How to Stain a Hardwood Floor in 5 Steps

How to Stain a Hardwood Floor in 5 Steps

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My passion for DIY home projects has greatly increased, due to the availability of home improvement instructions online. While researching information for how to stain a hardwood floor, I came across many different articles, with different pieces of advice. However, no one website had a full list of instructions for how to stain hardwood, and the processes you must undergo before staining. So, I’ve decided to compile everything into this one article, so anybody else undertaking this task will have a complete list of instructions on carpet removal, sanding & staining a hardwood floor.

We recently moved into a house that was built in 1952. The previous owner had covered up the beautiful hardwood floors with teal green carpeting. It was beginning to show signs of wear and tear, and despite our best cleaning efforts, it had mangy dirty spots from too much traffic. Having no experience with this type of flooring, we were a bit leery of how complicated it would be to strip and stain the hardwood flooring. Much to my delight, it was even easier than I expected. By professional standards, I’m not sure how we did. But, we are extremely happy with the results and love our new flooring. Here are the steps we took to transform the base of our living room from a filthy carpeted mess to glistening, shiny hardwood!

Step 1. Remove Carpeting

If you live in an older house that has carpeting over the hardwood floor, you will of course need to remove the carpeting first. Removing the carpeting & padding is easy – it pulls right up and off the tack strips. You can pull up a few feet at a time, and slice off chunks with a carpet cutter, then haul each roll outside. We were amazed at the amount of dirt & sand that had accumulated under the carpeting. Gross!

Removing the tack strips and carpet staples can be a bit time consuming. You will need a skinny pry bar, a hammer and a flat head screwdriver. The carpet staples can easily be pried up with the flathead screwdriver (don’t worry too much about scratching up the floor, because sanding will remove damage). Click here to see a video on how to remove the tack strips with the pry bar. Once the tack strips and staples are removed, you’re ready to begin the process of staining your hardwood floors.

Step 2. Sand the Floor

Time to Complete: 3 Hours for 90 Sq Feet

Equipment needed: Sander / Paper / Respirator Mask / Large Plastic Drop Cloth

Before you begin, you may want to hang a plastic drop cloth across any adjacent door jams to prevent dust from entering other rooms. Also, cover any items on shelving that you don’t want getting dusty.

You can rent an industrial sized sander from most home maintenance stores. We got this Square Industrial Sander from Home Depot for a $65 rental fee for 24 hours. I would definitely suggest using a mid-sized square sander, rather than a full sized round sander. Square ones allow you to get closer to the wall, and are very easy to control.

Don’t be intimidated by the tool rental department! I’m a little 5’3 girl who is barely strong enough to open her own Gatorade bottle – yet I had no problems using the sander. Rental counter agents usually provide great service, and are more than happy to show you how to use the tools. In this case, no more than a minute of instruction was needed. However, these sanders normally have a double safety feature to prevent accidental operation, so be sure to ask the rental department how to start the unit.

Applying the sandpaper to the sander is extremely easy. The rental shop will give you a 2” thick pad that adheres to the spikes on the bottom of the sander. They will then sell you the correct size sand paper, which will have an adhesive backing. Just remove the adhesive & stick it onto the pad. For a 100 square foot area, you will need approximately 4 sheets of sand paper.

Selecting Sand Paper Grit:

If you have brand new bare wood (without any previous layers of top coat or varnish), you will only need to do a light sanding job with 120 grit sand paper.

If your floors have several layers of old, thick varnish, use 40 grit sand paper to quickly strip it away. In our case, the floor appeared to have a couple of coats, plus a top coat. We opted for 60 grit paper. One square of paper stripped away about 25 square feet before we needed to change it out.

In our case, the 60 grit gave a very nice & even texture to the wood. It was a month after I’d finished the project when I learned that you should technically go over it again, using 120 grit paper, for the most even finish. We got lucky, because even though we skipped this step, the floors turned out beautifully!

Types of Sandpaper Grit & Their Uses

40 Grit (Extra Coarse)60 Grit (Coarse)80 Grit (Medium)120 Grit (Fine)

Strips Hardened Top Coats

Evens Texture of Wood

Strips 1 - 2 Layers of Varnish

Removes Slight Flaws

Strips Heavily Layered Varnish

Strips 2-3 Layers of Varnish

Removes Scratches from Wood

Provides Perfectly Even Finish

How to Sand the Hardwood Floor

Before you begin sanding, apply a respirator mask. The sander we rented didn’t kick up a great deal of dust, but I have sensitive lungs and was very happy to have the mask. Sand the floor in sections, using slow, back-and-forth motions (do not go in circles) until the old varnish is removed and you can see bare wood. After this process has been completed for the entire floor, sweep up all the dust. Next, go over the hardwood using the 120 grit sand paper, using the same method, until the wood feels soft & uniform in texture.

If you are unable to get into the nooks & crannies of the room using the big industrial sander, you may need to buy a small hand sander to remove varnish along baseboards and in corners. We already had a Makita Hand Sander at home, but you can purchase a decent one for around $50 at home improvement stores, if needed.

Step 3. Sweep, Vacuum & Wash

Use a broom & dustpan to sweep away the top layer of dust left behind after sanding. Next, go over the floor using a vacuum, to remove any excess. Finally, wash the floor using a *damp mop to get rid of all traces of dust.

DO NOT apply cleaning products or soaps to the floor at this time! They contain chemicals which can interfere with varnish application in the next step. Just use plain old water.

*IMPORTANT: Applying water directly to bare wood (which is very porous) can cause water damage and eventual expansion of the wood. Take care to ring out the mop thoroughly before using. It only needs to be slightly damp to pick up the dust. You will be amazed at how much dust it picks up! Changing the water 5 or 6 times for a 100 square foot area is recommended. Allow the floor to dry for at least 1 hour. We let it dry overnight before proceeding to the next step.

Step 4. Apply Stain to the Hardwood

Now that you’ve got the wood stripped down to its natural state, you need to top it with a stain or sealant. You don’t need to use a colored stain, but most people prefer to, as it enhances the natural color of the wood.

In our particular case, the type of wood was either Natural Rustic Oak or Pine (am not sure which). We wanted the beauty of the wood to show through – so we opted for a lighter stain with reddish undertones. We weren’t too concerned about imperfections on each individual piece of wood, as the slight variations give your flooring its “personality”. However, if you’re more interested in a completely uniform look, and covering up the natural color of your wood, opt for a darker color with more saturation.

We purchased Dura Seal Penatrating Finish Stain for Hardwood Floors in #110 Neutral Semi-Gloss. Our original choice was going to be #145 Golden Pecan, bur the hardware store was sold out. In hindsight, I’m glad, because I think Golden Pecan would have been a bit too dark. My suggestion would be to go 1 color lighter than you think you want (unless you are staining a very dark wood). The color goes on with more pigment than you would think, so take a close look at swatches while you’re in the store.

How to Apply Stain to Hardwood Flooring

First, open all windows & doors so you have good ventilation. Next, apply the disposable plastic gloves. Getting stain on your hands is sticky & time consuming to remove. Shake the Dura Seal thoroughly & fill the paint tray about ¼ of the way full with stain.

You will need lamb's wool / lamb skin applicator to apply the stain. I purchased it from Lowe’s for around $15, but neglected to buy an extension pole. We had a pole at home, but it didn’t fit. As a result, I had to crawl around the floor holding the applicator by hand. This probably gave me a bit more control than I would’ve had with the extender pole, and it wasn’t overly labor intensive. But if you decide to go this route, I would highly suggest using knee pads!

Dab the applicator into the stain, and press it against the empty, ribbed end of the paint tray to remove excess. These applicators are thick and absorb a TON of stain, so just lightly dab the first ½ inch of the applicator into the stain. Working in 3x3 foot sections, apply the stain to the wood in one fluid motion, going with the grain of the wood. Place the applicator at the top of the 3 foot square and drag it back toward yourself, while slightly pressing down. Repeat for the entire 3x3 square.

DO NOT rub the stain into place, go back and forth over the same spot more than 4 times, or go in circular motions. This will result in uneven coloring, and can cause small bubbles to appear.

IMPORTANT!! Within 5 minutes of completing the first few 3-foot sections, wipe away excess stain with a lint-free towel. This is very important! I originally skipped this step, because it really didn’t look like it was needed. Well, what happened was the stain started to soak unevenly into the wood & it was looking blotchy. Some areas looked glossy, and others looked dull. Wiping up the top layer with a towel removes any pooling of the stain, and gives you a much more even finish. If you make this same mistake & neglect to use the towel, you can do some damage control when you apply the second coat. After applying the second layer of stain, go over it with the towel. It will even-up any mistakes from your first coat.

Allow the first coat to dry for 4 hours before applying the second coat. While applying the second coat, you can lightly go over it with the lint-free towel again, after applying each section. Allow to dry overnight before proceeding to step 5.

Step 5: Apply Clear Top Coat

We used Dura Seal Polyurethane Gloss for the top coat. This is a clear layer that will protect your hardwood floors & give them added shine. You apply it using the exact same method you used for the stain, using a new lambswool applicator. However DO NOT go over this layer with the towel. Doing so is unnecessary & will ruin the gloss effect, giving you very dull results. You can do 1 or 2 coats, but if you decide to do 2, you must wait 12 hours after the initial application.

Polyurethane Gloss is stinky! Make sure the room is well ventilated before you begin & close the heater vents to all other rooms in the house to prevent transfer of vapors. I would suggest keeping family members & pets out of the area (or out of the entire house if possible) for 12-24 hours after application. We just got a hotel room for the night & took the cat with us. We have a bunny who couldn’t come along, so we put her in a far bedroom and stuffed a towel under the door. When returned, that room had no odor from the gloss.

Final Results of Hardwood Floor Stain

And finally, here's a before & after picture of how the new hardwood floor looked, after 2 coats of stain and 1 top coat. Apologies for the bad lighting in the “after” picture. We of course could not put the stand-up lights back in the room until everything dried – so this was au natural lighting when it was dusk outside. It is not quite as dark as it appears & we absolutely love the results.Can't wait to do the same for our hallway & family room! Don't let anyone deter you from undertaking this project. It is fun, rewarding, and really not difficult at all!

Brands of Stain for Hardwood Floors

A quick note on selecting the brand of hardwood stain...I would highly suggest the Dura Seal brand. Before the hardwood flooring project, we stained the wooden fireplace mantle. We used Minwax Wood Finish in Sedona Red, and it was horrendous! It stunk so bad (just after staining 2 shelves) that we had to evacuate the house for a whole day. It refused to dry completely for 3 days, and it did not provide an evenly glossed finish. The strange part is, Dura Seal is also from the Minwax brand. But Dura Seal is much more user friendly (albeit harder to find at stores). The color of the Minwax Finish was pretty, but keep in mind that it is VERY pigmented! Had we applied this to a light colored wood, the color would have been incredibly strong. I couldn’t be more thankful that we went with Dura Seal over the Minwax Wood Finish. Both are oil based stains, which is your best bet for a hardwood floor.

Time Invested, Equipment Needed & Project Cost

We completed the project over a span of 2 weeks. With hectic work schedules, we had to do this a little at a time. But here is an overview of how long everything took & how much it cost.

Total Time Invested:

  • 1 hour for carpet removal
  • 4 hours for staple & tack strip removal
  • 4 hours for sanding & cleaning
  • 3 hours for staining – two coats
  • 1 hour for application of top coat
  • 24 hours for top coat to dry & ventilate

Equipment Needed:

  • Carpet Cutter $20
  • Pry Bar $10
  • Hammer $5
  • Flat Head Screwdriver $5
  • Broom & Dust Pan $5
  • Mop & Bucket + Water $15
  • Industrial Sander Rental $65
  • Sand Paper $20
  • Lambswool Applicators x 2 $16
  • Disposable Plastic Gloves $5
  • Hardwood Floor Stain $35
  • Polyurethane Top Coat $35
  • Paint Tray $5
  • Drop Cloth $5
  • Knee Pads $10
  • Lint Free Towels $5

Total Cost of Project: $261

Would You Take On This Hardwood Floor Project?

© 2014 Ashley Bergin

Michael on April 05, 2020:

Thanks for the breakdown of the cost and equipment required for such a project it's very enlightening and helpful.

Edward Morrison from Califonia on August 20, 2018:

What stain or sealer do I use to refinish hardwood floors?

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 04, 2018:

I need to either do this or hire someone to do it. I’m impressed with the job you did. Love the results and the photo of your cat relaxing in the hotel room.

Ashley Bergin (author) from san francisco on April 09, 2018:

@ Julia

Thanks for reading! The area was approximately 35 feet long x 12 feet wide (so around 420 square feet were stained in the 3 hours).

I saw in your other message you were also wondering about pet stains… We didn’t have any in this portion, BUT when we pulled up hallway carpeting a few months later, we discovered a few black spots that were suspected pet urine stains. I had some gel bleach on hand, called Cloralen. I applied it to the spots and let it sit over night, then when I rinsed it away and re-sanded using the Makita Hand Sander, the spots disappeared. Hopefully this works for you! I’ve also heard that using white vinegar or high strength hydrogen peroxide works, however I haven’t tried those options. Best of luck on your project :)

Julia on April 07, 2018:

How many SF did you stain per hour? Or in your 3 hours?

Ashley Bergin (author) from san francisco on February 16, 2018:

Thank you for the info! The only masks I found were those to filters out dust (during sanding)... for future projects I will definitely seek out one that can block vapors.

Ashley Bergin (author) from san francisco on February 16, 2018:

Great point! I did notice bubbles, and let the tray sit for about 10 minutes until they dissipated. The can had such a small opening that it couldn't fit a stir stick - but I probably should've transferred it to a different container & then stirred. Thanks for reading & commenting! :)

Once Is Happenstance on February 15, 2018:

Regarding your comments about the odor levels of stain: stain releases extremely dangerous vapors, known as VOC. It is imperative to use a face mask that can filter out organic vapors (‘bout $30 at home supply stores). That’s why you were feeling ill while using the stain. Just want all your readers to be safe! Even low VOC stain is dangerous for projects as large as a floor.

Jack LeLane on February 06, 2018:

Great article, thanks for the information. One edit I would make is:

"Shake the Dura Seal thoroughly & fill the paint tray about ¼ of the way full with stain."

Definitely don't want to shake a can of stain, it introduces air bubbles into it, you're supposed to stir it always.

Judy on October 20, 2017:

Loved your straight forward easy to understand approach. Now looking forward to my own project with a supply list and costs in hand thanks to your great article.

Randi on August 21, 2017:

Where do you buy the dura seal stain? And top clear coat?

[email protected]

K345 on June 27, 2017:

Great step-by-step. There are many articles on this and a variety of materials, approaches.

Random thoughts:

Looks like oak. Not sure about cleaning with water after sanding, maybe use a cloth with mineral spirits after vacuuming well. (Set that cloth opened outside to dry when finished.) Water raises the grain. Also, maybe satin or semi-gloss finish to show fewer marks. The stain blotchiness dissipates as it dries, keep the coats thin and wipe away excess. I use natural finish that has a little color but not much. The poly will give the wood warmth by itself and it does change over time. Stir and pour the polyurethane gently to avoid bubbles. And yeah sand lightly between coats of poly. Should do three coats of poly. Fan in window facing out to exhaust. And hey, don't worry if you have imperfections because you'll do it again in 10 years or less in high traffic areas, though it's quicker with less sanding ;)

Diane Thomas on February 24, 2017:

I have done hardwood floors before. I didn't know some of the steps that were used here but I will use them next time

Howard Mcfarland on February 17, 2017:

[email protected] If we want to go a second or even third coat of poly should we lightly sand after the previous coat?

Watch the video: Richard applying Dark Walnut Stain over Red Oak Flooring (August 2022).