How to Make Old Wood Floors Look Nice


Sometimes it's hard to see the beauty in an old wooden floor covered in years of grime, stains and old paint, and it's tempting to cover it up with carpet or more paint. But, with a little know-how, a few tools and some elbow grease, that old wooden floor can be transformed into a stunning feature in your home. Part of the trick is knowing what finish is already on your floor; it could be varnish, shellac, polyurethane, wax or nothing but layers of grime. Once you know the type of finish, you can bring out the natural beauty of the wood underneath.

Things You'll Need

  • Hammer
  • Nail punch
  • Pliers
  • Paintbrush
  • Lint-free cloths
  • Rubber gloves
  • Polyurethane, varnish or wax finish
  • Sandpaper (coarse and fine)
  • Paint remover
  • Belt sander or drum sander (optional)
  • Denatured alcohol and steel wool (for shellac)
  • Lime paste, steel wool and wire brush (if lime washing)
  • Wax remover (optional)
  • Wood filler (optional)
  • Check the floor for nails and staples that stick out. Use the pliers to pull out the staples and very small nails. Use a nail punch to punch larger nails just below the surface of the wood. Fill the nail holes with wood filler (optional).

  • Find out what finish, if any, is already on the wooden floor. It could be polyurethane, paint, varnish, shellac, wax or no finish. Paint remover will make polyurethane and paint bubble; lacquer thinner or paint remover will make varnish crackle and will raise the finish; denatured alcohol will dissolve shellac; water will create a white spot on wax. If the wood is bare wood, water will soak into the wood.

  • Apply the relevant method below to the finish on your wooden floor if it only needs a "clean." Or go to Step 4: Sanding.

    Polyurethane and varnish: Use a fine sandpaper and sand off the top layer. Clean away all sanding dust and wipe with damp cloth. Apply at least one coat of polyurethane or varnish to finish.

    Shellac: Wipe the shellac off with fine steel wool and denatured alcohol. Clean the resulting "gunk" off as you go along--otherwise it will dry and set hard. Finish with polyurethane or varnish.

    Wax: Try rewaxing a small area. If the finish looks good, wax the whole floor. If it looks dull and yellow, you will need to remove the wax with a wax remover and then reapply wax.

  • Sand the floor using a belt sander or a drum sander if the old finish needs removing or if there are large paint spots and stains. Start by sanding diagonally across the floorboards and then finish by sanding with the grain (the grain runs the length of the wood). Start with a coarse sandpaper (40 to 80 grit) and finish with a fine sandpaper (120 to 200 grit). To sand in the corners and hard-to-reach places, use an edging sander or sand by hand.

  • Stain the floor if you want to change the color. Test the color of the stain on a small piece of floorboard, as the color can vary depending on the type and age of your wooden floor. Apply stain, using a paintbrush or lint-free cloth, to one floorboard or clearly defined area at a time, as this will prevent overlapping. Overlapping leaves a darker patch or strip if the first coat of stain has started to dry. If you apply the stain in circles or dabs in order to reach tricky spots, make sure you go with the grain on the final wipe, blending the stain into the previous wipe.

  • Apply a protective finish. Polyurethane, varnish and wax enhance the color and grain of the wood. Follow the manufacturer's instructions for the number of coats to apply and drying times between coats, as products vary.

    Lime wash lightens the grain of the wood and is used on hardwoods such as oak. The boards must be bare wood. Dampen the wood, which raises the grain slightly, and then carefully brush a very fine wire brush along the grain. Wipe the pulp off with a damp cloth. Brush the lime paste over the floor, and finish by brushing with the grain. Let it dry, and then rub the paste off the surface with steel wool. The paste will remain in the grain, giving the lime wash effect. Wipe the wood with a damp sponge to remove any residue and then apply a protective finish.

Tips & Warnings

  • Water-based polyurethanes are now available for floors, and these dry more quickly and have lower levels of harmful fumes.
  • Although water-based polyurethanes look milky at first, they will dry clear. But do not apply the finish too thickly as this can leave a millky residue.
  • If you are not sure if you want to stain your floor, and want to see what it would like with just a polyurethane or wax finish, just wipe a damp cloth over a small area.
  • When using a sanding machine always lower the sander onto the floor gradually and smoothly; otherwise it will create a gouge.
  • If treating wooden floorboards for borer, woodworm, wet rot or dry rot, bear in mind that these chemicals may darken the wood (sometimes so dark it is almost black).
  • Always test chemicals and stains on a small patch of wood first, preferably in a spot that won't be seen.
  • Always wear safety equipment relevant to the task. When sanding, you will need to wear safety goggles, sturdy footwear and a sanding mask, as the dust from sanding can be toxic.
  • Be careful when applying stains and protective finishes, as many contain harmful chemicals or volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Ensure the room is well ventilated and wear a mask designed to filter out the harmful fumes.

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  • "The Complete Illustrated Guide to Woodworking"; Stephen Corbett; 2006
  • "The Ultimate Decorating Book"; Judy Spours; 1998
  • "The Ultimate Home Design Sourcebook"; Anoop Parikh, Debora Robertson, Thomas Lane, Elizabeth Hilliard, Melanie Paine; 1998
  • Photo Credit red roses in the glass vase on wooden floor image by Jane September from
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