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When should you refinish hardwood floors?

Floor refinishing is a process that takes planning and preparation. Know what to expect before beginning the process in your home. (Photo courtesy of Angie’s List member Gigel B. of Chicago)

Floor refinishing is a process that takes planning and preparation. Know what to expect before beginning the process in your home. (Photo courtesy of Angie’s List member Gigel B. of Chicago)

Knowing when to refinish wood floors isn't as simple as you might think. Like fine wine, hardwood does indeed get better with age — up to a certain point. Eventually, even the best wines sour and wood loses its luster.

Before rushing out to rent a sander and make your family miserable for days, consider a few things first. Professional flooring contractors can be expensive, but if you plan to do it yourself, understand that it is a big job and you really need to know what you are doing. Furniture needs clearing out and foot traffic diverted. Dust will be everywhere and the chemicals from the sealer, stain and polyurethane will stink. Moreover, you might not even need to do it at all.

Refinishing is a drastic remedy

Sometimes people do it unnecessarily, and — depending on the condition of the floor — might actually be doing more harm than good. For example, you can sand away beautiful grain patterns that took years to develop. Often, less expensive and intrusive alternatives may be best.

Begin by taking a close look at your floor. If all you see is a faded finish and light surface scratches, you're in luck! You can probably get by with screening (a method for roughing up the existing finish) the floor and applying a finish. Affordable products can clean and fill in small scratches to restore floors to a beautiful new luster.

On the other extreme, if what you see goes far beyond minor wear — such as warped, sagging or split boards throughout, extensive water damage or extensive deep scratches into the wood — the better option may be to completely replace or cover the damaged flooring. In those cases where damage control is limited to replacing a few boards and where the finish has been off so long that grime has ground into the wood, your floors may indeed be best suited to refinishing. When in doubt, the opinion of a professional is the best way to know for sure.

Before you get started

You should take other considerations into account before refinishing.

First, find out if you have engineered or laminated flooring instead of solid hardwood planks. Engineered flooring comprises layers of wood glued together, like plywood. The upper layer is a thin (usually 1/16- to 1/8-inch thick) strip of finished hardwood that can withstand being sanded only a couple of times, if that. Because of this low margin for error, consider a professional for engineered floors. In addition, engineered flooring does not have the durability of solid flooring.

Laminate floors aren't wood at all, but a synthetic product that never needs refinishing. The best way to tell what kind of flooring you have is by looking at the edge of exposed flooring (under heating vents, for example).

Even if you make the delightful discovery that your flooring is solid wood, there are other considerations. Maple floors, for instance, are especially challenging to restore properly and thus best left to a professional.

Do your homework first

Maybe you discovered hardwood flooring under your carpet or you want to increase your home's value and enhance its resale value. Sometimes it's simple to repair damage or restore lost luster. Either way, refinishing will likely bring astonishing results.

If you've done the job yourself, you have the added satisfaction of seeing the beautiful product of your labor. In any case, make sure your decision is an informed one.


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