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DIY Refinishing Hardwood Floors: Applying Finish

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Home improvements seem never ending – flooring and painting and siding, oh my! But with a little preparation and the right tools, you’ll be feeling like a home improvement pro in no time. Here’s the nitty gritty on refinishing hardwood floors: what you’ll need, how to do it, and tips for the best finished product.

Tools Shopping List
Sanding Tools* Abrasives – sandpaper, screens, etc.
Essex Silver-Line Floor Polisher (13” or 17”) Mineral Spirits (for Oil-Based Floor Finish)
4” Paintbrush Water-Based Polyurethane or Oil-Based Polyurethane Floor Finish
T-Bar (water-based) or Lambswool (oil-based) Applicator Cloth Diaper or Tackcloth
Dry/Wet Vac  

Using the recommended tools (listed above), refinishing hardwood floors in an average-sized room can take as little as 10-12 hours and can be done in as little as a day or two, depending on the type of floor finish you choose. If you’re a weekend home improvement project person, refinishing hardwood floors should be a quick and rewarding task if you following these steps:

  1. The first step to refinishing hardwood floors is removing old finish and prepping the floors for the new finish. To do this, you’ll need to perform a seven-step sanding process. *Get detailed instructions on the sanding process here. Don’t forget to vacuum thoroughly before moving on to step 2.

    At this point, you need to make a decision about what kind of finish you will use. There are perks and drawbacks to both water-based and oil-based polyurethane floor finishes. We encourage you to learn more before choosing your finish, as it will dictate many things about the project, including timeframe, tools and products used, and the final outcome.
  2. After sanding the floor down, you’ll screen. Screening the floor blends any lines resulting from the sanding process and prepares your floor for a finer appearance. The process is almost identical to the sanding process. The Floor Polisher is slightly different to use than the Sander. Move side to side with it by shifting your feet, rather than twisting your body. Again, do not try to muscle the machine and practice using it before applying the screen and turning it on. Afterwards, vacuum thoroughly.
  3. Once your floor is evenly sanded, screened, and vacuumed, do a final rub down to make sure all dust and debris is truly gone – referred to as “tacking”. This is important to guarantee the new finish turns out smooth and clean.

    If you’ve chosen to use a water-based polyurethane, you’ll use a cloth diaper dampened with water. If you’ve chosen to use an oil-based polyurethane, you’ll use a tackcloth and mineral spirits. Work your way over the floor with your cloth, making sure to cover every inch. The water and mineral spirits will attract remaining traces of dust and leave your floor clean and prepped. Be sure to let the floor fully dry before moving on the next step – it should only take a few minutes.

    HOME IMPROVEMENT TIP: Always work toward doors. Any time you’re applying a wet substance to the floor, make sure you don’t work yourself into a corner.
  4. And now it’s time to begin the finishing process. Keep in mind when you select your polyurethane – you get what you pay for. Higher quality finishes, though more expensive, generally hold up longer. Stir the finish thoroughly (do NOT shake the finish, it will create bubbles). You’ll want to stir it periodically throughout the process to prevent separation.

    Start by cutting the edges. Use a 4-inch paintbrush to work the finish into the floor edges by walls and cabinets, covering an area 4” to 6” from the wall.

    HOME IMPROVEMENT TIP: Apply the finishes in 3-4 ft sections at a time. A more manageable space will prevent accidents and quirks in the end.

    Once you’ve cut the edges, pour a line of finish on the floor across the grain of the wood. Make smooth and slow strokes to avoid creating bubbles. If you’re using water-based finish, use your T-bar applicator to pull the finish across the floor like a squeegee. If you’re using oil-based finish, use your lambswool applicator to push and pull the finish across the floor like a mop, but make sure you always finish your stroke in the same direction for consistency. Remember to work quickly and efficiently. Be careful not to overwork the finish to avoid bubbles.

    HOME IMPROVEMENT TIP: Smooth the finish with the grain of the wood for best results.

    Water-based finish should dry in 2-4 hours, whereas oil-based finish should dry in 4-8 hours. The quality of the finish can affect drying times, so make sure to review the instructions on the finish.

    HOME IMPROVEMENT TIP: The #1 mistake novices make when refinishing hardwood floors is applying thick coats of finish. Each coat should be thin – it’s better to under do it than over do it. You can always apply additional coats if needed.
  5. If you are using water-based polyurethane, you are ready to apply another coat after the first coat dries. It can be tricky to keep track of your progress after the first coat, so monitor it carefully. Some professionals suggest using painter’s tape to mark progress on the wall.

    If you’re using oil-based polyurethane, it’s time to screen the floor again. Use the same method as before. This should result in a light powder. If it doesn’t powder, the finish is not dry and you will need to wait to continue. Be careful when you screen that you don’t remove the entire coat of finish you just applied. The point of this screening is to keep the finish smooth for the end result, so you’ll want to use a fine grit of 150 or 180. Once you’ve finished, vacuum and tack the entire room.
  6. Rinse and repeat. If you’re using water-based finish, you will begin screening between coats after the second coat. Apply 3 coats for oil-based finish and 4-5 for water-based finish. Your last coat should not be screened.

    Once you’ve finished applying the last coat of polyurethane, let the finish cure for 2-3 days before reintroducing furniture to the room and 10-14 days before putting area rugs down. The floor will be fully cured after 14 to 21 days.

Follow these easy steps and home improvement tips and before you know it you’ll be a pro at refinishing hardwood floors. For more detailed information on the sanding process and the differences between water-based vs oil-based finish, as well as other home improvement topics, check out our News section.

If you need the tools for refinishing hardwood floors in your house, contact Time Equipment Rentals & Sales today!


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