How to Buffer a Hardwood Floor

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How to Buffer a Hardwood Floor

Buffing a hardwood floor is a great way to renew the appearance of a scratched, worn finish without incurring the expense and hassle of completely refinishing the floor. In fact, solid hardwood flooring is often made from expensive wood such as red oak, walnut, and maple. Maple, for example, can cost up to $14 per square foot. Buffing is the final step in any professional refinishing job, but it can also be done as a solitary process to restore the shine to a dull, lifeless hardwood floor. Also known as the "screen and recoat" method, buffing a hardwood floor will not remove deep scratches and heavy damage. However, it will remove the majority of surface scratches and will help protect a floor, thus delaying the need to fully refinish or replace the floor. Learn some of the benefits and reasons for buffing a hardwood floor before deciding to take on the project. Additionally, learn which types of finishes can be buffed and which ones do not respond well to the process. An understanding of the basic equipment needed and the steps involved in the process will also help consumers make an informed choice before they set out to bring new life to a dull, faded finish on hardwood floors.

The Hows and Whys of Buffing a Hardwood Floor

Buffing or screening a hardwood floor is similar to refinishing wood trim on a house. Buffing involves lightly sanding the old finish and then applying a new layer of finish. Buffing will not remove the stain or color from a hardwood floor. Instead, it simply removes the top layers of protective coating. There are several reasons to consider buffing a floor that is beginning to show wear and tear over refinishing it. The process itself is fairly simple, and the equipment needed to tackle the job is readily available.

When to Buff, When to Refinish

The condition of the old finish will determine whether the floor should be refinished or if buffing will give satisfactory results. A floor that shows discoloration or is chipped or peeling in areas should be sanded and completely refinished. A finish that has become dull due mostly to surface scratches and everyday wear should respond well to buffing and recoating. Typically, a buffing job can be completed in a day, depending on the size of the floor and the amount of prep work necessary.

Benefits of Buffing a Hardwood Floor

Buffing a hardwood floor is a fast, easy way to remove scratches caused by shoes, furniture, and even animals. Over time, everyday wear-and-tear causes hardwood floors to lose their shine. Replacing hardwood floors is an extensive and costly process, and many times, it can be avoided by refinishing the floors. However, many homeowners can even avoid the hassle and expense of refinishing if they take the time to learn how to properly buff and recoat their hardwood floors instead. When done correctly, buffing can make floors look as good as they would with a complete refinishing job, adding both value and beauty to the home.  Buffing also keeps the floor in better condition, allowing for future buffing jobs and subsequently delaying the need for a complete refinishing job.

Equipment Needed When Buffing a Hardwood Floor

Buffing a hardwood floor requires a minimal amount of equipment. To begin with, standard cleaning supplies such as a vacuum, mop, and broom will be needed, as well as an appropriate cleaning solution for removal of any dirt or other surface coatings. It is also necessary to remove any oil- or wax-based coatings before beginning the process, in which case odorless mineral spirits can be used. The other necessary items for any buffing job include a floor buffer, the screen and red or white driving pad to go with it, the correct type of floor finish (selected according to the type of finish currently on the floor), and an applicator. The majority of hardware stores, home improvement stores, and equipment rental shops carry all the supplies needed. Consumers can also purchase them through online retailers and Internet marketplaces such as eBay.

The Buffer

Floor buffers are specialized machines designed for buffing hardwood floors. There are high-speed and low-speed buffers. One popular brand of hardwood floor buffer is Koblenz. The high-speed models are sometimes called "floor burnishers" and are the ones designed for actual buffing and polishing, while the low-speed models merely offer extra power for normal cleaning jobs. High-speed buffers are available with electric or battery-powered motors. A few models are powered by propane, but these must be used in well-ventilated areas due to exhaust build-up. Although it is certainly possible to purchase any of these models, it is more feasible to rent one since they are only used once every few years and are quite costly. A one- or two-day rental should be enough to get the job done, since the process does not take too long.

The Screen and Buffing Pad

Along with the buffer, it is necessary to purchase the right screens or buffing pads. Floor buffing pads are like sandpaper, and they all have abrasives. Medium 100-grit sanding pads removes most surface scratches, and a fine 120 grit or 150 grit pad prepares the floor for the application of the finish. Depending on the condition of the floor, various sizes are required, and the different sizes are distinguished by having different colors. Several options in polishing pads are available. Black, purple, and brown pads are "stripping pads" and are the most abrasive, for cleaning the toughest stains off of wood floors. Green and standard blue polishing pads are medium-level abrasive, followed by even milder red and tan pads, and yet milder white pads. There are also high-speed pads, which can have different levels of abrasiveness.

The Finish

Selecting the right finish requires a bit more work than choosing a buffer and pads. There are numerous types of finishes available, including high-gloss floor polishes, urethane finishes, and multipurpose floor buffer and finish restorer solutions. An oil-based finish does not adhere well to a water-based finish, such as polyurethane. However, most water-based finishes adhere well to almost any type of existing finish, including polyurethane, so it is a good idea to use something water-based if the current type of finish on the floor is unknown. It is always best to consult the label on the finish bottle for more information regarding the type of finish that work best, or to contact an expert to inspect the floor and offer recommendations, if desired. Testing the finish by applying a small amount to an inconspicuous area and waiting for it to dry is also a good way to check for compatibility.

How to Get Great Results When Buffing a Hardwood Floor

Buffing a hardwood floor is not a difficult task, but it does take a bit of time and preparation. The first step is to determine what type of existing finish is on the floor and whether it has been waxed or polished with any oil-based compounds. Next, it is a matter of thoroughly cleaning the floor and removing all traces of old wax. From there, it is simply a matter of buffing, removing all the dust, and applying the finish.

Prep Work

Before beginning the process of buffing and recoating a hardwood floor, it is necessary to prepare the floor to be buffed. The first step in this preparation involves determining what type of finish and coatings are on the floor. Certain methods of buffing and recoating should be used depending on the existing finish. In some instances, buffing and recoating may not be a viable option, and a complete refinishing job may be necessary. 

Remove Old Compounds

It is important to know what is on a wood floor before committing to buffing and recoating it. The presence of waxes and oily compounds impairs the adhesion of some finishes. Floors that may have been waxed or cleaned with oil-based products need to have to these old compounds removed using low-odor mineral spirits before buffing should be attempted.

Aluminum Oxide Hardwood Floors

Some newer floors finished with aluminum oxide cannot be successfully buffed and recoated. When these prefinished floors first became popular, manufacturers applied layers of aluminum oxide to the surface, thus eliminating the possibility of being able to buff and recoat this type of floor. Eventually, manufacturers changed their methods and began to apply the aluminum oxide under other types of finishes that would be compatible with buffing. Before attempting to buff and recoat a modern hardwood floor, it is advisable to investigate the exact type of finish on it. This may involve contacting the manufacturer.

Waxed Hardwood Floors

Older floors with wax finishes often do not give satisfactory results with a buff-and-recoat procedure. Generally, the new finish reacts with the old wax and peels and blisters soon after application. For wood floors with old wax finishes, the best bet is to re-apply a wax finish and then buff them, or to completely strip and refinish the floor.

Clear the Room, Clean the Floor

Once the type of finish is determined, it is time to remove all the furniture from the room and thoroughly sweep and mop the floor to remove all the dust and debris. Excess dirt and dust can build up on the buffing pad and cause more scratches during the buffing process. Be sure to wipe down the baseboards and all crevices as well. If mineral spirits are used, it may be necessary to go over the floor twice to ensure all traces of oil-based compounds have been removed. Follow up with a good hardwood floor cleaner and let dry.

Steps to Take to Buff a Hardwood Floor

With the room clear and the floor clean, it is time to begin buffing. Follow these steps to achieve beautiful results when buffing a hardwood floor.

Step 1: Gather supplies

Make sure all necessary items are on hand. These include the buffer and the buffing and polishing pads. Other necessary supplies are a vacuum for removing dust build-up during the process, some sort of floor finish applicator, a large paint tray, and the finish itself.

Step 2: Buff the Floor

Install the buffing pad and screen on the buffer. The easiest way to do this is to place the buffing pad on the buffer, and then install the screen on the bottom of the buffing pad. Keeping in mind that the objective is to lightly abrade the surface, refrain from putting too much pressure on the machine. Control the direction of the machine by lightly pushing up or pulling down on the handle. Walk in a straight line, gently steering the buffer from side-to-side along the way. Follow this procedure from one end of the room to the other, and then turn and go in the other direction, overlapping the rows by several inches. Change the pad when it becomes worn out so that it can continue to be effective throughout the entire area.

Step 4: Get Close to the Walls

Tape off the baseboards with 2-inch-wide masking tape before starting this work. The areas against the walls will need to be buffed by hand, since the machine is too bulky to get close without causing damage. A drywall sanding pad and a 150-grit screen work well for this. Place the screen on the drywall pad, and use it to abrade the areas along the baseboards and corners.

Step 5: Vacuum Thoroughly

Once the entire floor finish has been roughened, vacuum the room again to remove all traces of dust. Vacuum the walls, window sills, and baseboards, because dust can collect on these surfaces and then fall off, creating issues during the recoating process. Use a clean, damp towel to remove the remaining dust and allow the floor to dry.

Step 6: Apply the Finish

A wide floor trim pad with a long handle is a great tool for applying a floor finish. Mix the finish before opening it by gently rocking the bottle to prevent air bubbles from forming. Pour the finish into the paint tray, and once all the air bubbles have broken, dip the applicator into the finish. Begin by applying the finish along the wall, following the grain of the boards. Use long strokes and keep the pad tilted up slightly to help keep the application smooth. Use overlapping rows and continue until the entire floor is coated. Avoid applying the finish too heavily or too lightly. Two light coats work better than one heavy one. If desired, apply a second coat according to the manufacturer's directions.

Step 7: Allow to Dry

If possible, ventilate the room to speed drying and the build-up of strong fumes. Wait until the floor is thoroughly dry before walking on it or bringing furniture back into the room.


Hardwood floors that have minor damage, such as surface scratches and marks from furniture, can often be refurbished instead of refinished. The process of buffing and recoating a hardwood floor, also referred to as screening, can vastly improve the appearance of a worn hardwood floor without the expense and effort that refinishing requires. Buffing a hardwood floor can also extend the life of the floor if done every few years. Along with the buffer itself, only a handful of items are needed to buff a hardwood floor. Renting a buffer is recommended, as they are expensive, specialized machines. The rest of the items can be found at the same location the machine was rented from, or do-it-yourselfers can save money by purchasing these items through an online marketplace, such as eBay. With the necessary equipment on hand, the job should take less than one day for an average-sized room. Although there is a fair amount of work involved, it is much less than what is required to refinish a floor, and the procedure itself is fairly straightforward. Homeowners who decide to buff and recoat their dull, scratched hardwood floors not only save money, but can increase the beauty and value of their homes.

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