The Art of Hardwood Floors: What Others Won’t Tell You (Part 1)

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The “Pro” Blogs Make It Look Easy (If You Have Picture Perfect Floors)

Refinishing hardwood floors: you just rent a few sanders right?  How hard can it beLike many others, you own or bought a house, and a rewarding but challenging decision awaits you with unlocking the potential (and future monetary value) of hardwood flooring.  I am here to share with you my experiences as an “artist“, and although I am not a contractor or woodworking professional (never worked on a home in my life), you are likely in a similar situation. As an artist, I will try to show you how to “have fun with it,” and to use your ingenuity and imagination.  I will fill in parts of the story with working advice that I learned searching dozens of blogs and videos.  One preliminary note: if you plan to do a new floor or discover that your floor is not salvageable, you may want to look elsewhere.  Like Kenny Rogers says: “know when to hold em’, know when to fold em'”  The rest is up to you.

What it starts by boiling down to is 1.) Conditions 2.) Time/Money 3.) Other Factors.

CONDITIONS

Having a wife in late stages of pregnancy and needing a larger future space for our new family, we were fortunate enough to have found a beautiful, semi-original, 1930’s home (in about a C- condition), in January 2024.  The entire house had been done wall-to-wall with musty old carpeting, and large, thick tiles throughout the dining room.  Sure, you can lift up a carpet corner during the home tour (and later inspection stages), but, you really don’t know what you are getting into, especially if you plan to move fast.  With closing delayed to the very last day (February 20th), we had less than 3 weeks until the baby due date to get the essentials of the home into working shape, as well as potentially fumigated.  (Disclaimer: we are still living in an apartment until the lease runs out in April, however, there is a loss of “daddy labor time” 2-3 weeks, due to the newborn).  SO- time is ticking (daddy…)   

Immediately upon closing February 20th and getting keys, I began removing all of the carpeting and wallpaper (and glue!)- FAST.  By Friday the 23rd (3 days later), I had reached the thick tile in the downstairs dining room and struck pay dirt:  there was a layer of plywood between the tile and the original hardwood floors.  Fortunately, the rest of the floors beneath the carpeted areas were in decent shape, with the exception of the stairs (which can be done separately).  The tile removal you will see below.

On Saturday the 24th, my folks brought over their general contractor (maybe you will have a similar “guy” or professional), and he began to layout three things:  1.) the floors had uneven spots; therefore 2.) sanding would create all sorts of headaches; therefore, 3.) hire us to put in “dustless” brand-new wood floors.  Without getting into the details, you could ballpark this for about $5,000-$6,000 for approximately 900 sq. ft.  With everything going on in our lives- there just isn’t that kind of extra money laying around! 

With a professional, you are really getting two things: 1.) the speed/time of having a crew (if they are competent); 2.)  brand new modern flooring or pro-refinishing (if they are competent).  

Ask yourself: with decent/good original wood floors, why would I spend $5,000+ to have someone install a floor on top of an existing floor?

As another friend of mine who did both a refinish job and hiring someone (two different houses), his advice was “pick your poison”- the results are both equally as rewarding.  (This is of course, unless you screw up refinishing the floors yourself.)  

TIME

Time can involve a number of things. For starters, if you pulled up your carpeting and your hardwood is trashed, you may be forced to move in on bad floors if you don’t have the luxury of multiple thousands of dollars (and time).  Or, you will work like serious hell to fix the floors, with no guaranteed result.  Let me say that after the grueling level of work, going back to the start is your worst nightmare. 

How you will feel having to start over. (I guess you could call that “staining”…)

Time can also involve labor and other people’s time.  It’s always interesting how many people are quick to give you opinions and volunteer help, but then don’t show up.  For me, it was myself, and my 80 year old father, and retirement-age mother.  I’m not saying I forced them to work- I’m just saying they showed up!   Be prepared to do it yourself and with little help.  Contrarily, you don’t want too many people or you will be stuck managing personalities (and they will drink all of your beer), and you have to be careful not to scratch or gouge the floor.   If you do have help, refinishing floors will push you and your loved ones to the limits of insanity.  Every person will have a “breaking point”.  

Let me put it another way: even for someone young and in good shape, refinishing hardwood floors can be one of the most physically challenging jobs.    

For the edging- imagine being bent over, in horse stance, with a “Covid mask” on, for days on end, holding the equivalent of the heaviest bowling ball with a canvas balloon blowing off the back.  In fact, if you haven’t reached “psychosis” by Day 2-3, you might be doing something wrong. 

Even The Zissou has a breaking point.

On day 2-3, I worked 8 AM to 9 PM running constantly vibrating heavy machines, and began to hallucinate, returning home to remove my sawdust covered clothes and proceed to sit naked in the kitchen while staring blankly at a corner of a wall spinning while I heard faint mumbles of my wife saying something to me about food.  YOU WILL FEEL PAIN.  Hell, you’ll probably lose a little weight. Any non-working people around you in your life will start to resent you.  

The up shot is: if you do finish this project, it will not only be rewarding, but you will (hopefully) have little-to-no recollection of it having ever happened.

Bear in mind your own “breaking point”: fatigue, and things like drinking beer, being stuck in a respirator and earplugs for hours and hours, and then possibly having to get behind the wheel of a car.  

To spell it out for 900 sq. feet (working at least 9 AM to 8 PM w/ one break):  the sanding took 4 days.  Approximately 3 with machines and 1 for touchups.  Staining: 1 whole afternoon + 24 hours drying, and Polyurethane (at least 2 days +/- depending on type).

 

OTHER FACTORS (AND THE TILE FLOORS!)

Before you get started with refinishing, consider a few other things, such as: 

1.) LIGHTING.  You will ideally need as much sunlight as possible, and or whatever you can do.  This makes working at night challenging.

2.) some machines weighing 100 pounds and moving them, considering stairs.  

3.) the transport of machines from a rental place to your house (do you drive a Miata?)  

4.) Relating to TIME:  the “easiest” of the tasks (such as corners) will bog you down and drive you crazy if you don’t have helpers. 

5.) the amount of sand paper truly needed for the project and the stock levels at your local store (the good news is that un-used items can usually be returned) because:

6.) some floors were originally finished with varnish (how would you know?)  When using the Edging Machine the varnish will smear with the old stain into circles everywhere and clog your sandpaper every 3-4 feet– even at 36 Grit.  For 900 sq. ft. we used nearly 30-35 round sanding discs just at 36 grit and had to drive to 2 different Home Depots.  Once the varnish is mostly removed and smeared around, you basically have to do everything over again to get to the goal of the bare wood.  

I never read that anywhere in any Blogs.  Be prepared for the unexpected things and when in doubt- buy more and return the unused.  Fortunately for me, at least one of my elderly parents was able to do the driving tasks.  Consider dividing tasks according to factors.  Remember my 80 year old dad?  I had him use the Drum Sander, which essentially is walking behind a machine like a lawn mower- but still an exhausting task (and he has done professional woodworking).

7.) FINALLY, as promised: The Tile Floors Over The Hardwood FloorsReaching the first floor Dining Room and a “pad” coming off the front door entryway, there was a layer of large thick tile covering the hardwood floors.  To Proceed or Not To Proceed?  Sometimes you just have to have a little guts and do the most rudimentary of things.  Remember- it’s all about your vision (and stamina)! 

For starters, don’t bash up the floor with a sledgehammer.  The true answer to removing tile over plywood (over hardwood) is very simple, almost ancient (but still extremely backbreaking and brutal).  You need to cut 10-16 pieces of 2×4’s lengthwise into long WEDGES.   The parent’s contractor said to just use shingle lifters/rippers to pry up the floor.  This sort of works, but will gouge the hell out of your floor.  (Conspiracy theory: he wanted to sell me that brand-new floor…) 

Pry up the floor slowly in multiple places and try to create an air pocket, and then begin driving in the wedges with a sledgehammer. 

This will still take quite some time, especially if the tile had a layer of metal mesh, and there were tons of nails used to hold down the wood.  You could bash up some of the tile as you go, and you will need multiple pry-bars in addition to wedges.  Why do you need so many wedges?  Reason is: you will bash up the ends of the wood and need backups, and more backups…  

All told: 2 days delay at minimum (but that hardwood floor is like a gold mine!)

Here are the pics.  Do a search on this technique and let the wedges do the work!   If you get lucky like my tile in the front doorway, the entire sheet will just pop-off.    Good luck and stay tuned for Part 2!    

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