When Is It Time to Refinish Hardwood Floors?

Nick P. Cellucci
Written by Nick P. Cellucci
Updated August 15, 2022
A traditional kitchen with wooden table, chairs and hardwood floor
Joe Schmelzer/Corbis Documentary via Getty Images

Know the right time to refinish your hardwood floors to protect their beauty and integrity

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If you’ve ever been in an old house with wood floors, you probably noticed just how good those floors look despite their age. Natural hardwood is one of the most durable surfaces you can have in your home, able to last for decades with proper care.

As it ages, hardwood flooring can get scratched, dulled, and worn down by spills, dirt, furniture dragging, pet claws, and more. This damage isn’t permanent, and this guide will teach you how to tell when it’s time to refinish your hardwood floors and restore their former beauty.

Hardwood Floor Refinishing vs. Resurfacing

Hardwood floor refinishing is a cost-effective way to renew the beauty of old hardwood floors. You may have also heard of hardwood resurfacing—a term sometimes used interchangeably with refinishing. These are actually separate processes, and it helps to know the difference when searching for a flooring professional to help restore your hardwood.

Refinishing

To completely restore damaged flooring, you’ll want to refinish. This gives you the chance to change the color of your hardwood with a new stain and lacquer. Refinishing involves sanding the top layer with a drum sander. While it’s possible to refinish hardwood yourself, the heavy equipment involved and the precise technique required may be best left to a specialist.

Resurfacing

The more time-consuming and expensive alternative to refinishing, resurfacing can require the removal of warped, bent, or rotted floorboards, grinding down of uneven boards, and reinforcing of planks with new nails. The sheer investment you’d have to make in both equipment and materials makes this another job best left to the pros.

Buffing or Screening

Buffing involves a basic recoat of finish and doesn’t remove any wood. If the scratches and wear on your floors are only surface-level, you can lightly sand them with a rented floor buffing tool and apply a new coat of finish. Note that if your floors are waxed or prefinished, you cannot just buff them without leaving blotches.

Keep in mind that each time you refinish your floors, you’re removing a layer of wood. Most solid hardwood floors can take between 10 to 12 complete sanding and refinishing jobs throughout their lifetimes. If you have engineered wood floors, they typically have a layered construction with only a thin surface veneer that can only be refinished once or twice at most.

How Often Should You Refinish Hardwood Floors?

3 signs it is time to refinish your floor, including spots of discoloration

There’s no set answer to this question. It depends on the type of wood you have and how much wear it experiences. Most floors start to show age after about ten years, but floors that get a lot of foot traffic or sunlight may need to be refinished sooner.

While refinishing hardwood floors is a great way to give them a fresh appearance and new color, refinishing too often can diminish their beauty. Refinish only when your floors need it—not simply for the sake of changing things up.

How do you tell when it’s time to refinish your hardwood floors? Look for the following signs.

Lots of Deep Scratches or Gouges

The look of distressed hardwood flooring is currently very popular, appearing in trendy farmhouse looks and other contemporary room designs. However, there’s a key difference between “distressed” and “scratched.” The former is purposeful, even wire brushing to achieve a consistent look.

Real scratches affect the integrity of your floor’s sealant, making it vulnerable to damage from moisture. If you notice an excess of scratches or particularly deep gouges in certain areas, it may be time to sand and refinish.

Discoloration

If you have a lot of natural sunlight regularly pouring through a window onto your hardwood floors, those specific spots may become sun-bleached. This isn’t a problem that can cause serious damage, but it does create an uneven pattern of coloration.

If you notice a dull, gray hue, however, this is a potential sign of moisture damage. In this case, you’ll want to refinish your floors to protect the wood from further damage that could lead to the need for replacement.

Dulled Finish

Hardwood finishes offer a variety of looks, including glossy, satin, matte, or brushed. Regardless of your floor’s style, you may notice the finish starting to take on a dull appearance in certain areas after a while. This creates an inconsistent look that makes your floors look worn and neglected. Refinishing can help to restore their original sheen.

What to Expect When Refinishing Hardwood Floors

Close-up of hand refinishing a floor
digitalskillet/iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

The refinishing process involves the removal of your baseboards and sanding with a heavy tool called a drum sander. Expect a lot of noise during the job. Floors get sanded down to the bare wood, and any cracks are filled with a wood filler color-matched to your wood species. Afterward, a stain is applied to give color, followed by two to three coats of finish.

There may be dust, though many pros use dustless sanding attachments that are better for customers with allergies. Either way, doorways will be sealed, and your HVAC system will be turned off to prevent dust from circulating. Wood stain can cause strong odors, and you’ll need to stay off your floors for up to 24 hours while the finish cures.

Cost of a Hardwood Floor Refinishing Job

Hardwood refinishing is an investment in the look and performance of your floors. Every refinishing company is different, as is every home. Depending on the extent of the services being provided and the type of stain and finish you choose, you should expect to pay anywhere from $1.50 to $7 per square foot for a typical hardwood refinishing job.

If you choose to refinish your floors yourself, you’ll likely pay about $60 per gallon of water-based or polyurethane finish. You’ll also need to factor in the cost of renting a drum sander tool from your local equipment rental service, which can cost up to $70 per day.

How To Find a Pro

When searching for a company to do any type of work in your home, it’s always good to start with those that have positive reviews or referrals from trusted friends. Be sure to get quotes from multiple fully licensed and insured candidates, and ask about other costs that might arise during the project.

Know their expectations for your role as a homeowner, including whether you’ll need to leave your home for a set period or move furniture in advance. Most jobs will take somewhere between a few days and a full week. You may also need to touch up the paint on your baseboards when the job is complete.

When to Replace Hardwood Floors

A refinish can fix any surface-level issues with your hardwood floor and is usually only needed every few decades. However, there are a few cases in which damage may be so extensive that your floors need to be replaced completely. Those may include the following:

  • Deep structural issues with your subfloor, frame, or joists that require ripping up the floor to access the damage

  • Extreme movement or wiggling between boards, which can lead to gaps

  • Your floor is severely worn down from past refinishing that connections between planks are falling apart or nails are exposed

  • You want a completely different look or wood species that can’t be achieved with a stain or finish

If you’re not sure whether your floor needs to be fully replaced or just refinished, your local hardwood flooring pro should be able to accurately assess the damage for you.

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