High-traffic hardwood floors need special treatment. Common varieties of floor finish that work on regular hardwood just won’t hold up under the extra wear-and-tear. High-traffic areas require finishes that are more durable than low-traffic areas. At the same time, you don’t want to break your bank account preserving them!
On this page we discuss the optimal choice for a high-traffic hardwood floor finish that is both durable and affordable. We also explain how to go about finishing that floor yourself, if you choose to go the do-it-yourself route.
The Best Finishes for High-Traffic Floors
The best (meaning the most durable for a reasonable price) variety of floor finish for high-traffic areas is oil-based polyurethane. This product is made of linseed oil with synthetic resins and plasticizers. Builders often use it in commercial buildings because of its durability, but its affordability also makes it a popular choice for residential properties.
Visually, oil-based polyurethanes offer a nice, warm glow. They yellow over time, which some people find appealing because of the resulting amber shine. They resist moisture well and are easy to maintain, requiring only occasional sweeping or vacuuming and maybe a damp sponge now and then to clean up dirt.
Some drawbacks of oil-based polyurethanes are that they take many hours to dry, they release a lot of volatile organic compounds (you should wear a respirator if you apply yourself), and they are flammable.
Of the oil-based polyurethanes, our top picks are:
- Dura Seal Polyurethane for Wood Floors
- Miniwax Super Fast Drying Polyurethane for Floors
- Varathane Oil-Based Floor Finish
Those three options of oil-based polyurethane floor finish are among the most durable while also being affordable. Now, let’s discuss the process of finishing your hardwood floors yourself.
Preparing the Floor for Refinishing
To apply new floor finish to your hardwood floors, you’ll first need to clean and prepare them to be worked on. This work might seem complicated, but it can be broken down into a few simple stages.
- Pull up baseboards and molding so that you can get to the edges of the hardwood floors (and avoid staining those materials). A pry bar or putty knife will work well for this job. If there any nails sticking up out of the floor, beat them down with a hammer to keep the surface smooth.
- Use pieces of newspaper with masking take or plastic sheeting to cover the fixtures and other openings in the room, such as light switches, ventilation panels, and electric outlets. Hang plastic sheeting over open doorways and close the doors behind them.
- Clean the floor by first vacuuming and then wiping the surfaces down with tack cloth.
Sanding the Floor
Before you can apply new floor finish to your hardwood floors, you may need to sand them. This stage isn’t always necessary (see the “Screening the Floor” section below), which is why the first step in this process is determining the need for sanding.
- Newer floors might not require any sanding, but hardwood floors that are stained beneath the current finish and floors that have been treated with oils or waxed many times will likely require sanding. Floors that have deep scratches, gouges, or simply irregularities will need to be sanded.
- Acquire safety equipment, especially a respirator mask. Also, unless you happen to know someone who has the equipment, you’ll need to rent a drum sander from a hardware store and to buy a hand sander.
- With 60-grit sandpaper applied to your drum sander, start sanding at the center of the room. Do not start the sander while it’s set directly on the floor, but instead tilt it back a bit. Let the machine get up to full speed before setting it back easily onto the hardwood floors.
- Moving from end to end of your room, sand with the direction of the wood grain. Overlap each pass by about an inch.
- Use your hand sander to get at the corners and edges of the floor, which can’t be reached with the drum sander.
- When the sanding is complete, clean the floor again using your vacuum cleaner and tack cloth.
- Sand again, this time with 80-grit sandpaper.
- Sand again, this time with 100-grit sandpaper.
- Sand again (yes, again) with 120-grit sandpaper.
- Clean the floor again. This work can get tedious (which is why many people choose to hire a professional to do it) with all the sanding debris, but it’s essential that you have a nice, clean floor to refinish, lest you wind up with grainy irregularities.
Screening the Floor
Screening rids your floors of old layers of finish. It’s easier and faster than sanding but not nearly as thorough, and it won’t get rid of deep scratches or gouges.
- To begin screening your floor, you’ll need to acquire safety equipment (including a respirator). You’ll also need to get a floor polisher, a hand screen, and sanding screens.
- Lightly sand your sanding screen with 100-grit sandpaper to get rid of high spots that might create irregularities in your floor. Screening isn’t as intensive as a full sanding, but it can still cause damage.
- Apply a 60-grit sanded sandpaper screen to your floor polisher and run the machine over the floor.
- For edges and corners where the machine can’t reach, use a palm sander.
- Vacuum the floor and wipe it up with tack cloth.
- Screen again with 80-grint sandpaper.
- Screen yet again (is this starting to sound familiar?) with 100-grit sandpaper.
- For the grand finale, sand again with 120-grit.
- Now clean with vacuum and tack cloth.
As you can see, screening is a bit easier than sanding, but screening is by no means easy. Ultimately, the intensiveness of the labor for these preparation steps is why many people hire professional services to do it for them.
Finishing the Floors
Now that the sanding or screening are done, you can begin the actual finishing.
- In case you jumped to this section, we’ll start with this: make sure that your sanding or screening is done. Do not finish floors that haven’t been prepared with one of those methods. Read the Sanding the Floor and Screening the Floor sections above, if you haven’t done so already.
- Make sure the floor is nice and clean.
- Don your eye protection and respirator mask before getting into any of your chemicals.
- Use mineral spirits to clean the floor, then go over it again with a vacuum and tack cloth. You want the floor as clean as possible to avoid getting grains in your finish.
- Starting in the corner farthest from your exit door (don’t finish yourself into a corner), begin applying the finish. Reference “The Best Finishes for High Traffic Floors” section above for a list of the most durable and affordable options.
- For most of the open floor, use a wool applicator. For the corners and edges, use a painting pad or China-bristle brush. Angle your applications to the wood grain.
- Secure the room for a full 24 hours while the finish dries.
- Sand the coat down with 100-grit sandpaper or a pole sander, vacuum up the debris, and wipe down with tack cloth.
- Apply a second or third (your choice) coat, waiting 8 to 10 hours at least between each and sanding and cleaning as per step 8.
- After the final coat, wait at least 48 hours before walking over the floor. Wait at least four days before moving furniture back into the room.
Summary: Best Hardwood Floor Finish for High-Traffic Areas
On this page we explained that oil-based polyurethane is the most durable yet affordable choice for high-traffic floors, and we shared three top-quality products to choose from. We also explained how you can finish your floors yourself.
Many people find that hiring a professional service to finish their high-traffic floors is the best investment in the long run, eliminating stress and ensuring a good final product. If you choose to do-it-yourself, brave soul, then follow the steps listed above to get your high-traffic hardwood floors looking beautiful again.