Discovering Your Hardwood Floor

I remember when my wife and I first looked at the house we now own. As my wife walked through with the realtor, I poked around the basement, under the sinks, and around the outside. When I went back into the house, I noticed that the cold air returns were in the floor of the dining room. Since the floors in the living room and dining room were wall-to-wall carpeting, I lifted out the register to see if I could determine what was underneath the carpeting. Hiding under a layer of 70’s era harvest gold were two inch wide strips of tongue-and-groove hardwood.

Now that I have gotten around to removing the carpet in the dining room, I can assess the condition of my hardwood floor and decide if I want to restore it, replace it or recarpet it. You can also read about how to strip woodwork here. The process is quite simple and if you are comfortable with a hammer, pliers, nails, and a nail set, you should give it a try.

Getting To Your Hardwood Floor

The easiest floor covering to remove is wall-to-wall carpet because it is only held down along the edges of the room. This is done with tack strips, strips of plywood which have tacks sticking through and angled so that when the strips are nailed to the floor, the tacks point to the wall. These tacks grip the backing of the carpet when it is stretched and keeps it firmly against the wall. To release the carpet from the tack strip, carefully pry up a corner of the carpet. When you have the corner loose, just pull up as you move along the wall until all sides are loose. Now, fold the carpet over so that you can get to the backing and cut through it with a razor knife. Carpet is heavy and will be easier to carry out of the house when it’s cut into smaller pieces.

Once the carpet has been removed, you can begin on the padding. The padding will be either rubber, foam, or felt. The padding should be held down with staples. Pull up the padding and carry it out, cutting it into smaller pieces if needed. Once the padding is up, carefully pull up the staples that held it to the floor. Use a flat bladed screwdriver to carefully pry up the staple so you can grab it with the pliers and pull it out. sometimes the staple will break off. If there isn’t enough staple to grab, gently tap the staple into the floor with a hammer.

When you have removed all the staples, it’s time for the tack strip. Carefully slide a prybar or flat blade screwdriver under one end of the strip. As the nail comes loose, continue working along the strip until it comes up. You will want to do this carefully since any gouges you put into the floor will need to be sanded out later. Take your time now and you will save yourself money later. When you have all the tack strips up, you will have metal threshold strips to remove in the doorways. These are removed just like the tack strips. If any nails were left in the floor while removing the tack strip, gently pry these out also.

If you have tile or linoleum installed on your hardwood floor, you will need to scrape this up. You will need to remove the shoe molding, the quarter round piece of wood along the baseboard. This is covered in the section on floor prep. Then take your time removing the floor covering, since it will be easy to gouge the floor. If you suspect that the linoleum on your floor was installed before 1985 and it has a white backing, it may contain asbestos. This should be removed by professionals trained in the handling of asbestos. Any dust created during the removal could contain asbestos fibers, which can cause lung cancer. Asbestos removal is expensive and time-consuming. I have known people who have just pulled up the linoleum, dampened the backing remaining on the floor and scraped it up, putting everything in plastic bags and sealing them with duct tape. At least they were smart enough to wear a face mask and eye protection when they did this. Any small bits of glue that are left on the floor can be sanded up. But, do not sand the floor if there is any remaining backing that may contain asbestos.

The final step is to vacuum the floor thoroughly.

Assessing Your Floor

This is when you decide if your floor is worth the work involved, or if you will need the help of a professional.

There may be badly stained or burned areas or deep grooves from past sandings which may be impossible to remove. There may be evidence of rot, plywood patches where walls have been removed, or boards replaced with different sized boards or boards of the wrong type of wood. Large gaps or cracks between boards can be filled but may show when the floor is refinished or may even come loose. If the floors have been sanded before, there may not be enough wood left to allow for a complete refinishing job. If sanded too much, the top edge of the groove becomes too thin and may splinter along the edge of the board.

If you feel your floor may take too much time or money to refinish, you might look into painting it. A paint job on a hardwood floor can be made to look like an old linoleum floor…without the asbestos hazard.

Floor Prep: Your floor will need to be prepped before sanding. I recommend that you hire a professional to sand your floors. The sander is very heavy and bulky and can ruin your floor if not properly used. Check around and ask if doing the floor prep yourself will save you money on the final bill.

First, you will need to remove the shoe molding and baseboard. The shoe molding is a quarter round molding which makes a clean transition between the floor and wall. Run a razor knife between the baseboard and the shoe molding to break the paint seal, then carefully pry it loose. If you plan on reusing the molding, use a pry bar to remove the molding and a screwdriver to hold the loosened molding away from the baseboard. Work slowly and carefully to avoid breaking the molding. Then remove the baseboard the same way. Use a thin scrap of wood behind the pry bar to protect the wall.

Unless the shoe molding and baseboard are made of hardwood, my opinion is to just remove it as best you can and replace it with new if needed. If you are able to save some, use a pair of vice grips to pull the finish nails through the board from behind. By pulling the nails out at a 45-degree angle, the nail head will be pulled through the board and prevent splintering the wood. Number the boards on the hidden side to make replacing them in the right spot easier.

Next, take a wide-bladed putty knife and go over the floor, loosening up dirt and grit and feeling for nails or staples sticking up. If there isn’t enough sticking up to grab hold of, you will need to sink the nail or staple about 1/8″ below the surface of the floor and fill the hole with wood putty. this way, the nail or staple won’t rip the sandpaper when your flooring professional sands your floor.

Some of the most common problems


If the floorboards weren’t cured properly before they were installed, cracks will appear at the ends of boards or between the boards. These can often be filled with wood putty and sanded smooth. Use a soft wire brush to clean out the cracks before filling.

Burns and Spots

Surface burns, such as cigarette burns, should disappear when the floor is sanded. Spots of oil, wax, and grease can be removed with turpentine. However, boards with deep burns will need to be removed and replaced.

Loose Boards

If the hardwood floor is buckled or has lifted up from the subflooring, you will need to reattach it. Ring shank nails should be used, nailing through predrilled holes, which are angled toward each other. This helps the nails hold better. Countersink the heads and fill with wood putty.


A sagging floor often results in sticking doors and windows, cracked plaster, sloping floors and even leaky roofs. The result is the floor cannot support its own weight. A sagging first floor will affect any floors above it, but upper floors may sag without the first floor being affected.

If your floor sags, you should have a professional builder inspect the floor to determine the cause. Sagging can be caused by joists warping as they dried, the wrong sized lumber used for joists, cracked or rotten joists, termite damage, or by joists being spaced too far apart. The cause may also be more severe in nature. The foundation may be crumbling under the ends of the joists or settling unevenly. And if the second floor sags, you will need to remove the ceiling on the first floor to get to the problem.

If you have sagging floors and choose to do the work yourself, at least have a professional builder inspect the problem and go over the needed repairs with you. Then you will be better able to decide if you are up to the challenge.


I have yet to walk across the floor of an older home and not find a squeak. A squeak is the result of a problem with the floor structure. Some common structural problems are that floor joists spaced too far apart, not enough nails being used when the floor was laid, or the wood not being seasoned correctly. The problems are usually easy to fix, although there are times when major reconstruction will be needed.

Squeaks may occur when the subflooring rubs against a floor joist. Go down to the basement and have someone walk across the floor. When they find a squeak, you may notice that the floor moves a bit where they are walking. This is because the joists shrunk out of shape as they dried or because too few nails were used. You can fill the space between the floor and the joist with a shim coated in wood glue. Tap the shim for a snug fit, but don’t force it in place. Forcing the shim to far can cause more nails to loosen and create more squeaks.

If your basement has a finished ceiling or the squeak is on the second floor, you won’t be able to fix it from the bottom. You will have to put ring shanked nails or screws through the floor and into joists. Find your joists by lightly tapping a piece of wood with a hammer. As you move the block across the floor, the sound will become solid as you cross over a joist. Although joist are usually laid on 16-inch centers, older homes may have different spacing.

Drill a pilot hole for the nail, angling the holes toward each other for better holding. Countersink the nails and fill the hole with wood putty. If you use screws, you will need to drill a pilot hole slightly smaller than the diameter of the screw and another hole to countersink the screw head. Special drill bits are sold which will drill both holes at the same time. Fill the holes with wood putty or wooden plugs made from the same type of wood as your floors. Plugs can be found in flooring stores, home centers, or hardware stores (sometimes). There is also a drill bit, called a plug cutter, which will let you cut your own plugs. The plugs are glued in place and sanded smooth, just like wood putty.

If your floor joists are weak or twisted, you can nail blocks of wood between them every six to eight feet. Sometimes you will see cross-bridging between joists but solid bridging is easier. Cut the bridges from boards the same size as your joists. They should also be cut to fit between the joists. Push the bridging up so it sits flush against the subflooring and nail to the joists. If your floor has cross-bridging and it’s loose, either renail it or replace it with solid bridging.


Most stains will be removed when you sand the floor. If the stain is still there after sanding, try bleaching it out using household bleach straight from the bottle or a half cup of oxalic acid crystals mixed in a quart of water. Apply a small amount of bleaching agent at a time, waiting a few minutes between applications. Work on small sections of the stain until the area blends in with the rest of the floor. Be careful that you don’t lighten the area too much. Once you have the area blended with the rest of the floor, wash the area with warm water and let dry.

Make the floor like new again

Now that your hardwood floor has been uncovered and repaired, it’s time to refinish and make it look like new again. Tools you may need are – a hammer, nail set, paint scraper, sheets of sandpaper (coarse, medium and fine), a handheld sander, putty knife, and possibly a chisel. Don’t forget a dust mask, goggles and hearing protection.

The first thing you need to do is make sure all nailheads and staples are countersunk. Put an old sock on your hand and lightly run your hand over the floor. Any nailheads or staples that are left sticking up will catch on the sock. Then make sure all dirt and debris are swept up and you’ve removed all the quarter round from the baseboards. Remove any floor registers, curtains, and any other objects that will prevent you from having access to your floor. If your home has radiators, leave them in place and work around them. The last thing you need is a steam leak this winter.

Using the Drum Sander

Since the drum sander will create a lot of dust, seal off doors and hallways with plastic sheeting. Floor registers and cold air returns can be stuffed with an old sheet to keep the sanding dust from getting into the ductwork. Also, open windows in the room to provide ventilation.

Make sure all the prep work is done before you go to the rental center to pick up the drum sander and edger since these are rented by the day. Have the clerk show you how to use the sanders safely, and how to install the sandpaper. The rental center will have sandpaper for sale. Find out if they will give you a refund on any unused sandpaper you may bring back.

The drum sander is very heavy, noisy and creates a lot of dust. If not properly used, the sander will gouge your floor. I have said it before, and I will say it again: consider utilizing the services of a professional floor refinisher. You should be able to find one that will give you a discount for doing most of the basic work yourself. However, if you believe you’re up to the challenge of sanding your floor, let’s go see where the sandpaper meets the floor.

A WORD OF CAUTION: Sanding dust can be very flamable and should be handled with care. While in a pile or as a dusting on the floor, it is hard to start on fire, but when it is floating in the air, an open flame or spark of static electricity can set off an explosion. Don’t smoke while sanding, keep sanding dust from building up too thick and if the air becomes too dusty, stop sanding and let the dust settle before continuing.

Always change the sandpaper on the drum sander with the power cord unplugged. Starting with the coarse paper, attach it as instructed by the clerk at the rental center. Then position the sander so it will sand in the direction of the grain of your floor. Before you start up the sander, tilt it back so that the sandpaper is up off the floor. Start the sander and let the motor get up to sanding speed. Gently lower the sander to the floor. As the sander begins to pull you forward, hold it back so you move at a slow, steady pace.

As you get to the other end of the floor, tilt the sander back. Pull the sander back to your starting point, making sure the cord is out of your way so you don’t trip or run it over. Having a helper to keep the cord out of your way is a plus. Once you are back where you started, gently lower the sander and go back to the strip you just sanded.

Continue in this manner, overlapping passes about two or three inches. Repeat the steps with the medium and then the fine sandpaper. The closest you will get to the wall will be about six inches and you’ll finish that with the edger. Remember to tilt the sander up when starting, gently lower and raise the sander from the floor and keep it tilted back until it comes to a stop when shutting off. Otherwise, you will get gouges in your floor. Keep the sander moving while it is in contact with the floor or you will sand grooves into your floor.

Using The Edger

The edger is used much like the sander. Start with the coarse sandpaper and install it as shown by the rental clerk. Hold the edger firmly with both hands before starting. Move it in a semi-circular motion and keep it moving, letting the weight of the sander do the work. Pressing down on the sander or letting it stay in one place too long will leave swirl marks on your floor. Once you are done with the course paper, repeat with the medium and then the fine sandpaper.

Getting the Hard to Reach Areas

You will need to sand by hand to get completely into the corners, around radiator pipes (if you have any) and any other nooks and crannies you may run into. Take your time and do a good job. Any minor imperfections will become very noticeable after the floor is finished.

Stripping Your Floor

If your floor is too thin to sand, you will need to strip the finish. Regular household ammonia and steel wool work best, but the ammonia’s fumes are powerful. Open as many windows as possible and set up a fan to pull the fumes out the window. Pour about a cup of ammonia on the floor, let it sit a few minutes and then rub with steel wool in the direction of the grain. When the finish begins to dissolve, wipe the area clean. If some of the finish remains, repeat the steps again.

Refinishing Your Floor: If you strip the floor, wait until the floor is dry before applying a finish. This may take a few days, depending on the weather. While you are waiting for the floor to dry, avoid walking on the floor as much as possible. Traffic increases the danger that the floor will be gouged or marred.

If you sand, vacuum thoroughly, using a brush attachment. then make a tack rag by moistening a rag with turpentine and wipe down the floor to pick up any remaining dust.

If you want the wood stained, now is the time. Choose a stain that is compatible with the finish you are using. The color of the floor is controlled by how long you leave the stain on the floor. The longer it sits, the darker your floor will be. Apply the stain with a roller, brush or cloth and remove the excess with a clean cloth once it has set for the correct amount of time. Let dry eight hours before applying your finish.

Finishes: What are the Options?

  • Polyurethane: A plastic finish that provides a strong, durable, clear, water-resistant surface. Polyurethane comes in dull, satin and high-gloss finishes, with the high-gloss offering the best wear protection. Follow the directions on the can, apply with a natural bristle brush along the edges, corners and hard to reach places, and use a long-handled roller on the main part of the floor. Keep the room well lit…it’s easy to miss spots or leave bubbles. Let dry eight hours (check by pressing your thumb on the surface; a dry floor won’t leave a print), buff lightly with steel wool or very fine sandpaper, vacuum, wipe with a tack cloth, and apply a second coat. There is now a water-based polyurethane which goes on cloudy but dries clear. Clean-up with paint thinner (water-based with soap and water).
  • Shellac: Doesn’t offer much protection against moisture, but is a durable finish. Apply two or three coats, allowing each coat to dry two hours and sanding lightly before next coat. Clean up with ammonia and water
  • Varnish: Once widely used on hardwood floors, varnish is easily scratched and darkens with age. Apply two or three coats with a brush, letting each coat dry 24 hours. There is no need to sand between coats.
  • Wax: Can be applied over shellac or varnish, but not over polyurethane. Can also be used alone to make the floor look as natural as possible. Apply a thin coat with a soft cloth and let dry before applying the second coat. Then polish by hand with a soft cloth once the wax is dry.

All that’s left is to replace the shoe molding, any pipe collars from around radiator pipes, floor registers, and furniture. Enjoy the hardwood floor you always wanted, but may not have known you had.