How to Save a Wood Floor Cheap

Is the wood floor worth saving?

Some people believe that they should save a wood floor no matter the condition.  My wife is one of these people.  Our oak veneer floor (only about 3/8″ thick) was installed (poorly) in 1925.  These thin, face-nailed floors cannot be sanded down very much or very often.  My floors have character.  If they had any more character, I would be writing this from the basement.  She wanted to save them, and I wanted to be cheap.

This guide will help you save a wood floor cheap, so long as you accept a rustic appearance.  They have a smooth finish and will perform beautifully under considerable abuse.  I have tried to keep the process as simple (and cheap) as possible.  I have done several floors in my home and have found a method that works great for me.

Prepping to save a wood floor

Remove the shoe molding.

If you try to work around it, it will make sanding more difficult and will look unprofessional.  I find a simple painter’s multi-tool works well for prying the base shoe loose. If you break some of the shoe molding during removal, it is cheap to replace.  In this particular room, I am replacing all of the shoe molding with door stop anyway as I feel it covers more problems and gives a sharper look.

Replace ruined boards.

Using an oscillating tool with a plunge blade or sharp chisel to remove parts of the floor that are beyond hope.  Consider cutting your replacement pieces first and using them to trace the cut lines so that there is less room for error.

Make sure to stagger the seams and avoid dinky filler pieces. (They are less secure and look terrible.)

If you can’t find the flooring you need at a lumber retailer, you might need to steal flooring from a closet that can have a different floor surface.  I am fortunate that my type of floor is common in my area, and it is on hand at Rittenhouse Lumber.

patching wood floor

Patch the small stuff.

To save a wood floor you will need to fill holes that you find with putty.  You can try to mix the filler with dye or sawdust to better match color, but I didn’t bother.  I like Durham’s Rock Hard Water Putty because it is easy, cheap, fast, versatile, and it expands as it dries locking it in place.

Knock down any protruding nails and shoot some nails into squeaky areas (again, the final product will not be suitable for Buckingham Palace.)

using a nail set
This nail needs to be knocked down with a nail set.
fighting squeaky floors
I would rather see more nail heads and hear less squeaks.
wood floor to be sanded
As you can see from this room renovation, I like to do the floors last.

Sand in the place where you live.

(Shout-out David Picciuto)

Rent the right floor sander to save a wood floor cheap.

I don’t like drum sanders as they are too aggressive, and it is easy for someone like me to make a big boo-boo.  You will want to rent an orbital pad sander if you are a novice or if you have the thin, veneer type floor like I have.

Use a U-Sand (Cherry Hill Manufacturing) sander on thin, uneven floors where removing a good layer of material is not an option. These sanders have four orbiting pads and are very forgiving for beginners.  They are easy to operate as they kind of float around like an air hockey puck.

WARNING: Floor sanders are heavy; you may need some help to load, unload, or tackle stairs.  I got mine to the the third floor by hitching my dogs into a draft team and using a complicated system of blocks and tackles, but I’m a boss.

awkward dog moment
A well-deserved nap after hauling the sander up the stairs.

Have a plan so that you can get away with renting the floor sander for one day.

Make sure that you have more than enough sand paper for the big day. Order a variety pack of 6″ hook and loop sandpaper discs online in advance to save money.  You will go through a lot of sandpaper.  I went through 40, 60, 80, 100, and 150 grit, but some approximation of this will be fine.  After returning the big sander, use a hand sander to get the edges and corners.

cherry hill floor sander
The sandpaper need not have the holes, the dust intake port is in the center of the sander. This sander was $125 for 24 hours.

Make a reservation for the sander and make sure that you can do all of the major sanding on that day.  You will not be able to use the sander to sand between coats if you only have a twenty-four hour rental.  Sanding between the coats is not a big deal, it can be accomplished without the rented equipment.

The big sanding day

When saving a wood floor, do everything that you can to prevent the dust from consuming your whole house.  The dust collection system on the sanders can only do so much.  Blow a fan out of a window in the work area to create negative air pressure.  Close all the doors you can.  Put mats on the floor at the end of the work area so you don’t track dust all over.  No matter what you do, this is a messy experience.

WARNING: Don’t forget to protect your lungs and hearing! Wear a respirator and ear protection.

dust cloud
What it looks like when you spill the sander’s dust collection bag.

Go through all the grits with the big sander and don’t worry about the edges or detail areas until after you have returned the rental.  You will need to change the sanding discs often.

Use a detail sander like the one shown (random orbit to minimize scratch marks) to get all of the areas that you couldn’t get with the big machine.  I usually end up sitting on my butt when I do this.  Progress through the grits as before.  I even had to hand sand to get under the wall-mounted radiator. It is OK if the very edges are rough, the shoe molding will cover them.  With the rougher grits, don’t stray into the larger field because you might neglect these areas with the finer grits and end up leaving scratch marks.

sanding floor edges
Sand the edges following the same progression through the grits.

Applying finish (the fun part of saving a wood floor)

Save a wood floor with the right finish and applicator.

Water-based polyurethane is junk; don’t waste your time with it.  I did one area of the house with water-based poly and have regretted it ever since.  It looks terrible, requires a bazillion coats, and protects poorly.

For this project I used oil-based, high-gloss polyurethane (Minwax brand) applied with an applicator pad. (I have never tried using a polyurethane roller).  You just mop it on.  You will also want a detail brush for tricky spots that you can address as you go.

applying floor finish
This is the microfiber pad used to “mop” on the finish.  You can try to clean them or just buy several.
how to apply floor finish
This bin was perfect for loading the applicator. I keep the brush with me as I progress.

Prep the sanded floor for finish.

Get as much dust out of the room as possible so that nothing lands in your finish.  Dust, sweep, vacuum, and repeat.  I thought I was going to kill Roomba, but he survived.

Update: I actually did kill the blower motor on the Roomba soon after, but it was cheap and easy to replace. He survived the transplant.

When you are ready to apply the finish, clean the floors with mineral spirits.  It need not dry completely before applying the first coat.

prepping a floor for finish
Cleaning the floor with mineral spirits will help the oil-based poly adhere.

Plan your exit strategy.

Think about how the application will progress.  Where will you start and where will you end? How can you progress so that you are mostly going with the grain of the wood? I started in the closet and worked my way toward my exit the top of the stairs.  Think about how you will leave yourself a convenient path that you can mop as you exit.  Leave the stuff you will need to wrap up at your exit point.

planning to finish a floor
This will be my exit point.

Apply the finish.

Make sure you are strategic about mopping toward your exit.  Mop slowly and with the grain (as much as possible). Smooth out thick spots or drips as you go.  If you leave a glob of poly in one spot, it will dry that way.

If your are careful with the applicator, you don’t need to cut-in around the baseboards with the brush.  You can get close enough so that the edge will be covered by the shoe molding, but be careful not to slop the poly on to the baseboards.

Use the detail brush to get the little areas that will not be covered by the shoe molding. Do this as you go so that you have a wet edge and don’t leave overlapping coats.

detail brush for floor
The applicator pad can’t reach spots like this without slopping it on the trim.

Sand lightly between coats.

You will want to apply three coats to save a wood floor, and each coat needs to dry over night, so these areas will be off-limits for a while. Be advised, this stuff really stinks as it dries and cures.

The day after the previous coat, sand with 220 (see clip below), vacuum, wipe with mineral spirits, and apply the next coat.  This actually goes very quickly and you only have to do it twice.

This is my method for sanding between coats. A broomstick, paint roller, and duct tape can save your back and speed things up.

After the final coat, baby the floor for a few days as the finish cures.  You can still walk around in your socks, but don’t let the dogs scratch it or put furniture on it.

Save a wood floor cheap final result:

finishing a floor
Note the tennis balls protecting the new finish.

These floors look good to me. The new pieces of floor stand out a bit, but they will develop that same orange tone over time. Time to install the shoe moldings and fixtures.

The next time these floors need some attention, I won’t need to do nearly as much. I will just give a light sanding and apply more poly.

Any great tips to save a wood floor cheap? Please leave a comment.

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