Gneiss House

Low-pressure home metamorphism

How to finish a floor

The hardwood floor was fully sanded and ready to go. What came next was a lot of crawling around and kneeling on hard wood surfaces. This job is very hard on the knees. Knee pads help, but we were still pretty sore.

To do this right, the floor needs to be really clean. Anything left on the floor becomes part of the floor once the finish is down, so you want the surface to be smooth and free of dust and particles. After all the sanding, sweeping, and vacuuming, any remaining sawdust and other particles need to be removed–twice, leaving about a day in between cleanings for any suspended particulates in the air to settle.

The cleaning is done with tackcloth. Tackcloth, it turns out, is sticky and gooey and kind of gross to handle: the adhesive that makes the cloth tacky comes off the cloth and attaches itself to your fingers, making your hands tacky. We solved this problem by wearing disposable gloves. (Note that latex gloves turned out to be a pretty dumb idea, because of course, latex dissolves in oil-based solvents like stains and polyurethanes. Learn from my mistake: use synthetic disposable gloves.) The other thing about tackcloth that took some time to learn was that it unfolds into much bigger sheets than we initially realized. It’s actually cheesecloth, but the adhesive makes it very difficult to open it all the way. Opening it all the way increases its surface area so much that you’ll need significantly fewer cloths to clean your floors, though, so it’s worth fighting to get them fully unfolded.

So, if you’re refinishing floors, plan for many hours on your knees, using sticky cloths to wipe all the dust off your floors. Do this, of course, from the outer edge of a room backing towards the doorway, so you don’t back yourself into a corner. Bring something very padded to kneel on, and expect sore knees nonetheless.

The cleaning is followed by staining, which is also best done kneeling, using gloves and clean, lint-free cloths to apply the stain. Because my floors had the previous stain only mostly removed, and I was going lighter to brighten the house, a traditional stain was a bad idea: it would apply unevenly and look bad in the areas that still had the old stain. Instead my local hardware store sales rep recommended a less absorbent stain that sits more on the surface of the wood–something not unlike the MinWax Polyshades line, but just a straight stain. This property made it coat over both the prestained and fully sanded wood more similarly. I went with the “honey walnut” shade, which I love: it’s a relatively light tone, but still warm. The outcome was a variegated but nice look to the floor overall. There was ultimately nothing I could do about the two dark water-stained areas without replacing the panels, and for now I decided to just live with those dark spots. It is (I have discovered) difficult to find old oak paneling that’s the same width and thickness as my floorboards, so replacing the panels would be tricky, and the spots aren’t so severe that it was worth trying to do that.

Finally: the finish. After the stain had dried, we tackclothed the whole thing one more time, and then I applied a water-based, semi-gloss polyurethane intended for flooring. After the first half of the first coat, I abandoned the recommended technique of first using a hand brush to apply the polyurethane near the walls followed by a brush applicator on a pole to apply it to the interior of the rooms. The reasoning behind the hand application near the walls is that it will help you avoid polyurethaning the walls. But my walls had no base shoe molding left, and instead there were holes and gaps around the edges of all of the rooms and hallways. I knew I was going to have to install molding later anyway, so for the rest of the job I used only the applicator with the pole. This made the applications lightning fast and much easier and more comfortable than the previous work. I was also able to avoid the headache of trying to brush on the polyurethane with hand brushes without creating a lot of bubbles, which would give the finish a rougher, more milky surface. At first my feathering technique was pretty poor, and there are one or two places where I failed to apply perfectly with the grain of the wood and it looks a little funny when it catches the light. But with furniture and rugs on it, even I have a hard time noticing those details.

I intended to do three coats but ran out of time, because the polyurethane needed to dry for several days before I could put furniture on it and moving day was approaching. So in the end I got only two coats down. That might mean that in the long run it stands up less well to scratches and nicks, but so far, one year later, it’s holding up well. And I think it looks great!


Refinished hardwood flooring (oak with honey walnut stain) in the dining room.


Another view of the dining room, with additional lighting.


Refinished floor in the living room.


Refinished floor in the third bedroom/office.

Next time: adventures with landscaping!


Author: Lumberjack Lynne

Geologist by trade, redesigning my little piece of property so it's greener, friendlier, and my very own.

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