It’s been 11 or 12 years since we installed our polyurethane-finished oak flooring in our kitchen and hallway.  Our basement opens onto a narrow hallway right off the kitchen and the “L” between the basement door, past the refrigerator and to the kitchen sink and dishwasher is probably the most well-worn path in the whole house.  Subsequently, the finish has worn off that area faster than anywhere else.  This area has need to be refinished for a couple of years, but for various reasons, we had to put off fixing it.  This area had also developed a good amount of dirt ground into the now mostly unfinished wood…unattractive and difficult to clean.

Hall flooring, before

Kitchen flooring, before

Entry flooring, before

After much discussion and research, we decided to try a soy gel stripper to remove the polyurethane finish, rather than renting equipment and sanding it all off.  Our two primary concerns were: cost and exposure to the dust and mess resulting from sanding.  We also decided to refinish the flooring with real tung oil.  The main reasons we choose this oil:  it can be touched up as needed; this is a huge plus considering the “L” in the hall/kitchen that gets so much wear in comparison to the rest of the flooring and less exposure to harmful chemicals.

The process of stripping the finish seems simple enough.  You coat the floor with an even layer of soy gel stripper, let it do its job and then scrape and scrub it off.  In reality, of course, it is much different.  First, I split up the stripping into two portions, otherwise all forms of egress to our home would have been blocked.  I started with the entry and hallway, including the portion by the basement door.  This was a narrow section and would allow me to figure out the method before attempting it in the larger kitchen area.  The consistency of the gel stripper is much like honey, and like honey, it is difficult to apply in an even layer.  Once the floor is moistened by the stripper, it is also difficult to gauge how thick of a coating you have applied.  I used a window squeegee to attempt to spread it evenly.  A second issue that I discovered about our floor (and possibly most floors), is that it isn’t completely level and small discrepancies can mean a huge difference in where stripper settles and gets to work, and where it doesn’t.

Hall/entryway with stripper

Entryway with stripper

When I did a small test spot in the kitchen, it quickly became apparent that the stripper was going to need to stay on the floor a lot longer than I had estimated.  The instructions indicate that the stripper will work for several hours or as long as it is wet, which tells me that it should be done in several, say four, hours.  This was not the case.  I left it on overnight, for a total of about 25-26 hours.

Soy gel stripper at work

In the photo above, the stripper had been on overnight and you might be able to see that part of it has almost crystallized. This is the encapsulated finish that has been stripped.  You can also see that the area in the center, which is higher, is now mostly dry of stripper.

When it came time to remove the stripper, that was a huge job.  It involved: scraping the gel and encapsulated finish of with a metal scraper; scrubbing the area with a TSP solution and a stiff scrub brush; a second scraping to remove any loosened, but not detached, finish; a second scrubbing with TSP; a third scraping if finish was still becoming loose with the scrubbing and then finally a final scrub with clean hot water and then a wipe to remove water.  This was a time-consuming and laborious job; you have to tackle it in small, arm’s reach sections.  After the scraping and scrubbing, there was still finish that wouldn’t come off, which would need sanding.  On the plus side, all that scrubbing with TSP did an excellent job of removing ground-in dirt in the worn areas.

Flooring after stripping, before sanding

The flooring that did get stripped completely, looked wonderful. You could again see the beauty of the wood now that the polyurethane, which had begun to yellow with age, was gone.

Next, we removed the appliances from the kitchen and repeated the whole process.  This time, with some experience under my belt, I took extra care to apply thickly and evenly enough.  Unfortunately, we had the same issue with high spots becoming dry and low spots getting a pool of stripper.

After the entire floor had been stripped, it was apparent that finishing the job would require a significant amount of sanding with a hand-held sander.  After hours of sanding, the floor was finally bare enough that we felt it was ready to receive the tung oil finish.

Bare flooring

Stripping the flooring was much more work than I would have imagined.  It’s hard to know if it was the product, our floor, our inexperience or all three combined.  When we are ready to refinish other flooring we have in the house, I would certainly explore other brands of strippers, because I can’t say that I was completely satisfied with its performance on the floor.  I got some of the soy gel stripper on a couple of small painted areas that were nearly unavoidable, and it did a fantastic job on removing the paint.  I wouldn’t hesitate to use it on a painted surface.  The fumes were stronger than I had expected considering that some of the testimonials specifically said it had no smell.  However, they weren’t as bad as many chemical home products; the smell reminded me of dirty (urine) disposable diapers, which isn’t lovely by any stretch, but could have been so much worse.

Pre-cabinet and soffit removal

As many home improvement projects do, this one grew in scope.  While we had the stove and refrigerator out of the kitchen, we decided that we should remove the cabinets and soffit over that area.  This is a project that we had on the list for some time and it seemed to make sense to do it now, rather than remove both appliances again in the future; we could also do the wall patching and repaint before the floor was finished so that we wouldn’t damage the tung oil finish later.  Of course, in an old house, when you remove something, you generally open up a new issue.  We were not spared.

Exposed wiring

Of course we would end up discovering something like an exposed electrical wire hiding in the soffit rather than run entirely through the wall and ceiling like it should have been.  And of course, after finally drilling and with great difficulty, fishing the wire correctly down to the switch, it would turn out to be a couple of inches too short.  Now that the repair required that we run a new, longer wire from the ceiling fixture to the switch (luckily we have a spool in the basement), we decided to switch out the old, makeshift (3 1/2 years ago) fluorescent shop light with the new track lighting fixture that we have had waiting in the basement because our old-house wiring couldn’t handle the electrical load of the newer fixture.  After running the new wire and correctly grounding it, the mister finally got my nicer light fixture installed and started patching up the holes in the wall.

Stay tuned for the next part, which hasn’t happened yet, but will hopefully involve the smooth application of tung oil, along with easy wall repairs and painting.

2 Comments

  1. Wow! I am totally riveted by this and can’t wait to hear what happens next! I am especially surprised to hear how difficult the soy stripper is, because I really had got the impression from reading online that it was “easy” — so now I’m wondering if it’s the best choice for us or not!!! I definitely want to hear about the tung oil, too, since we’re considering that for our house as well.

    Funny about the soffit — we ran into EXACTLY THE SAME THING when we pulled out one of our kitchen soffits a few weeks ago. Why do people do stuff like that!??? ARGH! :-)

    Hang in there — it’ll be great when you’re done! :-)

    ~Angela~

    • @Angela – Talk to Julie, she has had the same experience as I did with the soy stripper. It was amazing on the painted areas (where I actually wished it hadn’t worked so well), but I think that polyurethane, which is supposed to stay put, is just incredibly difficult to remove. I would absolutely use it on painted areas and I would probably use it on areas that have polyurethane and would be difficult to use a floor sander on, like risers on stairs, which we also need to refinish in the future. I will have the next installment up soon, because the tung oil application is finished!

  2. Pingback: Floor Refinishing Turned Kitchen Renovation, Part 2 | Living Offbeat

  3. Pingback: Floor Refinishing Turned Kitchen Renovation, Part 3 | Living Offbeat