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What not to do when refinishing a hardwood floor

When we first moved into this old house- I saw room after room filled with potential. 
Of course I also saw the flaws and things that needed to be fixed 
and dreamed about 'new' in place of some of the 'old worn out'.

  But strangely, I also had a sense of 'duty' almost - to keep the original as much as we could. 
I loved the old character- it was part of the charm even if it wasn't 'perfect'.
I saw it as patina and something that showed the history. 
And one of those areas that had a lot of 'character' and 'Patina' 
were the hardwood floors.

The hardwood flooring is original to the house. 
Put in back in the day in 1940 in the entire house. 
Kitchen, bathrooms you name it. 

Those floors had an old orange finish when we moved in- much like the orange knotty pine walls. But they were damaged. Bleached in areas, heavily scratched in others and with
 large dark stains.
Can we just say- it was not a favorite thing? 
Other than it was hardwood.

So refinishing was definitely on the list of things to do.
And we did refinish the living room and a couple bedrooms when we first moved in-
 and even though we were not able to get even half of those dings, scratches and stains out-
we were loving the new look of the floors.

So just a heads up - todays post is not a pretty finished room reveal post-
 it is sharing what we learned the hard way
and sharing what NOT to do with your hardwood floors.

Hardwood floors are amazing. 
They have the most incredible amount of beauty when the details and grain shines through. 
And the character and charm of the wood- including the dings and imperfections-  plays a huge part of the look in your room.
But inevitably, that pretty shine and finish will wear over the years - and those floors just won't shine like they used to. 
Somewhere along the way,  I had discovered (and loved) a fabulous little cleaning product that when you mopped- 
 added just a smidge of a layer of poly to the top and made the floors shine like
 they were brand new... 
all the time
it was AMAZING.

The problem with that product which I didn't know at the time...
it leaves layers and layers of poly on your floors 
 without you realizing it.
And after awhile,  when the shine stops being so nice after it dries-
 you are left with dull, cloudy finish that is actually a built up layer of yuck.
So you add more to get that 'shine' again.
 And the cycle repeats.
It is not fabulous.
I do not recommend it. 

So we knew we needed to get all of that product off the floors and then 
refinish and re-coat with actual full strength poly to protect the floor rather than just put a bandaid on an old finish. 
We googled how to get that product off and they recommended Windex or ammonia. 
We tried both. 
Neither one worked.
Not even at full undiluted strength.
(and ammonia at undiluted strength? aye aye aye. )
The next thing to try?

We scraped. And scraped. And scraped. And scraped.
  For days.
Then we rented the floor sander and sanded. And sanded. And sanded. 
And then scraped some more.
And sanded some more.

It gives a whole new meaning and appreciation for hand scraped hardwoods.

Normally, when refinishing hardwood floors 
you would use a machine to take a layer of the wood off - about 1/4i sh inch
to get a completely clean hardwood layer.
Which would have been much easier.

But taking off a 1/4- 1/2 inch layer of wood off to fully refinish these hardwoods was not an option. 
These hardwood boards are actually not laying on a piece of underlayment flooring
 like they would be today. 
They are each nailed directly to the floor joists- with nothing in between supporting them.
So you can see the underneath of the hardwood from the basement. 
Which means- they would be too thin to be flooring 
if we removed any layers of wood.

So, we knew that we were merely sanding a small layer off and
perfectly refinished hardwoods were not on the agenda.
But hardwood floors without the layers of 'floor refinisher' gunk
 and a pretty new shine? 

Definitely were. 

After all the refinishing, we stained them espresso color and we started to poly. 
One coat of poly? Amazing.
Two coats- I was about falling over with excitement at how pretty the floors looked. 
And the next day,
we were ready to add the 3rd coat and wrap up the living room floor refinishing project up.

And that was when the next issue popped up.

There was a layer of white that showed up in the top finish in three areas. 
It looked like white paint or milk that had spilled and you wiped it and it was now all over. 
It is not an uncommon issue- but I didn't know how to fix it.
So, I called the company who makes the floor finish. 
I told them what we used and they said it was likely a little moisture trapped either from humidity (California- 96 degree dry HOT weather so not so likely)
 or was probably gasses coming off the stain as it cured and getting trapped.
 And he gave me advice on how to get those white areas out.

Just use mineral spirits to gently rub the white areas out. 

Which I did.

And as it dried, the floor was now all white in large areas. 
 It looked like someone wiped paint over everything.
And on top of it- the poly finish was starting to peel right up.
As in,  I could grab a corner of it and pull it off in a layer.

I called the company back and told them about the previous call, 
what they told me to do,
what I did and asked why was my floor now  looking 1000 times worse 
than before.

And the answer?

 'I don't know why he would have told you to use mineral spirits with that product. 
You never use mineral spirits with this specific water based product. 
It completely ruins the finish.'

And if you could see my face, you would know that I was more than slightly aggravated
 (which is very kind word for how I was feeling)

And then he said that the only thing I could do to fix it now
 was to sand the floor down to the stain level of the wood and start over.

My newly refinished, 
shining, beautiful, almost ready to be wrapped up hardwood floor
needed to be sanded down.

Pretty sure my husband was about ready to divorce me when I told him that... 
but he rented the floor sander again.
And sanded and peeled off the layers of poly that had been ruined in those areas by the mineral spirits.
And started over with a fresh coat of poly.

So, here we are.
 Almost 3 weeks on this project in between work and travel
and we are finally moving the furniture back inside. 
And the floors look beautiful- not perfect but we weren't going for perfect. 

So to sum it up? 
Here's what we learned.

Don't use a citrus 'glow' floor refinishing product no matter how enticing it is to have pretty floors
in a quick fix. It doesn't last and it creates a much bigger problem. 

Refinishing hardwood floors is a do-able DIY job- 
it is not a fun job but you can do it.

And an update: 
The refinish product we used has not held up
so we are now replacing.

And in the pretty category-
 I spent a fun day working in L.A. with The Bella Cottage this week
and have a ton of gorgeous inspiration photos to share with you. 
So.Much. Pretty.

More coming your way soon.

Happy Wednesday everyone.

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  1. Beautiful cottage and the floor amazing I don't know in what part CA you living but your home thosen look like is in here look lake you living in French loved your back yard and all around your home is so beautiful and romantic
    Nice home
    Have blessing

  2. Thank you thank you thank you for this! We just ripped out ugly tiles (not the historic ones) and put in wood floors. So good to know this!! Though the guy who installed the floors told us, to dust and not do anything else, not even water. After dusting, I pass over with a damp (not wet) mop because I'm a maniac that way. But it dries quickly. Hot and dry here. Anyway, I had just read about mineral spirits to redo wood, and it's good to know about that vs. parquet floors.

  3. Oh my goodness. I feel for you. Our hardwoods have needed refinishing since we bought the house three years ago. It is a task I never get to. I started to use one of those make it look good products, but our poor old dog was slipping all over, so I stopped. I guess I'm glad I stopped. Thanks for all the good advice.

  4. I learned long time ago not to use those products because they build up. That happened in our first house on the linoleum. Now I only use vinegar and water on my wood floor.

  5. LOVE the cozy French Country cottage you've created! I have to ask about the carved wood settee in the office photo, the one with the mantle with the framed "dream" piece resting on it. Is old or new and where can I find one just like it? Dreamy!

  6. Wow - this could not be more timely! We are in the planning stage for our new house and it will have hardwood flooring throughout the living area. I have been concerned about the upkeep, but it surely sounds like less is better. Thank you for sharing your learning experience with us.

  7. I thank you for your floor project story, restoring wood is a tricky project. Your home is so beautiful, those French doors make me want to cry! I know you saw the beauty in restoring your older home! It take so much patience and time but I and others dream of a home like yours.

  8. Thank you SO much for sharing this. I recently purchased a tiny little 1940 lake cottage.. It too has wood floors. I hope to start up a blog about the new adventure. Your blog inspires me. Thank you

  9. Thank you for the story and advise on the wood floors. I so feel for you. But in the end I'm they are going to look beautiful. Love all the photos. ;)

  10. Great post, Courtney, thank you for sharing it! Our floors are definitely in need of the same soon, and lately, I've been reading up about it...glad yours worked out in the end. I have very dark espresso hand-distressed floors like those you mentioned, but I've heard using a sander is difficult because of the varying may have to be a trial-and-error experience for us as well!

  11. Oh dear....that is so sad :-( We sanded and refinished our hardwood floors ourselves in our former 1955 house. We used an oil based top coat (there wasn't any water based on the market when we did the floors). But it lasted and lasted and lasted for 25 years through 2 boys and their friends and several dogs.

    In our current house, the former owners put some sort of "you don't have to sand but you'll get a new finish" on the bedroom hardwood floors. peels off and scatches but those rooms aren't used much (one is a guest room, the other our office with a large area rug that covers most of the floor). Anyway..... When we decided to remove the carpet from the master bedroom, I thought (hoped) it would look good enough to leave as is. Nope. There were dark stained spots, lighter spots, etc. We thought about sanding and refinishing but having done that we knew we just weren't up for that. So we cleaned and cleaned and cleaned the floors...and then painted 4 coats of latex porch and floor paint on them. We LOVE them :-) And someday if we move and the new owners say "Oh no! They painted the hardwood!" they can rent the sanders and go to town ;-)

    Best of luck with your floors. (I read your other post too.) It is really hard to decide light or dark or somewhere in between as far as color goes.... So many choices :-)