Our New Old House

1918 Bungalow


Hardwood Floors: To Sand or Not to Sand?

A lot of deliberation went into my decision to sand the finish off the hardwood floors.

Once I got the carpet padding up, I got some help from a couple of experts in identifying what issues I’d have to consider. I knew that the floor had been refinished at least once and had been sanded very aggressively. When I removed the quarter-round trim from the baseboards I could see the original surface of the floor as it had been installed under the baseboard. There seemed to be a drastic difference between the original surface of the floor and the present surface. Whatever the actual measurement was, it made me worry that there would not be much left to sand before getting down to the tongue and groove between the boards.

I wasn’t able to get a very good picture illustrating this but if you look closely you can see a dark line just under the baseboard. That’s the original surface of the floor.

IMG_5818 Zoomed In

One expert took a razor blade and placed it between the boards at several points around the living room and dining room to see how far it would go in before hitting the tongue of the next board. In some places there was about a sixteenth of an inch, in some places more or less. It was very inconsistent. That led this expert to be very wary about the prospect of sanding the floor with a belt sander. He said that whoever sanded it so aggressively in the past probably did it to even out some “cupping” which means curving of the boards to make a wavy texture across the floor. They took off a lot of wood and didn’t leave us much to work with. He suggested removing the varnish using chemicals and only doing a light sanding before staining. He gave me a bid on what he would charge to do the chemical stripping and refinishing. I don’t remember how much the bid was but it was quite a bit more than I was hoping to pay, since it’s a very labor intensive process.

Since I have the skill to do it myself I thought about how long it might take me to do that but since I am only working on these things after my day job I decided I wouldn’t have the time to get the whole thing done if I did it myself.

Next I spoke to someone who is an expert at running a belt sander. I wanted to know how much the belt sander actually takes off if the floor doesn’t need leveling or anything. I hoped that just sanding enough to take the finish off and prepare it for staining would be possible with the amount of wood we had to work with. He took a look at the floor with me and assured me that with the right grade of sandpaper we could do what we needed in just two passes. One to take the finish off and one to smooth it for the stain. It would require a bit more detailed sanding by hand using a handheld orbital sander to get into areas that had cupped, but since cupping wasn’t a big problem, that wasn’t too daunting.

I rented the belt sander from Des Moines Rental and it came with an edge sander. They sold me a bunch of belts and pads for both sanders and promised to buy back whatever I didn’t use.

Over the next two days, our expert, Brian Smith, ran the belt sander while K.O. and I ran the edger and a handheld orbital sander. We did one pass with 80 grit sandpaper to get the finish off and then one pass with 100 grit sandpaper to prepare the floor for stain and sealant.





Because Brian went so easy with the belt sander, there were lots of spots where the floor had cupped a little where I needed to use the handheld orbital sander to get the rest of the varnish off. I did that detail work while K.O. did the edges and the corners and in three days or so we had the whole floor sanded and ready to be cleaned and stained.

Next post: “Andronicus, stain not thy floors with blood.”

The Last of the Carpet Pad from Hell

Remember the carpet pad that I painstakingly rehydrated and scraped up so we could preserve the floor underneath? It looked like this:


The reason I took such great care in removing the carpet pad but not removing the finish underneath was that I didn’t know when I’d be able to refinish the floors. Removing the finish would have left the wood vulnerable to stains and wear. I wanted it to be protected in the meantime.

I got nearly all of it done and then decided to buy an area rug. It looked like this:


But I knew the time would come when I’d have to finish the job. This time, however, I’d have a plan for refinishing the whole floor, so my methods in getting the last of the carpet pad up could be more aggressive.

Here’s what I had left to finish under the area rug:


I started back in with the rehydrating technique I’d used before (see “Carpet Padding Monster Meet Thy Doom” for more details) but since this was a high traffic area, the carpet pad was especially resistant.

I decided to bring in the big guns so I used Zinsser StripFast Power Stripper, a caustic 5-layer chemical gel that required adequate ventilation. Even that took multiple applications. Here’s how it looked as I removed the first layer:


Note the nitrile gloves. This type of chemical stripper gives serious burns very quickly. Do not try using it with regular latex gloves. Go for the heavy duty chemical resistant gloves with long cuffs. I got one or two tiny splatters on my skin above the cuffs and they started to burn instantly. Fortunately, it’s soap and water washable, so a quick dash to the bathroom sink and I avoided any real injury.

Once I got most of the carpet pad off with the chemical stripper, there was still some residue left behind.


I learned from past experience that the rubber content in the carpet pad would gum up sandpaper really quickly, so I used a heat gun to take up the last of the residue and the varnish underneath.


Once the last of the carpet pad was up, it looked like this:


Now I was ready to sand off the rest of the finish and apply stain and sealant.

But first, a little victory dance.

Kelli: 1, Carpet Pad: 0

Continued Window Progress: Nearly Done!

At the time of my last post the remaining windows in the house looked like this:




While I had a great experience learning how to refinish and reglaze the window sashes myself, I decided in the interest of time that hiring someone to do the sashes while I refinished the frames would be best.

I found a local contractor who was willing to work on the sashes while I prepped the frames. When we got the sashes back from him, K.O. and I took turns cutting slots into the sides of each sash so they could run on the metal weatherstripping rails we’d be installing in the frames.



We used heavy duty chemical stripper to remove the paint from inside the frames. Though we didn’t test it, we were fairly certain that several layers of the old paint contained lead so we worked with gel chemicals and mineral spirits to keep as much of the paint contained as possible. Once we had the wood as clean as possible, we sanded the insides of the frames to restore the beauty of the natural wood grain and prep it for sealant.


We sanded for a long time and grew very attached to our safety goggles and face masks. We loved wearing them. We never wanted to take them off. Can’t you just see the love in my eyes for these oh so fashionable accessories?


In between what seemed like endless days of sanding, we measured the frames, ordered the metal runners from Dorbin in Chicago, and did the necessary prep work so they’d fit around the weight pulleys. For that I used a pair of tin snips. Tin snips seem to come in one size. One size does not fit all. Maybe someday they’ll make tin snips in my size.


There were some hard to reach areas where the chemical stripping gel just didn’t get the job done.


For those areas I used my Dremel tool.


Here’s one of the areas around the pulleys in progress.


I needed to replace about half of the weight ropes. Once I did that we were ready to install our newly refinished sashes. Here’s one of the dining room windows going in.


At the time of this post we’re still waiting for the stops to come back from being dunk stripped and we need to install the locks and lifts. The facing parts of the trim still need to be sanded, stained, and sealed. But in the meantime, the sashes work, they are beautiful, and they are amazingly airtight and rattle free. Here are a few of our nearly completely rehabbed windows:




Meet Our New Old House’s Newest Caretaker


I am happy to welcome K.O. Myers to the illustrious crew of people who love, care for, and swear at Our New Old House.

K.O. is a recent transplant to Des Moines, having arrived via Philadelphia and points east. His appreciation for Des Moines and the people he’s met here have inspired him to put down some Midwestern roots, and 1622 York St. is just the place to do that.

A judicial policy analyst by day, by night K.O. produces and edits podcasts for Suburban Panic Media, where he also has a blog.

With no more than a basic background in DIY home maintenance, K.O. stepped up with bold enthusiasm to learn new skills in historic window repair and wood floor refinishing. With his help, Our New Old House has never looked better.

You’ll be seeing more of him as we wrap up the story of the windows, the floors, and a few other things.

Turning a Corner

The walls on Our New Old House separated when the house settled. When we removed the wallpaper cracks as wide as an inch were revealed where the corners should have been.


As I dug out the cracks to clean them up for repair, I found evidence of some previous repairs. Shreds of clothing had been wadded into the cracks to fill in some of the space.



I repaired the cracks by filling them in, shaping the corners with some mesh tape, and smoothing them out with a corner trowel.


I’m letting that plaster set and then it’ll be ready for sanding and priming. It’s quite satisfying putting a room back together that had fallen apart at the seams.