We are the ultimate do-it-yourself people. If it can be done with two hands and a not-so-modest number of power tools, we will try it. So it was only logical that we would decide to refinish the floors in two of our bedrooms ourselves. We read up, even gathered first-hand advice from other such DIYers. The floors were repaired and tediously patched with flooring obtained from a local architectural salvage shop. We rented a floor sander and in a weekend we were able to remove the old finish and restore a virgin-like quality to our 80 year old white oak floors. Everything seemed to be going as planned.
Because the white oak was indeed very light when unfinished and the rest of the house was finished in a beautiful golden blonde, we went with oil-based varathane. In preparation for THE RITUAL of finishing, we vacuumed up all of the sanding dust, barricaded the room against the furry animals, turned off the furnace, cracked open the windows and bathed the floor. That's right - it got a bath, 50/50 distilled water and denatured alcohol (which got us carded in the checkout line, by the way). What started as a "damp rag" application to gently open the grain morphed into sloshing the mixture around, which now required thorough drying before THE RITUAL.
THE RITUAL began with stirring. The cans of varathane had been sitting on the store shelf for some time, wearily settling and waiting for us to bring them home. Mixing in the stubborn sludge at the bottom of the can was only the beginning of the patience required. As we stirred, a song from a grade school Halloween play looped on automatic repeat in my head..."stirring and stirring my brrreeewwww...". Just that one line. If theres anything I remember from third grade it's that one line from that one damn play. After stirring the murky mixture for many, many minutes, we poured some into a tray, added around 10% mineral spirits and then we mixed a little more. The spike of 10% mineral spirits was suggested by a few sources to help the first coat of finish penetrate the wood more, and who were we to turn down such helpful advice.
We were finally ready for application. The lambswool applicator was rinsed in mineral spirits (as suggested on the packaging), I donned some protective gloves, put on a hat to contain my hair, and took the honor of applying the first coat. With the applicator pad attached to a broom handle, I dipped it in the tray and began applying it to the floor. I expected that it would be difficult to achieve even coverage with the first coat. In the somewhat dim glow of the overhead room light it appeared that the coverage was even, so my efforts to push the applicator along the floor were paying off. It was not unlike mopping, and using mopping-type motions I had both rooms covered fairly quickly.
Later that evening we inspected the floors. There were bubbles. Lots of clusters of little and not-so-little bubbles. There was disappointment, but not worry as this was just the first coat. After some thought, I suspected the mopping motion was forcing out uneven amounts of varathane and undoubtedly causing bubble, both from entrapped air and from having little regions of lakes rather than a nice smooth coat. Re-reading our reference material, I felt my suspicion was confirmed.
We lightly sanded both rooms and cleaned up the dust in preparation for the second coat. Taking the results of the first coat into consideration, we tried a different application technique. I thought that maybe the lambswool applicator was part of the problem, soaking up too much finish and making it difficult to apply even, thin coats. For the next performance of THE RITUAL, we used clean t-shirt rags and applied the finish on our hands and knees. No bubbles this time, and we were close enough tot he work to keep an eye on missed spots. The oil-based finish dries slowly and the label touts its ability to self-level. This part of the varathane must have been on vacation that day. There was no self-leveling taking place.
When the second coat was done, it was mostly bubble-free, although even in the dim light I could see fan-like application streaks. It is difficult to maintain the positioning of the rags because they are not on a rigid frame. The rags also do not hold much finish so now instead of an over-generous layer we were too stingy, which is of course why the varathane did not self-level.
These problems are why even most DIYers hire this activity out. And they are why I was more determined than ever to make it work.
After letting the floors dry for a couple of days, I stocked up on supplies. I bought more sanding pads, applicator frames and multiple lambswool applicator pads. I had learned from the last two coats and the third was going to be the charm. Did you hear the floor demons snicker right there? I swear I heard them.
I crawled around both floors on my hands and knees, sanding and knocking off the rough spots. I vacuumed yet again and prepared once more for THE RITUAL.
Very gently (avoiding air entrapment) and very thoroughly (sludge happens), I stirred the varathane. Then slowly I poured the varathane in the tray. I had already rinsed the applicator with mineral spirits and now it was time. I began the application, on my hands and knees, gliding the mixture along. It seemed to be going fine. In the empty rooms I worked alone, singing and wondering if perhaps this was the final coat.
I don't know if you hear them or not, but I think the floor demons progressed beyond snickering at this point.
The next morning I optimistically ventured in to inspect my work. It was obviously not the final coat. While the color was beautiful and the application was even, it was bumpy. Small bubbles, much smaller than what occurred with the first coat, but still there. The taste of defeat was very sour indeed.
Sometime during the night, there was THE EPIPHANY. The small bubbles were occurring because there was solvent trapped underneath the surface. Where was the solvent coming from? From rinsing the damn applicator with mineral spirits. Holy crap, batman!
More sanding, more vacuuming. I even vacuumed the applicator to remove loose fibers since I observed an unwanted distribution of them hiding amongst the bubbles. This was it. My heart said it was going to work. My brain said apply a little section, let it dry and see how it turns out before wasting time on the whole floor. And then there was THE SECOND EPIPHANY. I needed to really see the surface as I applied the finish. The dim overhead light disguised what the demons were up to. I dragged in the halogen light and when I turned it on, the floor demons were suddenly very quiet.
I went to the far corner of one bedroom and set down to work. I dipped the dry applicator into the varathane and began coating the floor. No bubbles, but wait a minute, there were little fibers. Everywhere. Even the Festool Cleantec dust extractor with its 134 cubic feet per minute of suction was no match for the loose fibers in that applicator. The floor demons just high-fived each other and sauntered down the street. The acoustics of the empty room captured my words, all coincidentally four letters long.
Suddenly, I knew what was wrong. Our research had told us about this step. And now a cosmic "I told you so" was reverberating around those empty rooms. The innocent little lambswool applicators had to go through a laundry wash cycle. I had one applicator left. This was the last chance before sanding it all back down and calling a professional.
The applicator was washed and dried (no fabric softener). I had taken a couple of days to regroup and prepare my constitution for what would likely be yet another disappointment. I was going to face it and get it over with.
I had on my gloves, and for the last round with the floor demons, I added a respirator with organic vapor cartridges. As it turns out, being nose-level with the floor looking for bubbles and fibers in the varathane does not get you high. Not even a little bit. It does, however, make your sinuses burn and your head ache. I tucked a pair of tweezers in my back pocket (for fibers and errant cat hairs) and gathered ther est of my supplies. As I closed the hallway door behind me and walked into the first room, I could sense the floor demons had taken notice of my courage, of my strong will, and the Rocky theme song began to play.
Stirring and stirring, then pouring into the tray. The halogen light was on and positioned for maximum visibility in the room. I began applying the finish. It went on very smoothly and this time, no fiber trails. No bubbles. Yeah, that's right. No bubbles. The lambswool glided over the wet finish and the finish self-leveled. It was peaceful and right, like the manifestation of a universal truth. Every once in a while there would be a hair, a fiber, some stray speck of something. I was prepared, my tweezers at the ready. Before I knew it, I was done with room and starting on the second. It went just as smoothly as the first room. Was it too good to be true? Were the floor demons waiting outside with a victory bottle of tequila?
Not so. The floors, needing only now to dry, were done. After several hourly inspections, the floors were drying to their desired semi-gloss state, free of new bubbles. After a few days, I planed to open the hallway to all household traffic, turn on some music and conduct my victory dance barefoot.