Sanding Hardwood Floors by Hand

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As I have said many times before sanding hardwood floors by hand can be a lot of hard work. Hard work that can besanding hardwood floors by hand title alleviated with the use of a floor sander.

With that said, I have now spoken to way too many people that will be sanding their floors by hand no matter what. So it is only right that I do an article about sanding wood floors with hand sanders.

When it comes to this topic, the most important thing to discuss is efficiency. Some hand sanders are far more powerful and effective than others and it’s important that you give yourself a head start.

You don’t want to be caught short… There are some hand sanding tools that will have you sanding even a small area, for an eternity!

Which hand sander is the best?

To add a little pizzazz to this article I’m going to rank them in order of aggressiveness and efficiency.

Before I start I need to warn you, I am going to sound a little negative about the tools you are probably going to use if you are going to sand your floors by hand. I’m not trying to rain on your parade or be mean, I am just trying to be honest. If you plan on sanding wood floors with hand sanders, it is going to be very tiring and time consuming. Forewarned is forearmed!

5. In last place is none other than the delta sander.

detailer-2I wasn’t even going to include this sander in my groovy list, but it is a handheld sander. It is used by professionals to sand right into the corners where the edge sander can’t reach.

Other minor detail work aside, this sander is pretty much useless. It has no power whatsoever, and it doesn’t produce a good finish (smooth surface).

You will need this for sanding the corners, but if you really are on a budget, you can rub corners down, literally, by hand (and sandpaper of course).

 

4. Dragging its heals, in fourth place we have the handheld random orbital sander!

hand held random orbital sanderIt’s true I’m sorry to say the random orbital sander you have in your garage is just not going to cut it.

This tool is great for creating a smooth finish on wood, especially in small areas. The random orbital system means that the pad oscillates, but it spins loosely meaning it will always give way to resistance.

That is what it was designed for, not to remove massive amounts of wood, but to massage it smooth.

Yes you can put a 40 grit on it and ‘rough up’ some small areas, but if you plan on sanding your wood floors by hand with this sander then you had better clear your calendar.

 

3. Taking third place, the palm sander.

palm sanderThe most common of all. The palm sander.

Just like the handheld random orbital, palm sanders oscillate, but the palm sander plate is fixed straight. Without this ‘give’ the palm sander can be a little more aggressive, while still producing quite a smooth finish.

Palm sanders also have the added benefit of having a square edge that can be used to sand right into the corners of the floor.

The problem is with this sander is that it still doesn’t cut the mustard in terms of power and aggressiveness.

Again, if you choose to use this sander, prepare for a long hard slog.

 

2. Not quite taking the top spot, the handheld belt sander.

hand held belt sanderNow we are talking, a machine with some real grunt.

The handheld belt sander can sand off old finish and sand out dents and scratches much more easily than the previous sanders.

While it won’t keep up with the speed of a normal floor sander, the hand held belt sander will get the job moving forward with reasonable speed.

Just be sure to keep moving side to side, forward and backwards, and ideally, in a circular motion. The more pressure you can apply, the faster it will get the wood back to bare.

This tool is not great for getting right up to the edges. You can get up close but on some sides of the room it will be going against the grain and producing a bad finish.

When used for sanding with the grain, this can produce a fairly smooth finish, but not the best.

 

1. Storming through in first place, pole position, top banana… The Festool Rotex!

festool rotex RO 150I have been using the Festool Rotex (150mm disk) for years. I use it for sanding stairs, thresholds and hard-to-get-to areas.

Not only does the Rotex have the ability to produce an extremely smooth finish with its random orbital setting, it can really get some work done with the geared orbital setting (or as rotex say the “Rotex rotary motion”).

This means the pad oscillates and it spins. Not only does it spin, it spins with force.

If I had to sand a floor by hand, this would be my tool of choice, without a doubt.

You can remove old varnish and wood quickly, sand right up to the edge of the floor (apart from the corners) and produce a very high quality finish.

However, I’m not sure if this can be rented and to buy it knew is $550-600 (then another $500-700 if you want a dust extractor).

 

Now a quick word on technique…

Hopefully you know by now, that as with all sanding machines, they should not sit still for two long!

That is, if you want to create a smooth flat finish. The less aggressive the tool the less important, but even with random orbitals and palm sanders moving it back and forward will be more effective than sitting it still. So there is no reason not to keep moving!

If you use anything finer than 40 grit to start you are not going to succeed. You need to use a coarse grit to remove varnish, dirt, scuffs, dents and scratches.

Then climb the grits as you would do sanding anything else. Skipping from 40g to 100g is going to give you a scratchy finish.

Make sure that the old varnish is properly removed. If you see a spot that looks like it could still have varnish on it, just lick your finger and rub it. The wood will soak and darken and the varnish won’t.

If your floor is very uneven, deeply dented or has several layers of hard polish, then I suggest refinishing your hardwood floors properly.

Other than that folks, sanding hardwood floors by hand is pretty simple.

If you are just about to start a project then I wish you good luck, it can be done and has been done many times by readers of this website.

As I often say, you will be refinishing your floor for a short period, but you will be seeing the results, every single day. Make it worth it!


Comments

  1. This is the right blog for anybody who wants to seek out about this sanding hardwood floors. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Hi Ben! I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this post – and the whole site! I bought a belt sander and got to it. You are with a doubt right – hiring a proper sander like I did last time was def the way forward in terms of making it happen fast with a good finish, but for me this way I could spread it over the month.

      The belt sander had some real grunt, and I used a small palm sander for the edges – I can not imagine trying to do the whole thing with the palm sander only! That would have really sucked!!!

      I really enjoyed your post on get a proffesional or DIY it yourself. That is GREAT advice. Getting a pro like yourself in would get a great finish, DIY you save money and have the satisfaction of doing it yourself though you sacrifice the finished quality of course… the inbetween is just the worst of both worlds!!! Great post.

      I never thought I would have a **favourite** sanding blogger – but now I do! Thanks for the advice, and I wish you all the best in your entreprenoureal ventures! I have just pinged you a thanks tweet 🙂

      1. What an awesome message, thank you very much! Glad I could help. I really think this post has been by best in terms of quality of content, im not much of a writer or content producer, so its good for me!

    2. I bought the Festool sander based on this article and it’s fantastic. I added a bump out to our master bedroom and continued the oak flooring into the 7’x14′ bump out area. I was hoping i could use a decent hand sander and do the job without all the hassle of rentals. Of course the rental cost for this one floor job is less than the price tag for the Festool but i needed a decent sander anyway and I already have many other sanding projects lined up. I can’t say how this approach would work for a warped floor but for something relatively flat and not so large it’s a great solution.

      Thanks for the post!!!!

  2. You left out using soap, water, and a smooth brick.

    I’m serious, an actual construction type brick.

    It’s based on the old maritime practice of holystoning the deck.

    Smooth brick starts about 80 grit, loaded up quickly to 120, more as you use it.

    Use the water sparingly ( I use a mix oil soap like Murphy’s, light, cut with a quarter cup white vinegar).

    Do a section at time, like 2×6′, rinse away with a wet, then damp mop then dry quickly.

    Bleach the water stains thoroughly after drying. A quick overall coat on the unstained helps even things out.

    Stain, seal.

    It sounds stupid but it works.

    Also helps work the core.

  3. My 6 finger parquet oak floors are from the 70’s. It’s in semi good condition but some of the corners are a little up, with lots of dark scratches in high traffic places. I have 300 sq ft to sand and stain. What can I use to sand off the glossy finish, without popping up the fingers??

  4. I’m currently in the process of doing this to several floors at our “new” home. These puppies haven’t been refinished since they were originally put in in 1924! I used a drum sander and 20 and 40 grit to get the majority of the old finish off. I then go over with a hand sander to get all the grooves and old finish that the drum sander missed. I also found that a heat gun and scraper help with the removal of the old crap around the edges that my drum sander misses. It is EXHAUSTING labor, but it is definitely worth it!! Wish we could post pics!! Great article!! I’ll be starting this process next week!!

  5. Hi and thank you for the helpful tips! I have sanded my red oak floors and stained already but much to my dismay, have an issue. The edger caused a real headache and left some marks. To fix, we got down on our hands and knees with the mouse. After staining, there is a definite line where our stain didn’t take as well (everywhere we used the mouse!) I have sanded these down again with 80 then 100 (no stain aside from the large pores that it soaked more deeply into) but they still won’t take stain well. Is it possible the mouse is burnishing the wood, and closing the pores?

    I’m about to rip my hair out (or the floor!)

    1. When I was a sanding pro, we would sand and edge to 120 for a stain grade floor. Then we would hand sand the butt ends of the floor to blend the edged area into the main field. After that, rotary buff with a 120 screen. Even then, it takes experience and skill to apply darker stains so it looks good, especially on a large area. This is a tough DYI, so don’t beat yourself up.

      Finally, when the client would ask about a defect, we would say, “That’s the natural beauty of the wood, Ma’am.”

      1. Sounds like you did a good job Jon! Almost perfect protocol for dark stains. As you probably know, water popping the floor and allowing it to dry helps to blend the various scratch patterns. Thanks again for your input Jon

  6. Hi. I’m sanding & finishing a new spruce floor by hand in a 120 sq ft guest house (the whole thing is made of spruce). What grit progression would you suggest on this soft wood? Which sander?

    1. same as always, 36 or 40 then 50 or 60, then 80 and/or 100. If you are doing it with a festool Rotex, I would just do 40 and 80.

  7. Hi

    I’ve bought some reclaimed wooden floor tiles and am not sure where I should sand and paint them before I lay them or lay first and hire a floor sander. Sorry I’m a complete novice. Thanks lynette

  8. I’m about to start sanding our study floor. The boards run across the short width of the room (only 1.8m) and I’m worried a floor sander is going to be too big to do such a small distance. The whole room is only 1.8m x 3m, should I use an edge sander for the whole thing instead?

  9. Thanks for all your tips Ben! I purchased you e-book. It is super thorough! I will be purchasing Festool 150 Rotex as you have recommended for hand sanding. I have multiple rooms to do, but I won’t be able to use vacation time to work, so I will have to work on the floors on weekends. I’m not rushing to do them either, so a renting machines would equal over $1k. I figure if I spend $1k I might as well buy the Rotex and dust collector. They look like they will last a lifetime for future projects.

    My question to you is what would be the proper grit progression? On here you say at minimum 40 to start. After that what is the progression? What grit would I switch from course sanding(aggressive) to fine sanding mode on the Rotex?

    Thanks for sharing all your knowledge!

    Ps I messaged you on your Facebook page. It doesn’t look active anymore.

    1. Hello Zein, I do respond to my facebook page but unfortunately its not very good at notifying me that I have had a message.

      With the rotex I would do 40, 60, 80. Actually… If it was literally me, i would do 40 to 80, but i know what I am looking for in terms of the finish. If I wanted to stain the floor I would do 40 60 100

      Rotex’s are virtually indestructable. I have been using mine daily for 5 years without fault and that just baffles me!

  10. I’m sanding my oak hardwood floors by hand with no sanding mechine how would you suggest going about doing this? And what grit suggestion process would you use? Thanks I rade your article and learned something things not to do.!!!

  11. Hi Ben, I want to use a palm sander to do my oak floors. There isn’t much vanish on them but there are areas with paint on it (house flippers we bought it from painted the house with out protecting the floor and then put carpet down). Should I still start with 40 grit?

    1. absolutely, I wouldn’t dream of starting any higher than 40 with a palm sander, unless you love arm-numbing back breaking work!

  12. Thank you for a great site!
    I will be sandning down a 3-4mm oak floor to get rid off varnish and color. The floor is otherwish in god condition. I am buying a belt sander. I figure I should get a fairly wide (4 inch) and powerful (940W, belt speed 380meters/minut) sander (Maktec MT941). Does it have to have a variable belt speed?

    Regards
    Simon Lundberg
    Sweden

  13. Hi ,

    I’ve a really silly question for you, please excuse my ignorance as i’ve no clue about DIY, Flooring etc.
    Just bought a 1950s property covered in carpet, we had planned to put in laminate floors as we are on a budget but upon removing the carpet we found some beautiful hardwood underneath!
    Im looking to stain and seal (is this the correct terminology im not sure) these floors. They appear to be unfinished – ie: it doesnt look like there is any varnish etc on them – Do they still need to be sanded down with a belt sander or could i get away with hand sanding (like with sand paper) around the edges where there was wood installed to hold down the carpet?
    Excellent site by the way, some great information!

    1. its tough to say without seeing the floor. It definitely does need some sanding just to ensure you have a clean, virgin surface. if its in that good of a condition then maybe you could get away with a palm sander or a big orbital/multi head sander

  14. Hi Ben, thanks so much for replying to everyone’s posts! I’ve got a question about sunlight discoloration on an ash hardwood floor. We just bought a house and it’s got 20 year old pre-finished ash hardwood in it (about 1400 sq ft of it!). Everywhere that there was an area rug is the original beautiful ash colour and everywhere else is a terrible yellow. I’m going to sand and refinish and am wondering what kind of finish you would recommend for preventing the yellowing to happen again? Or is yellowing inevitable? Thanks!

    1. Unfortunately, it is inevitable. Use waterbased lacquer with a waterbased primer to try and limit it as much as possible. The waterbased finishes dont discolor, its just he wood surface itself that discolors (infact it discolors about 0.5mm deep!)

  15. I found that I could not lift a floor sander up my stairs -100 lb- had no one to help, and bc it was only one room, no refinisher would take the job.

    I ended up w a heavy edging tool rental and it sucked so badly I did this search n saw your blog. I’ll try the belt sander for the 60 g and up.

    Thank you.

  16. Interesting that our 1926 house has maple flooring in all the rooms, except the living and dining room. We ripped up carpet years ago with the thought of refinishing the floors. Of course, 4 kids later, we never had the money to do it. The finish has been “worn” off. Not much left, just a natural patina. I would like to lightly sand, and use a hardening oil and buff. I just like the feel of natural wood over poly. It just seems poly scratches too easily with pets and ends up looking bad and makes repairs almost impossible. Do you know the best brand of oil to use on the floors? How do we transition from the oak to maple? There is a crosswise divider between the oak & the maple from the living/dining areas to the foyer. Any advise is greatly appreciated.

    1. Im not sure about the lacing in. As for the oil, I’d recommend Pallmann Magic Oil. It’s very hard wearing yet a very pure natural finish.

  17. I am a n elderly lady who knows how to do hard work, but how much time will it take to. Repair ( dog pee ) 9×12 floor and then sand the floor by hand? Is this something I can do in a week or so?

  18. The problem with renting a floor sander, or even hiring a “pro,” is lead dust. I just returned a rented samder to the store because I tested it with a lead swipe (available at hardware stores) and found it to be contaminated with lead. All ot takes is one schmo using the tool to sand a floor with lead paint to contaminate the tool. Contrary to what some say, lead dust is not easy to remove, especially from rough areas like a wood floor. HEPA vacs don’t work. Testing will show this.

    If you’re concerned about lead poisoning, as you should be, you will never rent a tool that people will use to sand lead paint.

    1. Lead is a cumulative toxin, it is true. But you need continuous sustained exposure for it to be a problem. They know lead is excreted through sweat now. If the remaining lead on a sander, left by the previous owner, while wearing a dust mask, is an issue then I should be double dead right now.

  19. Hi,
    Thanks for a great website and recommendations of sanders. Everyone works at different pace but this is a time question for you! I’m a first time sander but otherwise fairly handy. The project is to sand and stain 420 Sq feet of hardwood oak floor with 15+ corners running continuous from the entry hall to kitchen and dining room. Floor is 12 years old and has plenty of smaller scratches and some dents in the kitchen area. I (think) will be using the Festool with your recommendation for 3 sandings at 40, 60 and 100 grit. Use the Delta sander for the corners.
    How long do you think it will take me to sand?
    Thank you!

    1. probably a week. if its only 12 years old it should be in fairly good condition. Maybe rent a rotary sander (multi disk) just to make your life easier

  20. Thank you a million, Been, for posting this info. I was about to sell my palm sander because I never use it… That said, we tore up 3 layers of flooring in our kitchen to find depression-era hardwood floors my wife wants to keep. The wood is very thin as it was back in that day, maybe 3/8″ only, but the tongue and groove are still below the surface. There’s some cupping, but happy wife, happy life, so here I go… Do you have specific suggestions for sanding something so thin? Thanks in advance!

  21. Hello Ben,

    I totally loved this article. I am actually surprised that you didn’t include so many leading brands (JET &WEN) in this post. Again, it’s almost a year old content.

  22. I want to sand the floors in a rental house. The wood floors have been painted with 2-3 coats of porch paint. Would you still recommend the Festool Rotex or the belt sander?

  23. I have not tried it yet, but Bosch makes a 6″ sander that has a geared rotary setting for heavy material removal. This sander is $225 on Amazon. It may be a lower cost alternative to the the Festool.

    BYW, I used to be a pro floor sander. Now I am a general contractor.

  24. Hi Ben,
    Thanks for your article. I am one of those people who is going to try to hand-sand the floor of my 13′ x 14′ kitchen because I want to remove a beat-up polyurethane coating while keeping as much character as possible on my 140-year-old floors. The floor is a softwood (botanically speaking) with prominent grain variations and some knots; thanks to its age, it is pretty hard and has a tight grain. I don’t want to use a floor sander because some of the boards are ever so slightly cupped, and I don’t want to take off too much wood at the centers. Am I fooling myself by thinking I can evenly remove the finish and just a little bit of wood using a belt sander? Have you heard anything good or bad about the Porter Cable Restorer? I am thinking of replacing my current belt sander, which is about as old as the floors and does not have a dust port. Thanks!

    1. on a floor like yours, it is actually recommended to sand it like this, purely because getting the floor flat is far from the goal. The belt sander will be good for removing a lot of the more even areas but its not ideal for a floor like this, something like the festool would be really good. Any kind of palm/orbital sander that makes it easier to get into the dips

  25. I have a 170 sq ft loft with new Douglas Fir flooring. I also recently purchased a Festool Rotex sander. Since hauling a rental sander up the spiral staircase is out of the question, I’ll be using the Rotex. For the first pass, should I go diagonally? Rotary mode or orbital mode?

    1. I would use the rough rotary (geared) mode all the way through, with this machine you dont need to worry about going diagonally, just try to sand the floor evenly.

  26. Hi Ben
    I am going to attempt to redo my parquet oak floors. 3 bedrooms and a hallway. Do you think this procedure is realistic…

    Day1+2:
    Remove baseboard trim(label)
    Mop with wax penetrating detergent
    Using Random orbital floor sander and Random orbital finishing sander sand 36-60-80-100 (filler if needed after 36)
    Vacuum super clean
    Wipe with tack cloth
    Water pop (distilled water not tap)

    Day3:
    Stain with Dark Walnut(150 sq ft/ quart)
    Wipe on wipe off with rag

    Day4:
    Polyurethane 1st coat (using lambs wool applicator)
    Dry 3-4 hours
    Polyurethane 2cnd coat
    Dry 3-4 hours
    Polyurethane 3rd coat
    125 sq ft/quart tin clear satin

    12-18 hours for walking.
    72 hours for furniture

    Thanks

    1. all sounds good to me, I would forget the mopping with the penetrating detergent. I would try to use the same finish for the top coats, not specifically satin on the last coat. So 1 primer and 2 coats of satin poly. Make sure your poly and stain are compatible.

  27. Hello, Ben. Thank you for an informative and well-written blog sharing your expertise on hand-sanding hardwood flooring.

    I’ve searched, read articles, and watched a ton of videos on this subject, but haven’t found any that adequately address my situation. I’m moping that you might be able to comment and steer me in the right direction.

    My project at this point consists of installing new, unfinished red oak flooring on a stairway landing approximately 3-feet square. I intend to stain and protect it with a polyurethane product when finished.

    Obviously, the use of rented drum sanders and the expensive tool that you’ve introduced us to, is not appropriate for this small a job. So I’m left to wonder: How to I attack this?

    I have an assortment of conventional homeowner tools that you’ve mentioned: belt sander, palm sander, delta sander, B&D Mouse, etc. And I have a drywall hand-sanding screen-holder, that could easily accommodate a selection of grit paper.

    Since most of the articles I’ve looked at refer to sanding for a refinish, they talk about starting with a low-numbered grit and work up to a 100 – 120 to finish.

    What would I start with on newly-installed, unfinished wood? It seems that leveling and some surface smoothing is the primary objective. On a 9 sq ft area, how much sanding is going to be necessary? I was – perhaps naively – considering foregoing power tools entirely and trying my luck with a manual hand sander on this small area. Hopefully, I’m smart enough to recognize that I’m getting nowhere, in the event that I ——— get nowhere!

    I would greatly appreciate your weighing in with some sage advice on how you would tackle this, using the assortment of tools that I’ve mentioned. Or if it’s something I haven’t mentioned, I’d be open to hearing about that as well.

    Thanks again for sharing your time and experience with us here on the ‘net.

    1. To be honest this is a job that actually merits only using hand tools, it shouldnt take too long. Im often sanding small platforms in staircases like this. If it was me, I would sand it with an edger (so maybe just rent an edger if anything, wont cost a lot) then i would smooth it off with a palm sander or orbital sander.

      Maybe use the belt sander to flatten the floor then the palm sander to climb the grits and smooth off. So 60 on the belt, 60, 80, 100 on the palm sander.

    1. hey im open to suggestion, tough to imagine a more versatile and powerful hand sander than the festool Rotex RO 150

  28. Hi Ben We have stained pine floors around a lot of the house for the last 8 years with a medium oak stainand they are now faded a lot but have a finish on them. Apart from one small area they aren’t too scratched just pretty dull and looking like they need a tart up.

    I’ve done a full sand years ago and don’t really want to do this all again unless I absolutely have to.what are the options. ? Light sand and lacquer /
    Polish ? I assume we can’t stain on stain without a sand of some sort and darker colour?

    Would appreciate your advice,- great video BTW

  29. I am about to begin sanding a bedroom floor to see how it goes and then move on to the rest of the house, depending on how I do. My house was built in the 1970’s and the floors have lived their life. The floors have cracks between some of the boards. I am filling some of the wider cracks with a combination of Elmer’s glue and fine sawdust. Is this a good idea or should I do something else?
    Thank you for reading. I am a do-it-yourself type of person, but this is intimidating.

    1. After filling, you need to sand the filler, that has been applied to the surface, off. With normal glues it can make it difficult to sand off. This is why I usually recommend using products made for the job, you can find what products I recommend for this right here.

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