Friday, January 2, 2015

The Floors, or How To Do Hardwood the Hardest Way Possible

Before we bought our new/old Farmhouse, I spent a good bit of time looking for advice on how to do this whole buy-a-house-and-move thing.  One piece of advice was to put up curtains before you do anything else (for privacy, I'm assuming).  Another tip was to implement a landscape plan before the ground freezes (do it first thing and enjoy mature trees and bushes the rest of your time in that house ==> makes sense).  Other people said you ought to start with a house-wide smudging and spiritual cleansing (...).  For us, though, we determined that the first thing we'd have to make happen was refinishing the upstairs hardwood floors, which includes all four bedrooms and a sizable landing/hallway.

For one thing, the finish had worn away to bare wood in many places in just about every room, not to mention sections of deep gouges and rough sock-catchers scattered liberally throughout.
For another thing,
the coloring of the continuous hardwood was sort of wildly different from one room to the next, and none of the trim work matched it.  One room actually looked like they spilled the stain in the center of the room, threw up their hands, and gave up.

So my goals were simple: re-color all of it and protect it with a good topcoat.

Commence the angst.

I wanted to know the wood species.  Don't ask me why I thought this was so important, I just did.  And I couldn't figure it out, which totally depressed me because I felt like that was something I should be able to just tell.  And then I decided to pull off all the baseboard trim.
Who uses 18" nails for baseboard trim??
Overkill, I tell you!!  My poor, uncalloused, lily-white hands!

I also wanted to know what kind of topcoat the floors currently had...again, why would this matter if you're going to strip and re-stain it anyway?  Well...
It turns out the original topcoat was shellac.  Shellac can be stripped with denatured alcohol.  I figured if I just stripped it chemically, I wouldn't have to sand it (sanding shortens the life of the floor).  Oh, and it turns out the floors are all antique heart pine milled from the property by the original owner/builder of the house in 1911.  Be still my heart!  So then I spent, oh, a week trying to chemically strip the floors.  I got through 3/4 of one room.

It turns out that stripping shellac with denatured alcohol is tedious, time-consuming, and doesn't reliably take you down to bare wood.
Also, if you hold your cup of stripping agent too close to your face, you get a little tipsy after awhile.  So it was back to sanding for me.  With a palm sander.  Because have you read any of the personal accounts of using a rented drum sander?  You won't be able to control it, you'll put un-fix-able gouges into your floors, you'll reduce the life of your floors by a third!!!  The horrors!  So, yeah, palm sander.

In one of the four rooms, the color was already what I wanted (looks like there used to be carpet in there), so I just wanted to sand off the finish that was in bad shape, patch in the color, and re-seal it.
But this looked so incredibly bad, I had to reassure myself with a little test patch in the corner.  See the top two boards?
Whew.  Much better.  Maybe this will work out after all.  (Big shout-out at this point to my friends from used-to-be-down-the-street...Lynn, Amara, and Josiah came out and helped me stain two of the rooms!)

I ordered my shellac (yes, settled on shellac) from, which sounds like a totally shady operation, I know, but it turns out they're very knowledgeable, helpful, and reliable.  And I'm now a big fan of button lac, which is a very hard shellac that comes in the form of buttons that look like hard candy.  You pound the crap out of the buttons, throw the pieces into some denatured alcohol, and let it dissolve.  Then, I'm assuming you can apply it the same way you apply polyurethane on a floor, with a lambswool applicator on a pole, but having never worked with shellac before nor applied any finish whatever on a whole floor, I wasn't confident that I could pull that method off and make it look good.  So I brushed it on with a 2.5" brush.  Because I'm cautious to the point of masochism.  (Btw, if you're going to do it this way, again with the holding the cup of alcohol too close to your face during might end up tipsy while you're trying to work.)

Before and Afters, anyone? Before:

And this is that room I was particularly worried about:
Isn't it beautiful??

The color is not as even or fluid as I had wished, but with the shellac down...
...I just can't feel that this whole process has been anything but a great big success!  And the greatest, most major thing is that the floors are now 100% protected.  AND (one of the huge bonuses of using shellac), spot touch-ups are going to be seamless!  Which means this floor should never ever have to be resanded ever again (unless someone wants to change the color, I guess).

So lessons learned:
Don't chemically strip the floor.
Drum sanders are not as hard to use as they would have you believe. If you're confident with a palm sander, you can use a drum sander.  Go get the drum sander.
Don't stress about the wood species.  Either it'll sand easy or it'll sand gummy...either way, just get on it.

And finally, write the blog posts as you go!  It'll be much easier to remember what you wanted to say!  Sigh.  Never probably gonna learn this one.

Lots of projects still to do; one of the major ones will be cleaning up and reapplying the baseboard trim!


  1. The floors are so beautiful! Can't wait to see them in person. :-)
    That is a LOT of work!

  2. They look AMAZING. Beautiful job. Wonderful post!! :)

  3. WOW....the floors look really terrific!! Like Mom, I can't wait to see them. Hey have a great trip to England. I'm going to bed...zzzzzzzz I love you Dad


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