man with booties on his shoes applies a coat of polyurethane finish on a wooden floor
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How to Refinish Wood Floors

You can clean and refinish a scratched wood floor without having to sand down to bare wood

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 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. 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.


Steps // How to Refinish Wood Floors
1 ×

Clean the Floor

 
Step One // How to Refinish Wood Floors

Clean the Floor

man with mop cleaning a wooden 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

 
Step Two // How to Refinish Wood Floors

Prep the Perimeter

man hand-sanding the perimeter of a wooden floor to prep before refinishing
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. Don't use a sanding block—it might miss uneven spots in the floor.

 
3 ×

Scuff-sand the Finish

 
Step Three // How to Refinish Wood Floors

Scuff-sand the Finish

man scuff-sanding a wooden floor with a buffer to prep before refinishing
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

 
Step Four // How to Refinish Wood Floors

Vacuum and Tack

man dry-tacking a freshly buffed wooden floor with a microfiber cloth attached to a flat mop
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

 
Step Five // How to Refinish Wood Floors

Cut in Along the Edges

applying polyurethane with a brush to the perimeter of a freshly buffed wooden 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

 
Step Six // How to Refinish Wood Floors

Roll Out the Poly

applying polyurethane with long-handled roller to a freshly buffed wooden 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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