Sunday, June 10, 2012

Revealing Wood Floors in a Rental

H and I have rented our cute little house in our cute little neighborhood for five years this month.  FIVE YEARS.  I remember looking for a house after returning in May 2007 from study abroad in Spain and what a nightmare the process was.  For some reason, the rental market was tough that summer and we kept lowering our standards further and further and there were many, many tears.  Did I mention we were living with my parents in the interim?  We were desperate.  Then one day, H found something in a neighborhood we hadn't considered.  Normally, because of this neighborhood's reputation at the time, I would have said no, absolutely not.  But we needed our own space.  I needed to be able to nest after living in other people's houses for six months.  So we looked at it.  And through the permanent marker on the walls, the cinder block and weed filled yard, and the mysterious red splotches on the carpet, we saw home.  We got the keys that day.

Over the years, we've slowly spiffed it up, painting every wall and every inch of trim, removing the cinder blocks and planting gardens, inviting friends for dinners and two sweet cats to share it with us. With luck, we'll have the opportunity to buy a home sometime in the next few years.  And while I look forward to that experience, I know I'll miss this little house.

I recently read a quote from a wise woman who said, in essence, that being able to create a home--a grounding space--in a rental, rather than using it as an anonymous temporary crashing pad, is worth the loss of one's deposit.  Now, I realize this is a hugely privileged position.  Not everybody can sacrifice that money in the name of putting paint on the walls (or tearing carpet up, but we'll get to that later).  But this sentiment rang true to me.  Not counting my living quarters in Spain or a brief stint in a mint colored dorm room in Eugene, Oregon, I've lived in three places since leaving my parents' house.  One of those was a 200 square foot studio apartment that I loved dearly, and I showed that love by painting four different jewel tones on the walls to demarcate the different "rooms."  The second was the first place H and I lived together--worse than having a cinder block filled yard, it was made of cinder blocks and was so cold in the winter that we would wake to a thick layer of ice on the inside of the windows each morning (the water tank was also large enough to fill only half of the bathtub with warm water.  H's willingness to boil pots and pots of water on the stove to fill my hot baths is one of the many amazing things about him.)  H was adamant that we not risk losing our deposit by painting and, in the throes of young love, I didn't think to challenge him.

But when we moved into our current home, I don't know what changed, but somehow I convinced him to let me paint.  The act of painting, even if bold jewel tones aren't involved, feels like staking a claim, saying, "this is mine."  And even if we don't ever see that deposit money again, to be able to say "I'm going home" and to really mean it deep in my heart is worth it.

Last year, H wondered aloud if the stained carpet in our two bedrooms might have been laid over hardwood oak floors, the flooring material used in our living room.  So he pulled up a corner of the carpet.  And yes.

I can't speak to others' relationships, but I know in mine, there are some areas where I must tread lightly.  It has been a worthwhile lesson in subduing my natural stubbornness, my natural "I'm the youngest child"ness.  H didn't want to pull the carpet.  That whole deposit thing again.  I wanted to.  He didn't.  I did.  Et cetera.

But we know who eventually won, right? I kid, I kid.  We "compromised."  Which means the carpet goes.

(side note: I did call our landlord to humbly ask if I could pull the carpet up.  I probably wouldn't have done it if I hadn't had the go ahead from him, mostly because H was more comfortable with it this way.)

I might mention that I decided to do this on a whim, at 3 o'clock on an afternoon.

Here's what it looked like initially, after I had started moving things around and stacking them to prep.

Carpet is surprisingly easy to take up.  It's connected around the periphery to something called tack strip, but the middle is free.  I didn't want to move all of the furniture out of the room (remember, I was doing this with my 5 foot tall self), so I scooted the furniture to one side, used regular kitchen scissors to cut/tear strips of carpet, then simply rolled them into neat little packages to be hauled outside.

Progress shot (forgive the sub par photos--I'm (kind of) learning!):

  That red stuff is called carpet cushion and it's super easy to tear, which made removing it a breeze.  However, you see those little specks left behind?  Those are staples.  Staples directly into beautiful oak hardwood.  Staples that have probably been there since the 1970's.  Staples that took several hours to pull out with needle nosed pliers.  A process that, several days later, still causes me to wake up with a sore, stiff right hand.  I strongly (strongly strongly strongly) recommend using one of these instead.  It'll save your hand, I promise.  

After the red stuff came up, I took a small crowbar and pried up those slats lining the edge of the room.

It would have been nice to unearth perfectly clean, glossy, rich oak under there.  But unfortunately, there was a dark time in American history when carpet was thought to be the miracle flooring of the future.  And people did things like this to hardwood floors

White paint dotted the entire floor.  After pulling up the carpet and pulling out the staples, I swept the floor several times, then washed it with strongly brewed and cooled black tea (apparently wood floors like the tannic acid).  Then I did this

Pure acetone, scouring pad, heavy duty rubber gloves.  Because there were not only concise drips of white paint but sprays of paint as well, I pretty much went over the whole floor with this.  Please note that I would not have used this chemical if my floors had any kind of finish on them, but they're pretty raw, so I wasn't worried about damaging a finish.

At this point, I started getting back into familiar territory.  Our living area floors aren't really finished either--I'm sure they were at some point, but they were dry and washed out when we moved in.  In the name of prettifying them without making a huge investment, I bought some Restor-A-Finish in dark walnut (my local stores don't seem to carry oak).  This is an amazing product, especially for jazzing up wood furniture that isn't bad enough to justify a full refinish job.  According to a worker at the hardware store, it just barely dissolves the top layer of finish so it can restore the original color, then reseals itself.  I can't 100% guarantee that this is accurate, but in my experience, it deepens the color of the wood just so it looks healthy again--it just sort of brightens it back to what it looked like originally.  And it's easy.  I just use an old rag that I don't mind throwing away, pour on some of the product, then rub it into a clean floor or piece of furniture.

Here's the floor after the Restor-A-Finish treatment


Then, because the floors aren't sealed, I chose to wax them.  I've previously used Johnson't No Buff Wax, which I chose because in my heart, I'm slightly lazy and I liked the no buff part.

But, I have averaged two hardware store visits per day in the last week, and the store I happened to be in didn't have the No Buff, so in the name of saving an extra trip, I bought Briwax in Dark Brown.  After allowing the Restor-A-Finish to dry for an hour or so to ensure I wasn't trapping any moisture, I applied one thin coat of the wax, semi-vigorously working it into the grain.  I used a clean old rag to apply

After allowing it to dry for an hour, I went back with another rag and buffed it until it started looking a bit shiny, then I applied another coat, waited for an hour, and buffed it thoroughly until I wasn't getting much residue up anymore and the floor started to look glossy.  Some tutorials say to do three coats, but at this point I'd been working on the floor for three days and I was happy with how the two coats looked.  It's a small enough room that I can always go back and do another coat if need be.

(Note: do me a favor and just throw your rags away after using them.  I thought I'd experiment with washing them to see if I could use the same rags again for similar projects.  My washing machine received a nice coat of dark brown wax.  Imagine trying to fit your body into a stacking, top loading washing machine to scrub dried wax off the bin and the agitator.  Imagine having to do this four times with a hand that's still painfully sore from pulling out three hundred staples.  Imagine that, even after the wax is gone, the washing machine is still stained brown.  Please.  Use old rags that you don't mind throwing in the garbage.)

And finally, after hours of work, bruises on my knees, premature arthritis, and upper body muscles that will need at least three massages and seventeen hours of yoga...


This is home.


  1. That floor turned out beautiful! I'm doing some research on Restore-A-Finish and hardwood floors. This was helpful!

  2. I'm so glad! None of the floors in our house are finished--I imagine they once were, but over time the finish has worn off and not been replaced. I've actually used Restor-A-Finish on every inch of wood floor in our house and it makes such a difference! It turned them from looking worn, dry and old to rich and warm. I highly recommend it as a quick, cheap fix.