WHAT’S THE PROCESS OF REFINISHING HARDWOOD FLOORS?
First, you need to determine what sort of hardwood floors you have, because not all floors can be refinished successfully. Bringing in a professional can help you make the decision as to whether it’s worth refinishing your current hardwood floor rather than replacing it.
Solid vs Engineered Hardwood
Solid hardwood floors can almost always be refinished. These are made up of tongue and groove boards which have been securely nailed down to a subfloor. The boards are ¾” thick, and made out of solid hardwood, so they can be sanded down and refinished again and again over the years- a well-installed and maintained hardwood floor has more than century’s worth of use in it! Even if the floorboards had their finish applied in the factory before being installed, they can be sanded down and refinished just like a floor which had originally been installed unfinished.
Your chances of being able to successfully refinish an engineered hardwood floor are lower. An engineered hardwood floor is thinner, from ⅜-½” thick, and made from layers of wood glued together, similar to plywood, with a top layer of thin hardwood veneer. First of all, if this floor is floating, meaning that it has not been nailed down but simply clicked together over the subfloor, it cannot be refinished at all, as it will not remain stable under the weight of the floor sander, resulting in an uneven sanding job. The other problem with an engineered hardwood floor is that the layer of veneer is thin, and may be sanded through even on a first-time refinishing job. A professional may be able to successfully sand and refinish an engineered hardwood floor with a veneer that is 2 mm thick or more.
Starting with Sanding
Sanding is the first step in the refinishing process. It is at this stage that any repairs to the floorboards would be made, or new wood patched in where necessary. Sanding removes all of the previous finish, as well as eliminating as much as possible of the damage and stains incurred over the years. Once the three sandings have been completed, starting with coarser grits and moving to a final sanding with a fine grit, you will have a silky-smooth surface that looks like raw wood, and is ready for the application of stain and polyurethane.
You don’t have to stain your hardwood floor, but if you would like to make a change in the color for a new look, now is the time to do it! Once the final sanding is done, and the floor has been thoroughly swept and vacuumed, it is time to apply stain. We will look later at the many different color options available.
The Final Finish
Polyurethane is the clear coat applied to the hardwood floor once it has been sanded and stained. This is what protects the wood from stains, water and wear, and gives you the shine that makes a hardwood floor so attractive. Buffing between coats will ensure an even smoother finish.
HOW LONG WILL MY REFINISHING JOB TAKE?
There is no one answer to this question: it will depend in part on whether a stain is being applied, and even more on whether you opt for oil-based polyurethane or water-based polyurethane.
First, no matter which finish you use, sanding the floor may take up to 2 days to complete. Then, if you are applying a stain once the hardwood floor has been sanded, you need to allow at least 24 hours for the stain to dry before proceeding. For dark stains, you may need to wait for 2 days.
Oil-based polyurethane requires 24 hours drying time between coats, and since you will probably want 3 coats, that is a full 3 days added to the process. From sanding to applying the final coat, you may be looking at a full week.
Then, you have to factor in the drying and curing time. For oil-based polyurethane, wait at least 24 hours, and preferably 48, before walking on the newly-finished floors, and for the first day, only walk on them in socks. Keep dogs off them for a couple of weeks! Furniture should not be moved back for 4 days, and wait a full month for the finish to complete the curing process before laying down area rugs.
Water-based polyurethane has the advantage of faster drying times. The whole process can be completed in 3 days, and you can have the furniture moved back in at the end of the fifth day! Each coat takes only 2 hours to dry before applying the next, so even though you need a couple more coats than with oil-based polyurethane, it still takes less time to complete. Within 6 hours you can walk on the floors with socks, and after a full day you can wear shoes. Furniture can be moved back in 2 days, and area rugs can be laid down after 2 weeks.
OIL OR WATER: WHICH POLYURETHANE FINISH IS BEST?
When choosing between oil-based or water-based polyurethane, you are making a decision which will have an impact on the lifetime of the finish. Since there are differences in not only how each is applied, but in how it wears and changes over the years, you will want to take these factors into account.
For many stains and hardwoods, oil-based polyurethane is the best choice. Especially for glossier finishes, it has a better shine, and really works well with the darker stains that are becoming more popular. As the oil-based polyurethane ages, the color darkens, becoming more amber, creating a richer, deeper look, which is especially suitable with Oak floors.
Oil-based polyurethane also lasts longer than water-based polyurethane, only needing refinishing every 5-7 years, rather than 3-5 years for water-based. This is because the oil-based polyurethane has 45-50% of solids, as opposed to water-based polyurethane’s 30-35%. Oil is a harder, more durable finish.
Oil-based polyurethane costs less! Not only is it significantly less per gallon, but you will need fewer coats for a good finish, and it will not have to be redone as often. For all these reasons, oil-based polyurethane is a clear winner on many counts, but it will not work in all situations.
The speed with which a project with water-based polyurethane can be completed can make the difference for some customers. At least two coats can be applied in one day, rather than waiting 24 hours between coats of oil-based polyurethane. A job can be done in two days and the floor can be walked on at the end of the second day.
The volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can make oil-based polyurethane difficult for people with sensitivities are much less of a problem with water-based polyurethane. Water-based polyurethane has lower levels of VOCs to begin with, and the off-gassing process is largely complete when the finish is dry. While most people do not experience problems with oil-based polyurethane once it is dry, those who are more sensitive would probably prefer to use water-based polyurethane.
For some hardwoods and stains, water-based polyurethane is a better choice. The amber tint that makes oil-based polyurethane enhance woods such as Oak is not desirable with Maple. As well, floors that have been treated with a gray stain, or have been whitewashed, must be finished with water-based polyurethane to prevent yellowing over time.
ADDING COLOR: WHAT COLOR STAIN SHOULD I CHOOSE?
There are many options available to you if you want to change the color of your hardwood flooring, limited only in some cases by the species of wood. Both light and dark shades are currently in style, so whether you are choosing a look that you can happily live with for the coming years, or are making a decision based on what will appeal most to home buyers, there’s lots of variety out there!
Just make sure that when the floor has been sanded once, test patches are applied to the bare wood so that you can get a good sense of how the stains will look on your particular floor- small sample chips are not good enough for a decision whose results are going to be around for years to come!
Using a light stain on a hardwood floor creates an open, airy feel, equally well-suited to casual country styles and sophisticated modern designs. It’s a good choice if you don’t want to commit to the increased visual impact of a dark floor.
The easiest way to achieve a light shade on your floor is by not using a stain at all, as usually a stain will darken the wood. Maple is very pale when no stain is applied, while Oak will turn out darker, but still be fairly light. If you have an older pine floor, it will remain pale once a finish is applied. Some woods are naturally dark, such as Walnut or Cherry, and it will be very difficult to achieve a lighter look. Bleaching can have uneven results, so it is usually not a good option.
Golden Oak is a good, neutral light stain, as are Golden Pecan and Honey Maple.
The current fashion in home design and decorating is for dark floors. They can be used to create either a dramatic, sophisticated look, or a cozy casual setting. Newer floors such as Walnut and Brazilian Walnut lend themselves naturally to this, but even light floors such as Maple, Oak or Teak can be transformed with the use of a good dark stain applied correctly, although the lighter the wood, the more coats will be necessary to achieve good coverage, adding time to the refinishing process.
If you have Brazilian Cherry or Santos Mahogany hardwood flooring, using a very dark stain can tone down the red tones in those woods, providing a more neutral backdrop for decorating around.
Ebony is a very dark and effective choice, and Jacobean is extremely popular. Royal Mahogany will add a reddish tone. If you’re worried about dirt showing too much with a very dark floor, Dark Walnut is a good compromise.
If you can’t decide between pale or dark, using a mid-tone stain is an excellent compromise choice. You get some of the feel of the darker shades, without showing as much dirt, and at the same time provide coverage for flaws in the floor that the lighter shades would not camouflage. True browns such as Provincial, Special Walnut, and Chestnut will work with most decorating color choices.
Some of the newer hardwood floors are Brazilian Cherry and Santos Mahogany, which have a natural red tone, and there are stains available to replicate that look on other woods. If you are looking to sell at some point, even if you are drawn to red tones in your flooring, consider going with a more neutral choice, as a distinct red tone to the floor can make coordinating colors in the space more difficult.
However, if you want the red tones in your floor, Red Mahogany, Red Chestnut or Sedona Red are good choices for a dark floor. Colonial Maple and Golden Pecan are lighter colors with reddish tones.
A white-stained floor will make a big statement! Suitable for both country styles and modern looks, using a white stain such as Pickled Oak or White Wash Pickling Stain will give you a very light-colored floor. The goal is not to hide the wood completely as with a paint, but to let the grain and some of the tones of the underlying wood to peek through.
White-washing is obviously best done with a light-colored hardwood such as Maple or Oak, as with a wood such as Brazilian Cherry the darker colors underneath will still show through. You will have to use a water-based polyurethane with a white floor, as the yellowing over time with an oil-based polyurethane will detract from the white tones.
Currently, gray is a very popular choice for newly-installed hardwood floors, and you can have this up-to-date look on your existing floor as well, but your success will be limited by the species of wood that you already have.
Maple or Birch are the best hardwoods to use with a gray stain, but a good professional can successfully stain White Oak gray, although Red Oak is more challenging. Part of the challenge is creating the ideal mix of color that will both work with the wood and meet the approval of the homeowner. While there is a premixed Classic Gray stain available, custom blends of Ebony and White can produce a shade that is a better choice. Testing several different samples is key to getting this right.
Once again, the floor will have to be finished with a water-based polyurethane to avoid the yellowing that will clash with the gray stain.
WHAT’S THE BEST SHEEN FOR MY FLOORS?
You can select from 4 different levels of sheen in either oil-based or water-based polyurethane. Sheen is the term used for how shiny the floor is, measured by how much light is reflected from a 60-degree angle, which is consistent with the angle that a person standing in the space would see it. There is no one perfect finish for all floors, so you will want to evaluate what works best in your space.
You don’t have to do a full refinish job if the condition of the floor is otherwise good and all you want is to change the level of sheen on your floor. A professional can come in and screen and recoat your floor with much less trouble (and expense!) than a complete sanding, staining, and coating.
A Glossy finish has 75% or higher luster, and will reflect much more than a matte floor. It is a very high-maintenance choice, as along with the light it will also highlight any dust or dirt on the surface, or imperfections in the wood. It may have to be refinished more frequently to maintain that level of sheen. This is what is used in spaces such as gyms and bowling alleys.
Semi-Gloss, with 55-70% luster, is a good compromise when you want the shine of a Glossy floor but can’t commit to the very high level of maintenance it will require. However, Semi-Gloss will still require frequent cleaning, especially in high-traffic areas, and is not recommended in a home with children and pets.
Satin is the most popular choice for a hardwood floor finish, and with good reason. With 30-50% luster, it has some shine to it, but at the same time does not highlight dust, dirt and scratches the way that the shinier finishes will, making it perfect for homes with children or pets, or in high-traffic areas which see a lot of use. It works well with both dark and light shades of stain.
A Matte finish has only 10-25% luster, with hardly any sheen. It lets the natural look of the hardwood show, and will hide scratches and dirt very well. It is used in very modern spaces, or where there will be very heavy traffic and resultant dirt.
MAKING THE DECISION TO REFINISH
Refinishing your hardwood floors can make a huge impact in a house! Whether you are looking to re-invigorate the look of your home, or fixing it up to sell, you can achieve great results for a reasonable price. While the short-term inconvenience of the refinishing process will disrupt your home life, the long-term benefits of restoring your floors to a smooth, gleaming beauty are undeniable. Refinishing your hardwood floors is an excellent investment in your property.