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Person Applying Polyurethane On Hardwood Floor

Q: My oak floors are covered in scratches. Do I have to sand down to bare wood to get rid of them?

—Susan Bankhead, Meridian, Idaho

A: The Editors of This Old House reply: Not necessarily. If the scratches don't go all the way through to the wood, you can scuff-sand your floors with a buffer and apply a fresh coat or two of finish. The hardwood floor refinishing process is easier and less expensive than sanding down to bare wood and takes less time. In a few hours, your floors will look as good as new.

The job requires using a buffer, which you can rent at a home center, and a vacuum to suck up dust. Buffing hardwood floors can be tricky, so if you've never used a buffer before, practice in the middle of the room until you get a feel for how to maneuver it.

Once the finish is roughed up, we put on a water-based polyurethane, which can be recoated in 3 hours. Oil-based polys are cheaper, but each coat takes about 8 hours to dry. With either finish, we recommend a fresh coat every two years or whenever the floor looks worn. Stick to that routine and your floors will never wear out.

Pro Tip to Prevent Discoloration: Sometimes the tannins from your wood floor react to water-based polyurethane, causing discoloration. To avoid this, apply a base coat before applying your water-based poly. Smooth the base coat out evenly around the edges with a paint brush. (Don’t brush too fast or you may create bubbles, which will show in the finish.) Smooth out the rest of the floor with a synthetic floor finish applicator and give your base coat about 2 hours to dry.

Here are some additional common questions we’ve come across:

How much does it cost to sand and refinish hardwood floors yourself?

If you plan on DIY-ing your hardwood floors, expect to pay a little less than $500 per 275 sq. feet. The average range tends to be between $1,000 to $2,400.

The total cost includes renting sanding equipment along with purchasing sanding pads, wood stain, brushes and finish.

Is it cheaper to refinish or replace hardwood floors?

You can almost always bet that refinishing is cheaper than replacing hardwood floors. With the latter, you’d be paying not only for the new wood but also for the labor of ripping out the old wood and toting it away.

What Are The Steps To Refinishing Hardwood Floors?

Read these 6 steps for refinishing the wood floors in your home:

1. Clean the Floor with a Hardwood Floor Cleaner

Person Using Microfiber Flat Mop On Hardwood Floor Photo by Reena Bammi
  • Remove all the furniture, and spray the floor with a hardwood flooring cleaner or your own mix of 10 parts water to 1 part white vinegar.
  • Gently wipe the floor with a terry-cloth mop or a towel wrapped around a mop head.
  • Close the windows and doors to keep dust contained in the room you're sanding.

2. Prep the Perimeter

Man Hand-Sanding Perimeter Of Hardwood Floor With SandPaper Photo by Reena Bammi
  • Using 180-grit sandpaper, hand-sand the perimeter of the room and any nooks that the buffer can't reach.
  • Rub with the grain 4 to 6 inches out from the baseboard, working over each board until the finish dulls and a powder forms.

Pro Tip: Don't use a sanding block for refinishing hardwood—it might miss uneven spots in the floor.

3. Scuff-sand the Floor Finishing

Man Buffering Hardwood Floor Photo by Reena Bammi
  • Stick a maroon buffing pad to the buffer, and put on a dust mask.
  • Move the buffer from side to side across the floor in the direction of the grain, overlapping each course by 6 inches.
  • The old finish turns to powder as you go, so it's easy to see the areas you've covered.
  • Keep the buffer moving at all times, but stop every 5 minutes or so and vacuum the pad.

4. Vacuum and Tack

Man Dry-Tacking The Floor With Microfiber Cloth Photo by Reena Bammi
  • Leave the room for 10 to 15 minutes to let the powder settle.
  • Put a clean filter in the vacuum, and sweep the floor using a felt-bottomed attachment.
  • Work in line with the flooring strips, then sweep across them to get any powder that settled between the boards.
  • Finally, dry-tack the floor with a microfiber cloth pushed with the grain.

5. Cut in Along the Edges

Paint Brush Applying Finish Around Corners Of Hardwood Floor Photo by Reena Bammi
  • Cover your shoes with booties and your nose and mouth with a respirator that has organic vapor canisters.
  • Strain the finish through a cone filter into a clean plastic watering can, minus a sprinkler head, then pour some strained finish into a small plastic container.
  • Brush a 3-inch-wide stripe beside the baseboards at a point farthest from your exit door.
  • You'll have lap marks if the edge of the stripe starts to dry, so stop after 10 minutes and go to the next step.

6. Roll Out the Poly

Man Using Paint Roller With Extension To Apply Polyurethane On Hardwood Floor Photo by Reena Bammi
  • Pour out a 1-inch-wide stripe of finish in line with the grain—only as much as you can spread in 10 minutes.
  • Using a long-handled roller with a ¼-inch nap cover, roll out the finish with the grain, then across it.
  • Overlap each pass and work quickly to keep a wet edge.
  • After 10 minutes, brush more finish along the edge, then pour and roll again for 10 minutes. Continue until the floor is covered.
  • Wait 3 hours before recoating and a week before putting back furniture.

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