Refinishing Old Wood Floors

How to restore old wood floorsWood floors. You either hate them or love them. We love them here at ABM, and were so excited when we pulled back the gross carpet in the Habitat house to reveal the house had (possibly original) wood floors in OK shape. Refinishing them was added to the list of to-dos. It was a project I was looking forward to tackling. I had never restored old wood floors before and had only a slight notion of the process from watching HGTV. 

We could have hired a pro, they would have done a good job, and the floors would have looked great. But where’s the fun in that? (And it would have added more to our budget.) We’re really happy that we decided to do it ourselves. Plus, learning new skills is always a mega plus if you ask me.

How to refinish old hardwood floorsLet’s get to the process. Like everything else, there are so many different resources for refinishing wood floors. This post is a jumping off point. The one thing I want you to take from this is, don’t be afraid of the sanding process. It’s not as scary or challenging as everybody (including me) seems to perceive it as. Here are the steps I took.

Living room floors beforeHere’s what the floors looked like just after the old, stained carpet was removed.

The first thing I did was sweep and vacuum the entire house. I hadn’t covered the floors completely when we painted, so there were portions of floor covered in paint. I wasn’t worried about it then, because I figured I was sanding the floor anyway.

Sanding off paint or stainsI rented a machine called a square buff floor sander on the advice from friends and the rental guy. Until then I was under the impression that other sanders were squirrelly and only pros used them. I sanded the entire house with the square sander. I didn’t really know what to expect. It took most of the paint off, and kind of made the color look more uniform, but I wasn’t impressed. But, they were old floors, so I thought it was as good as it was going to get. Not having a reference for how they should have turned out was an issue. Still, I decided to see if I could improve the floors.

I returned the sander and rented a super duty orbital sander for the edges. As soon as I started sanding with that thing, I knew that I was going to need to resand the entire house. That sander was so aggressive, it sanded down to bare wood with no problem. I realized I hadn’t even sanded past the sealer with the square buffer. My eyes had been opened to the potential of those floors! I went ahead and sanded the entire house from the baseboard to about a foot out. It took some strength to keep that sander under control, but it wasn’t too bad. Seeing it remove all the dirt, paint, sealer, and stain was so satisfying! 

Best type of sander to use for refinishing old hardwood floorsAs soon as I was done doing the edges, I rushed back to rentals, anxious to get the right tool and get the floors done right. I rented a drum floor sander and brought it back to the house. I was apprehensive about using it. but as soon as it kicked on and I saw bare wood appearing, I knew I was on the right path.  In a couple of hours I had the entire floor down to bare wood. It looked so good! Sanding that floor felt great.  Here are some tips for sanding I picked up:

-A square sander is for newer unfinished floors! If you are redoing a crappy old stained floor, rent a drum sander!

-The drum sander does not take much to control. They are not hard to work with! You work your way backwards. Start moving even before you start the machine, and you wont get indentions. Turn off the machine before you stop moving. In other word, don’t let the thing sand in one place for even a second, keep moving!

-The drum sander can’t get reach all the way to the wall. That’s what the edger is for. By edging a foot from the baseboard all the way around, I got most of the surface sanded. but I did miss a couple places. That can be avoided by renting the edger after you sand. Or even better, rent both at the same time. 

Man, I was so stoked when I had the entire floor down to bare wood. There are some water stains here and there, especially by the door and kitchen sink. But those could only be fixed by replacing the hardwood, and we didn’t want to take the project that far.

It was time to stain the floors. I chose to stain the floor Special Walnut because it was a good medium shade between the raw wood and the dark water stains. It made the stains less obvious, and gave the floors an overall even color. I applied the stain by hand with a lambswool applicator and rag. If I were to do it again, like in a bigger space, I would just use a mop. 

How we refinished our old hardwood floorsAfter letting the stain dry overnight, it was time to seal her up. First I swept the entire floor again to get rid of dust or particles that might have snuck in overnight. Then working from the back room toward the front door I rolled on the polyurethane. Rolling the sealer on worked great. The only thing I had to watch out for were air bubbles forming. I did two coats of sealer, letting the first one dry overnight, sanding, then applying the 2nd coat. To sand, I used a pole sander that is used for sheet rock sanding. 

Tips to restore old hardwood floorsThat’s it! Not so bad, right? The entire process cost about $350, which included the rentals (could have done without the square sander), sanding pads, stain, and sealer. One thing I did was remove all of the old quarter round molding before doing the floors. Replacing that throughout the house, cost about $165. So for about $500 we had close to new looking floors throughout the entire house. Not too shabby! -Josh

Credits // Author: Josh Rhodes, Photography: Emma Chapman. Photos edited with A Beautiful Mess actions.

  • Wow, awesome! Great work, thanks for sharing.
    Now I wish I had an old wood floor, too 😉

  • Great job, the floor looks beautiful! (and I really don’t know how someone can hate wooden floors, especially when they look like this!)

  • A tip on the water stains–I have had great results using a poultice of Barkeeper’s Friend and water. Mix them into a paste and apply over the water stain and let it dry completely, then remove with a damp cloth. Repeat til the stain is gone or almost gone.I have faded completely black stains to almost nothing using this method. Good luck!

  • Those posts are my new ABM favorites! I’ve been looking into renovating older homes to their former glory and these have been so helpful! I was overwhelmed thinking about doing the floors, but this made it seem doable! Thanks for the info!

  • Wow! Those floors look amazing…that is pretty handy advise about the water stain and using a stain that is close to it in color to even out the overall look! 🙂

  • Great job! I love your Habitat house project, is going to bring such happiness.

    We did the same thing in our rental place, it cost us about $175 and a whole lot of time but is so worth it.

    Nice wooden floor changes an entire room:)

  • I sell hardwood flooring and this tutorial is really great for a DIY. Looks like you hit the important points.

  • Looks beautiful! It’s nice to hear about the process, including concerns and confusions; it’ll be helpful in the future!

  • Hello! Spelling fairy here! I found this error. Thought you should know.

    “the advise from friends and the rental guy”

    Advise is a verb. You were looking for the noun: advice.


  • they’re GORRRRRRRRGEOUS! WOW!!!!!!! i LOVE a dark, rugged stain, and those are just flawlessly beautiful. fantastic job! <3 <3

  • I am so very impressed, Josh! Good work! The floors are just gorgeous. I’ve always been intimidated with owning hard wood floors. Thanks for breaking it down.

  • AHHh now you make me want to re-do my floors. I have a long enough list for my summer off from reading this blog! Thanks for all the awesome tips!!!

  • This is awesome! Gives me something to look forward to… we salvaged old flooring from a farmhouse for our “new” tiny home that we’re renovating! We’re getting close to finishing the flooring in the renovation process!

  • It must be the bleach in the Bartender’s Friend that bleached the floors. Tiny drops of bleach also work to remove black stains on wood. Use an eyedropper and wipe immediately to see see how long you need to leave it on. This isn’t a “walk-away” job. Keep the windows open, too.

  • These look amazing! I definitely would have had to fight through the discouragement of the sealer layer appearance. Glad to know there was hope on the other side!

  • Awesome job!
    What grit sandpaper did you use for the different sanders or did they come with the paper/grit already attached?

  • wow! what a difference it made. I dream of the day we no longer rent and I can take on diy projects to our house.

  • That’s so awesome 🙂 my dream is to find a house that has original wood floors for me to re-do! I’ve always been pretty optimistic that I could re-finish them myself (as opposed to professionally) so I’m glad that it really doesn’t seem to hard.

  • You should be so proud of yourself! The floors look amazing. Walnut is one of my favorite stain colors because it is dark but not so dark the wood of the grain is hidden. Beautiful job on your home!!

  • I am loving the big projects you’re tackling in this house and all the helpful information you’re sharing!

  • I need to redo my hardwood floors in my house. I am glad you posted this!! I have some water stains in my living room which I thought sanding would fix. Now I am afraid sanding won’t help. 🙁 I am willing to try someday! My problem would be getting my furniture somewhere while I do this.

    • I was going to say the same thing. I want to refinish my floors, but don’t know what to do with the furniture while I do it. Can you split the house in half and do half Saturday and the rest on Sunday?

  • i’m in the process of refinishing my living room floor (it was covered in terrible paint stains from the previous tenants) and we’ve been using your guide. thanks for pointing us in the right direction on a pretty intimidating project.

  • Hi

    Is there any big difference between brands of water based high traffic floor varnishes? It looks more or less the same, it comes in two pack, it dries in 1 hour, etc. Bona, Junckers, Tover, Ciranova, etc.

    Great article

  • Gosh – WOW! That is absolutely amazing and stunning. Beautiful. 🙂 I don’t need to say more because the wooden floor in the picture says it all itself! To bring out the beautiful grain of the wood like that is what wooden floors are all about. Good on you for having the gumption to just go ahead and do it! Fabulous! 🙂

  • This is exactly what I was looking for! 2 quick questions: 1. What species of wood is this? 2. What type/brand of poly did you use? I just finished sanding my floors and am looking for advice to get the perfect look and you guys nailed it!

  • Thank you for making this less intimidating. I actually think my husband and I could do this! I’m thinking this post may save us a couple thousand dollars. THANK YOU!

  • “A square sander is for newer unfinished floors! ”

    That is for what is called “screening” – scuffing up an existing finish so it can be recoated. If you redo the floors in a few years, this is what to use.

    If you do another floor and find water stains, wood bleach (oxalic acid) and a bit of hand sanding on those boards usually removes them.

  • Hi

    I love to see that there are still people with common sense in this world. Even if i own a carpet cleaning company, i am 100% pro wood floors. Quality wood floors. Easier to maintain, eco, natural looking, longer lasting, etc. Most people are not aware that under their carpets hides a perfectly good wood floor that can be transformed in hours.

    Great article & very easy to read

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