Last Updated: July 6, 2023, by: Rob Parsell
Learn how to sand and refinish hardwood floors yourself with our step by step guide
Sanding, refinishing and sealing hardwood floors is a long and dirty job that will cost you plenty of time and not a little money. If in doubt get some quotes from local professionals before undertaking the job yourself.
One of the best things about hardwood floors is how hard-wearing and resilient they are, but even the toughest of wooden floors will benefit from regular upkeep to restore its shine and to remove obvious signs of wear-and-tear such as scuffing and water stains.
You should refinish hardwood floors by sanding and sealing them from time to time to keep them looking at their best. The good news is that the majority of hardwood floors only need to be refinished every 8 to 12 years, although you may find that the floors in certain areas of the home need a refinish more often, particularly in the kitchen which tends to take a lot of traffic!
The other good news is that whilst you can hire professional companies for hardwood floor refinishing – and this is something I would highly recommend if you have little DIY experience – it is also very possible for a proficient DIYer to get the job done for a fraction of the cost.
Related Reading: Cost to Refinish Hardwood Flooring | Refinishing Engineered Hardwood Flooring
However, if you are contemplating refinishing hardwood floors yourself it pays to research the best techniques and be as prepared as possible, to avoid a bodged job that will just make your floor look awful! To get you started, here is our DIY guide to how to refinish hardwood floors.
FIRST THING FIRST: BE PREPARED
The biggest mistake many DIYers make is not realizing just how long a job is going to take and what kind of disruption that will bring to their home – there’s nothing more frustrating as having to leave a job half-finished because you haven’t factored enough time to do it, and then having to live with the incomplete part until you find time to get back to work. Not having enough time to do a job can also greatly affect the quality of the work, so give yourself enough time to do the job well.
To refinish hardwood flooring you must allow yourself two to three days to do the job and then at least another two days (48 hours) for the final coat of sealant (varnish) to fully dry before you can use the room again. During this time you may not be able to access anything that has to remain in the room (for example, built-in kitchen appliances). Also at certain points during the job you will not be able to access the room at all (for example, whilst waiting for coats of sealant to dry), so you will need to factor that into how you live in your home.
Because of all of this, particularly if you have a busy household and kids, it might be a good idea to schedule your hardwood refinishing project over a long weekend when the rest of your family can take a vacation away from home, or perhaps make arrangements to stay with grandparents or old family friends. And if you’re doing the kitchen floor, maybe leave the job until summer when you can BBQ your meals outside!
Also, if you want to do the kitchen floor and can’t move your refrigerator to a different room, you will need to consider alternative arrangements for storing a few perishables like milk, juice, sandwich ingredients – perhaps your neighbors could help out?
Related Reading: Kitchen Flooring Options
Remember that your pets will not be welcome visitors to your floor refinishing project. We highly recommend that you place your pets in kennels or have them stay with family for the duration of the project – the last thing you want is animal fur embedded into your freshly applied varnish!
BEFORE YOU MOVE ON, ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO DO THIS?
Seriously, if you’ve read all of the above and still think you want to try hardwood floor refinishing yourself then scroll down to our kit list and step-by-step guide. But as the Christine and Jan over at Little House on the Corner quite rightly point out, with all the hassle involved, you may want to take a vacation too and let the pros do it:
“It took our sander guy about 2 hours to do the whole room. We figured that it would maybe take us twice as long – and there are two of us and just one of him. We couldn’t have been more wrong. It took so much longer!”
Generally speaking the cost to refinish hardwood floors is around $2-$4 per square foot if you get the pros to do the job for you – perhaps it might be worth saving up for! Take a look here for more about solid hardwood floor prices.
With that said, if you comfortably know your way around a toolbox and have taken all the logistics into account, then by all means refinishing your hardwood floors yourself is within your reach. Here’s what you’ll need and how to do it:
GET YOUR KIT TOGETHER: HARDWOOD REFINISHING MATERIALS AND TOOLS
• large random-orbital sander with several packs of sanding disks of varying abrasiveness including 60, 80, 100 and 240-grit discs
• small random-orbital sander, also known as edging-sander, with grit discs as above
• sharp scraper
• masking tape
• protective clothing (dust masks, goggles, earplugs, boiler suit, vapor respirators, neoprene or vinyl gloves)
• vacuum cleaner
• tack cloth and rags
• oil-based stain color
• polyurethane sealant (varnish)
• long handle high-density foam rollers
• porous sponges
• high quality brushes
• something to stir sealant with
• paint trays
• plastic tarps (optional)
STEP BY STEP “HOW TO” GUIDE TO HARDWOOD FLOOR REFINISHING
STEP ONE: PREPARE THE ROOM
Obviously the first thing you’ll need to do is remove all removable furniture from the room. Make sure to get help with heavy items – you could even consider using those plastic disc sliders to move the largest items. Sanding floors will create an enormous amount of dust, so keep the doors closed to any rooms of the house that you are not sanding. You may want to get plastic tarps to lay over furniture or carpets in areas that can’t be sealed off – be aware though that even these measures are unlikely to stop a fine layer of dust settling all over your home after the job is done.
Next, use painter’s masking tape to seal over all appliance sockets or any other small gaps where you don’t want dust settling. You can also use tape to delineate any areas that you don’t want to sand for whatever reason, and it’s a useful idea to use tape to mark the entrance of the room just as a visual reminder to others not to walk into the room during the job.
Finally, tape over the bottom edges and baseboards of kitchen units or any non-removable furniture and the bottom edge of skirting boards to avoid any accidental scuffing with the sander.
STEP TWO: PREPARE YOURSELF
You cannot underestimate the amount of dust this job will produce, and polyurethane varnish can give off pretty strong odors! Please take care to wear the correct protective clothing – boilers suits, dust masks and goggles during sanding; vapor respirators, neoprene or vinyl gloves during sealing.
STEP THREE: SANDING HARDWOOD FLOOR
Not all sanding machines are equal! In fact there’s a very big difference between two of the most common types of sander – the drum sander and the random-orbital sander. Beware, even the most proficient DIYer may be no match for an unruly drum sander. These large beasts are notorious for being heavy and cumbersome, making it difficult to ensure even sanding, and they often leave marks that become very noticeable when you apply your wood stain!
That is why we recommend that you specify with your machine rental store that you want a large random-orbital sander, as the sanding action this type of sander performs is less likely to leave marks and is not at all sensitive to the direction of the grain, making it much less cumbersome to use. You can also rent smaller palm held sanders that will be useful for getting into corners and along the edges around built-in cabinets etc.
Even with the better handling of a random-orbital sander, there are still little tricks of the trade that you’ll need to know to get the best finish. The Design Sponge website has the low-down on how to use a random-orbital sander when refinishing hardwood floors, and the advice in their Sanding 101 article rings true:
“…do not push down on the sander while in use, but rather let the sander do the work for you and keep it moving. If you leave it in one place for too long, you will have a sanding circle that looks like a little alien space ship landed on your piece!”
The main thing is to approach the sanding with delicacy – after all, a hardwood floor is a big investment and you don’t want to wreak it with heavy handed sanding! Begin with a medium-grade sanding disc to remove the old finish from the hardwood planks – 60-grit works best. Sand the floor carefully making sure not to miss any areas. Use the edging sander to go along the edges and get into corners. Use a sharp scraper to lift off any areas where the old finish is particularly stubborn. Then sand again with a finer sanding disc, say an 80-grit one, and then a final go over with an even finer one – around 100-grit.
Try and sand the whole area in one go with a particular grit grade before moving to the next grit to ensure even sanding, and periodically vacuum the floor between sanding to reduce dust. After the final sanding do a really careful vacuum and wipe the floor down with slightly damp tack cloths.
STEP FOUR: STAINING THE FLOOR
Once you’ve successfully removed all the old finish and have smoothly sanded floorboards you are ready to apply the wood stain. If you’re trying to match a stain to another section of floor it is best to do a patch test first on an area that won’t be seen when you put the furniture back, allowing the stain to dry fully to check the color before applying it to the rest of the floor.
Move on to applying the stain in a thin, even layer. It is important that you work relatively quickly but methodically at this point. It is better to apply the stain to smaller sections of the floor rather than all at once, but at the same time you want to avoid the stain drying out thus creating overlapping marks where two areas of stain meet. We recommend that you use an oil-based stain for this reason, as they generally take longer to dry leaving you more time to do the job!
You can use brushes, rags or porous sponges to apply the stain – and then use a dry rag to wipe away any excess. It is also possible to apply the stain with a high-density foam roller, but that can tempt you to do larger areas and result in overlapping marks. Allow the stain to dry thoroughly before moving to the next stage.
STEP FIVE: SEALING THE FLOOR
Now you don’t want to go and ruin that lovely staining with dusty shoe-prints, so our top tip is to take your shoes off now and do this step wearing just socks on your feet!
It is imperative to seal the stained floor to protect your hardwood floor from water damage, scuffs and scratches. The ideal is to apply three coats of polyurethane sealant. The easiest way is to use a high-density roller with a long handle, working methodically with the grain and being careful not to drip the sealant on the bare wood (keeping your paint tray on a plastic tarp will help you maneuver the roller without dripping). Use a good quality brush to cut-in the varnish around the edges of the room and built-in furniture. Want something tougher than a straightforward polyurethane?
Apply the sealant as evenly as you can, but don’t worry too much as polyurethane has an in-built self-leveling quality which should mean that you’ll get an even layer as it dries.
Sealing the floor is likely to take you a whole day. You will need to wait at least an hour for the first coat to dry, and then you ideally should sand it back gently with a very fine sanding disc – around 240-grit – before applying the second coat. Again wait at least an hour after the second coat, sand back again, and then apply your third and final layer of varnish.
And there you go; you’re done! But now you MUST wait 48 hours before walking on that gorgeous newly refinished floor, so spend the next couple of days admiring your work from afar whilst you plan your next home décor project!
Do you have a story to tell about your experience of refinishing hardwood floors? If so please drop us a line in the comments below. Good or bad we want to hear from you!
About the Author:
Rob joined the Home Flooring Pros team in 2014 and is a freelance writer, specializing in flooring, remodeling and HVAC systems (read more).
“I’m the son of an interior designer and picked up an eye for design as a result. I started hanging wallpaper and painting at 14 and learned enough on the job to be the general contractor on two homes we built for our family and did much of the finish plumbing, electrical, painting, and trim work myself.”