Refinishing Hardwood Floors 101: When, Why, and How

Updated: October 27th, 2023

Hardwood flooring is a timeless, stylish design choice, and is commonly seen as a great way to add value to your home. Hardwood floors are typically one of the longest-lasting flooring materials, but over time they can develop scratches, scuffs, and an overall lackluster appearance, even with proper care. Thankfully, one of hardwood’s best features is its ability to be refinished. So even when your wood floors look beyond tiring, you can breathe new life into your home without needing an entirely new floor installation. Here’s what you should know about refinishing hardwood floors before undertaking this project. 

When Should You Refinish Hardwood Floors?

There’s no set interval that determines when hardwood floors should be refinished because that can be determined by many variables. In short, you should consider refinishing your hardwood floors when they have scratches, fading, and/or discoloration that cannot be removed by thorough cleaning or polishing. And, of course, you can always refinish perfectly good hardwood floors if you simply want to change their stain color.  

Perhaps the most  important bit of info to know is how often you will be able to refinish hardwood flooring. That will depend on the flooring’s thickness and how many times it has been refinished before. In general, your hardwood must have 1/8-inch or more material above the tongue and groove  to safely be refinished. When new, a solid hardwood plank is typically at least 3/4 inches thick and can likely be refinished at least four to six times during its total lifespan. It’s commonly accepted that you should expect to refinish a hardwood floor every seven to ten years. 

Important notes: some hardwood is only 1/4 inch thick even when new. In this case, attempting a refinish could catastrophically damage your floor. Additionally, these guidelines do not apply to engineered hardwood floors, which are constructed of a real wood layer on top of an engineered plywood core. Engineered hardwood can be refinished, but usually only once or twice in its lifetime. 

Unsure how thick your hardwood is? Consider measuring board thickness by removing an air vent in the floor to expose a side view of the board. Another option, which requires a bit more effort, is to remove a section of the baseboard where your floor meets the wall, which should also allow a similar view of the hardwood’s edge. quarter round. Usually, either of these methods will let you accurately measure hardwood thickness without tearing up the room too much. 

Problem #1: Excessive Dents and Scratches

Although it’s a tough material, a hardwood floor will still pick up its fair share of scratches and dents—especially if you have kids or pets. While many homeowners actually prefer the patina of a timeworn floor, ignoring serious scratches or wear spots can lead to real problems. Refinishing hardwood floors can be a great way to remove surface scratches that are not yet deeply embedded in the wood. 

Problem #2: Fading and Discoloration from Sunlight Exposure

Direct sunlight can also negatively impact hardwood floors. Too much exposure to UV rays and your hardwood floor can eventually fade and/or become discolored. You can try to prevent this by blocking or diffusing the sun during peak hours with blinds and shades. But if your floors are already showing significant fading, a refinish may help restore their original color. 

Problem #3: Water Damage on Hardwood

If a protective hardwood finish wears off, your floors can become susceptible to water damage. You can determine if your finish is worn by performing a water drop test. Put a small drop of water on the suspect section of your hardwood floor. If the water soaks into the wood immediately rather than resting on top, it’s likely time for a refinish. Another sign? Water-damaged hardwood often turns a shade of gray. The darker the boards become; the more damage is occurring. Once black, your floors probably need to be replaced altogether. 

Refinishing Hardwood Floors Isn’t Always Enough

Hardwood flooring is a major investment that should last for many years. Discoloration, scratches, and even signs of water damage can be reversed if hardwood floors are properly refinished. However, there are a few signs (some more obvious than others) to look for that indicate a need for a full flooring replacement, such as: 

  • Boards have turned extremely dark or black compared to the original color 
  • Gaps between planks, loose planks, or any other kind of significant movement 
  • Deep gouges or scratches that go below the surface layer 
  • Warped or buckled planks 

Many of the above scenarios can be avoided with preventative hardwood flooring care. Like many home improvement projects, being proactive before real problems occur is the best way to avoid expensive, stressful repairs. 

How to Refinish Hardwood Floors

Refinishing hardwood floors yourself can be time-consuming, costly, and frustrating. Worst of all, you risk damaging your investment and making the condition of the floor worse. While we’re not here to scare you, we do want to stress the importance of having realistic expectations before taking on a DIY project. Here’s what refinishing hardwood involves: 

  • Moving all furniture, pictures, curtains, and personal items out of the room 
  • Covering all air conditioning units, windows, and doorways with plastic to help contain dust. 
  • Cleaning the floor thoroughly to prepare for sanding. 
  • Renting a professional sander, and often a handheld detail sander for edges and corners. 
  • Removing all baseboards.  
  • Completing three separate passes with the floor sander: first with coarse-grit sandpaper, then medium-grit, and a final pass with fine-grit.  
  • Filling in dents and scratches with wood putty or other wood repair compound. 
  • Vacuuming dust and debris, and then wiping the entire floor with a tack cloth. 

And that is likely going to be a full day’s work—before you even get to restaining and resealing your hardwood floor. After those steps are completed, you can apply the wood stain as directed by the manufacturer and then finish up with a coat of polyurethane sealer.

Refinishing Hardwood is Not for Everyone

Refinishing a hardwood floor is not an impossible DIY task, by any means. But it’s also not a project for everyone, and that’s okay. You can read articles or watch how-to videos, but nothing can compare to the years of knowledge and expertise that a professional, experienced contractor will have. 

Remember, if the damage to your hardwood is extensive, unsafe, and impossible to ignore, it may be time to replace your flooring completely. Empire Today® makes the whole process easy. Schedule a FREE In-Home Estimate to see high-quality hardwood samples in the natural light and context of your home.

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