Hardwood Floor Restoration: After Years of Neglect

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Hardwood floor restoration can be very challenging. Especially after years of foot traffic, dropped items scratch from bedposts, fires, and floods have left behind all sorts of damage. For us, refinishing the hardwood floors in our home meant dealing with all those things.

Over the last century, these floors have seen everything. I still insisted on salvaging them because they were the only historical pieces left in the entire house and I did not have the heart to tear them out.

Luckily, oak is the type of wood that can stand the test of time. If you can find old oak floors, the likelihood of restoration is high!

Even if you think your hardwood floors are beyond repair, you may be able to breathe life back into them with some of our tips and instructions.

Let’s take a look!

Damaged oak floors before restoration.

HARDWOOD FLOOR RESTORATION: TRYING TO SEE PAST THE DAMAGE

I honestly hesitated to post the ‘before’ photos of our old wood floor.

They were really that bad.

Hardwood kitchen floors during repairs. The floors are discolored, patchy, and covered with levelling compound and spilled paint.

The floor in the kitchen was beyond restoration (so they said). We found evidence of a flood, a fire, and a DIY attempt that went wrong. Whoever attempted to restore these floors gave up midway. They tossed down a 1/4 inch of leveling compound, and some linoleum, and called it a day.

As soon as we sat this, we knew wood floor restoration would prove to be a challenge.

As for our living room, it was in slightly better shape, but it still had its issues. The boards that we replaced in the living room had cracked with fissures of black charcoal. They didn’t look like charcoal… they were charcoal.

Fire damaged hardwood boards during floor restoration

How something burned down that much and didn’t burn the entire house down is beyond me, but here we are.

The house still stands. There were also:

  • Scratches
  • Gouges
  • Raised nails
  • Cigarette burns
  • Permanent marker

Oh, my. It took a full month to repair all the damage before we could even start sanding.

True story!

HOW TO RESTORE hardWOOD FLOORS

When it was all said and done, we decided to move forward and documented our whole journey when it came to our hardwood floor restoration.

And, guess what? We lucked out!

Our bedroom floor was a combination of two different types of hardwood flooring. It had both 1 1/2 oak boards which matched the living room and 3.5-inch boards that matched the kitchen. Since we had to pull up all the miss-matched boards, it made sense to use them to replace the damaged hardwood in the rest of the house.

That was my husband’s genius idea. He’s a keeper!

Though, he probably regrets that idea.

Piece of advice: If you have damaged boards that need replacing, you may be able to take some from an inconspicuous area like a closet.

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1. DETERMINE WHICH FLOORBOARDS NEED TO BE REPLACED

We started our repairs by marking the damaged floorboards that we could not refinish. After a careful inspection of each board, we realized we would need to replace 30% of the kitchen boards. A piece of cake right?

I found a few tutorials online about replacing a single board but couldn’t see any that did what we were about to do.

Do you know why there are no tutorials? It’s not the best way to do it.

If you install the boards incorrectly, you risk the integrity of the entire floor. Wood floors need to breathe. They need to be able to contract in winter and expand in the summer. Install them too tight and your boards will pull or warp.

We took our time and did each step carefully. It was time-consuming, but it paid off in the end.

2. REMOVE THE BROKEN BOARDS

We started with a drill and a chisel and let me tell you- The work was slow going. We had to be careful not to damage the wood that was remaining but chiseling it all out was going to take far too long. That lasted an hour before we gave up and made the 2-hour drive to the city to get a mini saw.

Update: You can see in the photos below that we ended up getting a mini circular saw. It worked WAY better than a hammer and chisel, but if I had my day over I would have picked up an oscillating saw. We have one now, and there are so many situations where it’s the perfect tool. (I’ve included links to examples of the saws for clarity, but they aren’t the exact models we own)

Removing damaged hardwood floor boards.

With the mini saw, we were able to cut out large inside portions of flooring. After we cut out all the boards we could, we used the chisel and hammer to pry out the remaining parts of the boards.

Let me tell you… Hardwood floor restoration is slow work. You have to work around the nails and pull them out without damaging the edge of the remaining boards. Without the edge, the replacement boards have nothing to grab.

Once the old boards were up, and the floors cleaned, the new boards slid into place for us without any issues!

Replacing damaged hardwood floor boards.

We did have to use glue in some spots. We tried to avoid doing that as much as we could.

Since the hardwood floors need room to expand and contract, I didn’t know for sure what effect the glue would have. But, on sections where we had no lip to secure the board, we had no choice.

After a year of living with these floors, we haven’t had any issues. We haven’t had any boards lift, shift or even warp.

3. CHOOSE YOUR SANDER

When it came time to sand down the floorboards, we used a drum sander. There is a lot of information on the internet about the pros and cons of both the drum sander and the orbital floor sander (not to be confused with your handheld orbital). I can tell you that we’ve used both in this house and I loved the drum sander.

The drum sander did its job and did it quickly. It was also fun to use! I sanded the floors myself with no prior experience and was pretty pleased with the outcome. The first pass had me in awe of the drum sander.

This picture is blurry, but I added it so you could see how much flooring the drum sander removes in a single pass. This photo shows our first pass over the worst parts of the kitchen floor.

Note: If you don’t empty the bag, it will kick up a lot of sawdust.

Don’t fear the drum sander!

Drum Sander 1st Pass on Badly damaged Hardwood Floors.

The orbital, on the other hand, made me pitch a fit. Never in my life have I been that frustrated. I can’t even look at an orbital floor sander without giving it the stink eye for a full minute.

The orbital floor sander was slow. So slow. Painfully slow. It took me 4 hours to get the same amount of flooring off that the drum sander did in one pass.

Just listen to me – get the drum sander.

Did we leave drum sanding marks on the floors? Yes, we did. Did I care? No.

The restored hardwood floors look rustic, and the few dings that we did make with the sander didn’t matter. They are not at all noticeable unless you get down there to look.

4. How to Sand and Renew Hardwood Floors

We used four different grits when we sanded the floor, starting with 40 for the kitchen.

40 is like using small sharp rocks to remove a good deal of wood and scratch the hell out of everything. We used that grit to level the kitchen floors and remove the leveling compound. It worked like a charm!

Regular floors don’t need to start at 40. If your hardwood boards are as bad as ours were and you need to remove a lot from the top, 40 is the way to start.

It’s important to note that you need to know the thickness of your floors. Our floors were 3/4 inch and had no evidence of prior sanding. We could take a lot off the top before the oak couldn’t handle any more sanding.

Hardwood floor restoration in progress.
Freshly sanded Hardwood floors.

 

We did four different passes with four various grits. Each time the floors revealed more of their beauty. It kept getting better and better.

5. DON’T FORGET TO SAND THE EDGES

After we finished sanding the floorboards, we rented the sanding edger to sand down all of the edges. You need this sander to reach the areas where the drum sander can’t reach. The floor sander leaves about a 4-inch rim around your floors that you will have to sand.

You could try it with a standard orbital, but I can tell you from experience- that’s a bad idea. The drum sander removes a lot of flooring. You would have to be on your hands and knees for a long time trying to match the levels.

The edger does this in a few passes. It’s magical!

It took us 8 hours to sand and edge 400 square feet. We had to do four full passes with the sander and the edger.

6. PREP YOUR NEWLY RESTORED HARDWOOD FLOORS FOR STAINING

Sawdust was EVERYWHERE. Seal your rooms if you are going to do this and save yourself two months of cleaning.

I recommend a quick clean-up after sanding to get the bulk of the sawdust out, give everything a good sweep, and leave it until morning.

If you do the detailed prep work the same day, I can guarantee you’re going to have more sawdust settle overnight. You will end up cleaning everything again a second time.

Cause that’s what happened to us.

We spent two solid hours of clean up. Swept, and vacuumed everything including the walls and ceilings. Wiped down everything with a tack cloth. I thought I would get up in the morning and start applying the stain.

That’s not what happened.

So much dust settled that I had to do it all over again.

You need to ensure all the dust is gone because you don’t want particles in your stain or sealer. It’s a tedious job but one that will make or break your final finish.

7. STAIN THE HARDWOOD FLOORS

This is my favorite part of the hardwood floor restoration: staining!

So, staining the hardwood floors was a simple job. I mentally blocked off 4×10 areas, applied my stain, waited 10 minutes, and removed it with a clean rag.

I repeated this process until I finished the entire floor. It went quickly and it was amazing to watch the oak floorboards change color.

Dark Stain on Freshly Sanded Hardwood Floors

We thankfully didn’t need two coats of stain. One coat gave us the finish I wanted! We used Minwax Dark Walnut and it applied like a dream. It gave us a beautiful mid-warm brown finish.

I loved it!

Dark hardwood floors need constant cleaning to look good because they show every single spec of dust. They were not my first choice.

So why did we go with the dark stain?

It hid every single minor imperfection. Small gaps, tiny burn marks, and even the dings from the sander vanished after applying the stain. It was like magic.

Dark stain + old floors = magic.

We let the stain dry for 24 hours before applying our sealer.

8. ADD THE SEAL TO YOUR ‘NEW’ FLOORS

Sealing the floors was the best part of this hardwood floor restoration. Adding the seal added a layer of shine that brought out the wood in the most magnificent way.  You can see in the photo below how the sealer changes the look of the wood. Half the floor was sealed when I stopped to take this picture.

Polyurethane Over Newly Sanded and Stained Hardwood Floors

 

We opted to use a water-based polyurethane. We needed access to the house again and this polyurethane dried the fastest. The polyurethane we used was also low VOC, and it didn’t stink to high heaven. It did smell bad, just not as bad as most polyurethanes. We used Minwax low VOC semi-gloss polyurethane and it worked great.

I used a stain sealer on a broomstick and each pass only took about 30 minutes.

Note: You do need to be careful with the sealing pad. Too much pushing with too much sealer on the pad will create bubbles. I do have bubbles on my floor, but you can’t see them. I can see them because I know they are there and they annoy me!

Save yourself that hassle by going slow and not soaping up the polyurethane.

We were able to get three coats of our water-based poly on in 24 hours. It was dry and hot outside, and the sealer was drying for us pretty quickly.

OUR HARDWOOD FLOOR RESTORATION: THE BEFORE & AFTER

Can you believe they are the same hardwood floors?  The after photos all look like different colors, but all the floors are a warm brown like the very last picture. When I took these photos, I was using a potato.

4 Examples of Damaged Floors Prior to Restoration.
4 Examples of Hardwood Floors After Restoration.

Was it worth it? YES! I love my floors!

It cost us $1.00 (Canadian) a square foot for the sander rentals, sandpaper, stain, and polyurethane.

They are not 100% perfect, but I’m okay with that. These restored hardwood floors have a rustic charm that adds a lot of personality to the house.

If you’re sitting on hardwood floors that are covered up by linoleum or carpet, you should have a peek. You might not have to repair anything. Your floors might only need a refinishing job.

Although our hardwood floors took months to restore, the actual sanding, staining, and sealing happened over one single long weekend.

If you have any questions about our floor restoration, feel free to drop me an email or leave a comment!

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