Refinishing our 104-year-old Hardwood Floors Ourselves


If you followed along on the One Room Challenge, you already know that we refinished our hardwood floors.  And oh what a difference it made!  We went from paint-splattered hardwoods hidden under stained, rust-colored carpets


to these lovely hardwood floors…


You might be surprised to hear that despite being hardcore DIYers, Garrett and I rarely refinish our own hardwood floors.  The first time that we tackled refinishing floors ourselves, we found it to be timely, labor intensive, and super disruptive to our lives since we were living in the house.  Plus the finish didn’t seem to hold up nearly as well as a professional finish.  After that experience, we hung up our belt sanders and called in the pros to finish our hardwood floors (like at Ravenna and Dexter) and they turned out beautifully!

For some reason we decided to try our hand at refinishing the upstairs farmhouse floors ourselves this time, which totaled about 600sf.  It came down to a matter of schedule (it had to be right away so I could finish the One Room Challenge on time), money (we didn’t have thousands to spend on a professional refinish), and the fact that we just moved to town and don’t know any floor refinishers here.  Plus refinishers usually require a minimum hardwood area, and I’m not sure our 600SF would have been enough for a professional refinisher to bother with.  For all these reasons, we got busy and did the job ourselves.

In the end it was a biiiig job, but totally doable.  It was just as disruptive and labor-intensive as we remembered, but I think we ended up with a much more durable finish this time.  And because we were dealing with time and money constraints, doing a DIY refinish on the floors was absolutely the right choice for this project.

Here’s what we used:

// Materials

Drum sander (rental)

Orbital finishing sander (rental)

Palm sander

Belt sander

Wood filler

Polyurethane, satin finish

Putty Knife

Pad applicator

Dry rags and Vacuum

Safety equipment: ear plugs, glasses, respirator mask

Here’s what we did:

Step 1 // empty the room and prepare for dust onslaught.  Because there will be So. Much. Dust!  I recommend removing everything from the room and then hanging two layers of painters plastic on the doorways.  Dust will still leak out, but these precautions will keep most of it contained.  (Tip: it’s best to paint walls/ceilings before refinishing floors so you don’t get paint splatters on your brand new floor!)


Step 2 // we started sanding with a drum sander because our floors had a lot of layers to remove.  Our 104-year-old floors are covered with layers of paint splattered on top of a thick coat of finish.  Drum sanders can take some serious wood off your floors, so I’d only recommend using one if you have a similar situation, otherwise skip to step 4.  We used our palm sander and belt sander to get the edges and corners of the floor where the drum sander couldn’t reach.  We used 36, 60, 80, 100 grit paper for this step.  In all, this step took us about 18 hours for 3 bedrooms.


Step 3 // we cleaned all the dust off of the floors using a vacuum and then dry rags.  Make sure rags are bone dry (make sure the rags are bone dry or you’ll raise the grain on your hardwood floors and have to sand again).

Step 4 // Once the floors were free of dust, we filled cracks with wood putty and let it dry overnight.  We filled the seams between boards that had seperated a little and any large gouges or cracks.  Again our floors are 104-years-old so there were quite a few of these spots!


Step 5 // Using an orbital finishing sander, we sanded the floors using 100 grit. This machine is square and was able to get right up to the edges, so no need to pull out the palm and belt sanders to sand the corners.

Step 6 // we cleaned up the floors again using dry rags and a vacuum (see Step 3).  At this point, it’s important to make sure every last spec of dust is up, otherwise it’ll be permanently captured in the finish.  If we weren’t 100% sure, we vacummed twice.

Step 7 // If you want to darken your floors, this is where you would add stain, but we skipped this in favor of a natural floor.

Step 8 // Now that the floors were sanded and clean, we applied a thin coat of polyurethane using a pad applicator.  We poured a little of the polyurethane on the floor and then pushed it around, following the direction of the grain, with the pad.  We followed our products drying instructions, which was 2+ hours.

Step 9 // Once the floors were dry, we gave them a light sand using 100 grit sandpaper on the orbital finishing sander.  You don’t want to scuff up the floors or remove much finish, so keep a light sand.  This step is just to get rid of any imperfections.

Step 10 // We cleaned again…urgh, I hate dust! (see step 3)

Step 11 // Next we added 3 more thin coats of polyurethane (for a total of 4), letting each coat dry completely before adding the next.


Step 12 // the last step was to clean…again!  This time we vacummed the floors, walls, and ceiling to get rid of all lingering dust.  Honestly, you’ll probably find dust everywhere, even outside the room!  We also gave the floors a quick mop with water before moving furniture back in.

All-in-all the process took us about a week of work, drying time, and supply runs.  With kids in the mix, moving out of the upstairs for that long was definitely inconvenient, but on the plus side, we saved a bundle.  I’ll tallly up the cost and share that on Thursday.

I’d love to hear from you guys.  Have you ever refinished your own floors?  Any tips or different methods you used?



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  1. We refinished our kitchen floors this past summer, and we will tackle much of the rest of the first floor next summer. We followed similar steps, and we found a real back saver. We used a paint roller with a long handle to apply the poly. We used a sponge paint roller cover meant for super smooth paint applications. I did keep a sponge brush handy to smooth any weird spots, but using the roller was faster and allowed us to stay upright.

    I am looking forward to new floors next summer but not the dust. Eek!

    • I feel silly now. I was reading your post in reader earlier, and I could not see the link to the pad applicator. It could also fit on a long pole. My tip is not so great after all. 🙂

  2. Désirée says:

    A dozen years ago (or so) we refinished all the hardwood floors in our 1,100 sq. ft. tract house starter home. I have great memories of my sofas being on end on either side of our kitchen sink for about a week and sleeping on an air mattress in our basement. And. The. Dust. You speak the truth. Remember to seal off any vents/registers in the area you’re working in to keep the dust from getting into the duct work – and redistributed around your house once the HVAC kicks on. I seem to recall using mineral spirits on tack cloth to wipe the dust up off the floors during the process as well.
    Your floors turned out beautifully, enjoy them and your new(wish) home.

  3. I’m excited to see that you did this project yourself, only as validation that I’m not totally insane to consider refinishing our floors myself. Our floors aren’t quite as old, only 90-years-old :), but we have some nails that have worked their way up and some spots where the wood has split and broken (in front of the kitchen door and in front of the bathroom door. My biggest obstacle is where to put the furniture since we have one level and a galley kitchen. We can probably put some big pieces in our half basement and maybe the rest split between the garage and the attic (both full of other crap right now though…).

    I’m pretty sure the floors have never been sanded, despite the nailheads and broken spots. We have a wax finish that is completely worn through in spots because I haven’t refreshed it in 9 years. I plan to use a hard wax oil finish on the floors (probably Pallman Magic Oil 2K) and that’s part of the reason I’m planning on doing it myself, I don’t think we have any refinishers who use it in Spokane.

    I was going to say something about the 1/4 round but just realized you didn’t have any when you moved in because of the carpet and had to try to match new trim to your baseboards. I hope I can remove ours without breakage before we sand but luckily our baseboards are painted so if I have to replace any it will be easy to match…I’ll just have to repaint all of the trim :).

    • Finding a spot for the furniture was definitely one of the biggest headaches for us too. We ended up piling everything on our landing, which meant we were constantly fighting our way through it as we moved from one room to the next.

  4. These turned out so nice! We installed and custom finished all our hardwood to match our 100+ yr old black walnut banister. It was trial and error with the stain (as in 3 attemps, which nearly did me in) since the stain was so dark we couldn’t get it to blend and not look patchy until we thinned it and water popped the red oak. Also, if you ever want an awesome poly, try Fabulon. It’s AMAZING. Our floors take a beating but it holds up so well and scratches just buff out with a little time! Some of the flooring process is on my little blog 🙂

  5. What work, but it looks like it paid off; those floors are beautiful! I remember having our 1950s wood floors refinished in our childhood home and we lived in the basement with a week of awful smelling fumes.

    You needed one of those plastic doors with a zipper down the middle (the pros use them all the time) to help contain the dust. I wonder if one of those fans with a filter would help too (as seen on commercial jobs too).

  6. This looks beautiful. We have tackled hardwood refinishing in four homes now, but never while we were living there. So bravo to you! I would agree with you on the finish though, we never were fully happy with the longevity of the poly finish when we did it ourselves. We tweaked it each time to try to improve, but ended up going with an oil finish in this house, for the ability to reapply oil when we need it. Only time will tell, but I’m happy with it so far.

  7. We’ve got some hardwood floor refinishing in our future, and I was curious about the wood filler/putty you used. I’ve read in old house magazines about using everything from cord to putty mixed from the sawdust from the floor itself to fill gaps between floor boards, so I’may curious what you used and how it’s holding up.

    • That’s a great question Melissa. We didn’t do anything to the wood filler, but in the future I might. Saw dust sounds like a good option. Our wood filler has separated a little bit since we originally installed it but there are gaps on all the floors at the Farmhouse, so it doesn’t bother me here.

  8. Amanda Lozano says:

    Hi Cathy! I bought a 1900 beauty last year and am about to refinish the floors. Since we are in the Pacific Northwest, our floors are fir. Any big watch outs for this type of wood vs. Hardwood? I know it shows prior damage more readily and may not get as smooth as quickly from sanding because of the different grain structure. Let me know. Appreciate it!

    • Hi Amanda. Congrats on your purchase! Sounds like a great one 😉 Fir as you allude to is a bit softer so you have to be even more careful when using a drum sander to feather at the beginning and end of your sanding path so you don’t get drum marks. It will have a fair amount of grain-raise once you put on the first coat of water-based finish so we like to stop at 80-100 grit, apply 2 coats of finish then screen with 100 or 120 grit with a floor polisher to knock the grain down. Then put the final coat on. Also there’s always a trade-off between how far you can sand down before you reach the nail heads and how clean the boards end-up. I like to err on the less removal side and that leaves the floors with a little more character so don’t feel like you have to sand forever! Good luck and send a picture of before and after if you get around to it!

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