 buffer pad that went between the machine and the significantly more expensive, rectangular sheets of sandpaper. All things considered, it was about twice the price.
Now then, the sander is heavy. It is like, super duper heavy. BUT, there is a way that it is tremendously more manageable. It comes apart! I had no idea about this when the Lowe’s guy helped me wedge it in the back seat of my mustang. (It was bigger than I expected…) So, I called my brothers to help me muscle it upstairs. They promptly discovered that there is a connecting pin that detaches the handle/vacuum part from the heavy sander part. The handle part was no big deal, but the sander part would have taken me forever to get downstairs, so thankfully they loaded it for me too. When I returned it to Lowe’s I was able to lift it out of my passenger seat onto the ground, get the handle out of the trunk, and wheel it in, though I would most likely recommend you just get the Lowe’s associate to man-handle into the store. (I share all of this with you because most likely, as a young wife like me, you will need help with this part, which I was not anticipating.)
There are 3 grits of sandpaper (36, 50, and 80) that are sold and it is recommended that you use all three. Because I only needed the top finish off of our floors, I used the medium (50) and finer (80) grits and skipped the rough first step grit (36). I was concerned that the 36-grit would be too rough and would use up more sand paper, but really I think we just took more time using extra 50-grit to achieve similar results. In retrospect, I probably would have started with the 36. We used 4 packages/refills of each grit, the 50 and the 80, so 8 refills total. This is what the floor looks like mostly sanded with the floor sander:
When you rent the sander you get it for 24-hours. This is more than enough time though, as it makes short work of the floors. Don’t forget to empty the vacuum bag when you are done and remove your used sandpaper discs, as the Lowe’s guy will probably ask you if that was done…
Palm Sanding: After you get the floor sanding done, you will want to go back with a palm sander on a high grit (whatever you finished with using floor sander is best, so in our case, 80) and make sure that you get any spots where the floor was uneven or maybe had something that needed to be sanded out of it a little more thoroughly. There was a nail polish stain in one place that I had to go over with the palm sander. (Be careful though, not to go to deep or make the floor uneven.) Also be sure to palm sand any edges that you couldn’t get, and spaces that were too small for the floor sander (like closets).
Note: If your floor is so uneven that each individual board curves up at it’s edges, then you may opt to palm sand the entire floor, or atleast most of it. This is what we had to do to our downstairs room as each board was so curved we didn’t think a floor sander would adequately remove the old finish without grinding away all the wood in some areas.
Clean-up & Other Prep: Make sure you thoroughly clean the floor before you move on to the staining. Whether or not your floor sander has a vacuum, we found it helpful to use a regular carpet vacuum to get the majority of it up. Much more effective than sweeping and particularly great for corners and edges. After you get as much as you can up, wipe the entire floor with wet towels. (You could also mop, but its a little harder to wring sawdust out of a mop, the towel lets you move to a new area of it or get a new towel so that you aren’t moving the dust around but getting it UP off the floor. Plus you can just throw them in the wash when your done.)
Lastly, you may want to tape off your base boards or perhaps remove them before you even sand, for maximum professionalism, I however just left them on and didn’t tape them, working right up to them with my applicator pad. Yes they are messy, but I already needed to repaint them, so no need in more work for me to tape them.
Here’s a before and after sanding shot:
Thoughts on kinds of stain: In my personal experience, stain is where you can get away with a slightly cheaper brand, this is because it’s main purpose is to color the floor, it’s not so important as, say, the top coat which will protect your floors for years to come. As far as I could tell, Minwax Wood Finish was the cheapest kind Lowe’s sold, and that’s what we used. Heads up: it is an oil-based stain which means you need (ideally) mineral spirits to clean it up with. Some household degreasers may help you with it but it sort of leaves a sticky film if you get it on yourself unless you physically scrub it off. The kind we got was about $30/gallon and our upstairs (three average sized rooms) used about one gallon. I think our floor space is about 500 sq. ft.
Technique & Application: While you *can* use a normal paint brush here I highly recommend the stain applicator pads they sell. It makes your application so quick and easy and uniform! Plus you can screw in a broom handle and then you don’t have to bend over or kneel so much. Another tip, before you leave the store with your stain, go ahead and have the paint department shake up it up like a can of paint for you. This will make your stirring go so much faster! (Do not have them shake up sealant though, as you don’t want bubbles in it.)
Open up that can, and stir it up with your stir stick. Pour some into a paint tray, dip in your applicator pad, scrape it on the edge, and start applying the stain to the floor. Let it sit on the floor for a few minutes. This is totally up to you. The longer it sits, the darker your floor will be, however you CANNOT let it dry on the floor before you wipe it off. That is super important. I would start in a corner or a closet and time it and wipe part of it off to see how it looks and decide if you need to let it sit longer or not. When you apply it it should look something like this:
- Do not apply to a section too big or awkwardly shaped that you cannot reach every part of it, because you will have to be able to reach it with your hand to wipe it off.
- Apply stain in the direction of wood grain.
- Do NOT allow the stain to dry on the floor.
- Always let the different sections you do sit on the floor for the about the same amount of time for consistent coloring.
- After you wipe off the stain and move to a different section, make sure that any you overlap your stain application in any area where the new and old sections meet up. In the picture below you can see a section that has already been stained at the top, bare floor on the bottom left, and new stain overlapping the previously done section on the bottom right.
Removal: This is where your rags come into play. You will probably need quite a few of them, and as they get saturated you will need new ones. These rags are probably going to need to be thrown away when you are finished with them. You can use scrap clothes or towels that you have cut up, buy some cheap rags at Wal-mart or some shop clothes at Lowe’s. I bought these and used about half the bag. Tips:
- Do NOT allow the stain to dry on the floor before wiping off. (Have I said this enough?)
- If you start to wipe the stain off and it does not appear to all be coming off, pressure is your friend. This is STAIN, not a paint, so it’s okay to thoroughly wipe it off. In fact, that’s what you want to do so it doesn’t take forever to dry.
- When you wipe off the remaining stain, wipe in the direction of the grain and make sure to pay special attention to where sections overlap to make sure they are smooth.
- I work with two rags, one that is mostly saturated, and one that is mostly clean. I do a first wipe with the dirtier rag to get most of the stain off (and I wipe in any pattern that I want), then I go back with the second cleaner cloth to soak up a little more and to smooth out the lines and make sure any remaining stain is going the correct direction with the grain. You go through less towels this way.
- Here is an example of what happens if you don’t go with the grain. The top half has been wiped properly, while the bottom half has been wiped quickly in the wrong direction. This is fine as long as you go back over it and smooth it out. DO NOT leave it like that, lol.
- Here is another example of something to look out for. You do not want to leave sections like this. The will be most common at where the edges of one section overlap another, because you may not notice them on the darker, already stained floor. Just make sure your checking and watching for weird patterns.
- In this picture, you can see where I finished one section a while ago, underneath a door edge, and the rest is bare floor, so I will get best results by buffing out that dark edge before applying more stain, and then when I go to wipe it off again I’ll need to focus there and make sure it doesn’t look weird. (Ignore my random foot, haha.)
- Lastly, if you’re trying to figure out if you’re wiping to much off, take a look at these pictures. It is the same section floor as above, and the stain has been wiped off in the first picture, but as you can tell from the second picture (after I wiped it a second time) it looks even lighter. That is because I was wiping with a saturated rag the first time and didn’t get it all off. While you can leave it like the first image, I recommend a thorough wiping as you will get more consistency and quicker drying times. If that doesn’t leave your floor dark enough (a.k.a. wiping it off enough makes it too light), you may need a darker stain.
Alright, now if you’d like to know what your floor will probably look like post-sanding and staining, here is an example of one of our rooms. That bottom section is the last part that has stain still applied to it, the rest has been methodically stained and wiped off and is ready for sealant, once it dries all the way of course.
Kinds of sealant: I have tried two different kinds of Minwax sealant. The first was just plain polyurethane, which I used in our bedroom and downstairs last year. In our bedroom the sealant did do a good job, it’s the same type of floor as the one pictured in this article. Downstairs however it turned out a little weird, and I’m not sure exactly why. I think in part that it was user error, because I accidentally bought two different finishes, one matte/satin and one gloss, and layered them on top of each other. Needless to say within an extremely short amount of time and normal use the floor is very, very scratched up and doesn’t look only a year old. However, the matte finish of the same cheaper formula worked pretty good on our floor upstairs, so it may just be the way the wood took it. I’m not exactly sure. But regardless, for our second round of floor refinishing I decided to try a more expensive formula in hopes that it would hold up better and be easier to apply. The verdict?
The Polyurethane was very thick and goopy, took much longer to apply, and was very difficult to apply evenly and consistently, because it dried so thick and fairly quickly that if you came back to a new section to meet the edges up, you would either ruin the last coat (so overlapping was hard) or you would leave a very thick section of poly that wouldn’t look quite right, so you had to work super fast with a rather thick product. Also, you have to sand the floor light by hand (not a palm sander) after the first coat and then clean it all up again for your second so that the second layer has something to stick to (the sanded surface of the first coat). I used about two cans and applied two coats for my project last year which was similar in size to the floors I did this time.
The Ultimate Floor Finish was extremely thin and went on very, very easily. It dried very fast and so usually you could overlap without disturbing the last layer, and as it was thin it didn’t pool up as bad. One coat looked pretty fantastic on the floors, but I did apply a second for protection. It seems to sink into the floor and bond to it well, where as the poly sort of acted like a top layer. One of my favourite things about this was that you do not have to sand between layers! As long as your second layer is applied between 2-24 hours after the first you can just slap it on there and be done. No more sanding, no extra clean up. It was much less back breaking I thought to because it was more like spreading milk or water on your floor, versus trying to spread an even coat of poly, which behaves more like syrup. I bought two cans because it says that it only covers 500 sq. ft., which is the approximate size of the rooms I was redoing, and I wanted two coats. However, I only used one can for both coats, with a tiny bit leftover too! This means that even though it’s twice the price, you get twice the use out of it, making it pencil out to the same cost (approx.) in the end! I was thrilled with this finish if you couldn’t tell.
Application: Before you begin, you will need to thoroughly stir your finish. It cannot be shaken by the paint department because it will leave bubbles in it that you don’t want to transfer to your floor, so get your paint stirrer and go to town. It will take quite a while, but just keep going.
I would recommend the same applicator pad device you used for the stain, just with a brand new applicator pad. Make sure you run your hands across the pad a few times as it will release some hairs before first use that you don’t want to get caught in your finish.
So now that you’ve applied the stain, you’re already used to going with the grain, which is really the most important tip I can give you. The up side here is that you can work with larger areas, which helps you maintain a wet edge. Since you don’t have to come back later and wipe it off you can just make sure that you don’t box yourself in and you’re good to just paint away! Just make sure that you avoid leaving any bubbles, thick areas of sealant, or random objects that have mysteriously floated into the room, in the sealant. The area in the center of this picture has a build of sealant discoloring it slightly blue-ish, as well as few bubbles in it.
If you are using the kind of stain that I did, you will be able to apply a second coat between 2-24 hours from the first one, with no sanding in between! If your doing this, make sure that you wrap your exposed supplies in a Wal-mart bag or something so they do not dry out and become a problem for you. If you are using a different kind of sealant, you will need to go back over the floor with some of your clamp-on sandpaper that you just hold in your hand (not on the palm sander) and then scuff the whole floor and wipe it up again before you do your second coat. This is an example of what it might look like when you’re applying the second coat.
For clean up, use mineral spirits for any stain, and soap and water for the sealant. (Assuming you got the kind I did, read the label if not.) Make sure that you seal any leftover stain or sealant cans tightly before you store them and clean up your applicator pads/paint trays quickly if you want to save them. A good sturdy nail brush really helps for stubborn spots left on your skin.
Now, in case you guys are wondering… Here is my final cost break down:
- 1 Day of Floor Sander Rental – $39.00
- 8 Sandpaper Disc Packs ($5.73 x 8) – $45.84
- 1 Box of Clamp-On Sandpaper – $7.18
- 1 Can of Stain – $28.96
- 1 Can of Sealant – $64.98
- 1 4lb Bag of Rags – $12.98
- 1 Paint Applicator – $7.65
- 1 Refill Pad – $5.75
Total: $212.34 + 9.75% Tax = $233.04
Alright! Don’t forget to take some before and after pics, here are mine!
Thank you guys so much for sticking with me through all that explanation! If you have any questions please ask! I would love for you to let me know if you tackle a floor refinish project! As always, best of luck to you in your house-keeping (and remodeling) adventures!