Tips for Sanding Vintage Hardwood Floors

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The following is from my cousin’s son Doug—he volunteered to help me sand the hardwood floors, and he even wrote up the blog post for me.  Take it away Doug!

 

Doing hardwood floors was always something a little different to me. They’re by far the most visible feature of the room, when done right they can be beautiful and add warmth and character to a home. When looking at hardwood projects I always feared that I didn’t have the attention to detail that was needed to make them look their best. This project was a chance to conquer that fear and to really help a home feel special.

General Impression

On the first few passes with this sander I quickly realized my old fears of chewing through the hardwood or causing enormous gouges were overblown. Even with the starter paper of 36 grit I had to be truly careless to cause problems like digging a valley. I quickly realized that I needed to lift the sanding drum a few inches before I reached the wall (bumping the wall means stopping and if the sanding drum is still down it’ll keep on digging) and not to expect to be able to do the entire length of the floor in one pass. It’s honestly a lot like vacuuming if you’re vacuuming a shag carpet with a really aggressive vacuum. Below are a few of the issues I came across and the tips I can pass along.

Grain

sanding-hardwood-floors

The first pass was on a diagonal to the grain. Frankly, unless you’re refinishing a relatively new hardwood floor that was prefinished don’t do this! Prefinished hardwood has baked in polyurethane that is incredibly hard to damage. I’ve spoken with hardwood professionals who say they roughly double the budget for sanding pads on these types of floors because the polyurethane will wear down even a 36 grit sandpaper fast.

On the project house the floors are from the 1920’s and hadn’t been refinished in a very long time so there wasn’t much polyurethane left. By going diagonal I unnecessarily scarred the grains and a room that should have taken less than  45 minutes to sand took nearly 90 minutes after I had to go over it twice more with 36 grit and then twice with 80 grit. The effort to try it on the diagonal actually cost me more time and sanding pads than dealing with the room with glue mentioned below. So, the lesson learned was don’t do that without a very, very good reason.

Gumming

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The biggest problem we had during the entire project was gumming the sanding pads with glue. In two of the rooms we were refinishing, carpet had been laid and instead of tacking the pad down, they had glued it. Carpet glue feels like a solid, but when you hit with a sanding pad it heats up and melts, turning into a gum like glop that clogs even 30 grit sandpaper. In practice I just threw more sanding pads at it until I chewed throw the glue and was able to get the old stain up. In hindsight I wish I’d just used a large floor scraper to scrape the stuff up with the help of glue solvent or mineral spirits. We didn’t go that route this time because of fears of gouging the floor. After seeing what the sanders do though , it’s obvious now that unless you’re carving your initials in the floor, the sanding pads will erase it.

Edging

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Drum sanders are wonderful, magical machines that do a great job of sanding off the old material faster than you can imagine, they just don’t get close to the edges. After I finished with the drum sander I still had a solid eight to 12 inches of hardwood to sand at the edges of each room. On this, I can only give the slightest bit of advice due to equipment problems. The linked video shows how to use one and frankly it is just about that easy. With a 30 grit sandpaper to start I was able to edge each room in about 30 minutes.

edge-sander-hardwood-floors-feather

This heavy grit sandpaper left some swirling but nothing too extreme. Switching to a 60 grit sandpaper I ran into problems though. No matter what I tried or how hard (or not) I tightened the set screw the paper would come off center as soon as it touched the surface and it created more swirls. This isn’t a problem discussed a lot on the internet leading me to believe it was probably just rental equipment that had a worn pad that no one had reported before. In the end I worked with Gail to use a random orbital sander to feather out the edges as the last step before cleaning for staining. At this point I’d also like to note that oak flooring from the 1920’s is a lot harder than modern oak and will take more elbow grease to prepare.

Equipment

A brief word on equipment in general. Life is short, use the right tool for the job and you’ll save yourself time, frustration, and probably even some money. If the rental place you’re used to going to has worn out equipment and you’re constantly having to talk to them about why it’s broke or not working right, find another place to rent from. Saving a few dollars on a rental probably isn’t worth it if it takes hours longer to do the job because the equipment isn’t up to it. If $10 or $15 more for a better quality rental is a problem on a $1,000 job, you probably need to reevaluate the project.

Not all Drum Sanders Are Alike

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In the first attempt to prep the floors Gail tried a rental sander that used square sheets rolled around a drum that were then clipped in place. To say it was a horrible experience is an understatement. It was difficult and slow to load new sheets, and any glue on the floor from the carpet that was there previously gummed up the sheet and caused it to come off the drum. With two hours of work, maybe 10 square feet had been sanded down. In the end, a horrible piece of equipment and I can’t emphasize enough that life is too short for this.

drum-sander-hardwood-floor-refinishingFor the second try Gail picked up Clarke American Sanders drum sander. This sander features a true drum and uses pre rolled sand paper. To load a new sheet is as simple as unplugging the sander, opening the housing, slipping the new sheet on to the drum. The hardest part is to just keep the sand paper square to the drum so it’ll slide right over it. When you power up the sander the spinning drum actually gets slightly larger and holds the paper in place. ‘

 

The operation was as simple as the linked video made it look, with the lever up, flip the power switch to start. Once it spins up, you begin to move the sander in the direction you’ll be going and just ease the lever down and the sanding pad lowers to the floor and away goes your old polyurethane and stain (and a bit of wood floor). The only time I carved any valleys was when I first started out and didn’t have enough speed up when I flipped the lever and really just dropped the sanding drum too hard or when I walked into the wall. None of these valleys were significant though so no harm, no foul. To practice I’d suggest starting in a corner of a less important room, preferably in a place you know furniture will go in case you do screw up once or twice.

Closing thoughts

So who should do this project? It’s not the hardest project I’ve ever done on the DIY front. Compared to running a ditch digger or a tiller, the drum sander was a dream. The steel casters and raising/lowering handle actually made it pretty easy to maneuver and I was able to control it with just a light grip on the handle. At 125lbs the most difficult part was getting the drum sander out of the car in the snow and ice.

The edger was heavier and more aggressive than any sander I’d ever used before, but then I’d never used a 30 grit sand paper before either. It also had steel caster wheels on it to help with the weight but it’s still a very different beast than the drum sander because it’s trying to spin out. Overall, not that hard to control but because of the speed and fact it requires you to bend to the floor to operate, it was the most difficult part of the job. Since I wasn’t able to get it to work with the higher grit papers, I couldn’t give a fair assessment of how it would perform on anything but the 30 grit paper.

As with all power tools, read the manuals, never stick your fingers in them when they are plugged in, always use proper hearing and eye protection.

Who can do it?

It turns out not to take any really special skills to operate the sanders and get pretty good results. Due to the weight of the equipment and its power, you should have some decent upper body strength though. To operate the edger, which requires constant bending, a good back, shoulders and knees is pretty much a must. I probably wouldn’t try it in a McMansion where every detail matters, but for your average home it’s well within the scope of a handy homeowner.

–Doug

 

 

Thanks so much cuz for helping me out with this project, I couldn’t have done it without you.

Now for a few thoughts from me—I  am getting too old to take on such big DIY projects.  If my cousin Doug had not volunteered to help me, I never would have gotten this job completed.

 

safety-firstIt was a dirty job, but not as bad as I thought it would be.  Both  sanders had great dust collection systems, which was definitely a plus.  Even so, I wore a respirator and a shower cap to keep the dust at bay.

TIP: Turn off your HVAC system while sanding and cleaning up the dust.

 

knee-pads-hardwood-floor-refinishingThese kneepads were also very helpful.  (look at that pretty floor)

 

mouse-sander-refinish-hardwood-floorsIn addition to the big guns, I also used this mouse sander to get into tight spaces and corners, plus  an orbital sander to help feather it all in.

All of these sanders are very noisy, remember to wear hearing protection.

 

sandpaper-hardwood-floor-refinishing

sandpaper-refinishing-hardwood-floorsThis is a portion of the sandpaper we used.  Look closely at the round discs on the left and you can see how the glue gummed up on the sandpaper.

 

Let’s talk $$$

The drum sander rental was $55 for 24 hours, the sandpaper for the drum sander was $116

The edger sander rental runs about $49 for 24 hours, and the discs are about $2 each

If you need tips about removing carpet, check out my post Removing Carpet & Pad 101

 

Have you sanded hardwood floors?  I really want to do them at my house, but it really is a lot of work for old ladies.

gail

         
About gail@myrepurposedlife.com

Comments

  1. My hardwood needs refinishing so badly! Your floors look beautiful . I may have to have a look at re-doing my hardwood now :-) What a great tutorial. Thanks so much!!!

  2. girlfromwva says:

    great advice and tips for getting the job done right. floors are looking good!

  3. Uhhhh—interesting timing. . . .
    my niece and her boyfriend were -literally- just asking me about this type of project!
    Clearly, I’m passing this on to them! Great post—truly informative!
    Catherine

  4. Wow, the floors look so pretty! I am glad you had help from your cousin, great tips!

  5. Great tips! I haven’t refinished any floors in my house because my old wood floors are pretty uneven but if I ever decide to, I will definitely reference this. Thanks for the great information.

  6. Martha Davison says:

    Yes…I have sanded hardwood floors!!! It was a job out of simply not being able to afford anything else. I live in my parent’s home that was built in the early 60′s. Contractors put oak flooring throughout the house (except for the kitchen and bath) in those days. Sometimes it still surprises me that I did it -all-by-myself! I didn’t use a drum sander though. I rented a sander from my local Lowe’s and it had 3 round pads that sandpaper attached to. With it I was able to get close to the wall by taking up the quarter round. It needed replacing anyway. Would I do it again? That was 7 years ago and I have aged quite a bit since then. I remember the exhaustion, but I also remember (and still experience) the great sense of satisfaction in doing such a big job on my own. Yep…I think I might would try it again if I ever needed to.
    Martha

  7. This is such a good post, and I wish my husband could have read it before he sanded our front porch. He had the poor equipment problems you mentioned, and he was so frustrated. He thought it was something he was doing wrong, so I’ll be please to set him straight this evening when he gets home. Really great post!

  8. Gail–
    and Doug… great post and tips.
    the floors look so wonderful. I can’t wait to see them finished.
    I bet you can’t either, Gail! ha!
    I’ve not ever done floors before– but if you say it’s ” a lot of work for old ladies” well, then who am I to question!?
    I like the advice about the rental and the rental place– I guess it pays to be knowledgeable about such machines– to know what your renting.
    Patricia

  9. We refinished the floors in our house. It wasn’t as bad as I had expected, but still quite a bit of work. I’m pretty small so the sander liked to try to take off from me sometimes so I left it up to the big man to do that part.
    The dust cleanup was a bit of a pain. Once you think you got it all, you realize it just keeps showing back up.
    It was all worth it though. We honestly didn’t have a clue what we were doing but our floors look great.

  10. We have 50 year old hardwood floors that we want to refinish ours has a lot of deep dents and dings,is there a product out there to fill these in before we stain??

    • gail@myrepurposedlife.net says:

      Connie,

      I’m sure there are patches and fillers. I used a stainable wood filler on a table once, but I wasn’t happy with how the patch took the stain.

      These floors had a LOT of gouges, dents and dings, but are so less noticeable now that they are all the same color. Before the dents and dings were lighter because of layers gone. I made sure when I applied the stain to get down into those really well. This is a very old home, and I love that the floors keep the charm alive.

      gail

  11. Thanks for all the info! I am going to be refinishing the floors in my downstairs this weekend, plus working on some really tough stairs and hallway (old padding stuck to it). How long did it take you to finish your job and how big was the space?

    • gail@myrepurposedlife.net says:

      Bobbie,
      this house was vacant, so I took my time. It was during the polar vortex, so I had to work on days that were a little warmer due to having to keep the heat off. It was about 3 weeks, but in real time, I think you could DIY it in about 10 days….

      The space? 2 small rooms and one large room. I’m sorry I don’t know sq ft.

      I recommend those knee pads and a kneeler to take care of your knees. No matter what you do, your back will ache! Good luck to you!

      gail

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me! I read and appreciate every word!

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