Getting Floored--To Grind or Not To Grind?


Over the years I've come to the conclusion that we are murdering the wonderful hardwood floors in our homes. The warmth of hardwood floors in America has been popular since the Victorian era of the late 1800's right up to new construction today. We tend to want the old to look new again and I understand this concept but don't agree with it. How many of you have gasped in horror watching The Antiques Road Show, when they tell the owner of an antique chair that it is worth $2,000 but golly, if it hadn't been refinished it would be worth $30,000. The point is, original finish and patina not only add value to antiques but also hardwood floors.


When we aggressively grind off old floor finishes we also remove the aging on the surface of the wood and all the character marks. In a sense we are taking away a piece of the history of our homes. Maybe they're marks where a grand piano sat or runner marks from grandma's rocking chair. These character marks make for great stories and add a lot to the charm of your home. If you live in an old house and feel you must make the floors look brand new, I suggest you consider selling your house and buying a new house built in a cornfield in one of our many vinyl villages, you'll probably be happier. 


Passively restoring old wood floors is a better and less expensive alternative that many homeowners can tackle themselves. With old houses it is always best to start with the least intrusive or simplest method to see what level of refinishing is needed.


The first step is to clean the wood floor well to see what you really have. A damp (not wet) mopping with some liquid dish washing detergent in a gallon of hot water should clean-up most of the dirt and grime. After doing this you may discover the old finish is in great shape. If the finish is in poor condition, go to the next step. Rent a floor buffer with several 100 grit sanding screens. You will also need some non-flammable wood stripper, some rags and a wet/dry shop vacuum (you must use non-flammable stripper so the sparks in the buffer motor don't blow you up!).


Coat an area about 5'x 5' with the stripper and let it set until it softens the finish. Now buff the area with the floor buffer and 100 grit sanding screen. This will remove the old finish without taking the patina off the wood. Don't over-buff, just do it enough to get the finish off and then wipe the excess stripper off the area with your rags. Some stripper may get into the joint between each piece of flooring but can be removed with your wet dry shop vacuum. Once the entire floor is stripped, neutralize it with whatever the manufacturer recommends. Once the floor has dried out it's ready for stain removal.


When I did my apprenticeship as a furniture maker, old man Krebsbach also did high-end antique furniture restoration. One day he took an Arts & Crafts style desk made by Gustav Stickley out into the blazing sun beside our shop. The desk had been stripped of its original finish before we received it and had dark ink stains all over it. He took a small tub of oxalic acid crystals and mixed a cup of the crystals in a gallon bucket of hot water. He then saturated the ink stained top with the concoction.


I watched in horror not understanding what he was doing. To my utter amazement, all the ink stains disappeared without changing the color of the surrounding wood. He explained that the critical element to make this happen was direct sunlight. Somehow this activated the solution.

Some years later, I was passively refinishing an oak floor with many dark stains caused by cats and dogs not quite making it outside to relieve themselves. I thought of the oxalic acid crystals but also knew I couldn't take the floor out in the direct sunlight. It occurred to me that the closest affordable way to achieve natural sun indoors were these new halogen construction lights. We've all seen them; they come on a metal stand and each light is rectangular in shape with a long bulb about the size of a pencil. Once again I surprised myself by saturating the entire floor in the room with the dark stains. I bathed the floor with halogen lighting and presto the stains disappeared. I then neutralized the solution with vinegar and water and then water. It does fuzz the wood up a bit but after the wood dried, another buffing with a 100 grit sanding screen and it was ready to finish


The last step is to apply a sealer and three coats of your favorite floor finish. I suggest using a varnish based finish rather than polyurethane. Varnish is easier to repair and will show the luster of the wood better. I also suggest that the sheen be satin instead of gloss. Gloss shows every scratch and instead of seeing the wood, you see the shine of the gloss. As always, ventilation, eye and hand protection is essential.


Tool rental stores can provide the floor buffer and sanding screens. Most hardware and paint stores handle oxalic acid crystals and floor varnish. You can also buy a lamb's wool finish applicator that fits on a pole to lay down the coats of finish.


If your floor is so beat up the only way to bring it back is to aggressively sand it, you can rent the drum sander and edger at the tools rental store as well. Frankly, I hire aggressive sanding and finishing done. These folks are pro's and you can really gouge or mess up a wood floor with a drum sander. There is not a lot of competition in our area so many of the companies are charging $3.50 to $4.50 per square foot to do this. I use a person that is a true artist that charges $2.00 to $2.75 per square foot. This is actually cheaper that mid-grade carpeting.


Restored wood floors will add value to your house, are more cleanable than carpet and give that wonderful sense of warmth that make a house feel like a home.


I removed all of my carpet in my 1900 venacular victorian house.  It looks like fur was used without any subflooring.  It appears that there were area rugs in each room with the floor having no finish on it under the carpet and are a dark grimmy brown.  About two feet around the floor used is a ochre colored paint (or shellac?) that looks like it has a base coat of white (assumming lead based) paint.  I think there is a wax on top too.  The floor has some damage where one doorway was opened up and another area that had old termite damage and it is in rough shape.  I refinished one room with a water based satin clear coat that turned out okay but not perfect.  My questions are what should I do to remove the paint? strip or sand?  We have three dogs so I'm looking for something durable and easy to clean, so that is why I chose the poly.  Now that I have looked at some of your information, I'm wondering if the floor for this house and time period would have been painted rather than finished with a clear coat.  Any responses would be greatly appreciated!


I kinda' wished I had read Bob's Blog on this subject before now, I might have rethunk my basic approach and choice of finishes. In our case, the floors in our 1906 New London, MO Queen Anne Victorian (wall to wall length boards - no subfloor under it) were kinda rough and the dark brown flat finish was almost like a waxy type of stain/finish that gums up 20 grit sandpaper in nothing flat. I had to knock it off with a 5" RO sander w/ 80 grit before ruining another $8 piece of 20 Grit paper. Yet amazingly, it is very easy to flake off with a scraper or even a paring knife. (My wife's tool of choice)

On our front two rooms (parlor & side parlor/family room), I used a drum sander to get it back reasonably smooth without grinding it to smithereens (there were still some dings/dents & stains). Then I custom mixed my own oil based stain and put down 3 light coats of waterbased satin poly for floors. I wanted only enough coats to protect it, NOT make it into a bowling alley. In sanding it down, to my initial horror, I exposed some worm holes/tracks but decided oh well, "CHARACTER". It turned out very nice but still has retains an old charm to it without looking overly redone. I also had to contend with a 20" x 28" hole for an old furnace grate as well. Luckily, the original builder, Mr. W.T Bond left me a nice stack of leftover floor boards in the basement to use to fill the hole with. Ken was only 12 at that time but he truly helped me with sanding & fixing the hole. Total cost for the floor refinish was around $300 and was completed in 2.5 months. That was Oct 2006, the floor has held up to use very well. 

The intial sanding was done over the Labor Day Weekend. The edge sanding took a bit longer. The staining & dry time was about 4-5 days and the final finish took 2 evenings. We were back on the floor in a day (very light traffic) and moved furniture back after 8 days. Try to reserve your sanding rental tools of choice over a long weekend, it may save you some $$$ over several day rentals, however get more than enough sanding papers than you think you'll need because the rental place will be closed! Our choice of waterbased poly was simply 1) No smelly lingering fumes - my wife is sensitive to the oil based finishes 2) ease of application. Bob is correct varnish finishes are easier to repair than urethane finishes. I have seen Tung Oil used on floors, especially stairs for that reason and they were nice but it involves more work to accomplish. Test stains & finishes on scraps first view in different light conditions before committing to a big area. 

Our kitchen had lineoleum that was painted with green porch paint when the pattern was worn out. So we pulled up the lineoleum, and were dismayed when we found two layers of 15# tar paper glued down to the heart pine / fir floor. Connie, Ken & myself spent 1.5 yrs hand scraping the paper & glue up, then it was hand sanded with a B&D belt sander & random orbit sander and lots of sandpaper & blades. Mind you we're still living & cooking in this thing. My poor wife who is a bit of a clean fanatic (love you honey!) is having to dust & clean through it all. Anyway, it still has dings, gouges, plugged gas line holes, dark water stains by the sink and is just beautiful but still has the look of the old days. Total cost was about $150 and took about 2yrs time between carpal tunnel injuries and trips to the chiropractor from all the scraping. Funny thing is, since we were using the kitchen the entire floor is not refinished. There is still tar paper under the island, the floor cabinets along two walls and the wall oven cabinet. When we're put in the old folks home and Ken's wife wants a kitchen remodel, I left him some floor work to do! So I hope he pays attention to Bob this year in Historic Preservation class! The kitchen floor was started in Feb 2002 and finished April 2004. This floor is the most used room in our home is still in excellent condition.

One last note, like Bob, I DO NOT recommend anyone using a drum sander either. YOU GOTTA KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING - you can irrepairably damage a floor before you can say "DIY'er". You also have to assess if you have a sub floor or not & if it has been refinished before. You don't want to sand down to the tongues/grooves. I also believe it is last resort sander of choice. I am a modertately experienced amatuer wood refinisher and I approached this project with extreme respect and all the skill & patience I could muster.  My Advice: IF IN DOUBT - HIRE THIS OUT!  I used a belt sander for the kitchen floor because of the tight quarters, but it is not nearly as efficient as a screen / buffer or drum sander. I still have 2 more floors to refinish plus maybe a small bath, so again I may re-evaluate my approach. God Bless & Thanx for the great floor blog! Hope my experience will benefit some else, the warmth of properly restored hardwood floors is hard to beat. Sorry for a long post but appreciate the chance to share my attempts at restoration.


Floor Restoration

Hey kab340,

That's quite a saga you've described. I really love to hear other folks stories. You see, the older I get the more of a dumb clunk I realize I am. I learn as much from my students and bloggers as I teach them.


One thought about removing tar based glue and a tar paper. In about 80% 0f the cases I've been able to pop it right off with a stiff putty knife. I go to the local ice manufacturing company and buy a cooler of dry ice. I always wear heavy gloves when I take a piece, put it on the floor and move it forward. I follow behind with that stiff putty knife. The glue or tar super freezes and pops right off. Give it a try. BY


I can't wait to try it

Great article -- I can't wait to try it on the floors of our 1915 Craftsman/Tudor. I love the fact that the old character of the floor can be retained. Thanks for the tip, Bob.