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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.