Fifty years ago, if you had asked anyone how to rejuvenate a
wood floor, you'd have been told there was pretty much just one
way to do it — with wax, down on all fours. And it was
not considered fun, which was one reason for the huge market
gains that wall-to-wall carpeting began making in the 1950s:
The promise of low maintenance put a huge dent in the
When wood floors began their renaissance in the late 1970s,
much had changed. Most notably, the use of waxes had decreased,
while new coatings — the best-known being the various
polyurethanes — had been introduced with the sole purpose
of reducing maintenance. Although there is still debate about
the durability and aesthetic desirability of these products,
the numbers speak for themselves: Waxes are now used on about 1
percent of all floors being refinished.
While polyurethane finishes are obviously harder and more
durable than waxes, floors are subjected to all manner of use
and abuse, and in time even the best products need to be
refurbished to restore lost luster or add protection.
Typically, when the subject comes up, homeowners are quick to
say they would like to do this without sanding. As popular as
wood floors are, sanding and refinishing are right up there
with root canals in the minds of most of my customers.
Fortunately, there are now good products available that allow
me to renew a wood floor without sanding — and for a
There are three main methods I use, depending on how the floor
was previously finished and how it has been maintained over the
years: recoating the surface, renovating a waxed or oiled
surface, and — the traditional method — stripping
off layers of old wax.
Recoating Urethane Finishes
Most floors sanded and refinished within the past 30 years have
had some type of hard coating applied and are prime candidates
for recoating. "Recoating" means just that — the
application of a clear finish over an existing one. The process
is not new; it's been around for decades, but an inconsistent
track record and unpredictable results made it a bit of a
gamble in the past.
The most common problem was the failure of the new coating to
adhere, usually because paste or acrylic waxes had been applied
by homeowners on top of the finish coating. The results could
be disastrous — the new finish would scratch easily or
simply peel off the floor. The well-intentioned recoat often
turned into a very expensive resand.
Shown here are two floors — one yellow pine (A,B) and
one oak (C,D) — before and after they were recoated with
waterborne polyurethane. Although the process doesn't remove
every flaw, it cleans and renews the finish while adding extra
Basic Coatings offers a four-step recoating process, which
includes (from left) two cleaners, a bonding agent, and the new
waterborne polyurethane finish.
In an effort to remove the wax and improve the bonding of the
new finish, many contractors simply tried more aggressive
screening. Unfortunately, this left marks — fine,
hairlike lines all over the floor — in the old finish
that showed through the recoat finish. Plus, if the floor
wasn't perfectly flat, the screening might not even touch the
low points — which could lead to delaminating as
New fast-cure products. Recoating
became a viable option after two finish manufacturers, Basic
Coatings and BonaKemi, correctly identified the problems and
focused on providing products and strategies designed to reduce
the risks associated with recoating. These two companies are
the biggest manufacturers of waterborne coatings, which happen
to be the ideal finish for recoating.
Because waterbornes dry and cure quickly and have low vapor and
toxicity, they allow the flooring contractor to turn a job
around more efficiently and with less disruption to the
homeowner than is possible with any other coatings on the
Furthermore, recoating can now be completely dustless. A big
advantage of the process is that there's no sanding and no
screening involved. Instead of screens, I use synthetic pads
(3M maroon pads) on the buffer, which don't leave scratch
Whenever I'm buffing a dry floor to prep for applying the
finish, I strap on a backpack vacuum (I have BonaKemi's Back
Vac), which picks up any dust. The dust-containment equipment
available these days is so much better than it used to be that
there's no excuse to generate dust during a recoat.
The principal equipment the author uses for recoating jobs is a
buffer fitted with a synthetic pad, and a backpack vacuum for
catching the small amount of dust created.
Do your homework. If you're serious
about recoating, you'd better be prepared to do a little
investigating. Since paste or acrylic wax will stop a recoat in
its tracks, all the manufacturers recommend against recoating
if either product has been used on the floor (see "Testing for
Wax," page 107).
Perhaps a bigger problem, though, is that hardware stores and
home centers are full of products that are designed to improve
the look of a floor but that act as bond-breakers. Don't
hesitate to go to the cleaning closet and check what the
homeowner has bought.
Cleaning. The key to a successful
recoat is to thoroughly clean and prep the surface before
applying finish. Both Basic Coatings and BonaKemi have good
cleaners; I typically use the Basic Coatings line of products
I start with Basic's IFT (Intensive Floor Treatment), a strong
detergent, followed by Squeaky, which cleans up the residue
left from the IFT.
Recoating the floor. After a thorough
cleaning, I have a choice. If the floor is reasonably flat,
I'll simply buff it with the maroon pad to scuff the previous
coating so the recoat bonds well. After doing this I can
immediately apply the finish coat.
If the floor is not flat — that is, it has high and low
spots — I know the buffer pad will not make even contact.
In that case I apply TyKote, Basic's bonding agent (BonaKemi
has a similar product called Prep). I have to let this dry
— usually for a couple of hours — before applying
the finish coat.
Because recoating typically takes place in occupied houses,
the author usually divides rooms into sections, moving
furniture from one side to the other after the finish
When applying the finish, StreetShoe, I often give high-wear
areas — entryways; in front of the kitchen sink or
refrigerator; underneath the chairs around the breakfast table
— a first application before coating the entire floor.
This allows me to get more build where it's needed.
Except for those areas, one application of finish will
generally suffice, but you can always apply more if you —
or the homeowner — feel it's necessary.
Even with the improvements in products and finishes, recoating
is not foolproof. The likelihood of problems has been greatly
reduced, but when in doubt I still don't hesitate to do some
test samples before committing to a job. I've had several
sample failures, thereby dodging potential nightmares, so the
testing was time well spent.
Renovating Oil Finishes
In homes where owners have objected to polyurethane coatings,
the floors are usually finished with some type of penetrating
or surface-applied oil. These finishes are typically applied to
the floor and then the excess is either wiped or buffed off.
Often wax is applied on top. Over time, these products start to
lose their luster from everyday wear; the decline is even more
obvious if wax was used.
Luckily, there are products called renovators that do a good
job of bringing these surfaces back to life. As with recoating,
application requires nothing more than a buffer. Both Dura Seal
and BonaKemi have renovators in their lines of stains and
To apply the renovator, you cut in the edges of the room with a
brush. Then you mop the material onto the field of the floor
with a lamb's wool applicator. It's best to work in manageable
areas — say, half a bedroom at a time. Break larger rooms
up into several sections.
Floors that were originally finished with penetrating oils
and subsequently waxed cannot be recoated. Instead, the author
uses "renovators," which — with the help of a buffer
— clean and emulsify the original finish. The residue is
wiped up, then a fresh coat of wax applied.
Allow the renovator to sit for about 15 minutes, then start
working it with a steel-wool pad. It will gradually lift the
wax and dried oils from the original installation and put them
into solution. This forms a discolored residue on the surface
that you should remove with rags.
One of the best aspects of this process is that the renovator
itself, as it emulsifies the old products, reseals the surface
while you are working it with the steel wool. To add a little
punch, you can put a small amount of color in the
The net effect is that the floor undergoes a fairly dramatic
visual improvement and is also pretty well sealed — so
you can either buff the surface with steel wool to get an oil
look or apply wax to get some luster.
With a trained crew, the whole process moves quickly. For a
typical residential job, I add an extra day for a top coat of
wax — the results can be impressive.
Be aware that renovators are not designed for use on any floor
that has a hard coating like shellac or urethane underneath the
wax. They work best when the original finish is an oil
It's also important to carefully dispose of any saturated rags,
which will be full of chemicals from the original stains and
penetrating oils, as well as from the solvents in the
The Old Clean-and-Wax Routine
Although there was a time when everybody knew how to clean and
wax a floor (and boy, did they hate it!), that's no longer the
case: You just don't find many flooring contractors with a lot
of experience in this area. Nevertheless, it needs to be done
every so often, so it doesn't hurt to know how to handle the
I always start by thoroughly vacuuming the surface. Next, with
a quart-size spray bottle of mineral spirits (odorless, to keep
smells down), I carefully spray the floor and begin cleaning it
with a steel-wool pad in the buffer. It's best to work in
relatively small areas so things don't dry up on you.
As the wax is dissolved, you begin to get some residue. By and
large, the steel-wool pad will pick most of it up, but you
might need to rag off the remainder, especially around the
None of this should create so much residue that the steel-wool
pad slings it up on the baseboards.
Restoring wood floors is a win-win situation. The
work is simple, clean, and profitable. The jobs are not
physically demanding, and they require minimal
equipment. In the wood-floor business, it doesn't get
any better than that.
Next, I let the area dry thoroughly, which doesn't take
long, since mineral spirits have a low vapor point and flash
Now comes the fun part. I prefer the old paste wax to "liquid"
paste wax. It's sold by the pound or in gallon containers.
Using a rag (half an old washcloth makes a good dispenser), I
get down on all fours and start with a liberal application of
wax. You don't have to have 100 percent coverage, but you want
enough that you can spread it over the whole floor.
In the old days, the next step would have been to use a bristle
attachment on your buffer to spread the wax. These cost a small
fortune, however, so I prefer either the white or the red
synthetic buffing pads available from any maintenance-supply
I quickly spread the wax over the area until I'm confident I
have good coverage, then just let it dry. After that, I put on
a clean white pad and buff until the wax works its magic.
There's no time limit: You can buff up a luster and let it sit
for an hour, then come back and buff it some more. I'll often
come back the next day and make a second application.
It's quite true that there's nothing as handsome as a waxed
floor done right.
The Informed Homeowner
If there's one thing I've learned about renewing old finishes,
it's to adhere to truth in advertising. It's critical that the
homeowner understands that deep scratches, indentations, and
gouges will remain in the wood. The procedures I've described
will make them blend in better — but not go away. As work
progresses, if I think there's even the remotest chance an area
or spot will be visible, I make sure to point it out to the
Also, none of these cleaners or procedures will remove old
paint that has been dripped around baseboards, shoe moldings,
or door casings. I've found that you can sometimes remove old
paint with a plastic putty knife, which is a bit more forgiving
than a metal putty knife.
Before committing to a job, it always pays to inspect the floor
after furniture and area rugs have been removed, and point out
any potential problem spots. And don't forget that
In rooms with direct sunlight and area rugs, you'll often find
fade marks where the rugs were placed. Remember: Since you're
working with a clear finish, these fade lines will show
Moreover, none of these procedures will do anything about dark
water stains or animal-urine stains. That type of damage is
absorbed in the wood; I would strongly advise against making
any heroic efforts to remove these stains.
To make double-sure there are no misunderstandings, I always
give the homeowners a written description of the process and
the outcome they should expect. Interestingly enough, even with
all these warnings, restoring and rejuvenating floors is
becoming more and more popular with homeowners, who so despise
sanding and welcome all of the advantages of this option.
Remodeling contractors are also increasingly likely to see the
value of this approach: When a project entails minor cosmetic
upgrades rather than a whole-house remodel, restoring floors
— as opposed to resanding them — makes good sense.
Even during a major remodel, if existing floors are protected
well, restoring can be a good choice at the end of the job, and
can save the client a bundle.
After any job I do, I advise the homeowners how to avoid damage
and wear — for example, by putting floor protectors on
the furniture, mats at the doors, and rugs in high-traffic
areas. I also leave them information about the proper
maintenance products, such as a manufacturer maintenance kit
(BonaKemi and Basic Coatings each have one). I provide my own
care and maintenance info, too.
This advice is always well-received. My audience tends to be
very receptive; homeowners want to protect their investment and
get the most out of their restored floors.
For me, restoring wood floors is a win-win situation. As long
as we prep thoroughly, the work is simple, clean, and
profitable. After more than 30 years of refinishing floors, I
would be quite content to do nothing else from here on out. The
jobs are not physically demanding, and they require little more
than a buffer.
In the wood-floor business, it doesn't get any better than
Michael Purser is a second-generation
floor finisher. He owns the Rosebud Co. in Atlanta.
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