Beautifully finished hardwood floors can give your home a sophisticated, classic look, and are easier to keep clean than carpets. But if your wood floors are showing some wear and tear, or are hidden under old dingy carpets, it can run into serious money to hire a handyman or contractor to make them like new.

Refinishing hardwood floors yourself can seem like an impossibly daunting task, but taken step-by-step, the job is easier than you might think. Refinishing your own hardwood floors will save you potentially hundreds of dollars and earn you big DIY-er bragging rights.

Things you will need:

  • Mat knife, hammer, pry bar, and pliers (if you have carpet to remove)
  • Paint stripper
  • Mineral spirits
  • Lots of disposable rags
  • Medium- and fine-grit sandpaper, belt or drum sander**
  • Bleach and vinegar
  • Tack cloth
  • Combination wood stain and finish
  • Heavy gloves, dust mask, and safety glasses

Note: Especially if you will be removing carpet, you will be working with a lot of dust, debris, sharp objects and fuming chemicals. For your safety, be sure to wear sturdy clothing, wear protective equipment, and keep the area cleaned and well ventilated.

Step 1: Remove carpet (if you have it)

Carpet will not be firmly attached to the floor, so removing the carpet itself is accomplished simply by pulling it up. Grab one corner of the carpet with a pair of pliers and pull upwards to start. Alternatively, you can cut the carpet with a mat knife (being careful not to damage the wood underneath) across a doorway and start pulling from there. You can cut the carpet into strips for easier removal. Pull up the carpet padding by hand.

After the carpet and the padding are removed, you will be left with the staples that affixed the padding to the floor, and the tack strips around the perimeter of the room that held the carpet in place. Remove the staples with pliers, pulling directly up to not damage the wood. Keep a container handy so you can dispose of these right away, and not find a staple in your knees later on!

The tack strips running along the edge of the floors are nailed in to the wood, and require prying up with your pry bar and a hammer. Place a thin piece of wood between the floor and pry bar so you don't damage the hardwood, and wedge the pry bar under the tack strips. Hammer on the pry bar until the tack strip comes up. If the strip breaks up and leaves the nail behind, remove the nails with the back of the hammer.

Step 2: Remove the old finish

It's possible to skip this step and just sand the old finish away, but unless you want to be sanding for weeks, or if you plan to hand-sand the floor, removing the old finish with a chemical process is highly recommended.

Work on a small portion of the floor at a time to avoid messes. Using a disposable brush, paint on a general coat of paint stripper to a 3-square foot area. Leave for 15 minutes. Come back and scrape off as much as possible of the finish/stripper mix. Repeat if necessary.

You will not get 100% of the goop off the floor. What remains behind can be removed by wiping the floor down vigorously with a disposable rag soaked in mineral spirits. Rub any residue until the floor is no longer sticky. You can then safely walk on that part of the floor, and move on to the next small area.

Step 3. Sand the floor

** While it is possible to sand down a hardwood floor by hand, you will hate life a lot less if you use power tools to get the job done. You can rent a standing drum sander from Home Depot or other hardware store, but if you are inexperienced, it's possible to do serious damage to your floor, walls, or even yourself with a drum sander. A belt sander will get the job done fast, and is cheaper and easier to use than a drum sander. The Craftsman Belt Sander is a quality, inexpensive choice that you can re-sell after your project is done.

Starting from one side of the room and sanding only along the grain of the wood, sand the wood down with a medium-grit sandpaper until the surface stains are removed and the wood is smooth and level. Then in the same manner, sand the wood with a fine-grit sandpaper to smooth the floor and take out any scuffs or scratches.

Sweep the floor thoroughly. Wipe the floor manually with the tack cloth to pick up any remaining dust.

Step 4. Remove stains

If there are black stains in the wood from long-term water damage, they can be brought up with regular household bleach. Moisten the wood with water to make it more absorbent, then apply a small amount of bleach to the stain until it starts to lighten. Repeat as necessary. Neutralize the bleach with white vinegar, and let dry. You can also try a commercial wood bleach if household bleach does not fully remove the stain.

Step 5: Finish

Go over the floor one more time with tack cloth. If there is any dust or debris on the wood, the finish will not adhere properly, so be sure the wood is completely clean.

The easiest way to get a beautiful finished look to your floors is to buy a combination wood stain and finish. A stain will get the right color for your floor and help disguise any remaining imperfections. A finish seals and protects the wood. A stain/finish combination accomplishes both in one step.

When choosing a stain, you should consider both your design aesthetic and the condition of the floors. Clean, good-quality wood can take a lighter stain, or even no stain at all and still look good. Very old or damaged wood calls for a darker stain, which can hide a surprising amount of stains and damage.  

Finish types range from matte to super-gloss. Which one you choose is purely a matter of preference. Be sure to ask to see samples at the hardware store to be sure you are getting the look you want.

Use a paint roller and start in the corner farthest from where you will end up. Paint along the grain of the wood as you did while sanding, and be sure to keep moving and keep a "wet edge" until the room is finished. Allow to dry at least 24 hours without anyone walking on it. While one coat can sometimes do the trick, it's a pretty good idea to apply at least two coats if you want your beautiful new floors to last.

You're done!

Congratulations. You've earned your Do-It-Yourself gold star and saved yourself a nice chunk of change. You can keep your floors in good condition for years to come by keeping them as dry and free of impact damage as possible, polishing them with a quality floor polish every few weeks, and applying a new coat of finish every couple of years if the floors begin to look a little tired.