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Floor Finish

What steps would you recommend in refinishing an old strip-wood (fir) floor in a high traffic area? I’ve already prepped and scrubbed the floor with TSP. What kind of poly-urethane should I use for a hard basketball court-like finish, water or oil? This is my first attempt so I want to do it right the first time. Many thanks. — Antiques Journal reader, Bill, in New London, Connecticut

What ever you do, test all of the materials and methods through all of the steps to the end, in a small test area, keeping track of materials and methods with written notes. Then judge the result and if it is acceptable continue with the rest of the floor. If not, do another test with changes.

I would not use polyurethane, and suggest that you may really not want a basketball court finish. Basketball court finishes are formulated for stable hardwoods and are particularly hard, almost “brittle.” You may be thinking that it will be more durable, but really it may not be suitable for your floor. For your old softwood floor you need something more flexible. And a court finish will be more difficult to renew when it does wear out. For a high-traffic area I suggest an oil-based alkyd resin varnish that will be easier to renew in the spots where it does take a lot of wear. You might end up maintaining it every few years, but that can be easier than refinishing the whole floor every several years.

Some of the acrylic water-based varnishes might be good, but I don’t have enough experience with them to give you any advice. The manufacturers change their formulas too often for me to figure out how they really work.

“This is my first attempt so I want to do it right the first time.”

That’s a great goal, but you’re not likely to achieve it on your first try. If this is THE critical floor that must be done right the first time, you really should finish at least 2 or 3 other floors first so you know what you are doing on this one. Sorry, there are no magic tricks that can substitute for authentic first hand experience.

John Leeke is a preservation consultant who helps homeowners, contractors and architects understand and maintain their historic buildings. You can contact him at 26 Higgins St., Portland, Maine, 04103; or by E-mail:; or log onto his website at:

© John Leeke

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