Top 10 Things I Learned Finishing My Own Hardwood Flooring

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1) Rent a rectangular sander like the Clarke American Random Orbit Floor Sander and use you’re own palm sized random orbit sander for the very edges. The big sander can actually get very close to the edge, so you’ll likely find very little left to edge-sand. Put your baseboard or shoe moulding on after the flooring is finished if possible. Since your baseboard or shoe moulding will cover the outer edge of the flooring (or the expansion gap recommended in my article on installing hardwood flooring), it makes sanding to the absolute edge less critical. If you’re sanding a new floor flat or refinishing an old one, stay away from drum sanders unless you’re a pro. Those drum sanders are fast and efficient, making them great for burrowing a trench to China in untrained hands.

2) Apply a good wood filler to any gaps between boards, or any holes in the wood. No matter how good you are, you’re likely to have some small gaps or holes to fill in the hardwood. Although the filler looks bad after you apply it (I applied mine liberally), it’s virtually invisible after the floor is stained and finished. Don’t be bashful about using filler. I used an Australian product called Timbermate (review coming soon). Spoiler Alert: Timbermate comes in a tintable tint base or individual wood species colors, and it worked great.

3) Consider using a wood conditioner prior to staining, depending on your product and wood species. This is something I wish I could go back and do over. I failed to use a conditioner, and as a result, I wound up with a slightly blotchy stain in some areas of the floor. I was using Fuhr 105 Stain and Fuhr 260 Finish on White Oak, and conditioner definitely would have resulted in a better stain application and finished product. Live and learn. Or, just read and learn from my mistakes. . . . that’s much easier.

4) Have a partner help you stain. The Fuhr rep I talked to suggested using a sprayer for the stain application (like a garden pesticide sprayer) and having someone immediately following with rags to wipe off the stain. I went totally DIY (not even a partner), and by hindsight both the sprayer and a partner would have been very useful. More live and learn.

5) Don’t cut in around the edges in advance, just apply normally and then brush in the edges while everything is wet. I found cutting in before applying the finish actually created a subtle line in the stain. Just applying a stretch of the floor and then immediately brushing in any missed spots or excess finish around the edges worked best for me. I used a wide 6″ wide dry brush for this.

6) Use a t-bar applicator with brush or sheepskin pad (some pads are geared toward either water or oil-based finishes). Ask the dealer or the finish company what they recommend for your particular finish. I used one like this $40 Fabulon #SP0250 Heavy T-Bar. This is probably one of the most critical tips here. I followed a friends advice with this and was very glad I did. The t-bar helps you get a very nice smooth and even thickness coat each time. Depending on the type of pad (mine had short synthetic fibers), you may even want a fresh pad for each coat. I used Padco applicators, which you can actually see in action along with the t-bar in this Padco Flooring Applicator YouTube clip. I also like their use of a watering can to get the finish on the floor. I’ll definitely try that next time. Thank god I wasn’t finishing a basketball court.

7) Sand in between each coat after it’s dry. I tried using the sanding pad on the power sander (basically a giant bristle pad) and it didn’t do much. Since the rental place only had 150 grit (too coarse for in between coats), I used a manual pole sander with 220 grit. It was a bit of a workout, but it worked surprisingly well in the small area I was working on. If you’re doing a large area, talk to your rental place about a fine grit (220 or higher) pad for your rectangular random orbit sander.

8 ) Keep the room super clean and closed up during application. You don’t want the finish drying too fast, and you don’t want bugs or debris landing on your wet floor. Keep your heater off and any vents closed for the same reasons. Naturally, observe proper ventilation precautions here. You also don’t want to suck in a bunch of concentrated toxic fumes and then later wake up in the middle of the floor like a fly that landed on flypaper. Best bet is to use a water based, low voc finish that isn’t going to kill you with fumes anyway.

9) Plan your application carefully and do a trial run without the finish. You have to work fast when applying the finish and you don’t want to finish yourself into a corner. Trust me, footprints showing your escape route in your newly finished floor won’t look cool. I did an imaginary run without actually putting on the finish. Sure, I looked like an idiot, but the rehearsal helped me figure out where I’d be moving as I worked. It’s surprisingly helpful, even if you think you know where you’re going. This tip is extra important on small rooms or irregularly shaped floors.

10) I used a lightweight aluminum pole and a standard rectangular pad applicator (about 4″ by 10″) to reach any goofs I couldn’t get to once I did a coat. This was great to feather out a couple spots with excess or too little finish that I could no longer reach. Naturally, try to address any issues while you can still reach them with the regular t-bar pad applicator. Even if you don’t need it, it’s good insurance.

How about you? If you have any tips for finishing hardwood floors, even if your tip is “hire a pro”, please share your thoughts in the comments.

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About Marc Lyman

Marc grew up under a brave single mom who "encouraged" home improvement on the family home. Early toddler gifts included a tool set, and even a cordless Bosch drill when cordless drills first came out. In grade school (give or take a few years), Marc's mom said, "We need to cut down some trees. . . . here's a chainsaw." A father figure also involved Marc in many home improvement projects, including a summer of home remodeling in Palo Alto, CA. Toss in some Obsessive Compulsive personality traits researching everything home improvement related. The end result: a genetically pre-disposed, socially sculpted home improvement machine! For his complete profile, please visit our About page. Really, it's worth it.

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1 thought on “Top 10 Things I Learned Finishing My Own Hardwood Flooring”

  1. Thank you for the help. The floors in my house need to be sanded and refinished soon. I had not thought about renting a sander and trying it myself. Is it not easy to sand too much and damage the flooring? I would rather hire a professional than damage the floor.


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