These floors are a candidate for rejuvenation, not complete refinishing

Repair, Cleaning and Refinishing Old Hardwood Floors

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 1950’s 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 advice 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 the condition of the floor. 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 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 matter too much, it’s really the top coat that is most critical. I have even known people to make their own floor 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 affect 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 can’t 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 manufacturer’s 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.

76 thoughts on “Repair, Cleaning and Refinishing Old Hardwood Floors

  1. 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. =)

    1. 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.

    1. 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.

  2. Pingback: How to Protect Hardwood Floors From Scuff Marks | Carpet Cleaning Alexandria VA
  3. 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.

  4. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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!

        1. 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. (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.

  5. 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.

      1. 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.

  6. 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?

  7. 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?

      1. 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.

        1. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

    1. 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.

  10. 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 ?

    1. 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.

  11. 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!

    1. 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.

      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]

  12. 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!

    1. 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.

  13. 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?

    1. 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.

  14. 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.

    1. 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.

  15. 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.

    1. 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.

  16. 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

    1. 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.

  17. 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).


    1. 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.

  18. 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).

    1. 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

  19. 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?

    1. 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-

    1. 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.

  20. 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!

  21. I am refinishing 100-year old fir floors. When I tried sanding with 36 grit, the sandpaper gummed up very quickly. I then tried a varnish remover with no luck in removing the surface finish which I think may be layers of wax build-up. Do you know of a product I can use to remove this layer of wax so that I can sand and refinish the fir floors? Thanks

  22. My home is 112 yrs. old. We pulled up carpet to find narrow oak flooring, which is great, but looks like some areas of it were finished at various points, some areas look bleached and none of it has matching, consistent stains. Also, there is water damage to the boards by the front door, about 2″ in and a couple feet across. I’m thinking of patching boards there or tiling a small portion. Should I use wood bleach for the whole floor before I start sanding? Also, it seems as though this floor is not tongue and groove, but flat slats. Any ideas of where to get a small amount for patching? So far I can only find T&G at architecture salvage places. Thanks!

    1. You would use the wood bleach AFTER sanding only if still needed. You will likely need a full sanding to remove all old finishes. The wood you have (non-tongue and groove) was not originally intended to be a finished floor, its a sub floor. Many many people finish this and like the look. For patching, just figure out what species of wood it is and then cut boards to the same size. If you are patching a very small area, perhaps you could steal some boards from in a closet to use (so they will match) and then just use plywood to patch the closet. You could also consider painting the floor if you like that look. Good luck, send us some before and after pictures!

  23. We found unfinished oak flooring strips at Home Depot and cut them to size with band saw to fix areas -like a jigsaw puzzle.

  24. We just had our 87 year old hardwood floor refinished. We do have pets and I am very worried about if there is an accident while we are away at work. Is there any type of top coat for the floor where I dont have to worry if one of the animals throws up or has and accident while we are gone.

  25. just sanded 100+ years of paint and stain off floors. Down to bare wood, what should we do next? Want to preserve the rugged look of the floors.

    1. You could just varnish them or stain and varnish. For varnish, use a floor varnish. Oil based varnish takes a day between coats and imparts a slight yellow color and is more traditional. Water based is completely clear and can usually be re-coated in an hour or two. Follow the directions on the can. oil based is a bit harder to work with because there is more time for dust to settle into wet varnish. Good luck at send us some pictures when you are done.

  26. After moving into our 1920’s home a couple years ago, we decided to take up the cheap carpet that covered our living room floor. We discovered they had been poorly painted. My husband stripped and scrapped off the old paint and we discovered a beautiful oak floor! Our problem is that paint has settled into the cracks (not large, but tiny cracks)… is there a way to get it out of the cracks so that when we stain it, it won’t have glaring white streaks?

  27. I applied a small amount of finish to test it out and it made the floor a dark brown when it was supposed to be a light golden brown. Why did it turn dark and what can I do to fix it?

    Thank you

  28. Hello

    Have 60 year old oak floors. They are a bit stained and scratched. I like to keep that distressed look. Can I just lightly hand sand and then wax, dont want a shiny finish. Last coated with ploy about 20 years ago. Am open to any suggestions

  29. Hello, we have a house with 90 year old oak floors. We had them professionally redone and am wondering just how many coats of finish can be put on the floor to make it last. They put 3 coats of a water based poly on them and now within just 6 months they are dull and have multiple scratches on them. Is there such a thing as too many layers of finish coat?

  30. Hello there. I have recently bought a 116 y.o. farmhouse with what looks to be the original, completely unfinished tongue and groove hardwood floors, currently covered by multi layers of linoleum/subfloor in the kitchen and bath, and carpet/subfloor throughout the rest of the house. Removed 8×8 ft section of the kitchen flooring this weekend, what a job!! The hardwood is not pretty, it’s very rough with lots of nail holes etc, but I like it a lot. What is the best way to preserve that old look? I was thinking that after it gets a thorough scrubbing a penetrating oil would really bring out the grain and preserve that rough appearance. Do you think it’s necessary to sand the floors first? I don’t want splinters in my toes but am not interested in having magazine-grade smooth shiny floors either. Any ideas?

    1. You are seeing the sub floor. When originally installed it was never intended to be seen. It was intended to have a finished floor on top. That said, may people do like the look as a finished floor. Sanding will eliminate much of the shabby chic look you like. I would just clean well, sand off any splintery spots and then call it done. You can use a floor varnish if you want a more sanitary floor. Sanding then multiple varnish coats would be the best. Some choose to paint as well.

      1. Thanks for clarifying that for me. I think I’ll try to keep it as a finished floor for now, I like the direction your advice is taking me. Cheers!

  31. I am in the process of trying to get 1955 strip oak flooring refinished. It seems in pretty good condition with the exception of wear. My plan is to keep it natural i’m just trying to figure out water vs oil based. From what I had read I was thinking oil based for warming the wood and added protection. The water based i’m concerned on how long it will last and it dulling over time.

    Any thoughts on which is better and how many coats.

    1. The water based will not impart that nice amber color to the floors. If you sand them I would go with the oil. The water based will last a long time but will not look as nice in my opinion. That said, the water based drys very fast and would allow multiple coats in one day. I think 3 coats is a good goal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.