Refinishing Your Historic Floors

by Gail Brumfield

Many historic homes throughout the US have gorgeous wooden floors that were put in when the house was built. While many of these floors have experienced their fair share of wear and tear over the years, don’t think for a second that they can’t be restored to their former shine and luster. With a little hard work, or a few phone calls, you can bring new life to the beautiful historic floors in your home.

Most historic floors are made of oak, an extremely hard and durable wood, which means that if taken care of properly your floors will last for a very very long time. Unfortunately, many of these beautiful hardwood floors get covered up by new homeowners with laminate, tile, carpet, or in the worst cases torn up and replaced with newer, less durable wood. Historic oak floors can last for 100 years or more if taken care of properly, while newer wood flooring products last 40-50 years on average.

When it comes to refinishing your historic floors, there are a couple different choices you’ll want to make before you start your project. To figure out the best plan for refinishing your floors, you’ll need to check out the floor to determine which of these methods is the best solution.

Screening vs. Sanding

Screening Equipment

Sanding Equipment

Screening is a great way to take off the current finish of a floor without sanding into the wood itself. This method is only appropriate for floors with an un-waxed polyurethane coating, which is a hard plastic finish that sits on top of the floor rather than sinking into the wood like oil based finish. Screening works best for floors that have a scratched finish. If the actual wood under the finish is stained or damaged, sanding may be a better option for your floor.

Sanding is the appropriate solution for floors that have oil based finish, a wax coating on a polyurethane finish, or are showing damage to the wood floorboards. Sanding can be tricky, and if done incorrectly can make your floor uneven, or grind uneven grooves and ridges into the floor.

Both of these methods cause a fair amount of dust, so you’ll want to create a seal by taping over the door with plastic before starting. Screening creates less dust than sanding, but either way you’ll want to keep the mess confined to the room you’re working in so you can vacuum it up more easily.

Oil Based Polyurethane vs. Water Based Polyurethane

The next thing you’ll need to figure out for your floor restoration is what kind of finish you’ll use to recoat your floors. Polyurethane is the most common finish for hardwood floors due to its durability and resistance to heavy traffic. You just need to decide whether oil or water based polyurethane is right for your floors.

Oil based polyurethane is great for beginners because it can be worked when wet, which means you can go back and fix any mistakes. Unfortunately, it also takes much longer to dry than water based and emits noxious fumes. It is also cheaper than water based polyurethane. One thing to consider with oil based finish is the fact that it will darken to a light amber color over time, which can look beautiful on certain floors, but if you’re trying to preserve the exact look of the wood in your floor, water based finish might be a better choice.

Water based polyurethane dries totally clear, and much faster than oil based. While that may sound like an advantage (and it can be!), you also need to take into account the skill that it will require to get it all smooth and right the first time. Both of these finishes need to be worked with a “wet edge”, which means you can’t allow it to dry while you’re still coating the floor, otherwise there will be a visible edge where the dried finish creates a bump. You also won’t be able to go back and work with water based finish, even while it’s wet, because it will create marks in the finish.

All that being said, both finishes are good options for hardwood floors, it all just depends on your level of skill and what you want your final product to look like.

Basic Refinishing Process

Here’s a quick rundown of the refinishing process. For more in-depth instructions on how to refinish your floors, ask a professional at your local hardware store, or check out this guide: .

  1. Cleaning – Firstly, you’ll need to remove all the furniture from the room and clean the floor to get up any loose particles that might scratch up the floor during sanding or buffing. Just spray the area with your choice of cleaning agent and wipe it down with an old terrycloth mop or towel.
  2. Sand the Perimeter and Hard to Reach Spaces – Before you break out your drum sander or polisher with a screening disk, you’ll want to sand the finish down around the perimeter of the room and in other areas where the power sander won’t be able to fit. Sand each floorboard until the finish gets dull and forms a powder.
  3. Power Sanding – Once you’ve gotten all of the hard to reach places, break out that drum sander or polisher and screen or sand the rest of your floor. Take care to move at an even pace with the sander to avoid creating uneven spots in the floor. Take a shop-vac and vacuum the dust off of the pad every so often to keep it working consistently.
  4. Dust Clean-up – Take a short break and let all the dust in the room settle for about 20 minutes after sanding. Once everything seems to be settled, put the brush attachment on your shop-vac and get up all of the dust. Move along the seams of the boards to make sure you get any dust that might have settled in between the cracks.
  5. Applying the Perimeter Finish – Now that you’ve gotten all the dust up, strap on some booties to cover your shoes, and grab your paintbrush and finish. Have your roller for the next step ready to go, since you’ll need to work quickly at this point (unless you’re using oil based finish, which will give you a little more leeway in terms of drying time).  Using your paintbrush, paint a 3 inch stripe of finish all around the perimeter of the room starting from the back corner (you don’t want to paint yourself in!) being careful not to let this strip dry. If you’re in a large room, you might want to get the first section and then complete other parts of the perimeter as you come to them.
  6. Finishing the Middle – While the edge finish is still wet, pour a line of finish along the floor in line with the grain of the wood. Take care to only pour about as much as you can spread in ten minutes, you want to make sure you’re maintaining your “wet edge”. First spread the finish with the grain, and then move the roller across the grain. Repeat this process until the whole room is covered, again taking care not to paint yourself into the room. Wait about 3 hours before applying a second coat, and a week or so before replacing your furniture (dry times will be longer with oil based finish).

That’s about it as far as the refinishing process goes. It can be quite a bit of work if you’ve never done it before, and it can be tricky to get a nice finish the first time you do it. That being said, if you do it properly and follow directions, you’ll end up with a floor that you can be proud of for years to come.

If you aren’t sure you want to risk messing up your historic floors doing an amateur refinishing job, there are tons of hardwood floor refinishing companies out there that can take care of your floors for you. Personally, I recommend Buff and Coat. They’ve refinished the floors in several historic homes that I’ve renovated, and always do a wonderful job.

No matter what you decide to do with your floors, don’t cover up that beautiful historic hardwood. Cheap linoleum and tiles may be enticing, but your home will look much better and retain its historic appeal with its classic hardwood floors. They’ll last longer and give you something to be proud of for years to come.