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Repair, cleaning and refinishing old hardwood floors

by The Handyguys

in Audio Podcasts, Radio

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In this audio episode The Handyguys address a listener question about how to rejuvenate the hardwood floors in his new old house.

The question from Jeremy:

Hi guys, just found your podcast and I love it. working through the archives right now. I’m planning to refinish the original hardwood floors in the 1950s ranch house that I just bought as my first home. I will be pulling all the base trim off and want to go to a dark color to help hide any flaws in the flooring as well as future dirt. Can you please give me any advise regarding: proper prep work, proper tools, recommend a good stain (from what I read product quality can vary significantly), as well as any tips to make the job go smoothly. Lastly, could you please go over any basic wood repair techniques that would be helpful. i.e. filling gaps with stainable wood filler, patching gouges, etc. There are many projects I’m planning and I’m sure I’ll get some great tips in the archives! Thanks Guys.

The Handyguys respond:

Changing hardwood floors to a dark color

I wouldn’t go dark for the reasons you mentioned. Go dark if you like the look. Flaws can usually be fixed, dirt can be cleaned and dark stained hardwood may actually look dirtier faster than a neutral color.

Preparation of hardwood floors

repairing old hardwood floorsPrep work will vary depending on the current condition of the floor. If they are in bad shape then all the old finish is usually sanded off, the floors repaired and cleaned before staining and finishing.

Tools for hardwood floor finishing

Again, this will vary based upon what the condition is. Sometimes a floor only needs a light sanding and then a fresh coat of poly. In a case like that a vibrating sander is ideal. If many heavy coats of old finish and some wood need to be removed then a drum sander is called for. Drum sanders can do a lot of damage if not used properly. You may want to hire that part out unless you are super careful and maybe have an inconspicuous place to practice. Your True Value may have a rental store attached that can guide you on sanders.

Hardwood Floor Stains

Again, only stain if you want to change from the natural color. Some oil based polyurethane will impart a bit of a yellow color. The stain itself doesn’t mater too much, it’s really the top coat that is most critical. I have even know people to make their own stains from coffee! Stain is all about the look you want. If you can get some wood of the same species you can try some different stains to see how you like the look. There is also something called a sanding sealer or preconditioner. Those will affect how the stains absorb and effect the look. Softer woods are more likely to benefit from a preconditioner or sanding sealer.With any of those products make sure you follow the manufacturers recommendations on the can.

Tips for hardwood floor finishing

You don’t ask about the floor finish itself. You have the stain which changes the look/color. You then top-coat it with a polyurethane floor finish. The top coat is the most important. It effects the longevity and durability of the job. For a DIY project I definitely recommend a water based poly floor finish. Why? They dry fast (less time for dust to settle in the finish), they do not change the color (they are perfectly clear), they are easy to apply and easy clean up. The folks at True Value will help you select a good finish. Whatever finish you use make sure it is designed for floors. Again, follow the directions on the can.
cleaning old hardwood floors

Jeremy sent us this picture in a follow-up email

Floor rejuvenation steps

The Handyguys recommend the following steps to Jeremy and anyone else who wants to rejuvenate their floors without completely removing the old finish.

Jeremy – Those floors do not look like they are in that bad of shape. As you do your other projects take care to not damage them.

  1. Sand lightly with  a vibrating type floor sander. Don’t expect this to remove all the old finish. You are just touching up scuffs in the existing finish.
  2. Do not apply a stain – You cant stain without completely removing the old finish.
  3. Clean, clean, clean. You want to remove any dust. Use a damp rag or a tack cloth to make sure you do not leave any dust on the floor.
  4. Apply 3 or 4 coats of water based poly floor finish. Sand with a fine grit paper between coats. Follow the manufactures recommendations here. You could sand in one day and if your water based poly drys fast enough you could get your 3 or 4 coats on in another day.

As always, listen to the podcast for all the discussion.

We were one of the bloggers selected by True Value to work on the DIY Squad. We have been compensated for our time commitment to the program as well as our writing and productions about our experience. We have also been compensated for the materials needed for our DIY project. However, as always, our opinions are entirely our own and we have not been paid to publish positive comments.

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{ 49 comments… read them below or add one }

Daniel November 29, 2010 at 9:58 am

If this wood finish is done how, how long can the floor finish hold? Is it good for 5 years or less? I can you please suggest some brands of floor finish so that I can start with my wood floor. Thanks. =)

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The Handyguys December 1, 2010 at 11:42 am

If you do multiple coats of the water based poly floor finish you can expect many years of service. My old house they floors looked good 5 years after refinishing as described in the podcast. I then sold the house. Of course it will depend on how much traffic the floors get and also how well they are kept clean. If you track dirt and sand on the wood floors it can grind the finish like sandpaper. Dogs and cats can also scratch the finish. I used a product called Fabulon, Varathane is highly regarded as is Minwax.

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Karen Williams November 12, 2011 at 10:42 am

My OLD hardwood floors are dull and need to clean and finish myself. What would you recommend?

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The Handyguys November 13, 2011 at 6:55 pm

First try some soap and water and a scrub brush. Murphy’s oil soap is commonly used. If that doesn’t get them looking like you want then listen to this podcast and try some of the tips mentioned.

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NJ Cellulose Insulation Contractor January 6, 2012 at 11:44 am

I know you mention there is no need to go from light to dark wood – but I have been in many homes where the dark wood is actually quite pleasant looking.

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Brooks February 21, 2012 at 5:39 pm

Nice! I refinish hardwood floors< for a living and just found your site. Pretty cool place you have here.

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Chicagoland Pro February 28, 2012 at 11:37 am

Dents, gouges, and scratches that are less than 1/8 inch deep can usually be repaired by sanding and refinishing. If any of these are deeper than this, the board/s will have to be replaced and the whole floor sanded and finished. A professional hardwood floor installer< can help you determine the best course of action.

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Sue August 8, 2012 at 8:06 pm

Hi – I’m looking for information on how to repair the wood flooring in my 112-year-old farmhouse. They are suffering from decades of paint, old linoleum, scratches, dents, and expansion/contraction cycles. I’d like to save the floor rather than replace it because it is original to the house and finding replacement flooring of the same quality seems to be impossible. The boards are vertical-grained, old-growth (tight-grained) Douglas fir, 4″ wide, 12′ to 20′ long, and are a full 1″ thick, laid over diagonal 2″ x 10″ decking. We pulled some rotted boards that were under the old kitchen sink, revealing the old diagonal decking, and found that the boards were not “relieved” on the undersides, which may explain why some of the boards have cracks and gaps. We are working on adding more supports under the joists to stiffen up and level the subfloor. I’m wondering if we can just sand down the old flooring, replace the damaged boards with some we removed from a storage room (we tiled it), or if we should pull up all the boards and re-lay them after repairing the subfloors.

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The Handyguys August 8, 2012 at 8:15 pm

I wouldn’t try to remove and re-install them. You will need to scrape up any linoleum, glue, etc. Remove any glue, etc. And then sand the floors and re-finish. Patch sections that are too far gone.

Make sure you take some before and after pictures. We would love to see how it comes out.

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Sue August 10, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Thanks – it would be a whole lot less work to just repair, sand and refinish the floor! I sanded some of the boards free of paint and glue just to see how they look, and, even unfinished, they have a beautiful deep golden-red patina of age, in addition to having nice tight grain – totally unlike the Doug-fir trim and flooring you see today. Any tips on how to blend in any new replacement boards we might need (the old boards from the storage room blend in just fine) to patch damaged areas?

I’ll definitely send some pics!

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The Handyguys August 13, 2012 at 8:37 am

If you have to use new wood when patching. First off, try to avoid it as much as possible. Even a split board, refinished, will look okay when refinished. Just replace the worst pieces. Next, try and find old wood at salvage yards, from neighbors doing major remodels, etc. Lastly if you must use new wood – First try specialty wood suppliers. You are more likely to find older growth wood (tighter grain heartwood). Also, try to make sure the wood is sawn the same way as the old (quarter sawn, flat sawn, riftsawn)

Our friend Marc, The Wood Whisperer, has a video describing the different cuts of wood. http://www.thewoodwhisperer.com/videos/a-lumbering-feeling/ (the cuts part is about 5 minutes and 20 seconds in)

Okay, once you have the wood that best matches what you have your next step will be to test your final finish. Take a new board and and a scrap of your old. Apply the new floor finish and see how well they match. If they are too far off you will have to apply a stain. Stains will add color and darken the wood. You could apply stain to the entire floor (old and new) or just to the new. You will need to experiment and try different combinations of stains and finishes to get the best blends.

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Christine August 23, 2012 at 4:32 pm

We are refinishing our hardwood floors a darker color. We’ve alreay sanded but when we started to stain the old color is showing through in some spots. It doesn’t look good but we’ve gon over it soooo many times with the sander. Is there another solution? The old color follows the seams.

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The Handyguys August 24, 2012 at 8:20 am

What kind of stain are you using? Perhaps something called a “Gell Stain” would work better.

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Christine August 25, 2012 at 12:18 pm

We are using oil based Minwax. It is apparent now that there is just more poly that hasn’t come off. We have resolved to go over it again, but this time we are using a belt sander. Do you have any suggestions for using one? We used a drum sander last time, but obviously it wasn’t tough enough for the job.

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The Handyguys August 25, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Perhaps try a sharp scraper along the edges. Be careful sanding you don’t go too deep.

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Anne August 30, 2012 at 8:13 am

A section of this 64 yr old hardwood floor we want to fix is just black with dirt.This floor has never been refinished and is pretty worn down. I figure we should clean it before seeing what needs to be done. What do we use to clean it?

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Sarah October 29, 2012 at 12:11 pm

I am planning on redoing my hardwood floors in my attic and from what I can tell they are in immaculate shape with only plaster drops here and there. Can I skip the sanding step? Or should I do a light sanding then apply the floor finish?

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The Handyguys October 30, 2012 at 9:36 am

Its up to you. Light sanding will help remove the plaster drips and other dirt and grime. I assume they have previously been finished.

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Sarah October 30, 2012 at 10:27 am

From what I can tell, these are bare hardwood floors that have never been finished. It appears they were sanded because they are smooth, but nothing further has been done to them.

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The Handyguys October 30, 2012 at 10:34 am

Sanding them will make them look new. That may not be the look you want though. Also, the boards may actually never have been intended to be a finished floor. It may be an old subfloor from the days before plywood. Still, that’s no reason not to finish them if you like the look. Soooo, your options. Clean and varnish for that shabby chic or rustic look. Sand to fresh wood and varnish for a newer, cleaner look.

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Charlack November 21, 2012 at 11:27 pm

I’m going to have my hardwood floors refinished and have been thinking about not staining them at all. Would you recommend against this? Any certain drawbacks? Imperfections highly visible, dirt more noticable. Would you say this is becoming more or less common?

Thanks for your advice.

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The Handyguys November 26, 2012 at 1:17 pm

Not staining is perfectly fine. Stain is just for color, many people like the natural color of the wood.

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Ronald December 28, 2012 at 5:07 pm

Hi there. Im planing on redoing my 50 year or hardwood floor (fir) i beleive. I plan on sanding it down and renishing it to be nice and smooth, the problem is that there are many gaps between the boards that i fear will colect dust and dirt. My question is, what could be used to fill all these gaps so that when I go to stain and varnish that it will be gapless…. is there such a product to be used for this? Any good info on my gap filling issue would be greatly appreciated.

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The Handyguys December 31, 2012 at 8:29 am

Ronald, there isn’t much you can do to fill those gaps. I have seen people use jute rope for really wide gaps but this still collects dirt. Any caulk, filler or epoxy will either look bad or fail over time. These gaps are part of the charm of an older home, I would just live with them. Vacuum the floor when you clean. If you want a perfect floor then consider replacement with a prefinished floor.

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jay January 7, 2013 at 7:46 pm

i have the same problem with gaps in my old floor, but the other problem i have is . what do i do in between the gaps. they are black with dirt and grime . will that effect my sanding and overall finish ? what should i do sanding and finishing? is there a special way to clean between boards? or do i just leave it ?

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The Handyguys January 9, 2013 at 11:11 am

Sanding is the same regardless of the gaps. You will need to vacuum out the gaps of any dust and dirt before refinishing. You may also need to scrape any old finish and dirt out before finishing. At least get anything loose out. I do not know of a reliable way to fill those gaps.

When the floor was installed it was not likely intended to be seen so they didn’t worry about the gaps too much. Over time the boards shrunk and the gaps widened.

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Nate January 11, 2013 at 2:29 am

This has been a very informative site. Thanks for all the info!

We’ve been refinishing our floors for about six months now and are testing stains on the wood. I’m 90% sure the wood is Douglas Fir, and we’re set on using Red Mahogany by Minwax.

Over our first test patch, there are some darker cloudy areas the size of a quarter more or less. For a second test patch, we bought some prestain wood conditioner from Minwax. We applied with a cloth, let it soak in for 20 minutes (the directions say at least 10-15 minutes) then applied the stain. We’re still noticing the cloudy/blotchy areas. Is this normal or okay? From what I’ve researched, this happens often with softer woods.

We’re fine with the look because the whole floor is somewhat distressed from years of use, and we think it adds character. We just don’t want the end result to look amateur (even though we are amateurs) after all our work :) Any thoughts or recommendations are appreciated!

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The Handyguys January 11, 2013 at 10:02 am

You are correct about soft woods. They do take up stains at differing rates on different parts of the board. The wood conditioner does minimize the effect. All of this assumes the old finish is 100% removed. If you have some of the old finish on the fir then that can inhibit takeup of the stain.

Also, a stain like the you are using is more prone to the splotching than something called a Gel Stain. Our friends over at Wood Magazine have a good article explaining what a gel stain is.

http://www.woodmagazine.com/materials-guide/finishes/gel-stains/

Lastly – I commend you for testing your finish choices before committing to one. I’m sure your results will be great! Feel free to send us a picture and we will add it here. [email protected]

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Mike May 7, 2013 at 9:24 pm

Hi,
I am attempting a “screen and recoat” in a house that we just purchased. I followed some advice and mopped with a 50/50 mix of warm water and denatured alcohol to clean/strip the floors. I am left with a white substance that appears to be wax in many but not all areas. If I slide my thumbnail across the floor the white will come off, or where there is not any white, some other substance comes off – I am not sure if it is more wax or the actual old finish.

What is a good method to clean and prep this floor?

Thank you!

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The Handyguys May 13, 2013 at 12:35 pm

If it IS wax you must get it off before applying any finish. There are wax strippers in the floor care area of the home center or hardware store. Try it in an inconspicuous area first. If that doesn’t work, you may need to sand down to bare wood.

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Dana May 27, 2013 at 8:27 am

Just bought an old farmhouse built in 1905. Previous homeowners used space heaters as there was no central air or heat system. There are big splotches on the original heart of pine floor that we are guessing are the result of spilled fuel oil, kerosene, or whatever they were using. Whenever there is humidity in the air the stains seem to get darker or appear “wet” but they’re not. Any ideas before we attempt to refinish?

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The Handyguys May 28, 2013 at 9:32 am

My only idea applies if you are going to attempt to make them look new. You will need to sand all the old finish off, the sanding might also remove the stains. If not, you can try a product called Oxalic acid, its marketed as “wood bleach”. They should have it at the hardware store. Follow the instructions on the label and then stain and finish as normal.

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Matt July 11, 2013 at 8:31 pm

I am refinishing oak hardwoods. I sanded down to bare wood from 24-120 grit. Plans from here are wipe with tack cloth, wipe with mineral spirits, apply minwax sander sealant, sand, apply minwax oil based poly, sand, apply final coat poly. Any tips or suggestions for any of my planned steps? Specifically for the sanding between coats I am not sure what the easiest and best way to go about it. I have a orbital palm sander in my possession, can I just use that with a very fine grit? I’ve read numerous suggestions but don’t know which way to go about it.

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The Handyguys July 11, 2013 at 9:03 pm

I would use a shop vac to clean dust before the tac cloth. Make sure you get things like woodwork, windowsills, the tops of doors and anywhere else dust may have settled. Oil based poly takes a while to dry, you don’t want to stir up any dust while finishing. As for the poly, you need to ensure its for made for floors. Not all formulas are the same. A water based floor finish is easier because it dries faster (less chance of dust settling in the finish) but the oil has a warmer color to it. When you sand between coats you can use your orbital if its a small space. You can even just hand sand. Your goal between coats is to scuff the surface so it adheres to the next coat. Check the recommendations on the can for the number of coats, 2 doesn’t sound right.

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Winevqa August 23, 2013 at 8:15 pm

Hi, I just bought a 55 year old bungalow and am having the hardwood restored. I believe it was under carpet most of the time.
The floor guy said he was concerned about either the tongue or groove warping if he wet stained the floor, so he will dry stain it. . I know the colour will be lighter. Does this make sense? Cheers.

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The Handyguys August 26, 2013 at 10:24 am

Sort answer, no. I have never head of a “dry stain” technique. I have also never heard of tongue or groove warping problems caused by stain, or anything else for that matter. Do you have the quote in writing? I suspect you heard wrong or they are full of BS.

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latasha October 29, 2013 at 10:04 pm

Hi! I have a question. On Saturday my cousin sanded my floors and put an oak stain on the floor. He used lamb wool to put the color (ebony) on the floor and did a triple coat of stain which made the color really dark. The floor took maybe a couple of days to dry but we still thought it was wet and come to find out it was sticky. We tried to use paint thinner to even the color out but we are very fustrated and dont know what we should do to fix this problem. Should we resand the floors and apply the color wipe on wipe off cause they look horrible and uneven. Help Please

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The Handyguys October 31, 2013 at 2:12 pm

You will need to wait for the stain to dry before proceeding. If it looks bad you can try to blend in some additional stain where you may have rubbed off some of the initial coat. Or, you could remove the finish and start again. You may also want to check with the stain manufacturer, they usually have customer service phone numbers.

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Jim June 16, 2014 at 11:21 am

I just bought a 100 year old house with pine flooring. It is the only layer of flooring, and has had carpet, linoleum and who knows what else over it. It has moderate gaps in some places. I orginally thought I would treat it as subflooring and go with new hardwood over it, as it occurs to me that since there is no subfloor under neath it the gaps will be an invitation for drafts and critters to get in. I also need to pull some of the boards in order to get to the pier and beam for leveling purposes (the access beneath the house is about 18 inches and I cant see myself getting down there digging and jacking up the beam). My intention is to carefully pull up the boards above the beam, do the leveling work, then lay them back in. So the question is, do I have to have a subfloor in order to have a decent wood floor in my house? The alternative is to take all the flooring up, lay in a subfloor, then lay the original boards back in. That seems like a whole lot of work, and the finished product would be less than desireable. I also thought about laying fiberglass insulation in between the joists to keep down the drafts. I could probably handle that, on my back under the house (or pay someone else to do it).

Thanks.

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The Handyguys June 16, 2014 at 3:38 pm

Jim – Those boards were intended to be the subfloor and can certainly be used as a subfloor under hardwood if they are in decent shape. If you remove them I would use screws when re-installing.

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Jim June 16, 2014 at 5:17 pm

Thanks. Can they be used as the actual floor with no subfloor underneath them? They look like nice long leaf pine planks (1x 3 3/4).

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The Handyguys June 16, 2014 at 5:40 pm

Yes! Its a rustic look but some like it. They can be sanded and coated with floor varnish, left distressed as is, varnished as is or painted. You will have gaps grow and shrink as humidity changes. I have seen people try to fill gaps with rope and such, I wouldnt bother with that if you like the look

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Karen Antunes June 23, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Hi, hardwood floors from 1950 under old carpet. Carpet is up, floors look great– except a few spots here and there. we don’t want to sand down to bare wood and lose the patina. Would like to just “rejuvenate” (lightly sand and coat with water based varathane?)— we don’t’ want to sand to bare wood….any suggestions?

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Karen Antunes June 23, 2014 at 12:53 pm

saw your steps above to Jeremy–but would rather not sand sand sand all the floor—there are only a few worn spots here and there–where the finish has mostly worn off- a couple higher traffic spots-

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The Handyguys June 24, 2014 at 10:18 am

Yes, just lightly sand everything, clean really well, and top coat with water based floor varathane or similar.

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Karen Antunes June 25, 2014 at 11:13 am

One more question -ok to put water based over the old finish -even if it was oil based ?

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The Handyguys June 25, 2014 at 11:51 am

Yes water based over oil finish is okay, but oil finish over water based can, in some cases, cause issues. Oil over oil is fine too. I recommend water based for this type of project because it dries very quickly (less chance of dust landing on wet finish), is easy to apply, is compatible with other old finishes and doesn’t add color or change the look.

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Rocky June 30, 2014 at 5:29 pm

hello, were refinishing some 100 year old yellow pine floors in my mothers house and have encountered a problem. The outside edges have been sanded and finished in the past a couple different times. The inner section has never been sanded, its been covered all its life with a few different things like wool area rugs, and wall to wall carpet. We’ve sanded and sanded, and can not get the colors to match. have any ideas to help. we’ve stained and have not been able to match it. out of ideas!

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The Handyguys July 1, 2014 at 3:56 pm

Try cleaning with Oxolic acid, also known as wood bleach. Follow instructions on the bottle and try in an inconspicuous place first.

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