Hardwood Floors

By Tom Roebuck

June 25, 2010 5 min read

Owners of older homes often are drawn to them by their stately charm and historical significance. Without modern materials and techniques, builders had to rely more on craftsmanship and carpentry in the days before houses were mass-produced.

That historical charm does not come cheap, however. As a house ages, it requires more work and, of course, money. Ancient water heaters will fail; paint will peel; roofs will leak. Time also takes its toll on carpet, especially if there are kids or pets in the family. A good carpet can last for years, but even the best eventually will succumb to the rigors of being walked upon all day.

Homeowners would be wise to be careful when removing carpet, especially in an older home, as there may be a treasure that has been hiding under the carpet for years: a hardwood floor worthy of refinishing. Even a long-neglected hardwood floor can be made to look like new, and in many cases it's a one-day job.

If there's a possibility that a well-built hardwood floor is under the carpet, care should be taken during removal so the floor underneath isn't damaged. Pull up a corner of the carpet with a pair of pliers, tearing it away from the tack strip on the floor. Continue around the room until all of the carpet is free. Removing the tack strips requires more care. A small pry bar can be used to pull out the tack strips, and wedging a drywall taping knife between the floor and pry bar will protect the floor from scratches.

Once the carpet and tack strips are gone, the floor can be examined to determine whether it's worth refinishing. Many 19th-century homes had neatly laid hardwood floors, but many others had floors that were cobbled together using softwood boards of random sizes. Refinishing a floor that was hastily built may result in simply the flouting of its flaws, and new carpet may be a better option.

If a floor has been deemed worthy of refinishing, the next step is to start sanding. As the case is with many other procedures, prep and cleanup can take as much time and work as the actual sanding, if not more. Even though newer sanders have vacuum attachments that can capture most of the dust, the job site still will get covered in dust and needs to be sealed from the rest of the house with plastic sheets.

"When we're sure the dust won't get to the rest of the house, we start our sanding process with the big machines and edgers," says Rusty Swindoll, assistant director of technical training for the National Wood Flooring Association. "We start with the least course paper we can, possibly a 50 (grit), depending on whether there's any cupping or anything that needs to be sanded out."

After the floor has been sanded using 50-grit paper, Swindoll recommends further sanding using increasingly smoother paper, indicated by the higher grit number.

"Let's say 60-80-100, basically," he says. "You use a 60 and then get those scratches out with an 80 and then get those 80 scratches out with 100."

Once the floor is flat and the old finish has been sanded off, it's time to apply the stain using rags or a chamois, depending on the product. After the stain has dried -- typically about two hours -- the new finish can be applied.

"The finish could be water-based; it could be oil-based," Swindoll says. An oil-based finish takes eight to 10 hours to dry, whereas a water-based one takes two to four hours. "And with an oil-based (finish), you have to move out because of the fumes. With water-based (finish), you can stay in the house because it'll dry out before you get back in. Unless you're doing the whole house," he says.

Fumes aren't the only concern. Tearing up old carpet and sanding release dust and contaminants into the air that can be hazardous. A government-certified respirator should be worn at all times rather than a flimsy dust mask that doesn't create a proper seal. Accumulated sand dust can become combustible, so sanders should be cleaned after each day. Stain rags are notorious fire hazards and need to be disposed of properly, not just tossed in the trash can.

It would be a shame to have a beautifully finished floor go up in flames.

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