Hardwood Floor Refinishing Guide: Everything You Need To Know

So you’re thinking about refinishing your hardwood floors. So exciting! I remember that same feeling of joy when we made the decision to do so. However, going into it I had NO clue what the process would actually entail. Boy, did I learn a lot about hardwood floor refinishing! There are so many considerations you need to think about once you decide you’re going to refinish your hardwood floors. Will you use a contractor or tackle the project yourself? What stain color and sheen do you like best? Will the stain color jive with your furniture and decor style? Speaking of furniture, where will you put it all when the work is being done? The fumes will be strong and the floors will need time to cure. Will you stay with family or friends during that time? How can you best prep your home to make the post-project clean-up easier?

I’m sharing ALL of these learnings in this hardwood floor refinishing guide. That way you can spend less time figuring out the details and more time getting excited about how beautiful your floors are going to look!

Hardwood Floor Refinishing Guide

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While there are a lot of decisions you will need to make, it will truly be worth it. When we moved into our home, our oak floor had that orangey tint that we lived with for about a year before we refinished them. While I don’t have a great “before” photo of our floors, you can get a sense of the original color and our new color from the photos below. Refinishing our floors dramatically transformed the entire look of our house!

"Before" photo of our hardwood floors before refinishing them.
The “Before.” Ignore the terrible photo and door casing. That was one of the first things we fixed upon moving into our home because it drove us nuts ๐Ÿ™‚
"After" - refinishing our hardwood floors instantly brought our home into the correct decade!
“After” – refinishing our hardwood floors instantly brought our home into the correct decade!

Aside from our bathrooms, we had every inch of our floors refinished in our home. That meant that we basically had to pack up our entire house, as if we were moving. Since it was our first time ever refinishing hardwood floors, we learned a lot about how to best prepare, and what to do after the floors have been refinished. Just as important, we also learned what we’d do differently next time around. All of these details are here in this guide.

Contractor or DIY?

My husband is incredibly handy and we rarely hire contractors for house projects (and while it’s a big money-saver, the downside to that is that updates get made more slowly in our home). However, refinishing hardwood floors was not a project my husband felt comfortable taking on. While I won’t go into the details, the first company we hired to refinish our floors sanded waves into our hardwood floors, which required us to hire another company to fix. So this prolonged the amount of time we remained out of our home.

Waves can occur for a number of reasons. These include poor sanding technique, improperly installed paper on a floor sander, a poorly maintained machine, or a bad drum. Although less common, loose boards or tight knots in the wood can also contribute to waves, and softer woods require a different sanding technique all together.

So my point is, unless you have deep knowledge on all of the above or know that the sanding machine you are renting from your local home center has been properly maintained, my recommendation is to a hire professional. Hardwood floors are too expensive to risk damaging yourself. If by some rare chance the contractor that you hire makes a mistake (like in our case), they will be on the hook to make it right – not you.

Stain Selection

The biggest question I most frequently see asked is in regard to stain color selection. It’s a huge choice and one that seems so permanent. Unless of course you fork over more cash to have the floors restained if you end up regretting your decision. Even then, keep in mind that a solid hardwood plank at least 3/4 inches thick can on average only be refinished four to six times during its total lifespan. It’s common in high-traffic areas of your home to have to refinish them every seven to ten years. Especially if you have pets! So just know that there are limits to how many times your floors can be sanded. So choose your stain color wisely. ๐Ÿ™‚

Some points to keep in mind when selecting a color:

  • Darker floors show every spec of dust, every crumb and all pet hair. So if you have kids, pets and/or your husband is a messy eater, you may want to consider a lighter stain.
  • Lighter stain colors can make a room look brighter and larger if the rooms in your home are small.
  • Stains take differently on different types of wood due to the natural variances in wood’s undertones. For example, birch wood has a slight pink undertone and poplar skews more green. Red oak as you guessed has red undertones, and white oak is the most neutral of them all.
  • If you’re having a difficult time deciding on color, have your contractor apply the stains in your consideration set once they’ve sanded your floors. This will also enable you to see how the stain takes to the exact type of wood that you have. Our contractor was willing to apply up to six colors and we had until the next morning to decide. You’ll see in the photo below, that our contractor also applied polyurethane to a portion of each stain sample so we could get a feel for what it would really look like when finished. This was incredibly helpful since polyurethane adds richness to the stain.
  • Take your furniture, home decor, and the paint colors on your walls and cabinetry into consideration when selecting a color. Light colors can contrast beautifully against darker floors. However, if the rest of your interior is already dark, I’d recommend steering away from a dark floor color.
We applied our six stain choices to the floors once they were sanded to help us make a decision
Stain choices for our hardwood floor refinishing project

We ultimately decided on Minwax Dark Walnut (bottom left in the image above) and I couldn’t be happier with our decision. While I love the airiness of light floors in a coastal home, a medium-dark floor is timeless. The dark walnut we chose also provides great contrast against our white kitchen cabinetry and light walls.

Applying the stain in our master bedroom
Applying the dark walnut stain to our master bedroom floor

Finish Considerations

  • When refinishing hardwood floors, you’ll need to decide if you’re going to use a matte, satin or a semi-gloss polyurethane. This mainly comes down to personal taste, but matte and satin are the most popular choices right now. Keep in mind that the sheen can play a big role in what’s visible on the floor. The more matte you go, the fewer scratches, dents, and dirt that show. We personally opted for a satin finish, which has slightly more sheen than a matte finish. This finish reflects only a very small amount of light so it doesn’t distract from our decor.
  • Be prepared to make a decision on using a water, or an oil-based polyurethane. Both have their pros and cons that you should take into consideration. The biggest benefit of a water-based polyurethane is that it’s low odor and dries much faster than an oil-based polyurethane. This will certainly limit the time that your rooms or your home is out of commission. It also has lower VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds) so it’s a safer choice if there is a baby or a pregnant family member in your home. However, the downside is that water-based polyurethane is significantly more expensive. It also has a duller look to it and it’s not as durable. My recommendation is to go with an oil-based for looks and durability, despite the stronger odor and longer dry time.  

Do you Need to Vacate Your Home?

This really depends – are you refinishing just one or two rooms, or an entire house as we did? If it’s just a room or two, and you can close the space off from the rest of the house to lessen the fumes and odor, you might be fine to stay in your home while the work is being done.

If you’re refinishing your entire house and using an oil-based polyurethane, that’s a different story. You’ll need to arrange to be out of the house for at least a week while the work is being done and the floors are curing. Even after the floors were safe to walk on, we still found the odor to be unbearable for a couple of weeks. Give yourself extra time to air out the house so you don’t become lightheaded from the fumes.

Preparing Your Home for the Project

I wish someone had given us a few of the pieces of advice I’m about to give you, as it would have saved us from many headaches. So take notes! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • As you would guess, remove all furniture and items from your rooms. This should include anything on the walls, window treatments and everything from your closet shelves as well. We thought that as long as everything was off the closet floor and out of the contractor’s way it would be fine. We wrapped anything we kept on our shelves in plastic, not fully realizing how much odor our clothes and other items would absorb. Sure, that’s fine if you don’t mind running your clothes through the wash but at the very least remove anything that would need to be dry-cleaned or you’ll be in for an expensive dry-cleaning bill. 
  • Remove all food from your pantry and kitchen as they can absorb vapors from polyurethane.
  • Place painters tape or a low-adhesive tape along your baseboards and on your stair’s risers to prevent stain from getting on them. While you still may need to touch up a few spots on your baseboards and risers once your floors have been refinished, painters tape will minimize the amount of touch-ups needed. 
  • To ensure dust doesn’t get into all of the crevices of your lighting fixtures, use masking film to cover them. You’ll be happy that you have one less thing to clean in each room. 
  • If you’re only having certain rooms refinished, tape the masking film to the doorways to contain the dust and prevent it from floating into other areas of your home.
  • This may be obvious, but remove all pets from the work area. Not only to ensure they don’t run across wet floors, but to protect them from the strong fumes.
My husband wrapping our lighting fixtures with masking film for easier clean-up
My husband wrapping our lighting fixtures with masking film for easier clean-up

Cure Time & Odor Elimination

Hardwood floor refinishing requires some patience and fresh air to reduce the the odor.

  • At a minimum, you should wait at least 24 hrs before walking on the floors; for hours 24-48, it’s best to wear socks only (no shoes, no bare feet). Ideally, you should wait a total of 4-7 days before moving any furniture or rugs back.
  • Keep windows and doors open as much as possible to reduce the smell of the polyurethane fumes. Use large fans to pull in fresh air and push air out. I recommend scheduling this project for the summer, fall or spring, unless you are OK with a hefty heating bill. ๐Ÿ™‚ 
  • Use an air purifier such as this BlueAir Blue Pure 211+ model to help remove the odor caused by the VOCs found in polyurethane.

Post Project Clean-up

Even if the company you hire to refinish your floors touts a “dustless” process – there will still be dust. Just less dust. ๐Ÿ™‚ After refinishing hardwood floors, be prepared to thoroughly vacuum and wipe down every last surface. This includes every square inch of your walls.

I highly recommend a vacuum with a new filter, as well as these microfiber cloths. I use these cloths constantly for everyday cleaning, but they were especially helpful for removing dust after we had our floors refinished. The dust clings right to them, and it makes the clean-up go so much faster!

If you placed painters tape on your baseboards as per my recommendation, you shouldn’t need too many paint touch-ups. However, if you do require a touch up or two, make sure to lay down masking paper to reduce your risk of paint getting on your newly refinished floors.

Use making paper for paint touch-ups, after refinishing hardwood floors
Paint touch-ups might be needed after your hardwood floor refinishing project is complete

Cleaning Your Hardwood Floors

After refinishing hardwood floors, you’ll want to wait a minimum of two weeks before applying any cleaner as they are still curing. However, my absolute favorite cleaner is Bona’s Hardwood Floor Cleaning Spray. We initially bought their Floor Care Kit, which includes the mop, a dusting pad, two cleaning pads, spray cleaner, a large spray refill and floor polish. Our hardwoods are always squeaky clean after using these products! 

Bona Mop and Hardwood Floor Cleaner
After your hardwood floor refinishing project is complete, wait a minimum of two weeks to clean them.

Then, when your floors are shiny and new, you’ve put away the last of the cleaning products and have moved your furniture back in, celebrate with my skinny watermelon margarita. You’ve earned it!

What other questions do you have about hardwood floor refinishing? Drop them in the comments below, or add any tips you might have for other Casually Coastal readers looking to refinish their floors.

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Hardwood Floor Refinishing Guide: Everything You Need To Know


  1. September 15, 2020 / 6:08 am

    Thanks for the tip about waiting it out for a couple of weeks before doing any cleaning. My living room floor has a lot of scratches due to years of moving furniture are around almost every year. I hope I can find a hardwood refinishing service that will be able to carefully shave off the top layer without making too much dust float around in the air.

    • September 15, 2020 / 1:08 pm

      Hi Alice! Glad you found the cleaning tip helpful! Definitely look for a company that offers “dustless” refinishing. While it’s definitely not completely dustless, it will certainly limit the amount in your home. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Sarah
    January 17, 2021 / 12:22 pm

    We are 2 weeks away from our entire home floor refinishing project and these tips are exactly what I was looking for! I love the stain option you chose, do you mind sharing what type of wood your floors are? We have red oak and Iโ€™m wondering if it will look similar.

    • January 18, 2021 / 2:41 pm

      I’m so glad these tips were helpful Sarah! We went into the refinishing process pretty blind but learned SO much! Ours are red oak as well! ๐Ÿ™‚