Alternatives to Sanding Old Floors

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You've decided it's time to do something with those old or worn wood floors. What are your choices if you don't want to sand off the finish? Consider a series of alternatives and choose the one that best fits your situation.

Stripping and Refinishing

  • When you want to keep the same wood floor, you can remove the old finish with chemicals, solvents or caustics and then apply a new finish. These methods are easier on the wood than sanding, but you will be dealing with hazardous substances. Know the risks to your floor and you and take precautions such as wearing a respirator, gloves and goggles. (See Reference section for details.)

    Determine what finish is currently on your floor. Do this by testing various removers on the floor, and the product that works will inform you of the finish. Choose an inconspicuous area for your test. Put a few drops of turpentine on the floor. If the finish dissolves, your finish is wax-based. Denatured alcohol dissolves shellac. Lacquer thinner will dissolve lacquer. Water-based finishes are liquefied with xylene. Polyurethane will strip some paints or varnishes, but it will not remove all the paint or varnish. Because you don't want to sand, you will need to move to another alternative.

    Once you have removed the old finish, apply a new one. If there's any chance you have left some old finish on, use an oil-based finish. Although it will be very smelly until it dries, it will not bubble or peel the way it would if you put latex finish over oil-based.

Covering the Floor with Something Else

  • If you are refinishing something small such as stair treads, consider using a thin plywood called lauan that you can stain, or try a veneer to cover the treads. If you can't remove the present finish without sanding and you are dealing with a room or rooms, you have a lot of choices. Paint your floor with a wood color or an accent color that fits your decorating scheme. Paint by itself will wear down after a while, but when you add three coats of urethane you create a long-lasting floor.

    If paint isn't your thing, you can cover your floor with laminate flooring, linoleum, ceramic or other tile, or carpet or a painted floor canvas. Laminate flooring comes in panels, and the image you see is a photograph or patterned print of wood or stone flooring. The photograph is placed over a panel of flooring and covered with a durable coating that will last 15 to 30 years. Stone, ceramic tile or slate flooring can be placed on backer board and last for centuries. Painted floor canvases fit old homes from the Victorian era. Finally, carpeting goes down quickly, in less than a day, but lasts only three to 10 years, depending on the quality.

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