Gneiss House

Low-pressure home metamorphism

Living and dining room redesign

I have painted the final two rooms of the house, at long last! These were the last ones because they are my most heavily used living spaces, so it was more disruptive to paint them. There were also a lot of walls to do, so it took three separate painting sessions. The changes here (some of which are also listed here) include: refinished hardwood floors, new base shoe molding, two rugs from Overstock, a cherry dining table and chairs from craigslist, a hand-built tv stand, shelving from Ikea, an old, sturdy sewing table converted to fishtank stand, restored coffee table and end tables from yard sales, prints mostly from (Brain Salt!), lamps from Bed, Bath and Beyond, and a nice, hand-me-down couch set donated by family. The living room is in a yellow and blue color scheme, and the dining room in warmer yellows and browns. I also replaced the old, grandmothery light covers on the dining room ceiling fan with cleaner-looking new ones from Home Depot (a little change that you don’t notice much but that makes a big difference in atmosphere). Before and after pictures below!


Listing photo, looking into the dining room from the kitchen (living room to the right).


Listing photo, looking from the living room into the dining room.


Looking towards the back of the house from inside the dining room.


Looking back towards the living room from the dining room.


Full dining room view.


Another full dining room view, slightly different angle.


Listing photo of the living room, looking from the front door area towards the stairs and coat closet.


Listing photo of the living room, looking from the stairs into the room.


List photo of the living room, looking from the stairs towards the front door.


List photo of the living room, looking from the dining room towards the front of the house.


Panorama view of the living room, from the front door.


Normal view of the living room from the front door.


Living room, from the stairs towards the front door.


Living room, from the stairs into the room.


And one last view, from the dining room towards the front of the room.


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!

Lessons in floor sanding technique

This is what I have learned about sanding floors:

  • The orbital U-Sand sander is too heavy for me to lift by myself.
  • If you are a petite person, you do not drive the U-Sand. The U-Sand drives you. And odd, rarely used muscles will be very sore.
  • It makes a giant mess. Face masks, goggles, and vacuum cleaners are your friends. So are strong friends.
  • Before sanding, read tips on various websites first, or else you might not know that it’s a good idea to cover your vents with plastic bags before you begin sanding. That said, I promise that your vents will only put a little bit of sawdust back out at a time, and after a month or two of occasional vacuuming, your vents will be done putting out measurable sawdust.
  • Sanding an entire small house, first with a coarse grit and then with a finer one, will rapidly use up all of the sanding pads provided with the sander rental for the grit sizes you want.
  • I do not have it in me to sand an entire house more than twice over in the span of a couple days. But that didn’t matter, because it turns out that twice is sufficient to do a good job. I recommend a first pass with a coarse grit (80 or 100 work fine), followed by a finer one several steps up, but not by any means the finest in the box. That kind of polish is unnecessary.
  • Uneven floorboards mean you will probably never get them sanded down quite far enough to remove every last bit of old stain. If you don’t make peace with this in advance, you will quickly do so once you can no longer move your arms from the pure sanding exhaustion.
  • Any nail sticking up even slightly or staple you missed pulling out will instantly shred the sanding pads as they pass over it, and you will probably be unaware of it for a minute or two. In the meantime, the exposed surface will make a couple black scuffs on your floor that you’ll have to go back and sand back out. After a while you’ll start tipping the sander over to check the pads every five minutes, and usually you’ll replace one or two of the pads almost every time you do so. Protip: do not skimp on the pads. It will just prolong the inevitable and make your job take longer. Also, check the pads every five minutes.
  • Likewise, as a non-pro, DIY sander, it’s unlikely you’ll sand perfectly. There will be some slight ribbing cutting across the grain. This is probably the biggest reason that amateur orbital sanding will almost always look a little amateur. That said, a new finish job of an old floor is still a million times better than what was there before. You’ll probably still love it, ribs and all.

After all of these lessons were learned, my family and I spent an additional day touching up everything by hand. We managed to assemble three hand sanders to work with, using a proper palm sander plus sanding attachments for a power drill and a little dremel. We sanded down every speck of white paint that the previous homeowners had splashed on the floors while painting the walls, every surface of the stairs, the side molding along the staircase, the edges and corners of every room and hallway and closet, and the worst parts of the uneven floorboards that the orbital sander couldn’t touch. We hammered back down all of the loose panels, including a couple that had been damaged but hadn’t needed replacement. We removed a few panels that were so damaged they couldn’t be repaired.

We thought those little odds and ends, with multiple people working and many sets of tools, would take just a couple hours. Instead it took a full day, and we were all exhausted. But in the end I had a bare, fully sanded floor, ready for finishing!

Next time: the value of knee pads!


After closing, my parents and I drove over to my new house and ripped out the carpet.

This is my first house. It’s a 1300 square foot, 65 year old twin west of Philadelphia. Corner lot, up a little slope from the sidewalk. Three bedrooms, one harvest gold bath, old gray and green kitchen, unfinished basement; gas heat but an electric stove. Wall-to-wall (to wall, to wall) mint green carpet, except the kitchen and bathroom, with their cheap linoleum. The rug was the top priority while the house was empty. I had to move my furniture onto the floors within twelve days.


The living room, including mint carpet. (All the photos in this post are from the original seller’s listing.)


The carpet was everywhere.


…even in the closets and the tiny little hallway.


Harvest gold!

My family and I had removed carpet before, so we thought we knew what to expect. What we didn’t anticipate was that the previous homeowner had hired the most nail- and staple-happy carpet installation contractors in the western hemisphere. It took four of us (and a lot of blisters), including a strong friend, several days to get all the carpet, padding, staples, and tackless out. The lousy carpet installers also removed all the base shoe molding and ruined about 18 feet’s worth of flooring panels.

I knew there was hardwood under the carpet, with a relatively dark red stain. It had remained exposed in the back of the master closet. The quality of the wood flooring exposed after we pulled up the carpet was pretty poor, though. Aside from the damaged panels, the integrity of the wood was all right, but there were a couple big water stains, lots of scratches, and very uneven panels.

Next time: sanding!