How to Refinish Hardwood Floors

Refinishing hardwood floors can be a daunting task for any homeowner, let alone a DIY oriented homeowner. However, refinishing hardwood floors should not be considered impossible or for professionals only. If you follow the few basic tips and recommendations listed below and throughout my series of articles pertaining to hardwood floors, nearly anyone should be able to refinish their own hardwood floors to an acceptable level of beauty.

Refinishing any wood product or furniture or flooring requires very similar techniques and a lot of patience. Hardwood floors are certainly no exception. However, your hard work will pay off and your home will not become another home with potentially beautiful hardwood floors covered with carpeting.

As with nearly any project, the majority of the time and effort is spent in the prep work and cleanup. Prepping to refinish hardwood floors involves sanding, cleaning, dust removal, taping, and repairing.

In this segment, we will assume that you have completed the sanding process of the floor as outlined in my previous article. If not, please refer to my article on sanding hardwood floors first.

The finishing process of hardwood floors is certainly the most rewarding step. This is when you get to see the results of your sanding and hard work. For the finishing step we will use a product called shellac. This is a non traditional product that was used many decades ago on flooring, but seldom sees use on flooring today. This product is chosen for many reasons, mainly ease of use and aesthetic beauty. Shellac is still in use by fine furniture makers who cherish its beauty, but polyurethanes now are the dominate finish for flooring. However, polyurethanes have many drawbacks for the DIY crowd including high odor level, long dry times, difficult application methods, and the need to sand between coats. Shellac does not have any of these drawbacks and once used, will prove to be the easiest finish to apply to a floor while also offering acceptable protection.

To begin we will need to purchase the shellac, denatured alcohol, and some brushes to apply the finish with. The shellac is readily available at most home improvement stores. Shellac can be many different colors including blonde and amber, both of which are readily available. However, most commercial bought shellacs contain wax which actually weakens the finish and makes it more susceptible to water damage. The best store bought version of shellac is a product made by Zinsser called Sealcoat. This shellac is blonde or light in color and has been dewaxed. It is only about $20 a gallon, a reasonable price, and one gallon should be enough to do three coats on about 500 square feet of flooring. This is a significant savings compared to the cost of polyurethane and other floor finishing products.

Now you will need to buy a brush or two for the application of the shellac. I prefer to use a brush that is as wide as each plank of flooring. If your flooring happens to be two inch wide strips, purchase a two inch wide brush. Straight or angled brushed will both work fine. Be certain to buy the best natural bristle brush in the store. The brush should cost around $15.

Finally, you will need to purchase denatured alcohol. This is should be the gallon at home improvement stores. This will be added to the shellac to improve its application. You will need approximately twice as much denatured alcohol as you will shellac, so purchase accordingly for your finishing job.

Now that you have purchased your supplies, it is time to start finishing the floor. To begin, make certain that all dust and dirt is removed from the flooring and that all objects are out of your way. The finishing process will go quickly and you do not have time to move any furniture while in the middle of applying your finish. Once the area is clean and clear of objects you will need to mix your finish. Mix the shellac and denatured alcohol in a medium sized bowl that is large enough to allow you to dip your brush in. Remember, use two parts of denatured alcohol to one part shellac. This does not have to be exact, but try to get it close.

Now take your mixture to an area of the flooring you will start at. Most likely this will be a corner of the room. Be certain that you can apply the finish and still get out of the room once you have completed the application. Determining where to start application and where to end application can be tricky and it may need to be done in a few separate steps, but the shellac only take minutes to dry so don’t worry.

Once you have chosen a starting point, dip the brush in the shellac and remove allowing the excess shellac to drip into the bowl. In one quick motion, take the brush from the bowl to the wood plank that you will begin with. Touch it gently to the surface of the flooring and quickly move across the entire length of that plank following the grain. Depending upon the length of each plank, you may have to reload the brush to finish. When reloading, gradually increase pressure of the brush on the flooring to try to blend the amount of shellac applied. This can take a little practice, but is not too difficult to master. I try to go from one end of the floor, all the way to the wall with one stroke. You must do this very quickly, but it is possible. This method eliminates overlap marks and gives a better finish. Do not go back over any areas that you have already applied shellac to. Since the shellac virtually dries on contact, going back over an area will only make the finish look worse. We will take care of any problem areas in the next two coats of application.

Once the finish has been applied over the entire service, you will have to wait about 1 hour for it to thoroughly dry. The floor is dry when it is no longer tacky anywhere. No you will apply two more coats in the same manner as the first coat, giving ample drying time in between coats. Be certain to focus on any areas that you may have missed in the first coat. When all three coats are applied, you are finished. You may gently move items back on the flooring after about three hours have passed since the application of the last coat. The floor should be walk on in socks only for the first day, but after waiting overnight it will be completely dry and ready for normal use. This finish can be applied in all three coats and walked upon in the same day. Something that is not true of nearly every other finish used on floors today.

The finish will have a glossy sheen, but over time it will tone down through wear. The beauty of the finish will be evident in its clarity and lack of the “plasticky” look of polyurethane. However, to me, the real beauty of this finish lies in how easily it can be repaired. If the flooring becomes scratched or discolored or damage has occurred to the finish simply take a lint free rag, dip into a mixture of 1 part shellac to 3 parts denatured alcohol and gently wipe across the surface. Give it a few minutes to dry and repeat if necessary. The scratch will slowly disappear before your eyes and your floor will once again looks beautiful and flawless. Since shellac is applied at a very thin layer, you do not have to worry about building up too many coats. This will not happen.

Shellac is non toxic and aside form the alcohol which evaporates rapidly from the finish, shellac is a food grade product. Meaning it is edible and there is no worry about small children playing on the floor, chipping the finish, and perhaps accidentally consuming the finish. Shellac is used to coat candy such as jelly beans, breath mints, and any other hard candy with a glossy appearance. Therefore, it is one of if not the safest options to use when finishing any wood surface.

Now you have successfully refinished your hardwood floor which should give you years of enjoyment if you follow properly maintain your hardwood by following the steps outline in my next article titled “How to Clean Hardwood Floors”

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