How to Salvage and Refinish Old Wood Floors

Refinished floors 2nd floor comparing before and after sanding and staining

Refinishing 100 Year Old Wood Floors

When we bought our house, the appraiser said the floors on our second floor were ‘detrimental to the value of our home’. That really ticked my husband and I off. Sure they were ugly, but detrimental to the value?  Come on!  Check out how we turned, a negative into a positive when we refinished our old wood floors in our 145+ year old home.

At first we thought we’d have to replace the floors as well.  We even bought new flooring, since we thought we had to replace all the flooring upstairs.  My husband rented a sander, so we could even out the floors to prepare for the new flooring.

We read there are two ways to install new wood flooring: 1.  put down sub flooring 2.  sand down existing floor so it’s even.  (you might even need to sand down before putting the sub flooring)

Once we (he) sanded down the flooring, we discovered the flooring was in great shop, just ugly at a glance.  There were water damaged boards that would need to be replaced, but a lot less expensive to keep the charm, than cover it up. The finish had worn off the boards from over 145 years of people walking on the floors. And once we removed the finish, they boards looks brand new. And we knew we were not putting down the flooring we bought.

patching floors from water damage

Refinishing Old Hardwood Floors With Gaps

With old homes, a 1 inch thick board, is actually 1 inch thick.  When you buy a 1 inch board at the store, it’s 3/8″ thick or 3/4″ thick, it’s less.  So your choice to get a 1 inch board is to go to a mill and have them make boards the correct thickness, or buy a planer and make them yourself.  We bought a planer and planed down 2 inch boards down to the correct thickness (the shavings turned into mulch for the garden and flowers).  Planing the board down allowed us to replace the water damaged boards with boards of the same height and keep the gaps to a minimum.

Determine what boards need to be replaced and cut out the old boards, making sure to steer clear of electrical wires, plumbing and nails.  Definitely wear eye and hearing protection, it’s messy (and loud). Block off the doors so the dust is contained in one room. Use your saw to cut in between the boards and remove the damaged pieces. Hammers and crow bars are a must.  But don’t damage the boards around what you are replacing.

You will need to make sure you cut back the boards to the next floor joist too. (so many things to consider to make it look right). And don’t forget to not have all the boards not end at the same location, feather them in so the new boards end in different locations.

unfinished wood floors with patches

Water Damage in Old Wood Floors

We found water damaged boards and below them were charred boards, sometimes in the middle of the room (what did these people do!).  For the damaged floor joists, we had to take another board and sister the board (attach it to the one next to it), to give it support.

Refinish your own wood floors. Take them from shabby to fabulous|

Fix the Wood Floors Right

We had damaged boards in one of the bedrooms that we had to replace.  The register had trim running over it.  So we moved the register out from the trim boards and replaced the damaged boards.

You need to find where the joists are and cut back to them and feather in (not have all the boards end at the same place), so it looks like it’s been there forever.

If boards aren’t fitting, you can give them a 45 degree cut to help it fit in better.

landing above stairs that needs to be repaired

Finishing the Old Wood Floors

Last steps once the boards are in, is to sand the boards down so they are even and no lips from the new boards, that you could potentially trip over.  If you are sanding the old boards to feather in with new boards, be sure you don’t sand too much from the old boards or you may have waves in the look of your flooring.

Sand the boards, wipe them down.  Vacuum up all the dirt and then stain the wood (if you want to pressure here).  Allow it to dry and then put down 3-4 coats of polyurethane (maybe more, depending on how you want it to look). Follow the directions on the cans of stain and polyurethane.

We had 1500 square feet of flooring to complete. It took us 3 months to complete getting it done, working at night and mostly on the weekends.  This was mainly my husband doing all the work himself (no crew).  I helped stain and poly while keeping the kids off the floors.

And when the bank appraiser came back, he was impressed that we salvaged the old wood.  He said he was impressed with what we had done.

What old wood floors do you need to refinish?

You can also upcycle old wood flooring and make a medicine cabinet or spice rack..

Refinish your own wood floors. Take them from shabby to fabulous|

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  1. What about gaps between the boards, do they fill with the polyurethane for easy maintenance?
    Your floors are beautiful, we have pine floors and getting ready to renovate. Everyone says too damaged.

    1. Thank you. The poly will not fill the gaps. It will flow into the gaps, but not fill them. We were not trying to fill the gaps between the wood, but preserve the 145 year old floors. Keep in mind that the moisture in the wood fluctuates with the moisture in the house, so gaps may open during winter months.
      It doesn’t hurt to try to restore, before replacing, you just might be surprised.
      Good luck with your restorations!

  2. Hi Regina,

    Did you come across any bounce in the floors you had to fix? I’m considering doing this to 100yr old wood floor under carpet on our second floor. And I think I’ll have to remove old wood flooring and either add I joists or sister the joists. Did you have to do this and were you able to reuse wood you pryed up?


    1. We didn’t find any bouncy spots. The wood you are going to tear up, you will be losing the tongue, possibly the grove too. The wood we replaced was water damaged and we did not salvage it.
      The beams underneath, some were also damaged and had to be sistered.
      You should also note that the wood you are tearing up, may not be salvageable and the replacement wood won’t have a tongue or groove and be a different depth, so you may need to plain it down.
      The grain and type of wood being replaced, it may be difficult to stain to match due to difference in age of wood and grain. Go for usability versus perfection of matching.

  3. Hi Regina,

    I was just talking to my sister about my floors (she loves in the upper pinkie of your state 🙂 I have what looks like dry floors in this 1920’s house, some areas where water damage happened. I’m not sure I understand your beautiful work. You’re talking about feathering, meaning, did you butt new wood to it and feather the edges? Thank you in advance!


    1. Feathering means not having all the boards end at the same point. So if you are replacing your water damaged boards. You will want to not have them all start and end at the same place. You can see in one of the pictures on this article marked water damaged. They replaced some of the boards all at the same place, with an odd color. We removed them all, sanded and stained and had the boards end at different lengths.

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