Friday, November 4, 2011

Refinishing Hardwood Floors: DIY?

The other night we were giving a friend the tour of our house, and I was forced to revisit one of my darkest home renovation memories: refinishing the hardwood in our bedroom.

When the house was on the market some wise guy decided that a fresh coat of polyurethane on the hardwood floors in the bedrooms would really spiff up the place and help it sell.  It probably would've been a nice upgrade had that person not been too lazy to pick up a broom first.  You see, someone slathered out a coat of polyurethane all over the bedroom floors successfully sealing in years of dirt, hair, rocks, and an apple stem (yes, an apple stem).  It doesn't take a genius to realize that the finish won't stick if there are fruit remnants keeping it from binding to the floor boards.  The result: hideously dirty floors with peeling finish.

Honestly the task of refinishing the floor seemed a bit large for my liking, so we decided we'd live with the floors for the time being.   I'm not sure why I taped the ugly floors (it's not like a little trim paint would ruin them or anything) but I did, and when I peeled up the tape, I peeled up all of the floor finish around the perimeter of the bedroom with it.  No bueno.

So refinishing the floor all of a sudden became a priority.  To save a hefty dollar, I decided to take on the job myself.  I figured it'd keep me busy while Chris tiled the bathroom (a job where I could offer little useful assistance anyway). 

STEP 1: REMOVE THE UGLY.  It was recommended that we avoiding renting a floor sander, which is what the professionals use to sand the finish off of floors.  Using a belt sander or a large rented floor sander is more for heavy material removal and is meant to cover large areas.  Apparently they are also quite unwieldy, and I won't argue that my small frame would probably not be able to wrangle and control the beasts that are professional floor sanders.  These types of sanders are good for removing the top layer of wood and leaving a bare finish.  In our case, we didn't want to completely strip the wood down to nakedness, rather we just wanted to scuff up the ugly top coat and remove anything that was peeling so that our new coat of finish would properly adhere to the floor. So we opted for an orbital palm sander, which is different from a regular vibratory sander in that it helps prevent sanding lines and hand fatigue.  The orbital sanders use 5" velcro sandpaper pads so you don't have to cut any sand paper to size and can easily switch out for different grits.  I'd suggest buying a few different grit levels to figure out which removes your top finish the best (remember, you don't want to sand too much off).  To minimize the dust, we hooked up the palm sander to the hose of a shop vac.  Our orbital sander actually comes with a little built in dust collection bag, but since we knew there would be plenty of dust we hooked the sander up to the shop vac just to be more thorough.  Not so bad, right?  Que headache. 
Notice the scraper in the photo -- it can help get large, easy to remove flakes before you go over the spot with the sander.
It took me 4 days to fully sand away the shortcut made our wise guy friend.  If you're still thinking this is something you wouldn't mind tackling, take my advice and invest in some quality knee pads (I slid around on an old chair pad and regret not having them).

STEP 2: CLEAN UP.  With 4 days on my hands and knees invested in this project, I was not about to make the same mistake that our wise guy friend did; I had to be sure that 110% of dust and dirt was off the floor before we laid down a fresh coat of finish.  Obviously, much of the dirt and grime was sanded off with the palm sander and vacuumed up into the shop vac.  Just to be thorough I took a tack cloth and wiped down the rest of the floor just to pick up any dust stranglers (or apple stems) that may derail my project. 

STEP 3: REFINISH.  This step comes with a few warning labels.  First, be prepared for the fumes by donning the appropriate safety masks.  There are many different types of masks for a range of home renovation projects; be sure you get one that will protect you from fumes.  Next piece of advice: open your windows BEFORE you start slathering out the polyurethane.  Airing out the room is crucial in the drying process, not to mention it'll help down-grade the fumes.  We used Minwax's "high-build" polyurethane, which basically just means it's oil-based.  It's super stinky and takes forever to dry but oil-based poly supposedly leaves a better, longer lasting finish than water-based poly.  Also, water-based finish requires about double the coats than oil-based, though it has lower odor and looks just as good.  We figured we'd made it this far, so we decided to shoot for the "better, longer lasting" finish.  We applied the polyurethane via a wool applicator attached to a painting pole; this may seem a little MacGyver-ish, but you can actually buy these materials in the stain section of your local hardware store.  We applied the finish perpendicularly to the floor boards first in a mopping motion, then in a parallel motion by dragging the finish out to create clean lines.  A light sanding is required between coats, but make sure you use a tack cloth to pick up your sanding dust before proceeding to the next coat.  Overall, this stage of the refinishing process was far more difficult than we had expected it to be.  It was very time consuming, extremely stinky (seriously, masks.), and took a very long time to dry.  I think it took about 7 days for the first coat to dry (we spent that time in Key West, by the way), and another 5ish days for the second coat to dry.  It was a pain in the rear, but we had pretty bedroom floors.  Me: 1, Fugly Floors: 0.
So beautious.
I will NEVER refinish hardwood floors by myself again.  With that said, I still had a bedroom that had shameful floors.  All I have to say is thank goodness for shabby chic styling, where dingy and old can look pretty and fabulous.  I decided to paint the walls an off-white with white trim in the hopes that the crisp clean walls would make the busted floors look "cool".  In my opinion, it worked.  Me: 2, Fugly Floors: 0.
Not too shabby [chic].
Luckily the living room and hallway floors were protected from the wise guy via carpet.  They didn't really need to be refinished but we wanted to spruce 'em up a bit.  We ended up choosing an OrangeGlo finish and protection product, which worked like a charm and was incredibly easy to use (dried within an hour too).
The only thing the carpet fad was good for was protecting my future hardwood floors.
So which is better, DIY or paying someone else to tackle the hassle?  It really comes down to how much time, effort, and care you're willing to invest in the project.  If you don't have much time and don't want to crawl around on your hands and knees for a few days, I'd suggest letting someone else have at it.  Paying someone else is also a better option if you plan on refinishing large areas or multiple rooms at one time, since it will take a lot less time for the professionals to do it and your furniture (and life) will be displaced in the meantime.  But if you'd like to save a pretty penny and smear your war paint on, by all means it's entirely feasible to refinish your hardwood floors by yourself.  To be honest, there's nothing more satisfying than overcoming a hard renovation task by yourself...especially when the savings from doing it yourself can help pay for some of that awesome Ikea furniture you've had your eye on.

For now my beef with the hardwood finishes rests, but we're going to have some things to consider once we start tackling the kitchen floors (which are half hardwood, half linoleum).  We plan on removing the linoleum and trying to match the existing hardwood, which could require refinishing.  At this point, we're not really sure if we'll need to just refinish that area or refinish the floors in the rest of house (since the floors blend together) -- DIY?  Stay tuned.

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