Large walk-behind floor sanders and a couple of coats of polyurethane have become the contemporary definition of floor refinishing. However, older floors, particularly those with significant wear, frequently require a more conservative approach, as the strip of wood forming the upper groove on tongue-and-groove boards often wears razor thin, and can be prone to breaking. Scraping floors as a means of finishing them is a gentler technique with a long history. And since it removes very little wood, scars from dragging furniture—aka patina—will be preserved.
Before You Start
Scrapers come in various shapes and sizes—most are the same as those used to scrape paint; versions with a knob (center) make it easier to apply pressure. When floors were first laid, cabinet scrapers (left), which have two handles and a tiny hook edge, were the scraper of choice. These are capable of very fine cutting over a variety of grain directional changes characteristic of parquet floors, producing a finer finish than sanding.
- Carbide-blade scrapers with handle
- Extra blades
- Random orbit sander
- Varnish or drying oil (linseed, tung)
- Lambswool applicator, brush, or roller
- Knee protection or pads
Hand-scraping is perfect for older shellac and worn varnishes, while some modern finishes are best attacked with solvent paint removers first to help loosen the finish and facilitate the process. Start by scraping the floor in line with the boards; never scrape across the grain. Work in a swath about 16″ wide (three or four boards), and move from wall to wall across the room. Then go back and scrape the next 16″ width, overlapping slightly on your previous work.
Continue in this manner until the entire floor has been scraped clear of finish. As you progress, you should see little fluffy piles of wood scrapings and finish building up. When the scraping seems to be getting more difficult, or the scraper is doing more sliding than scraping, it’s time for a blade change. Stop when the wood is bare and continued scraping doesn’t change its appearance.
When you have completed the scraping, most of the hard work is done. You can then go over the floor with a small handheld random orbit sander to remove stubborn bits of finish or de-emphasize scratches. You might also use a small sander attached to a HEPA vacuum to “even out” the entire floor. In this case, wear hearing protection and a particulate-filter mask to stay safe.
Two common finishes are varnishes and drying oils; both are durable. Varnishes are usually applied with a lambswool applicator (as here, on a broom handle) or a brush or roller. Wait 24 hours before applying the second finish coat, and apply on a nice day with windows open. Drying oils are also applied in two coats with 24 hours of drying time in between, followed by a liquid or paste wax, which is renewed periodically (as the floor starts to dull under use) to restore sheen and add a layer of protection.