I need to refinish the hardwood floors in my new house. I was going to rent one of those giant drum sanders to do the job, but everywhere I read says that unless the floor is 3/4 inch thick, you should consult a professional. Mine is 1/2 inch, and if I had the funds to consult a professional, I wouldn't have been researching the topic in the first place.

My question is: what equipment should I use to sand the floors? Is there a special technique I should employ? Any additional tips would be appreciated.

  • You refer to your flooring as hardwood. However, solid hardwood is rarely 1/2" thick, usually 3/4". Is it possible you have an engineered or veneer type floor? You really need to know what kind of material you have before I can advise you on how to sand it. Let us know. Dec 17 '11 at 10:48
  • I know that hardwood floors are usually 3/4 inch. I'm almost certain that this is a standard hardwood floor, but just to be certain, how could I tell if it were one of these other kinds? The floor is pretty old, if that makes any difference.
    – Brendon
    Dec 17 '11 at 12:55
  • This might be relevant Romancing the floor: Saving and restoring old hardwood.
    – Tester101
    Dec 17 '11 at 14:22

(Bona fides: I sanded my house and a friends' about 10 years ago, and two rooms in my new house last year. I then went with a pro for the rest of the house — it's crappy work and not something I wanted to do again.)

Drum sanders are the fastest but also take a deft hand and careful attention — they can dig a groove in the floor pretty quickly, especially where you drop and pick them up on each run.

An orbital or vibrating sander is a lot easier for novices to handle, I would recommend these if your floors have already been sanded several times.

If you take on this job yourself, you should be aware of a few things:

  • Sanding floors takes a lot of time to do properly. 1500 sq. ft. will probably take a week. There's the initial prep (removing molding, furniture, nails, and cleaning), three passes with different grades of sand paper, staining/sealing, screening that finish, then polyurethane three times, screening between each one. And lots of waiting time between applications of stain and poly. You'll also need hand sanders (a small drum sander works best) to get around the edges of the room, the floor sanders don't go all the way to the wall. Then you have to replace the molding.
  • This is dirty work. Even the sanders with nice vacuum bags are going to leave dust all over the place and you should wear a mask. And hearing protection, depending on the type.
  • Rental sanders vary in quality. Some rental shops take care of their equipment, but many do not. Best case, this can result in trips back when the sander is DOA. Worst case, the sander may sand unevenly and create grooves or circular patterns in the floor. Keep a close eye on them.
  • If the floors haven't been sanded in a number of years, the older varnishes (and the wax buildup on top of them) is very hard to get off the floor and you'll burn through a lot of sandpaper (it gums up the paper and you have to replace frequently).
  • Most rental places will let you return unused sandpaper for a full refund. Take advantage of this and buy 2–3× what you think you'll need, because those same rental shops probably aren't open on Saturday night or Sunday morning when you run out.

Just to build on what richardtallent said...

3/4 inch solid oak floors can handle 3 refinishes we were told. Beyond 3 and the wood is to thin.

This is very very dirty work. the dust will get everywhere. When we did out first floor, we had just remodeled the kitchen. make sure you tape off any rooms you want to keep clean with heavy plastic and painters tape.

Tape up any heat registers and returns. change your furnace filter (if you have a furnace) before and after. If you're doing this while you need the furnace (summer or winter), check the filter during the process.

We did 3 passes on ours (they had never been refinished and were original to the house) from course to medium and finally fine. Ours was a complete gut, so we didn't have to get around floor molding, we replaced it with new stuff afterwards. Orbital sanders (the one you stand to use) are powerful. If you use belt sanders you can go with the grain producing a better product.

Watch for popped nail heads. Sink them when you can. They eat sand paper.

Fill in any gaps with wood filler to match the floor. Stain will stick to it and the poly will protect it. Major flaws in the floor should be fixed. Even though my house is over 80 years old, lumber liquidators still sold the oak wood.

Keep the work area clean and vacumed. We used an everyday shopvac, and it had to be cleaned constantly.

We used belt sanders and did it by hand on our hands and knees. A lot more work but allows for much finer control. If you're not paying attention, you'll gouge the floor. Feel the floor with your hands as you work. There will be so much dust on it, you won't see it with your eyes. Good wrap-around eye protection, too. You'll cry saw dust at the end of the day.

Two coats of stain, waiting a day in between and two coats of poly (minwax) waiting a full seven days in-between. The fumes are amazing. Get some fans to help circulate the air. If you insist on sleeping in the house when the poly dries, do not step on the floors for at least 24 hours after each coat, and be careful for the next 24 hours. Our front door is feet from the stairs to the 2nd floor, so we set up a plank to get out of the house for work.

Tack clothes are your friend; use them between each pass of staining and poly.

Make sure the place is spotless while staining and poly; we made two passes each time we stained or poly (there were four of us working on the floors at the same time).

It's a lot of hard work. Get a good mask, not the crap paper ones. Keep the windows open and blast the music.

I'd go out for a smoke and you could just see saw dust pouring out of the windows. It will get everywhere. Clean the walls, the ceiling. Then clean them again.

Every aspect of this is finish work, even the sanding. each step will determine how good the next comes out. Take your time.

  • 1
    and whatever you use to sand the floors, keep it moving. if you leave even the belt sander in 1 place for 2 long, it'll burn right through it.
    – lsiunsuex
    Dec 19 '11 at 15:35

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