If you’re like many other homeowners, you’ve dreamt of tearing out that worn and faded carpet to find a hidden treasure of hardwood floors underneath. Or perhaps you’ve got hardwood floors already, but looking at the scuffs and scrapes, you know they’ve seen better days. Maybe when you dream of new floors, you see buttery yellow oak or a dark espresso-stained exotic wood. Dreams are one thing, but how do you get from the floors you have to the floors you want?

The first step is to familiarize yourself with hardwood floor restoration and refinishing. It’s a multi-step process that takes planning, attention to detail, and elbow grease. Even if you’ve hired a professional flooring company, it’s a good idea to know what to expect.

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Move furniture and clean floors

Whether you’re hiring a professional or attempting the restoration yourself, you’ll need to remove any furniture from the area and give the floor a good, preliminary cleaning. You’ll also want to remove any wall decor and window treatments so they aren’t damaged or covered in dust during sanding. Clean and vacuum or sweep the floors to remove as much dirt and debris as possible before the project begins.

Make plans not to use the area being renovated for a few days, since the floors can’t be walked on during the project. Bear in mind that sanding and refinishing jobs typically take three to four days, depending on the square footage.

Strip the wood

If there’s an old finish (or residual glue if you’ve pried off a carpet), the wood will need a good going-over with sandpaper. Typically, floor restoration companies will hit the perimeter of the room first, sanding and scraping around the wall edges and corners. After that, it’s time for the heavy-duty sanders—likely a belt, drum, or circular sander—which are used to cover as much area as quickly and efficiently as possible. Several passes with the sander might be necessary to smooth out any imperfections, and usually about 1/64th of an inch is removed from the floor surface during sanding. Many hardwood floor specialists offer “dustless” sanding, alleviating much of the dust that results from the process.

If there are any boards in need of replacement or other repairs that need to be made, now’s the time to see to it.

Choose a stain

It’s a good idea to choose a stain before the work begins, as some stains require more drying time than others. When deciding on the color of the stain, you’ll want to keep several things in mind. If you have other hardwood floors, you’ll want to maintain consistency. You’ll also want to think about how much sun and light the room in question gets—lighter floor colors can help brighten a usually dark room. Lastly, you’ll want to think in the long-term. Since wood is a natural material, it will age and change over time due to exposure to sun, moisture, and the wear and tear of daily life. How will it look in five years? Ten?

Apply the poly

After the floors are sanded and as clean as possible, the polyurethane will be applied. The coats of poly need time to dry, and multiple coats may be used, with sanding in between each coat. Drying time can range from a few days to a week. You’ll have about a week of drying time before you’ll be able to put your furniture back in place.

Mind the gap

If you see gaps between the floorboards before or after restoration, don’t worry. Gaps are a normal result of seasonal changes in humidity. It’s not recommended to fill these gaps, but using a humidifier during drier months can help mitigate shrinkage.

What now?

Once the work is done and the stain is dry, it’s time to enjoy your new floors. Hardwood floors can last 200 years, but to keep them in tip-top shape, make sure to properly clean and maintain them. Don’t use a wet mop, which can discolor and warp hardwood. Use dry dust mops and spot clean instead, and remember not to over wax, which can lead to a dull appearance.

Familiarizing yourself with the process of floor restoration and floor maintenance will help you know what’s in store with your own floor refinishing project. Whether you’re looking to make a room bright and airy with raw pine floors or stately with a dark-stained cedar, just remember to take your shoes off at the front door.