One of the largest projects in our home was refinishing the old red oak hardwood floors. The 85-year-old dark amber stain was turning yellow and it made the whole house look dark and outdated. Since I was going for a brighter look of a light natural white oak to go with the theme of a modern Tudor, the old floors were just not going to work. So it was time to refinish and it was a beast of a project – but SO worth it!
Prepping the floors
And oh did our floor need prepping. I feel very lucky that most of the main level was covered in a solid oak hardwood but the key word here is most. After removing two walls, we were left with some gaps that needed to be filled in to make the floor seamless throughout the house. Since I turned the back half of the kitchen into the master bath, I had enough leftover hardwood pieces to fill those gaps. So our prepping consisted of tearing up 3 layers of flooring in the kitchen, puzzling together extra pieces and removing a massive amount of tar paper from about 1/4 of the floor. This was all done before we even began to start the actual refinishing process!
Sanding the hardwood floors
After the prepping was done, we began the process of sanding the floors. I rented a drum sander and an edging sander from Home Depot, along with many sanding pads. The sanding portion of the refinishing took four days and seven total sandings. Our week 7 video below goes through the total process of sanding the hardwood floors.
The big takeaways from the sanding process are:
‣ Gradually go from a course grit to a fine grit with your sandpaper. I tried going straight from a 24 grit (the most course one they had) to an 80 grit (the finest one they had). Nope! You definitely will need to stairstep starting with a 24 then at least one sanding with both a 36 and a 60 and then finish with an 80 or higher. This will get you a professional smooth look. I had to sand our floors at least 3 times with a 24 just to get all that old stain off. All floors are different so make sure to get plenty of sanding pads, you can always return the ones you didn’t use.
‣ Start in an inconspicuous place on your floors. I started right in the entryway of our house where it is the first place you see. Why was this wrong? Because it takes a while to get used to the large drum sander and find the rhythm that sands well without making divots on the hardwood. These divots are caused by having the sander in one place for too long and over sanding spots. Find your rhythm in a back room and then move to the main areas for the best results.
‣ Always sand with the grain of the wood with one exception. The stain was so soaked into the wood on my floors, I had to go perpendicular (or against the grain) for my first and second sand. This was the only way I could get that old orange-yellow stain off the floors in an even way. For EVERY other sanding after that I went with the grain of the wood to get an even and professional finish.
‣ Make sure you have plenty of light. Refinishing your hardwood floors is probably going to take you late into the night but don’t sand in low visibility. It is hard to tell what you have done and you can get burn marks in the floor from over sanding areas or patchy uneven sanding that will make you very sad.
‣ Wear ear protection. These guys are loud! It will keep you sane to have some kind of ear protection. Even better if you have ear protection with Bluetooth since the sanding can get tedious and boring. Listening to music or a podcast could be a lifesaver.
‣Never put any actual paint on your hardwood floors. Just don’t. Only stick to stain and polyurethane.
Red oak vs. White oak
I learned quickly when refinishing these old hardwood floors that oaks are not all created equally! Before you start embarking on this harrowing journey, find out what floors you have. Once I sanded the floors they came out as beautiful, light and neutral flooring that had that Scandinavian floor look I love. But once you start staining or finishing them they can change on you quite a bit. Always test out anything you are going to put on your floors while you still have your sander to remove the samples. If you do have red oak and they are pulling out a ton of red tones, here is an awesome forum that can help you transform your red oak floors into a clean modern white oak look.
The difference in oil-based and water-based polyurethane.
Polyurethane is the top coat that you put on the wood to seal and protect it. Usually applying two to three coats is the standard finish for floors depending on the product you use. Oil-based polyurethane will darken the wood and can turn yellow over the years. Water-based polyurethane will keep your floors lighter and more true to the sanded color, plus it won’t get a yellowish tinge. Water-based polyurethane was a no brainer for me since I wanted to keep my floors as light as possible. I used 3 coats of Behr water-based matte polyurethane to get the most modern and lightest results and I couldn’t be happier. Just make sure to always do your test strips and let them try completely for the truest results to choose from.
How much did refinishing your old red oak floors cost?
I did a complete breakdown of my costs in the video below to show both the process and the price. But the short story is that refinishing my hardwood floors DIY cost about $900. Compare that to the thousands I would have paid to have them professionally redone, I have no regrets at all!
Refinishing our hardwood floors was not an easy weekend DIY job. I took about six days total (not counting the prep work of relocating floors and removing the ghastly tar paper) and a ton of elbow grease. Now that they are done I can confidently say it is something that I would do again and not only do I love the cost savings but I am also so proud of my restored floors. They revive the whole house and make the space seem bright and clean while keeping the original 85-year-old history of our home. If you are getting ready to refinish your hardwood floors I encourage you to go slow and not skip any steps, as amateurs our biggest friend is taking one step at a time and not to rush the process. It’s so worth it in the end!