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Worn Oak Floors

Kendall Holmes

Reviving Hardwood FloorsQ: "Five years ago we sanded and refinished the oak floor in our dining room. Now the floor is again worn to the bare wood around the table -- thanks to our kids pulling and pushing chairs without lifting them. Short of sanding the floors again, what can we do?"

A: First, tell your children to lift their chairs when they get up from the table. When that fails (it's never worked for me, either) replace the plastic or metal pads on the feet of your chairs with felt pads.

You can buy felt pads at the hardware store. They're far more gentle on wood floors than the plastic foot pads found on most chairs when they come from the factory.

There! We've already solved the cause of your scuffed floors. Now let's repair the damage.

Many homeowners assume that sanding everything off and starting over is the only way to revive the urethane and polyurethane finishes found on most hardwood floors.

But a total refinishing job is messy and expensive. Besides, floors can only be re-sanded two or three times before they'll need to be replaced.

The alternative? Apply several new layers of finish. The floor will look good, and it's an easy job:

  • First, wash away any accumulated grime using water and ammonia. Pay particular attention to areas where the finish is worn away completely: These spots really absorb dirt! And make sure you get rid of all grease and wax: New finishes won't adhere to the floor if these contaminants are in the way.
  • Next, dull the existing finish. For this job, I use a drywall sanding pole and pad, with a medium-grit paper. Avoid steel wool: The steel fibers get stuck in the wood, where they will later rust, wrecking your new finish.
  • Finally, vacuum thoroughly --and then get down on your knees. It's time to apply the new finish.
  • You have two choices for a new finish: water- or oil-based. The choice is yours: You can apply a water-based finish over an oil-modified finish and vice-versa.
  • Use a good-quality house-painting brush to apply the new finish. Be sure to work off a wet edge, and be sure not to paint yourself into a corner. Also, follow the manufacturer's instructions for curing times and sanding between coats.
  • If you are applying an oil-modified finish, two or three coats will suffice. You'll need to apply three to five coats of a water-based finish, because each layer is thinner. Despite this extra work, I like the water-based urethanes, as they dry quickly and don't stink up the house. Plus they stay clear as they age.

That's all there is to it. With a bit of luck, your floors will look as nice as the day they were sanded and refinished five years ago. Or maybe they'll merely look better than they did, but not quite as good as new.

The key variable? Many oil-based finishes darken as they age. If old finish on your floors has yellowed noticeably, the places that were the most worn will end up slightly lighter than the rest of the floor -- because they'll have less of the old, yellowed finish underneath.

Even so, your entire floor will have a uniform sheen. And that's a big part of how the eyes (or my eyes, at least) interpret the condition of your floors.

No matter what kind of finish you use, the new layers of urethane will be tender -- easily scratched -- for the first 10 days to two weeks while they cure, or reach their full hardness.

So for the first couple of weeks, make sure your kids lift their chairs -- even if they'll never do it again!

Ken Holmes is an award-winning print and web journalist and editor, as well as a former contractor.

About the Author
By Kendall Holmes, The Old House Web

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