Refinishing Your Wood Floors

LIFE FLOORS 1 AK
A belt sander being used to smooth a floor. Some stains can't be removed, even with sanding.

Wood floors can't be beaten for durability, but kids, pets, furniture, and everyday dirt can spoil a floor's appearance or cause damage, and sunlight can yellow or fade floor finishes. At some point you will need to refinish your floors. That's when things get messy. And inconvenient. And expensive.

Despite the fact that many companies advertise "dustless" refinishing methods, sanding produces dust, even if performed by the most careful pro. In addition, most finishes are (to put it mildly) smelly. Most also emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that linger and are (to put it really mildly) bad for your health and the environment.

It's time to have your floors sanded and refinished if:

Signficant bare wood is exposed.

There are stains you can't live with.

The surface has discolored.

You'd like a different-color stain.

In these cases, sanding and refinishing is the only way to restore your floors' uniform appearance.

Surface finishes are the most common; they coat the surface of the floor and create a seal that protects the wood beneath it. Surface finishes are most commonly polyurethane.

Penetrating finishes are much less common and substantially different from surface finishes. First, an oil is applied to bare wood, penetrating and sealing the surface. The floor is then waxed and buffed. The wax provides sheen and protection, and must be reapplied periodically. It's less protective than surface finishes, but looks and feels more like the natural wood. Wax is making a bit of a comeback, as it is nontoxic and emits very low VOCs.

If you have a surface finish, no bare wood is exposed, and your floors are in generally good shape, consider recoating. It skips the sanding, takes less time, and can cost less than half the price of a full sanding/refinishing.

If your floor's finish has worn through to bare wood in only a small area, a refinisher may be able to restore just that area.

Carefully choose a refinishing service. Checkbook's ratings of local floor refinishing businesses are available for free to Inquirer readers until Feb. 8 at www.checkbook.org/inquirer/refinishers.

It also pays big to shop prices. Checkbook's undercover shoppers obtained quotes from a sample of area refinishers for sanding and refinishing two rooms totaling 500 square feet and were quoted prices ranging from $975 to more than $2,000.

Before work begins, discuss several points with your refinisher:

Ask about stained or damaged areas. Some stains (pet stains are notorious) can be impossible to remove, even with sanding. You can have damaged wood replaced, but that raises the price. Ask for a recommendation and an estimated price. You may decide you can live with imperfections.

Ask about baseboard/quarter-round moldings. Some refinishers prefer to sand right up to the moldings and leave them as they are, rather than remove them. Because this can leave scratches and marks on the molding, and a small visible edge of unsanded flooring below it, you might want moldings removed and replaced.

Ask which finish the company recommends, and how many coats will be applied. Specify whether you want gloss, semi-gloss, or a satin finish. Gloss but shows scratches and nicks more than the others.

Ask for Material Safety Data Sheets for all solvents. The refinisher is required to provide them. If you are particularly concerned about VOCs and odors, ask whether the company has experience with, and can recommend, low- or no-VOC products.

Discuss how the company handles dust and cleanup. There's really no such thing as dustless floor refinishing.

Discuss preparation. Some companies will take up carpeting or move furniture, but floor refinishers are unlikely to be insured for damage they cause moving household items.

Ask the company to use plastic to cover heating/cooling vents and seal off work areas.

Ask for a work schedule. If you are refinishing only one or two rooms, you can probably live around the inconvenience. But if the work takes place in a large common area, or includes a stairway, get out of there. You might not be comfortable returning for several days or even a week.

Get a guarantee. At minimum, request a year on workmanship and finish, against defects such as cracking, peeling, bubbling, and clouding.

Ask about payment terms. Don't pay in full until work is complete.

Ask about insurance, for proof the company has workers' compensation and general liability insurance.

Get all agreed-to terms in writing.

Delaware Valley Consumers' Checkbook magazine (Checkbook.org) is a nonprofit with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and take no money from the service providers it evaluates.