Porch House // Lessons Learned from Finishing the Hardwood Floors Ourselves

THE PORCH HOUSE

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that we made some mistakes while finishing the Porch House hardwood floors.  Three mistakes to be exact, and it led to some stress-filled days and extra work for Garrett.  In an effort to prevent you from making the same mistakes, I wanted to share exactly what it is that we did wrong.  OR, if you like how our floors turned out (because, honestly I do!), what it is exactly that we did right 😉

All is well that ends well, as you can see from the photo below.

The Grit and Polish - Porch Kitchen Soup G tasting FLOORS

Before we talk about the finish, let’s talk about floors.  A few months ago, we laid white oak hardwood floors throughout the main floor (minus the master bathroom).  If you’ve been following the Grit and Polish for long, you know that we usually save the original flooring in our old houses – for character, economic, and environmental reasons – but sadly the Porch House’s 117-year-old fir floors were too far gone for a refinish.  So, we called up Uncle Dougie and placed an order for 1100sf of 2 1/4″ wide, grade #2, white oak flooring.

The Grit and Polish - Porch House Living Rm ProgressThe Grit and Polish - Porch House Floors and belly

We selected white oak because it’s timeless (though it seems to be having a moment in the design world right now) and inexpensive, and that goes for the 2 1/4″ width as well.  We selected #2 grade, which meant lots of color variation and imperfections, a look that fits the bill in our rural community, but was also the least expensive option.  We wanted to stretch our dollars as far as we could since we’re reselling the Porch House and any way you shake it, hardwood flooring will cost more than other options like vinyl or laminate.

The Grit and Polish - Porch House Living Rm 1

We laid the white oak flooring right over top of the existing hardwoods with a layer of tar paper in between. The new hardwood floors sat unfinished for a couple of months while we worked on the rest of the house. And then it was time to finish the floors, and that’s where things went south

LESSON ONE // avoid drum sanders (or use one you’re comfortable with)

The finishing process began with renting a drum sander, an aggressive sander that removes the top layer of wood.  The only drum sander I could find locally was a Silverline.  I’m not sure if anyone’s had good luck with this type of drum sander, but Garrett didn’t like it and he ended up with some ‘drum marks’ or ‘chatter marks’ in the floor.  The marks aren’t horribly obvious and not too big of a deal, but nonetheless, they’re there.  Sorry, they’re tough to catch with a camera, so I don’t have a picture to show you.  FYI, Garrett prefers any of the drum sanders that don’t rely on velcro to attach the paper.

Along with the drum sander, we rented an edger and sanded the floors with both sanders using 36, 60, and 80 grit paper.  Next Garrett filled holes/gaps/seams with wood filler and let that set overnight.  An orbiting floor sander was next with 80 and 100 grit paper.

The Grit and Polish - Porch Hardwood Refinish G in Closet 1

At this point the floors were reasonably smooth and ready for their finish.  So we cleaned up the dust and then cleaned again (because man there’s a lot of wood dust and it gets everywhere!) and picked out a finish product.

The Grit and Polish - Porch Hardwood Refinish me mudroom

LESSON TWO // Watch out for non-clear sealers called ‘Natural’

We opted to find a different finish than what we used at the Farmhouse last year, because those turned out a bit slippery.  Garrett did some google research and landed on a water-based Bona system that had great reviews.  Bona recommends that a foundation be applied prior to the finish to seal the grain and they offer several sealer color options. He picked out the Bona NaturalSeal sealer and the Bona Mega Clear HD finish in Satin.  Garrett picked the ‘Natural’ sealer since the name and description implied a natural-looking finish.  But wouldn’t you know it.  Natural isn’t ‘natural’.  It’s a cloudy sealer that leaves the wood looking slightly white-washed.

The Grit and Polish - Hardwood finish sealer

The Grit and Polish - Master Closet Floors 1

Thankfully, the ‘natural’ finish is actually really beautiful and works well in this house.  But it wasn’t what we were planning on.  Our original goal was a clear finish similar to the floors at my sister’s old house, shown below.

The Grit and Polish - Sissy's Living Room Chair

The walls in both rooms are the same color (BM Simply White) and both floors are white oak. But you can see that the Porch House floors have a slightly white-washed look with less grain showing while my sister’s floors are warmer and have a lot of grain showing through.  For the record, my sister’s white oak floors are wider and a *little* nicer grade than the Porch House’s floors (#floorgoals). Here’s a side by side comparison:

Hardwood finish comparison

Garrett was initially really bummed with the Porch House floor finish. After a week of sanding the floors and dreaming about warm wood tones and grains, he couldn’t quite stomach the cloudy finish. But if he wanted the finish of his dreams, he’d have to start from square one with the drum sander. Honestly, he considered doing just that, but I strongly suggested he reconsider (that’s wife talk for I told him not to do it).  I assured him that the finish really was beautiful and I really liked that it evened out the high-variation in color of our grade #2 floors.  Eventually he wrapped his mind around it and we moved on.

LESSON THREE // buff at your own risk (and if you risk it, do it evenly)

Because the oak grain raised a bit when we sealed the floors, we decided to rent a buffer with a 220-grit screen to knock it down prior to applying the finish coats. The dangerous part about buffing after the sealer is already applied, is that you have to buff the entire floor completely evenly.  If you don’t, or if you have any unevenness in the hardwoods due to say, chatter marks leftover from the drum sander, than the buffing is going to create an uneven finish.  And that’s just what happened to our floors.  There were small areas where you could see more of the wood color and small spots where the sealer was a thicker.  Based on our experience, a tip is that buffing after applying a non-clear finish should be done with the utmost care, super light and evenly.  Our unevenness was fixed, at least mostly so, by Garrett applying another coat of sealer to the light areas and he feathered it into the already-coated areas.  After it dried, he applied two coats of finish to the entire floor.  In the end, the finish isn’t perfect, but after all that work, it looks good.

Hopefully sharing this process helps someone else from making the same mistakes.  And if you’re wondering if finishing your own hardwoods is worth the headache, I will say, it’s not a task we like to do.  But, and this is a big but, the total cost of finishing the Porch House’s 1100sf of hardwoods ourselves rang in around $1200 for sander, rentals, and product.  That’s a savings of over $4,000 from the professional quote we got.

xoxo

-Cathy

p.s. What the Farmhouse floor refinish cost us

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4 Comments

Comments

  1. I think it looks great, and I love the whitewashed look. Like you said, it evens out the many colors of the oak. So you saved $$$$, but I’m sure that professional quote includes labor too. How many hours did it take to refinish these floors?

  2. I like the cloudy finish too. I have only used the Silverline drum sander. I had some issues too. I chalked it up to the fact that I am small and short. 🙂 That sander is a beast!

  3. I really like the whitewashed finish, but it’s such a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when the look doesn’t match what you were planning to see.

    Thanks for the tip about drum sanders that don’t use Velcro! We refinished the 80 year old floors on our first floor last summer, but did the whole thing with a square scrub sander because our floors are only 3/8″ thick and we were paranoid about going through and exposing the tongue and groove. We need to do the upstairs floors in the next year or so, and are glad to hear anything that makes a drum sander a little less intimidating!

  4. I’ve finished a bunch of hardwood floors — new oak, plus existing old floors of fir, maple, birch, oak and so on. The drum sander is not easy. It almost certainly makes marks that will be compounded by the application of stain, but thankfully I don’t mind this rather “distressed” look. IMO, the only way to deal with the drum marks is to spend much more time sanding with the pad sander. And, for a new floor, are you certain you needed to drum sand? The floor would have been pretty level — it takes more time to use the pad sander with increasingly finer paper, but you would have avoided the drum marks. As for the grain raise with your sealer coat, I have to confess that I just bite the bullet, put my kneepads on and gently sand the floor by hand with a half sheet manual sander with a very fine grit (220 or higher). You just need a few quick passes and yes, it takes a bit longer than the buffer you referred to but no rental cost and no aggressive removal of the sealer which leads to more time spent trying to correct that anyway.

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