They Will Tell You It Can’t Be Done

Alternate Title:  How to Refinish Your Totally Screwed Up Hardwood Floors

So, three years ago, we moved to Sacramento, looked as fast as we could for houses we could afford, and finally found our teeny tiny overlooked house, which had recently been flipped by some crrrrrrazy russian flippers.  When we bought it, it had the World’s Worst Laminate Floors installed.

Now, in general, I am not a huge flooring snob.  (This is a lie. I am a huge flooring snob.) I prefer real hardwood to anything else, and I have a filthy dog and a filthy husband and filthy children, so I am not the girl who is going to choose carpet over hardwood.  And in general the types of houses I like are old and they have hardwood, but our house had this god awful laminate that was installed incorrectly and it looked SO fake and terrible, and it chipped almost immediately.  When we saw the house for the first time it was the first thing we noticed, immediately one of us said “Well, this would have to go.” Had nice laminate been installed, we would not have replaced it, for what it’s worth.

Anyway, please observe the World’s Worst Laminate:

I attempted to pry up a corner of it before we bought the house, using the only thing I had (my car key) and to this day that Jetta key is a little bent.  It still makes me laugh every time I notice it.  Erik wasn’t very happy that I bent the car key at that particular moment in time.  But now I laugh. Anyway, little did I know I was prying up laminate in the ONE section of the house that didn’t have hardwood (the front hall closet), so the results of that experiment were inconclusive, but judging by the age of the house and the other houses in the neighborhood we figured it had to be hardwood under there, so we jumped.

I can’t remember when, but at some point shortly after we moved in I got curious and I pried up a few panels of the laminate, in the front hallway, Eli’s bedroom, and the hallway to the bathroom, and sure enough, there was hardwood under there.  It smelled AWFUL, like urine, and pieces were missing and it was covered with patchy white paint, but it was hardwood.  This is what that looked like, when I very optimistically took before pictures in October of 2008.

Then we sort of sat on it for three years.  I did some googling and figured out that it wasn’t tongue and groove, but instead this certain type of skinny 3/8″ flooring that they put in a lot of houses back in the day.  Which meant it could be refinished less times, because it’s so thin.  If you take too much off of it, it will crack.  I also found a place in Sacramento that sold the replacement boards, individually, which was nice.  But meanwhile we knew we’d have to pull all the furniture out of the house, and then we’d have a huge job on our hands, and we weren’t quite ready for that yet.  But I always thought we’d refinish it.

Is this boring? It seems really long winded.

Anyway, some time this spring Erik’s general “we have to move out of this tiny house” attitude got to me.  Also I started to see a few three bedroom houses, every once in a while, that we could maybe have afforded, and I knew that if something perfect and affordable came up, we would have to MOVE like the wind, and I knew that we wouldn’t be able to MOVE on anything at all if we didn’t have the floors done, because no one was going to buy this house in this neighborhood with these horrible ass laminate floors installed.  And I was also well and truly sick of having this big thing about my house that I hated.  I was working so hard on painting and decorating and furniture and the floors just sucked and I was really really over it.

So I ripped up the laminate, completely, in our room, the kids bedroom, the hallway and the dining room. One day while Erik was at work.  Which is when I do all my best projects.   We did get lucky, just in this one way, because the laminate was in these really big pieces, not thin flooring strips but giant sections, and it wasn’t glued or anything, it was just sitting on the floor.  So it was really easy to take out in big chunks.

Unfortunately’ underneath the laminate, the floors were FUCKED UP.  Pardon my french, but dudes.  The floors did not look good.

This is around when we had Floor Dude Number One come by to give us on estimate on refinishing them.  FD #1 is the charmer who quoted us 15K for new floors, told us that our floors were the worst floors he had seen in 30 years, and recommended that I cover the fireplace I had painstakingly restored.  With slate.  Excuse me while I barf, but no, I was not covering my gorgeous fireplace with SLATE.

So that was a fun day.

FD#2 came by and told us that we could probably get away with staining the floors dark, but they might still smell, and he didn’t want to do it for us, particularly, but he’d put in new floors for $2 a square foot (plus materials) which is actually really cheap.  So there was that.

Mr. E and I proceeded to drive all over creation and look at new hardwood flooring, and I hated all of it.  I found one I could live with, sort of, for $4 a square foot, which meant that we were looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of 5K for a new floor that I only sort of liked.  All the other floors were too orange or too blonde or too dark or too cheesy.  I know this is probably just me, but I am a crazy person, and the fact that a new floor gets glued in and doesn’t have nails in it just drives me crazy, aesthetically.  In an old house, it just seems really incongruous.

So then we hemmed and hawed and fought and collected floor samples and bickered and calculated and decided that we would rent a floor sander, just to see what the floors looked like under all that paint.

Because there was this thing, this other thing.  FD#1 had looked me right in the eye, right after he quoted me the price of a new car to refinish my floors, and he looked me right in the eye and he said “Don’t think you can just sand these and refinish them yourselves.  Don’t think you can just do that.” and the thing is about me is that I have always been the type of person, when you look me right in the eye and you tell me “You Can’t.  Don’t.  You Shouldn’t.  You Wouldn’t”…well, I tend to look right back at you and then I tend to go ahead and do it just because you told me not to. I will take that challenge, every time,  is the thing, and so those words: “Don’t think you can do this” hung in my head, and I started to think “I could do this. I AM GOING TO DO THIS.”

The other thing that bears mentioning is that all the people who stood to make a lot of money from this project all encouraged us to rip out the old floors, to spend our money on new floors, to pay someone for something new and better.  However, all the other people, people who stood to gain nothing, but instead people who I generally agree with on these things, they all said “Are you sure those floors can’t be saved?” and when I weighed who I listened to, I decided that it was a probably a better idea to weigh heavily the words from people who I knew and trusted, the people who I knew also loved old things and houses and the people who knew I didn’t have $5000 for a new floor I didn’t even like.  In fact one of our neighbors who has been restoring houses up and down the street said, very clearly, “Do not put any extra money into these old tiny houses.  Do not do it.” and I think he knows what he is talking about, for sure. So those words were loud in my head, and they still are, and this is the same reason I am not putting marble counters into a kitchen in a tiny house in the Central Valley.

God, this is a small novel.  I should save it and submit it to Nanowrimo in November.

Anyway, if you do this yourself, call around for floor sander prices.  We have a local rental place that was much cheaper than Home Depot, and they were also very helpful, so that would be my first advice, to check more places than Lowe’s and Home Depot.

After we rented the sander and sanded the floors in our bedroom, I thought they looked great.  They were for sure urine stained, but I was so impressed at how they sanded up.  Mr. E was not as sure, but at that point I had made up my mind.  Honestly, if nothing else, I simply couldn’t imagine ripping up these floors.  All that work and expertise, just ripped up and disposed of?  I hated the idea of that.

We sanded our bedroom, the hallway, and the dining room, even though we were still sort of living in the space.  We had dressers in the living room and the garage was full of crap, and I was a little stressed about my kids throwing food all over the newly sanded floors, but we figured they had to have at least one more sanding and that would take care of the random strawberry stains.  Unfortunately we couldn’t just move all our furniture out of the house because we were having Katherine’s birthday party that weekend, and I needed the backyard for the party.  Our old dressers didn’t really say “Baby Girl Turns One”, unfortunately.

Anyhoo.  The floors reeked, for sure, and they were covered with pet stains.  At this point, they looked like this.

Using my  best friend the internet, I googled some home made solutions.  We bought a box of trash bags, a crap load of paper towels, and 20 bottles of hydrogen peroxide, and we poured hydrogen peroxide on the stains, layered on the paper towels, and then covered the paper towels with the trash bags.  It was loads of fun.  I am still not sure if this did anything, but the paper towels would be brown when we took them off, and you could see bubbling in the wood when we poured the hydrogen peroxide on, so I am sure it didn’t hurt.

I would have tried wood bleach, but I couldn’t find any locally, and we were in a time crunch because Erik  was going to do the actual refinishing during the two weeks that I would be in Vermont with my darling children,which was coming right up,  so we didn’t have time for that nonsense.  Also it sounded kind of intense what with the acid and the bleaching, so I don’t know. I have no idea if wood bleach works.

As soon as the party was over, and Monday morning rolled around, I started moving stuff outside.  This is also when I started throwing stuff out and dropping things off at Goodwill on a daily basis.  Most of the big furniture I couldn’t do by myself, but there was at least a days worth of random crap that I moved out on my own and stacked under the pergola in our backyard.

I was also VERY nervous about the color of the stain, so I ended up making a bunch of trips to Home Depot for little cans of stain to try out on the floor.  I had some idea about the colors of the dark browns because we have stained a bunch of furniture various dark brown colors, and I was looking for something that was not orange, not reddish at all, and not super dark, but dark enough to cover the stains that didn’t sand out of the floors.  I started out testing Minwax “Provincial”, and although we would try to go lighter, none of the lighter colors were enough to cover the stains.  I do really like the color, although I worry that it will make the house look smaller, but I think with lighter colored walls (I will probably repaint the dining room which is currently a dark brown) and light colored furniture and rugs, it will be ok.

For future reference, the shopping/supply list was:

stain (Minwax provincial), water based satin finish floor poly, a scraper with a carbide blade for corners, a wooly applicator thing and a pole to attach it to, a million foam brushes, a watering can (to spread the poly), rags for wiping, and we already had a nail set.  Mr. E bought replacement boards and a million floor nails.  And a lot of frozen pizzas.

So then I left, Friday morning, and Mr. E started the whole process, which went something like this:

Take out all the big furniture.  Take out the rest of the big furniture, with help from our neighbor.  Rip out the rest of the laminate flooring and the quarter round from the baseboards.  Discover giant hole in living room floor.   Buy replacement boards.  Rent floor sander.  Sand with 100 grit, then sand again with finer grit.  Replace missing boards. Pry out damaged floor boards, replace with boards as best as possible.  Sand replacement boards to level with the rest of the floor.  Listen to wife bitch about children, in laws, United Airlines, and Vermont.  Sleep on kitchen floor with dog.  Vacuum and vacuum some more.  Replace more floor boards.  Buy more boards.  Buy more nails.  Return drum sander, rent edge sander.  Curse edge sander to high heavens.  Scrape corners where edge sander can’t reach.  Stain floors.  Notice that patches are really obvious on stained floor.  Attempt second layer of stain, to no avail.  Start polying, let it dry, poly again, let it dry, poly again, check weather, notice unprecendented storm event headed for Sacramento, panic, drape furniture in tarps, panic some more, take dog to vet, padlock gate, hope no one steals our crappy IKEA furniture, leave for Vermont.

Since I was not there for the step by step, I am not reporting this in as much detail as I normally would, but Mr. E walked me through much of it.  We still have to replace thresholds and paint baseboards, but holy god, the floors are done.

My husband, well, let’s just say that this makes up for many many many years of leaving his socks on the bedroom floor.

Because now the floors look like like this!!!!

More pictures on Flickr, and once I get home and paint all my furniture white, I’ll put up a house tour.  I still haven’t even see them, due to the fact that I am still in Vermont, but at least from here, they look pretty spectacular.

P.S.  Jury’s still out on the smell.  When Mr. E left, all you could smell was poly.

P.P.S. We figured we refinished about 750 square feet, and it cost about $800, not including the seven million hours of labor Erik put into it, and the fact that I believe my dining room table might have some issues that my husband is not being totally honest with me about due to the fact that it was sitting in our driveway for two weeks.

23 Responses

  1. Those are amazing!!!! Can’t wait to see the house tour. It looks fabulous.

  2. Man you guys are ambitious! The floor looks great!

  3. Those floors make me cry, they are so gorgeous.

  4. Oh, my good, great God those floors are amazing.

  5. Oh, my good, great God those floors are amazing. (Not really sure what happened to that comment up there.)

  6. That looks awesome! Can you send Eric to my house to do ours next? We don’t even have the horrible laminate, just stained floors that really need to be sanded and restained and I’m scared to undertake that.

  7. The floors look great!!

  8. I am in awe, IN AWE, of your home-improvement-do-it-yourselfness. And many major kudos to Eric. You are an inspiration to me, incidentally, in that I sometimes now just DO stuff instead of sitting around thinking about how I should do it.

    The floors look incredible. Can you guys come do our floors?

  9. I saw the flicker set a couple days ago and was totally impressed by your husband. You guys inspire me for when I am a little homeowner. And…I kind of love that Mr. E never knows what kind of home project might be going on on the homefront while he’s at work. What a good sport.

  10. oh my god. amazing. how long are you guys in vermont? please detour through Massachusetts and refinish my floors on your way home.

    one q – was it really smelly? did he stay in the house while he was doing this? I do think about refinishing the floors here but I’m not sure I want everyone around the poly.

    • We used water based it was labeled “low odor” but supposedly it was still really really stinky. He was in the house at night and he said it smelled terrible. Better than dog urine, I say! But yes, very glad the kids were not in the house while he was doing it.

  11. Really lovely. And I raise a glass to your husband’s hard work. Mine would NEVER go to that much trouble. It very nearly makes me want to do a 180 and return to thinking about hardwoods for our bedroom & hallway.

  12. What a transformation, and how gorgeous! You two are amazing.

  13. p.s. That guy who suggested you cover the fireiplace was NUTS. It’s beautiful!

  14. They look amazing! Congratulations!

  15. You win. And really this just makes me want to hire you to help me house hunt and decorate when we finally buy. What are your fees?

  16. I can’t believe you did all that for $800! It looks amazing.

  17. Wow – definately worth the work!

  18. It looks awesome!! So glad you went ahead and tried this before spending lots of $$!

  19. They look amazing!!!!! I’m exhausted reading about all the work, but wow. What a before & after!

  20. Wow – they turned out SO WELL! Beautiful!

  21. […] Taken from: They Will Tell You It Can't Be Done « Princess Nebraska […]

  22. LOVE the floors! I love reading about your decorating/remodeling projects because you don’t settle for something you don’t love, and that’s really hard to do sometimes. Your husband is a saint for sleeping on the kitchen floor, but I’m guessing you already knew that 🙂

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