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Anna G. Larson, Published March 09 2013

Wood work: Thanks to Internet, more homeowners attempting to refinish wood floors themselves

FARGO - Dragging the 100-plus-pound orbital sander from the car to the house was the hardest part – the rest just took patience.

Cassandra Maland, of Fargo, sanded and sealed the wood floors in her living room in three days. Maland and her husband, Shane, purchased their home in May and wanted to update the worn and scratched floors.

“I really enjoy do-it-yourself projects,” Cassandra Maland said. “It was fun once I got the hang of it. I’d definitely do it again.”

Increased access to the Internet has more people attempting to refurbish wood floors themselves, said Jeremy Rodgers, president of Kensok’s Hardwood Floors, a local company that’s restored and installed wood floors since 1978.

He estimates that people save about $1 per square foot by doing it themselves. Hiring for refinishing typically costs $3 to $5 per square foot, but it depends on the color, finish, how difficult the project is and how many repairs are made.

“The trend has been that people love wood floors, but they’ve always been spendy compared to carpet and vinyl,” he said.

Carpet and vinyl flooring are comparable in cost to purchase and install, about $3 to $5 per square foot. Wood ranges from $5 to $9 per square foot, according to online home reference site Homewyse.

Diana and Justin Burns, of Fargo, considered refinishing the wood floors in their home but decided to hire instead. Their home is undergoing other renovations in addition to the flooring, which was completed in February.

“Some people are ‘do-it-yourselfers,’ while others prefer to hire out,” Diana Burns said. “We contemplated doing it ourselves, but we are living through a renovation with children, so it is a lot of down time without furniture.”

The Burns’ floors were an orange-amber hue from a stain applied by previous owners, and they’d planned to have the floors stained a dark coffee color once it was sanded off. Beneath the finish was a “beautiful” red oak, and they opted to just seal the floors rather than cover the natural color.

Maland had a similar experience with her living room floor. She thought about staining it, but really liked the natural hue of the wood once the finish was sanded off.

People who want to refinish their wood floors or hire someone to do it will be happy to learn that most wood floors in local homes can be restored.

“Almost every floor in town can be sanded, but there are a few we run into that have been sanded too much over the years,” he said.

Sanding too much can cause the groove side (see image) of a floor board to become thin, break off and continue to do so every time it’s sanded, Rodgers said.

“That’s where you have to draw the line and say no,” he said.

Do-it-yourselfers might run into problems if they’ve never refinished wood floors, so Rodgers offered some tips he’s garnered over his 16 years in the business.

Maland and Burns also shared what they learned from their first floor refinishing experiences.

• Be realistic with your expectations.

It typically takes two years of restoring floors on a constant basis to get really good at it, he said.

Maland says she’s pleased with the results of her DIY refinishing.

• Professional equipment and products are not the same as commercial.

The sanders, stains and finishes sold at home improvement stores differ from the products and equipment professionals use, Rodgers said.

Professional sanders typically weigh 200 pounds, while rental sanders are usually 100 pounds.

“Heavier sanders are able to chew through more flooring, but is it possible to refinish floors with a rental? Yes,” he said. “It’s just so much less aggressive and takes longer.”

• Sand, sand, sand.

Even if floors are in good condition, sand them before applying finish, Rodgers said.

If the floors were covered in carpet, it’s especially important to sand, he said.

Carpet pads can leave residue that will cause finishes to peel off, undoing all your hard work.

Maland hand sanded the edges of her living room to ensure consistent results.

• Hire wisely.

If doing it yourself is too much to tackle, be picky when hiring a contractor.

Rodgers recommends getting at least two references.

“There’s no reason why, when you’re getting an estimate, you can’t ask where they are working that week and ask to talk to those people,” he said. “Immediate, current references are perfect so people don’t have time to cherry pick references.”

Burns asked contractors for examples of past work before picking one. She added that most estimates were close in price.

E Good materials cost a little more.

“You can’t pay bottom dollar and get a decent product. It’s really rare,” Rodgers said. “If people do it based on price, it usually blows up on them and backfires.”

• If hiring, plan accordingly.

The slowest times for floor restoration and installation are the holidays through January, he said.

The busiest time is near graduations and spring clean-up week.

Burns chose to hire because the process was quicker than doing it on her own.

• Beware of lead and asbestos.

Both can be an issue for homeowners, and some people might not even know they have either, Rodgers said.

His company won’t sand on lead or asbestos. “I don’t feel it’s ethical to expose people to that,” he said.

If there’s ever anything on a wood floor besides floor finish, it should be tested. Samples are sent to labs for testing.

• Know sandpaper grits and sequences.

A lot of people won’t know what they’re looking for when sanding, Rodgers said.

“It’s something that has to be learned with experience, but there’s good information online about how to do it.”

Sandpaper grits range from coarse to fine and increase in number the finer they get. “Sequence” refers to the order of sand paper grits, according to TheFamilyHandyMan.com.

• Talk to experts.

Maland had her father on speed dial in case she ran into any problems while she was working on the the floors. He had experience with similar projects, so he was able to guide her.

Rodgers said any flooring professional should be able to help people with questions.

• Wood floors have limitations.

Wood is constantly changing because of the humidity in our climate, Rodgers said.

Only certain stains can be used. Wood flooring professionals, or home improvement store employees should be able to point people to usable stains.

Whether you’re refinishing the floors or paying someone else to, the special thing about wood floors is that they’re built to last a lifetime, Rodgers said.

“It’s more of a structural type product – once it’s put in, it’s not meant to be torn out,” he said.

To keep wood floors in tip-top shape, he recommends coating high-traffic areas, like kitchens, with finish every three to 10 years.

“People typically get two to three re-coats on them and then they sand them,” he said. “We like to see the people do sandings on at least 15 to 25 year intervals.”

Flooring will last anywhere from 50 to 100 years before it ever has to be torn out.

“That’s the idea behind it – get it to last until the house starts falling apart,” Rodgers said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525