Expert Tips and Mistakes to Avoid

For many do-it-yourselfers, summer is the season for sanding wood floors. Add that to the long list of jobs like house painting, garden renovation, and paving projects. But why go in? It’s easy. You can turn off the air conditioning (assuming the house has it) and open the windows to ventilate during the dusty and smelly work of renovating a wood floor.

If you’re ready to get this job done using rented floor sanders, there are a few things you need to know to get a beautiful floor.

Below is a list of supplies, followed by some helpful links. Then follows a list of pro-level tips courtesy of one of the most knowledgeable wood floor contractors we know, Joe Fenollol, who spent the past 23 years as the owner of Pro-Formance Wood Floors on Long Island, sanding and refinishing wood floors. , New York (transparency: Joe is the father of Home Tech Editor Hunter Phenollol).


Floor sanding supplies

  • Cartridge Mask: 3M 53P71
  • N-95 dust mask: 3M 8511
  • Safety glasses: Elvex SG-37C OVR
  • Earplugs: Elvex Ep-411
  • 1-inch scraper: Red Devil RDL3010
  • Quarter plate sander: DeWalt DWE6411K

    There are several online resources that you should check out before starting your first wood floor sanding. For example, there’s this lovely video from American Sanders, a manufacturer of floor sanding equipment. See also the Hardwood Floor Sanding and Finishing PDF (produced by the National Wood Flooring Association) and available on the City Floor Supply website.


    Hunter Fennel

    Sand floors like a pro

    There are many ways a DIY floor sanding can go wrong, and after seeing a few, I can tell you they are not easy to correct. But what struck me most about talking to Joe Fenollol is that many of these beginner mistakes are pretty easy to avoid. Plus, as with any venture, you have a much higher chance of getting the job done correctly if you start off right.

    Ten tips for a no-fail floor job

    1. Safety first

                Everyone has heard the warning: “safety first”. But it was the first thing Joe Fenollol noticed in my interview with him. ‘I know,’ he said, ‘everyone has heard it, but you have to pay attention. You have to take care of yourself.” Sanding a floor is heavy and dangerous work that releases a lot of fine, respirable dust. Yes, sanders have dust bags and some machines are known as “dustless” because they attach to backpack vacuums that the operator carries. But Phenollol keeps a watchful eye. “They say they are dust-free, but the truth is that there really is no such thing as dust-free floor sanding. Sure, some sanders do a better job of collecting dust than others, but you still need to wear a dust mask.” Phenollol wears a professional cartridge mask that protects against airborne solid particles and fumes produced by floor finishes.

                But for a single floor sanding, an N95 mask from a reputable manufacturer will work. And while you pick up safety supplies, you’ll be provided with goggles, washable earplugs, and high-quality knee pads.


                wooden floor

                Tom Messina

                2. Search for hardware

                You’d be surprised what sticks out of a wood floor, from bent nails to stub screws, to staples and remnants of tapestry tape. “Give the floor a quick sweep with a broom, and visually too,” says Phenollol. “If you hit a piece of hardware, the sander throws some sparks and you instantly destroy a belt or pulley. Since these cost $6 or $7 each at a tool rental, that can add up quickly. Avoid hitting hardware with a quick inspection followed by removal.


                3. Look for Damage

                “A wood floor can have anything from water stains to termite holes to a hole drilled by the cable TV guy,” says Fenollol. “You need to find these problem spots before you start the job because sanding alone won’t fix them.” A cable TV hole may be easy to plug in, but termite damage may require replacing the floor, he adds. Of course, getting a repair to fit into its environment is tricky, and a first-time floor repair may struggle, but you can’t leave damaged areas unattended.


                plastic covering of furniture and belongings in a living room

                Diago confessesGetty Images

                4. Reduce dust and protect from it

                Do everything you can to reduce dust, prevent it from moving out of the work area, and protect the environment from it, says Phenollol. Shield other parts of the house first by hanging plastic sheeting over the hallway entrances. If furniture from the room you’re sanding has been moved and set up in a nearby area, throw a clean tarp over it. Hang plastic sheeting over any window that is not open.

                Empty the dust bag regularly while sanding. Floor sander manufacturers and rental companies advise against overfilling the bag (which creates more dust in the air); empty the sander’s dust bag when it is about one-third full.

                Finally, reduce dust in the air where you work.

                “An easy way to get some sanding dust out of the room is to place a box fan in an open window and blow air out of the room,” says Fenollol.


                5. Don’t Dig

                If there’s one cardinal rule for sanding floors, it’s: “You have to keep moving,” says Phenollol. “If you stay in one place with the machine, it will dig.” People tend to think that because most traditional hardwood floors are inches thick, there is no need to worry as there is plenty of wood to work with. “A solid floor is half an inch thick,” says Fenollol, “but the nails are only 3⁄8 inches below that surface, and you can hit them if you’re not careful. You’re going to see sparks. This is going to ruin the belt and will leave a gouge that you have to work out. In short: don’t dig.” You want to remove up to about 3⁄32 inches of wood during the refinishing process.


                6. Sand in order

                Floor sanding is a sequential process where the coarse scratches left by the previous grit are erased by the finer scratches from the next grit. Use the grit recommended by the rental center for the equipment you are renting. A typical grit order, Phenollol says, might look like 36 grit, followed by 50 grit, then 80 or 100 grit. But that order varies, depending on whether you stained the floor before applying the finish, and how rough the floor was to to start with. In addition, you can also polish the floor when you are ready to get rid of all the abrasive stains. Finally, not all floor sanding equipment behaves the same with the same grit. There are several machines that sand floors (belt sander, rotary sander, single pad orbital sander, three disc orbital sander with buffer) and it is wise to know beforehand what the rental center has to offer and what they advise in terms of abrasives. The more homework you do before you start, the more likely you are to get a neatly finished floor.


                man with a machine repairs hardwood floor

                mikkelwilliamGetty Images

                7. Edge with the same grain range

                Floor sanders cannot sand right to the edge of the floor or into corners. You do this with a separate machine, called an edger. “You have to use the same grit progression to match the other machine,” says Phenollol, “otherwise the edges won’t blend in with the surrounding floor.” If you are having trouble using the edger or if you can’t get the two surfaces to blend together properly, a handheld orbital sander can help blend the edge area into the adjacent floor.


                8. Scrape the Corners

                No sander, other than a ¼ sheet hand sander with a square pad, comes into a corner. The solution, Phenollol says, is to use a scraper. This simple hand tool is nothing more than a wooden or plastic handle with a blade formed from a piece of steel bent at an angle. The end of the blade is chamfered at a 45 degree angle. As you drag the blade across the floor, it scrapes away the finish and wood, leaving a surprisingly smooth surface. “It makes quick work of it,” says Phenollol. But the scraper blade quickly becomes dull. Refresh the edge by filing it with a router file held at a 45-degree angle. Phenollol recommends buying a multi-pack of blades, then quickly swapping out dull blades and sharpening the bunch in one go.


                9. Remove every possible bit of sanding dust

                “You have to vacuum, vacuum, vacuum. You have to get the dust off the floor,” says Phenollol. Dust left on the floor will get trapped in the floor finish, resulting in roughness that will ruin your purpose. Rent a store vacuum if you don’t have one. After thorough vacuuming, lightly sweep the floor with a damp (not wet) sponge. When the floor is dry, you are ready to finish.


                Hispanic man refinishing floors in new house

                Sollina PicturesGetty Images

                10. Reduce Your Shine

                “High gloss finishes show the most imperfections. What is your house, a museum or something?” asks Phenollol, laughing rhetorically. High gloss finishes are hard enough for professionals to apply, let alone a DIYer who is likely to apply it for the first time. He urges do-it-yourselfers to choose a less glossy finish, a semi-gloss at the most, and directs people toward water-based finishes, which he says are easier to apply than traditional oil-based finishes. Also, he says, apply each finish sparingly. “I’d rather wear three or four thin coats than two or three thick layers.” This is the same advice often given to DIYers. Thin coats dry faster and more evenly than heavy coats, and they are less likely to pee in low areas.

                After all your hard work of sanding, cleaning and finishing, step back and admire the shine of your freshly finished floor.

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