Figuring Out the Finish

There are three general types of floor finish. It's important to know which you have because not all finishes are compatible. If the old and new finish don't mix, you'll have to sand down to bare wood before refinishing. Polyurethane Today, most floors are finished with polyurethane, a durable, moisture-resistant oil-based or waterborne plastic coating. You'll know your floor has a polyurethane finish if it looks as though it's covered with a plastic film and you can't scrape up any gummy residue. If you're not sure, get advice — other surface finishes like shellac, lacquer and varnish resemble polyurethane but require special treatment. For more information on these finishes, go to nofma.org. Penetrating oils and sealers These primarily solvent-borne finishes, including old-fashioned sealants like linseed oil, soak deeply into the wood pores. Many of these floors are then waxed. These finishes are typically not compatible with a topcoat of polyurethane and have to be treated with the original finish or stripped completely. Waxes Some floors have wax as the only finish, or the wax is applied over polyurethane or a penetrating sealer. If you can scrape up a gummy, waxy residue, especially in corners, your floor has a wax finish. A waxed floor also gets a hazy look when wet. Before you put down any finish on a wax-only floor, the wax has to be removed.

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