When to Buff and When to Sand Your Hardwood Floors


It works with old furniture, so it should work with your old hardwood floors: if they look tired, just sand them down and apply new stain and sealer.  Right?


While old furniture rarely lives to see 4-6 cycles of light sanding, your floors just might. If they have been around for a few decades or had to deal with a few sanding enthusiasts, another sanding may bring them close to demise very fast.

Here is a good rule of thumb when you ask yourself how to bring your floors to life:  sanding should never be your first choice. Before taking drastic measures, consider being gentle. Wood floors love that.

While working with a hardwood floor refinishing company is your best bet in identifying the right solution for your floors, here are a few other options you should consider before stepping into sanding territory.

Clean Your Hardwood Floors Really Well

Not really a scientific term, but a good maintenance practice. Sometimes your hardwood floors look worse than they really are. Years of waxing, foot traffic and dust collecting may give them an overwhelmed and dull look. But the need for drastic solutions is sometimes just an illusion.

If your finish is in good shape, giving your floors a good clean may restore their looks and shine. Avoid soap or oil-based cleaners, detergent or gimmick products that may actually ruin the finish. A better choice is a good micro-mist hardwood floor cleaning tool with a microfiber pad like the Bona Professional Series mop. This mop removes dirt buildup, but is gentle to your floors.

Finally, do not try to hide the problem by waxing your floors or using self-help kits and wonder-conditioners that well-intentioned people recommend you at the home improvement store. Such products just add a new level of unnecessary buildup to your floors, may leave a sticky film and will give you major headaches next time you buff and coat your boards.

Buff and Coat

If your floors have scuffs and scrapes, show a cloudy sheen, or if the top coat is visibly worn, buffing and coating may be in your near future. While sanding removes part of the wood surface in order to eliminate scratches and imperfections, buffing only touches the finish, removing a small part of the worn top coat, so that your floors look again polished and alive.

So if the top coat of your hardwood floor is intact, you may not need to get down to the wood: the scratches on your floor may be superficial, at the top coat level and only in need for buffing. To find out what the condition of your finish is, place some droplets of water on the worn-looking part of the wood. If the droplets bead up, your finish is fine. If they soak into the floor, your top coat is compromised and buffing is not enough. Make sure you determine first whether your floors are waxed, since wax may turn this test irrelevant.

Sometimes, although the sealer is still intact, buffing is not enough. When the damage goes deep into the top coat, removing just part of the protective finish will not prevent the new top coat from showing the deeper damage. In fact, it may just highlight the imperfections. This means that sanding may be your best solution.

Here is something you probably don’t want to know: you should buff and recoat your hardwood floors before you actually see the damage. While it is perfectly normal for the top coat to wear over time, it is best to tackle the damage before it gets to the wood. Sometimes, even if your hardwood floors look in good shape, you may notice small areas where the finish has lost its luster, like in front of the kitchen sink or the entrance door. This is a good sign that your floors need some attention, so call your buff and coat professional and get to work. The good news is that buffing and coating is a fast process that, depending on how large the area is, may be done in half a day.

Make buffing and coating part of your maintenance routine in order to keep damage away from the wood and extend the life of your hardwood floors. How often should you do it? A new top coat can make your floors shine for a 3-5 years, but it all depends on how the floors are treated. In high-traffic areas, an annual buffing and coating regimen is a good idea. In less used areas such as a guest room, making buffing a once-in-a-decade event may be enough.

When to Sand

If the scratches have gotten down to the wood, it’s time to sand. White spots or dark stains are other telltale signs of compromised hardwood. Sanding will remove part of the wood, allowing you to apply new stain and a new top coat.

However, avoid sanding your floors if a little buff-and-coat elbow grease is enough. It is not only that wood floor refinishing is a messy business that will disrupt your life in a big way for a few unhappy days, but each sanding shortens the lifespan of your hardwood floors, making them thinner and bringing them closer to the end.

Sanding is also a good solution if you want to change the color of your stain or if, for some reason, you are tired of the rustic, hand-scraped floors. If you do like the character and texture of distressed floors, remember that sanding will remove that.